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Microsoft Surface Tablets: Big Bet, Small Changes

Microsoft will debut its newest Surface tablets Monday, counting on incremental changes to win over skeptical buyers. Has Microsoft done enough?

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Microsoft will reveal its Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 tablets on Monday at event in New York City. Leaks indicate the new devices will offer relatively modest improvements in terms of both price and hardware. This raises an obvious question: Given that the original Surface tablets have sold so poorly, why is Microsoft banking on such incremental upgrades?

Microsoft executives will explain their reasoning next week, but assuming the company doesn't have some game-changing secret feature squirreled away, Microsoft's attitude appears to be this: We got more right than wrong with the first Surfaces, and targeted tweaks are all the new models need to succeed.

[ Can Microsoft save the Surface? Read Microsoft Surface Tablets: 7 Things To Expect. ]

The Surface Pro 2 is rumored to boast at least three unambiguous improvements:

--Thanks to Intel's i5 "Haswell" processor, the Surface Pro 2 should run an acceptable seven or eight hours between charges, much better than the first model's deal-breakingly poor four-hour battery life.

--With an expected 8 GB of RAM and Haswell's GPU improvements, the new Surface Pro should offer snappier performance for desktop software, Web browsing and touch apps alike.

--The Surface Pro 2 may come with up to 512 GB of SSD storage, four times the current model's maximum capacity.

Microsoft is also expected to release the Power Cover, a keyboard accessory with a battery that lets the attached Surface go even longer between charges. The Power Cover should be backward-compatible with current Surface Pros, but because the Pro 2 should have better battery life to start with, it will get the most mileage from the accessory. Look also for a Surface docking station equipped with a variety of ports.

If you found the original Surface Pro interesting but not interesting enough, in other words, the Surface Pro 2 and its new accessories might do the trick. The battery life enhancements alone will be enough motivation for some.

But will the improvements be enough to convert the legions of genuine Surface skeptics? That's harder to say.

Windows 8.1 is a wild card. It will provide greater customization, a refined relationship between the desktop and the Modern UI, and revamped core apps. But the Modern UI has been too divisively received for Windows 8.1's appeal to be taken for granted.

The Surface Pro 2 is also likely to introduce a redesigned kickstand, but it's not clear how much benefit this will yield in practice, so for the moment, it's an unknown too. Aside from the aforementioned, the Surface Pro 2 is expected to be nearly identical to its predecessor.

As for the Surface 2, Microsoft's next Windows RT tablet should gain new accessories and a two-position kickstand, just like the Surface Pro 2's. If rumors are accurate, the Surface 2 will use Nvidia's Tegra 4 ARM processor and a 1080p screen, both of which are solid upgrades over the current model's relatively antiquated components. Windows RT 8.1, meanwhile, will add not only a number of UI enhancements but also support for Microsoft Outlook.

The uncertainty doesn't necessarily mean Microsoft's new tablets will struggle like its current ones. After all, critics moaned for weeks that iOS 7 and the iPhone 5S weren't innovative enough -- and now that the products are actually available, most of this criticism has been replaced by lavish praise.

Analysts aren't sold, though. In a phone interview, Forrester analyst David Johnson said "using Haswell chips in the Surface Pro is a good idea," but countered that the firm's surveys indicate interest in Windows tablets has declined over the last year.

Johnson said he cannot see the Surface Pro 2 as a primary device unless it's attached to a monitor and a bigger keyboard, and that the Windows tablets have not diminished the iPads's profile. A recent Gartner study similarly concluded that Windows tablets will not displace iPads in the workplace, and that enterprise workers would continue to use iPads even if corporate-owned Windows tablets were deployed.

Microsoft's new devices will face the same branding and pricing challenges as the earlier ones, said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi in an email. She doesn't see the Surface tablets as an obvious success.

Speaking of price, Microsoft is reportedly not going to make the new devices more affordable. The original Surface RT and Surface Pro will remain on the market at their current prices--$349 and $799, respectively, ZDNet recently reported via an unnamed source. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 will debut at base costs of $499 and $899; keyboards will still be sold separately and the 512 GB Surface Pro 2 will be a wallet-busting $1,699, according to that report.

The rumored prices aren't encouraging, but Microsoft could always surprise people when the devices are finally revealed.

Will Microsoft finally score a hit in the consumer tablet market, and can it chase iPads out of its enterprise home turf? Reactions will begin flooding out Monday morning.

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