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Hands on with Lenovo’s IdeaPad Miix 700: Proof that Microsoft’s Surface strategy is working

When Microsoft introduced the Surface, it caused a great amount of confusion in the industry, and consternation among its partners. After all, Microsoft relies almost entirely on the strength of its hardware OEM partners, both for the direct revenue generated by Windows and for subsequent Office revenue. Microsoft claimed it was selling its own devices in large part out of frustration with the state of Windows computers. It felt there was room for improvement and innovation in design and functionality. Unfortunately, the first Surface didn’t make much of a market impact, but it helped popularize the convertible category, and the active stylus, as well as breaking the design bottleneck that had surrounded the Ultrabook category.

Nearly four years, and several versions of Surface products, later, Microsoft’s strategy has reaped some dramatic rewards. My experience with Lenovo’s new IdeaPad Miix 700 is a great example of the initiative’s success. It’s possible that the Miix 700 would never have happened without the example, and competitive push, that the Surface family provided. Of course, Microsoft wins either way, whether the Surface products themselves sell, or they promote the creation of innovative new Windows-based devices that create royalty and application software revenue for them.

If you taped over the logos, and Lenovo’s distinctive watchband-style hinge, you could easily mistake the Miix 700 for a Surface Pro model. The Miix 700 mimics the formerly unique keyboard cover and adjustable kickstand features of the Surface lineup. The Miix keyboard even includes a magnet so it can be used slanted slightly upwards like the Surface. I actually like typing on the Miix better than on the Microsoft Type cover for the SP3, although the upgraded version Microsoft has released for the SP3 and SP4 matches typing on the Miix. Some users have reported glitches with the Miix’s keyboard, but I haven’t experienced any. Looks-wise, the Miix’s stylish touches definitely give it some uniqueness. Build quality of the mostly metal Miix is also really solid, even compared to the well-built Surface models.

I’m a big fan of backlit keyboards, so the backlight on Microsoft’s version is a big win for me. But the white keycap paint on the Miix seems to be highly-reflective, so in some cases the reflection from the screen can almost make them seem backlit. Microsoft has also had more time to work with active stylus technology, so I find its latest incarnation a little more natural to write with than the Lenovo version. Both are very good.

Surface Pro 3 looks almost identical to the Lenovo Miix 700The Miix positions itself fairly nicely between the SP3 and SP4. Compared to the SP3, It features an updated CPU (it uses chips from Intel’s new Core M “Skylake” family), and a similar screen (12-inch 2160 x 1440). Both the Miix and the SP3 can be purchased with either 4GB or 8GB or RAM. The SP3 can be purchased with an SSD as large as 512GB, while the max on the Miix is 256GB. Both also feature enterprise-requested TPM chips. Both the SP3 and Miix 700 weigh about 1.7 pounds without the keyboard. In my experience, the Miix has better battery life (both when running and when sleeping) than my SP3 — although in fairness my SP3 battery is over a year old.

Base prices on the Miix and Surface Pro 3 are also fairly similar — ranging from about $550 to $1,100 for the SP3 and $700 to $1,100 for the Miix, depending on configuration. One place where they differ is accessories. The SP3 typically includes the Surface Pen, but not the keyboard (about another $120, although there are bundles that include one), while the Miix 700 includes the keyboard, but not the Active Pen (another $40). The Surface Pro 4 picks up where the SP3 and Miix leave off. That lineup features faster processors that are newer than those found on the SP3, a higher-resolution display, options for more memory and storage, better cameras and speakers, and a higher price tag — starting at around $850 and going all the way to nearly $2,000.

Adding a Lexar 200GB microSD card more than doubled the storage on my review Miix 700As phone buyers have known for a long time, it is often less expensive to buy a model with less memory and then add external storage. That hasn’t been as effective on convertible tablets, as the storage amounts are much larger. That’s starting to change though. I added a Lexar 200GB microSD card to the 128GB Miix 700 review unit, successfully more than doubling its available storage for $100. There are a couple tradeoffs with this approach — the storage isn’t a seamless part of your system drive, and won’t be nearly as fast as an SSD — but at 95 MB/second, the card is fast enough to use for storing photos, music, and movies.

Technically, you can also upgrade the SSD inside the Miix 700 (it is an m.2 form factor, like that found in many tablets) by simply removing the screwed-on back cover. From past experience, this can cause some hiccups for some of the more advanced Windows 10 boot features, and for the 1-button restore software, so it may not be for everyone.

As far as software, all these tablet convertibles come with Windows 10. The SP3 and SP4 ship with Windows 10 Pro, while the Miix 700 is available with either Pro or Home, depending on the configuration. Lenovo has gotten in some hot water in the past for the software it bundles on some of its systems, but I’ve found that with both the Miix 700 and the Yoga that I reviewed recently, the add-on software has been tastefully chosen and useful.

WRITEit shows a lot of promise for annotating screens, pages, and documents, but isn't the easiest tool to figure out

In particular, the Miix comes with WRITEit, an app that lets you scribble just about anywhere, in any application, and adds your text either as a comment or translates it into typed text. Its OneKey Recovery is also great for those who need to hand off machines to others, or who have most of their information backed up in the cloud and need to be able to quickly reset or fix a system — like reviewers, for example! The other applications, REACHit and SHAREit, are more typical of the cloud-sharing apps you’d find bundled on many computer models these days.

It’s great to see a variety of options for users in this space. Your choice between these devices, and some others that compete with them, is likely to come down to relatively small things. For example, Lenovo enterprise customers are pleased that they can keep their purchasing and vendor management simplified by staying with Lenovo for tablets, while some retail buyers who like the convenience of walking into a Microsoft store for help, accessories, or service might well opt for a Surface model for that reason (you can buy quite a few Lenovo models from the Microsoft Store, but the Miix 700 is not currently one of them).

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