It is hard to believe the Surface line of PCs has been around for nearly eight years. When the first batch came out in 2012, I did not quite know what to think. The concept and the words were good, but the finished product seemed, well, a bit unfinished. We are now in 2020 and Microsoft has turned Surface into a juggernaut driving nearly $6B in sales the past four quarters.
I have spent a lot of time with the Surface team and can tell you they take their craft very seriously with very high passion. It is personal for them, which, to me, is a very positive sign as we live in an age of experiences, and it takes passion to fight for good experiences. When you build products, every day is a battle of people telling why you “can’t” do something, and fortitude and passion gets you through it. My background is product management and product marketing and have experienced this personally so this isn’t just me reporting on it.
This past fall in 2019, I attended a New York event (coverage here) where Microsoft announced its latest release of the Surface Laptop, Surface Pro tablet, as well as a slew of other devices, some of which were released this week.
This week Microsoft announced updates to a couple of its devices, including the long-awaited 3rd generation of the Surface Book, and the final release of the Surface Earbuds. Let us dive into what Microsoft announced and the improvements it has on its devices.
Surface Book 3 is a welcomed upgrade
It has been a couple of years since Microsoft has updated the Surface Book. The Surface Book 2 was released in 2017 with a couple of generation skips. It makes sense as Intel has not had any huge reason up until now to come out with a new release of its mobile processors. Thanks, AMD for that polite nudge.
The Surface Book 2 was a heavy upgrade from the first Surface Book with upgraded CPU and GPU combinations; a welcomed added USB-C port and the extra choice of a 15-inch model of the Surface Book 2 or the classic 13.5-inch. The Surface Book 2 was not a light release and has aged very well for most users.
I believe the Surface Book 3 release has been perfectly timed. As we see other content creator devices coming out and NVIDIA and the PC industry pushing its creator initiative, I can safely say the Surface Book 3 is arguably the most versatile creator laptop on the market. From the raw specs, it is a powerhouse in a tablet form factor, unlike anything else.
The new Surface Book 3 rocks 15-watt Intel’s 10th Gen Core Processors with the choice of NVIDIA GeForce GTX or Quadro RTX discrete GPUs. Microsoft says it is up to 50% more performance than the Surface Book 2. It was incredible at the time that Microsoft could fit a 1050 in the Surface Book 2, and I am amazed it can fit not only a GeForce GTX 1660 Ti, but also the option for an RTX Quadro 3000. The discrete GPU is in the base, but I’m still impressed. I think the NVIDIA 1660 Ti will meet the demand of most users that get the Surface Book 3 especially as it is the most power efficient performance per watt GPU on the market according to Tom’s Hardware. It is one of the innovative features that allow the Surface Book devices to wear many hats, specifically that of gaming and graphic intensive creations.
By giving consumers the option of a Quadro RTX 3000, Microsoft is broadening its audience with the Surface Book 3 even though I did not see anywhere that the Surface Book 3 is getting NVIDIA’s Studio drivers. I do not see it being very likely since the Studio drivers were specific to NVIDIA’s Turing technology, which the GTX 1660 Ti does not have. Since the GTX 1660 Ti does not have them, I do not see why Microsoft would separately add the drivers to the Quadro version. That said, you can always download the Studio GPU drivers yourself from NVIDIA’s site here and this most recent release unsurprisingly adds support for the GeForce 1650 and 1660 Ti.
Microsoft says the Surface Book 3 has up to 17.5 hours of actual battery life. See below for what I mean by “real.” Book 3 comes with up to 32GB of memory and from Microsoft’s configuration page, up to 2TB of storage in what Microsoft is calling “the fastest SSD it has ever shipped.”
As we see more AMD-driven mobile devices on the market, it would have been great to see the Surface Book 3 come with an option for AMD’s newest 4000 series processors like we saw with the Surface Laptop with AMD’s 3000 series processors at the end of last year. I do not see this being too likely since the release of the Surface Book devices is very calculated as we saw with the 2-year gap. Nevertheless, we can all dream of transcoding video on a tablet with 16 threads and 8 cores.
The Surface Go 2 is an iPad rival
The Surface Go 2 also has a perfectly timed release. Its closest competitor, the Apple iPad, came out with a big update recently, giving it support for a mouse and the Apple Magic Keyboard. The Surface Go 2 now has a large 10.5-inch display, and what Microsoft says is a 64% faster performance Intel Core M3 compared to last generation’s 8th Gen Core M options. The Surface Go 2 is available in Intel Pentium 4425Y and Intel Core M3 options.
One of the more compelling features of the Surface Go 2 is the added dual Studio Mics and 5MP front-facing camera with sharp video and improved low-light. Since the target audience for the Surface Go is schools, family, and businesses, the promising video call features will offer more at an affordable price point. This is especially true in a time where video calls, work from home, and school from home are important critical parts of our lives.
There are some other added benefits when comparing the Surface Go 2 to the iPad. This comparison is with the iPad Air since it has similar specifications and at the closest price point. The Surface Go 2 has full Windows 10 support compared to Apple’s iPad OS. There is nothing wrong with iOS, it has many benefits, but it is no macOS either with full support for every app and peripheral. The Go 2 has Windows Hello for a secure login experience. It has better IO support with a microSDXC Card reader for upgradeable storage and a UBC-C port. Also, the pen and keyboard accessories for the Surface Go are cheaper than the Apple pen and the Apple keyboard accessories and the Surface Go also has a starting price that is $100 lower than the iPad Air.
Microsoft let me use one of its Surface Go 2 devices and am reviewing it right now.
Better measurements for battery life
Regarding PC battery life measurements, I have been critical the past five years of how disclosures were made to the public. The PC industry homed in one figure, local video playback with WiFi turned off, which was emblazoned on packaging and the point of purchase. Local video playback is important, but what about web browsing, video streaming, and productivity applications? Plus, local video playback barely touches the CPU, most of the GPU, and very little memory. I don’t think anyone in the PC industry was trying to fool anyone but were likely trying to keep it simple and were afraid of being sued as demonstrated battery life has a lot of caveats.
Well, kudos to Microsoft on doing what I believe is better for buyers, which is a more balanced metric for battery life. The Surface’s new battery life tests:
- consist of full battery discharge with a mixture of active use and modern standby
- web browsing test accessing eight popular websites over multiple open tabs
- productivity test utilizing Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook
- a portion of time with the device in use with idle applications.
- all settings were default except screen brightness was set to 150nits with Auto-Brightness disabled
- Wi-Fi was connected to a network
Sure, my first questions are about the details on everything like per cent idle, but that is just me. Microsoft likely derived the test from actual usage over 100s of millions of notebooks and I believe the Surface’s new battery life tests are monumentally better and more useful than local video playback.
Microsoft Headphones 2 and Earbuds make a competitive stand
Microsoft’s Surface Headphones are a favorite of mine and I have gifted at least five pairs of them to family. The Microsoft Headphones had shockingly good performance, better than I had expected. My only issue, if you can call it that, was that I wanted some harder core work features.
The next-gen Microsoft Headphones 2 promise to add to that performance and Microsoft says there is improved sound quality and battery life to up to 20 hours of battery life (still shorter than Bose and Sony’s flagship over ear headphones with 30 hours). It has 13 levels of ambient noise control using on-ear dials. Microsoft also says it updated the ear cup design to rotate 180 degrees. This is important when you take off the headphones and rest them on your shoulders and the cups are not showing. I know, sounds vain, but it is important to me. The Surface Headphones are also available in a new matte black color which I prefer because black is my favorite electronics color. I know, it is all about me. I think if Microsoft wants to attract a larger audience, it needs some softer colors.
The Surface Earbuds were announced last Fall and are a new device to see in the Surface lineup. The Surface Earbuds feature Microsoft’s “Omnisonic” sound with large touchpads on the side. The touchpads have a versatile amount of capabilities. Users can control PowerPoint presentations, can access Outlook and control calls and music like Spotify. I see these earbuds being very competitive to Apple’s AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds, Google Pixel Buds and other wireless earbuds. It is unfortunate that the Surface Neo is delayed past this year because I could see myself rocking the Surface Neo with these earbuds. I am excited to try out these earbuds.
Microsoft let me use both these audio solutions and am reviewing it right now.
Microsoft has a versatile new lineup with much-needed upgrades at a very calculated time. The Surface Book 3 has incredible power inside a small tablet-like form factor. The new Intel 10th Gen Core processors and NVIDIA graphics will please all users, especially those who need the professional graphics of the NVIDIA Quadro RTX 3000. The Surface Go 2 makes many improvements over the first-generation Surface Go and competes in price, performance, and video call features with Apple’s iPad.
The Surface Go 2, Surface Earbuds, and Surface Headphones ship on May 12th with the Surface Book 3 shipping on May 21st. The Surface Book 3 starts at $1,599 with some configurations already sold out on Microsoft’s website.
Nice job Microsoft.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag and co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.