Microsoft held its annual Surface event last week, where it announced its next generation of Surface devices. Microsoft announced a new Surface Laptop 5, Surface Pro 9, Surface Studio 2, and Windows 11 features that enhance the Surface experience.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Surface brand, which is quite exciting if we look back and see how far Windows and the PC have come since its inception. I have personally used every Surface device except for the Surface Studio over the past 10 years.
I believe Microsoft has made some incredible innovations for its hardware and software over the past 10 years and with its Surface Brand. That path is marked by the Surface team’s intentionality with every product it makes. Its mission of inclusivity and accessibility and its desire to create productive solutions so that its customers can create with the same goal in mind—to create a better world.
Although the Surface Event was short and sweet with pragmatic innovations, Microsoft announced some great new updates to its product line. Let’s jump into Microsoft’s new Surface devices.
New Surface Laptop 5
Microsoft first announced the new Surface Laptop 5 with a similar design to last year’s Surface Laptop 4, with some welcomed upgrades. The Surface Laptop 5 now has Intel’s Evo 12th Gen Core processors, which use Intel’s P-cores (performance cores) and E-cores (efficiency cores). Microsoft decided to go with the U Series of Intel mobile processors, which favor the E-cores over the P-cores for both the 15-inch and the 13-inch Surface Laptop 5. Although I would have liked to see an option for a P Series 12thGen Intel Core mobile processor at least on the 15-inch model, I understand the desire to maintain consistent battery life that comes with prioritizing efficiency cores. I also recognize that P-Series support would drive a form factor change.
I like how Microsoft has included Thunderbolt 4 as it did with its Surface Laptop Studio at last year’s event. The Surface Laptop 5 has exceptional I/O, keeping the USB-A 3.1 and upgrading the USB-C to Thunderbolt 4. Thunderbolt 4 is a must in our age of hybrid work, where users may be plugging into multiple Thunderbolt 4 docks throughout the week. As we have seen with the Apple MacBook I/O total backtrack, backward compatibility is still important. I’ll add that there are still inconsistencies with Thunderbolt and USB-C devices.
I think Microsoft could have matched the Surface Laptop Studio and updated the webcam and speakers. The Surface Laptop 5 offers different display sizes and has different internals and design offerings than the Surface Laptop Studio. I also understand that could have driven a form factor change which is expensive. I really would have liked to see a 1080p webcam. When I travel with my SL4, I must bring an external camera to do my StreamYard-based webinars. Most video services don’t support 1080P video yest, but in five years, they will.
Microsoft also included a new sage metal color option and dialed it back with the Alcantara. I am a fan of Alcantara, but I also understand why it wouldn’t be as popular. It feels really great on the palms when typing, but I’m sure, at first glance, many have concerns over its longevity and possible wear and tear. The irony here is that car companies like Porsche and Lamborghini use black Alcantera on the steering wheel.
New Surface Pro 9
Microsoft updated the internals of the Surface Pro 9 with Intel’s 12th Gen U Series Core processors and included a 5G version with Microsoft SQ 3 processor. With previous generations of the Surface Pro, it had the Surface Pro X with Microsoft SQ and SQ2 processors, which are Qualcomm designed SoCs. Our junior analyst Jacob Freyman thought it was surprising to that Microsoft included the Microsoft SQ 3 in the Surface Pro 9 branding rather than keeping the Surface Pro X branding given the X86 and Arm-based processor. I like it as the capabilities of both platforms are blurring.
Microsoft has continued to support more x64 apps for its Qualcomm-based SQ3 processor and is all-in on Arm in Azure and its toolsets. Microsoft has so much confidence in its support that it is now not differentiating between the two versions within the Surface Pro product portfolio. This support gives me great encouragement for Windows on Arm and should give companies like Qualcomm encouragement as well as Qualcomm builds out its always connected PC (ACPC) play. Not to mention 5G on a versatile device like the Surface Pro 9 is very convenient for someone like me who travels about 30 weeks out of the year and works in a hybrid/remote work environment.
One of the subtle differences that I think is impressive is the machine learning (ML) capabilities on the Surface Pro 9 with 5G Microsoft SQ3. Microsoft showcased its Studio Effects at the Surface Event, where Microsoft uses ML to implement a great video call experience in its Studio Effects tool. The Microsoft SQ3 can do more studio effects than the 12th Gen Intel Core processors because it has a more advanced NPU.
Windows Studio Effect requires a Windows 1122H2 device with a supported neural processer unit (NPU) for AI and ML acceleration, and so far, Windows Studio Effects supports this list of Qualcomm processors:
- Background Blur and Eye Contact will only be available on devices that come with new Qualcomm 7C+ Gen 3, 8c Gen 1 and 2, 8cx Gen 1, 2, 3
- Voice Focus will only be available on devices that come with the new Qualcomm 8c Gen 1 and 3, 8cx Gen 1, 2, 3.
- Automatic Framing will be available on all supported Qualcomm NPU chips.
- Automatic Framing with Super Resolution is exclusive to Qualcomm 8cx Gen 3 in Windows 11 22H2 release.
Also, if you watched the Surface Event, you might have noticed some subtle features that Microsoft showcased that, in the background, use machine learning to enhance the experience of the user beyond video. For example, Microsoft put its accessibility tools in the bottom right corner of its settings and now supports live transcriptions and voice commands on top of Windows programs. These features most likely use advanced ML algorithms, and I imagine they work better on the Microsoft SQ3 processors.
New Surface Studio 2+
Innovation does not mean that a design has to change; I believe this is true with the Surface Studio 2+. Microsoft did not update the Surface Studio design, and I don’t think it needs to. The Surface Studio 2+ has a unique all-in-one design with a hinge that brings the display down into a canvas. It is the coolest executive jewelry and front of the lobby device you can get. The most iconic car brands don’t change a lot, and neither does Surface which is also iconic.
This most notable update to the Surface Studio is the internals with an upgrade from the Intel Core i7-7820HQ to the Intel Core i7-1130H processor and from NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 and 1070 GPUs to NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 mobile GPU. I am a little disappointed in the internal upgrade for the Surface Studio 2+. While it is certainly an upgrade from Intel’s 7th gen processors, the new processors are already outdated and, in my opinion, will limit its footprint. In the future, I’d love to see a self-contained, liquid-cooled design that enable desktop components in the same form factor.
It is almost the same CPU and GPU combination in the Surface Laptop Studio, except the Surface Laptop Studio has an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 Ti instead of a 3060. Not to mention the Surface Studio 2+ starts at $4,499 for 32GB of memory and 1TB of storage. The same memory and storage configuration for the Surface Laptop Studio is about $2,399. What is the $1,000 price difference? The larger 28-inch 10-point multitouch display allows you to leave your keyboard and mouse behind. The large, modular touch display by itself looks elegant enough to justify the $4,499 price tag. While this is the only Surface I haven’t used, I want it and think every executive would love it.
Surface Duo Updates
Although Microsoft announced it a couple of days later, I was expecting an update on the Surface Duo and the Surface Duo 2 and more information on the release of the Android 12L at the Surface Event. I am sure there was a good reason for the date difference. It would have been nice to hear Microsoft give the nod to the Surface Duo at the Surface Event and how it has not given up on the device even though there is no new Surface Duo in 2022.
Android 12L is an update with support for tablets and foldable devices, came with the October Android update of the Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2. I am pleased to see the update out. Its focus is updating the Surface Duo’s software which some believe is its biggest challenge. Android 12L should be a huge update for the device and the useability of the device with software that is made for it.
The two most significant improvements to the Surface Duo apart from what comes within Android 12L is a visual refresh and new pen features.
Although Microsoft did not mention it verbatim, I believe it implemented Android 12L into the Surface Duo with its Fluent Design System (FDS) on top. FDS is the neuromorphic design that Microsoft has implemented into Windows 11 and many of its B-rolls for Surface products, and it is my favorite take on neuromorphism. It should look incredible if Microsoft can nail down its FDS on Android. Microsoft has even included new wallpapers that “align with new Windows desktop backgrounds.”
I am also very excited to see that Microsoft has included more pen features. The original design of the Surface Duo did not include Android and used an operating system built by Microsoft called Andromeda OS that heavily focused on the pen. The pen is also one of Windows 11’s most powerful feature and a sure fire differentiator to macOS. Like on Windows 11, users can press the top of the Surface Slim Pen2 and open up a customizable menu. These new pen features tell me that Microsoft has not given up on its pen functionality and we should expect to see more pen features in the future.
I believe the most significant improvement to the Surface Duo software is one that Microsoft did not even mention in its announcement—the doing away with the Microsoft launcher and baking in all of its features directly into Android 12L. While the Microsoft Launcher was a last-minute placeholder for Microsoft vision of the Surface Duo, it was the reason for a lot of its software faults. By baking these features into Android 12L it should have noticeable performance improvements and an overall better OS experience. I have some questions into Microsoft on this and will update this paragraph as necessary.
Tens Years Of Innovation
It has been an incredible past 10 years to see how Microsoft has improved the tablet, laptop, desktop, and Windows experience with its Surface brand. The Surface phenomenon also changed the market. Remember when Apple CEO Tim Cook was calling Surface-like devices “fridge-toasters” and not good for any use case versus the iPad? Since then, Apple had to change its strategy and give iPad an active keyboard, add much higher-performance performance, and multitasking, copying the Surface Pro. iPad multitasking still looks broken to this day with Stage Manager even though Apple has three ways to do it. Finally, after most customers said that the iPad couldn’t replace the PC, Apple needed to reboot its MacBook design, vertically integrate even more and has a good job on it so far.
Surface also improved experiences on other Windows-branded devices in many ways. This gets forgotten, but its one of my analyst duties to tell the whole picture. The Microsoft Surface team has provided other Windows OEMs, free of charge, IP across touch, displays, pen, touchpad, processor optimizations and cooling.
Microsoft also tries out new form factors (Surface Tablet/Surface Studio/Duo) and price points (Edu Surface) before other Windows OEMs are comfortable doing. I get it- I was a hardware OEM nearly a decade. Other Windows OEMs barely make money, and one major unpopular product could ruin a few quarters of profitability. Anybody remember the $1B Surface inventory write-down in 2013? That would have put most companies out of business. Yet Microsoft moved forward.
For the sake of this launch, while the Surface Pro 9, Surface Laptop 5, or Surface Studio 2+ did not need any industrial design changes, I do believe the processor upgrades were needed. I also think Microsoft added new features its devices that are great for hybrid and remote workers, like Thunderbolt 4, 5G, and its Studio Effects. I do wish it added a 1080p camera to the Surface Laptop 5 to match the Surface Laptop Studio and Apple MacBook Air but do recognize it would likely drive an expensive mechanical change. I also recognize my 1080P StreamYard use case is small today, but video services will all be 1080P in a few years.
I am excited to get my hands on these new devices and see the difference 10 years make. I’m sure I have an original Surface device lying somewhere I could compare. Great job, Microsoft on 10 years of innovation with the Surface brand!
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.