Microsoft Surface Pro Tablets Roll Off Assembly Line as Launch Nears

Buzz builds for Microsoft's second tablet, the Surface Pro, as the first production models roll off the line and gushing previews hit the Web in the wake of CES. Can it beat Surface RT's lackluster performance at retail?

Microsoft may be playing it coy with the Surface Pro's exact launch date, but indications are that the tablet's arrival is generally in line with the timetable set by the company when it was first announced last summer.

Microsoft unveiled its Surface tablet in June during an invite-only event in Los Angeles. Microsoft announced that the RT version, which is powered by an ARM-based microprocessor and runs Windows RT, would launch alongside its new Windows 8 operating system on Oct. 26, 2012.

Surface Pro, a beefier version of the tablet that packs an Intel Core i5 processor and ships with Windows 8 Pro preinstalled, would hit shelves roughly 90 days later, according to the company.

True to its word, the Microsoft made Surface RT tablets available at retail the same day as its new flagship operating system. Now it appears that the company is also making good on its pledge to deliver Surface Pro three months later, give or take a few days.

Panos Panay, general manager of Microsoft Surface, took to social media to reveal that he was about to get some hands-on time with the first Surface Pro tablets to roll off the assembly line. He tweeted, "On my way to the factory to check out #Surface Pro coming off the line…arriving in the coming weeks."

The disclosure signals that the company has not only kicked off mass production, but that Surface Pro tablets are wending its way into retail channels. Given Surface RT's lackluster sales, Microsoft will want to stock those shelves with Surface Pro sooner rather than later or risk further damage to the brand.

While initially lauded for its premium construction, thoughtful design touches (built-in kickstand) and its innovative keyboard cover accessories, Surface failed to gain significant traction with consumers.

Microsoft's tablet launched amid intense competition from Apple and tablet makers that support Google's Android mobile operating system. A dearth of apps—Surface RT's ARM-based architecture is incompatible with the vast majority of x86 Windows software—further dampened consumer enthusiasm.

UBS analyst Brent Thrill recently revealed that Microsoft only managed to sell 1 million Surface RT tablets during the fourth quarter of 2012. For comparison's sake, Apple is expected to have sold 20 million iPads during the same period. Boston-based brokerage firm Detwiler Fenton blamed Microsoft's poor showing on a restrictive distribution strategy that the software maker has since remedied.

Although it faces some formidable market challenges, Surface Pro's prospects seem a bit brighter. Despite weighing more, sporting a thicker form factor and carrying a heftier price tag, initial hands-on reactions at CES were universally positive. Generally, reviewers were wowed by the ability to use full-fledged Windows software on a mobile slate without performance tradeoffs.

Influential New York Times tech writer, David Pogue, gushed, "You're looking at an entirely new kind of machine, one with new possibilities. It's a touch-screen tablet, of iPaddish proportions, that runs desktop software: Photoshop, Quicken, the full Microsoft Office, iTunes (and Apple's online movie and music stores). Desktop software on a half-inch-thick tablet. That's a first."

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...