Editorial

Microsoft really needs to refresh the entire Surface lineup

For many consumers, Microsoft's Surface brand of hardware represents the best that Windows has to offer. The problem is that this has rarely been the case, and it leaves many consumers spending a lot of money on something that isn't up to snuff.

If you ask me, it all started with Apple. This is speculation, but it seems to me that from iPhones and Macs, people got the idea that first-party hardware is just always better. After all, if the software and the hardware is designed by the same company, it must be the best overall experience, right?

I hear the same thing about Google's Pixel phones. They have a stock Android experience, so it's "Android the way that Google intended it".

Except Windows is completely different than Android, in the sense that almost every Android handset manufacturer puts a skin on the OS, and very few offer a stock experience. Most premium Windows 10 PCs these days are Signature PCs, meaning that they offer minimal bloatware.

It's true sometimes...

Microsoft's Surface lineup is meant to explore new ideas and form factors for PCs, which can later be imitated by third-party manufacturers. When the original Surface Pro was introduced, it offered something that other PCs didn't, an Intel Core i5-based tablet that could also be used as a laptop.

The Surface Book then offered the opposite of that. Rather than a tablet that could be used as a laptop, it was more of a laptop that could also be used as a tablet.

And then we have the Surface Studio, which is an all-in-one desktop PC that can be adjusted to other form factors. Unlike the Pro, the Book and Studio really haven't been imitated across the board, so if you have a real need for these new form factors, then these PCs might be for you.

But an actual need for this kind of stuff is pretty rare. Other than the form factor itself, you're really not getting what you're paying for.

The processors are dated

All that you have to do to see that the entire Surface lineup needs refreshing is look at the hardware that they offer, and then look at the hardware that's offered from third parties. For example, you won't find any premium PCs from third-party OEMs that don't have eighth-generation Intel processors.

What's important to remember though is that there's a pretty significant jump between Intel's 7th-gen and 8th-gen chips. For years, the company focused on efficiency in new processors, so when the new Surface Pro had 7th-gen chips compared to the Pro 4's 6th-gen processors, it wasn't that big of a deal. But where previous generation U-series processors were dual-core, the latest generation is quad-core, so there's a serious bump in performance.

In the case of the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop, we can give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. There's no doubt that these PCs need a refresh, of course, but while some 8th-gen U-series processors came out last fall, the ones that those devices use weren't announced until earlier this month.

You see, the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop are among few premium portable PCs that use Intel Iris Plus graphics, at least in the Core i7 models. The previously announced chips only had UHD Graphics 620. This doesn't change the fact that Microsoft is selling portable PCs with dual-core processors at a premium while their competitors are offering quad-core options.

The Surface Studio is in much worse shape though, with its sixth-generation HQ-series processors. Not only is the chip two generations old, but it's made for laptops. Indeed, the HQ-series is what you'll find in gaming laptops and mobile workstations, so they're powerful, for mobile chips.

Intel's new H-series processors are hexa-core, where the sixth-generation 'Skylake' ones were quad-core, and there's even overclockable Core i9 options now. You can actually buy a laptop right now that's more powerful than the Surface Studio, a desktop PC.

But why even use an H-series processor again? The new Intel desktop processors are even more powerful than that, and they're also hexa-core.

The Surface Studio also has an old, mobile GPU. GPU options in the Studio are an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M or a GTX 980M, which offer 2GB and 4GB GDDR5, respectively. Surely, if you spend $4,199 (the price of the top-end Surface Studio), you'd think you'd get at least an Nvidia GTX 10xx GPU.

And that's the whole point. While the Surface Pro and Laptop start at $799, the top-end models of each cost $2,699. The Surface Studio starts at $2,999.

I don't want to get too deep into the Surface Hub, since it's aimed at a different market, but even that includes fourth-generation 'Haswell' processors and starts at the price of a couple of Surface Studios.

Let's not forget about Thunderbolt 3

You've heard about Thunderbolt 3, right? No? Well, I'm glad you asked then. Thunderbolt 3 comes in the form of USB Type-C, but where a regular USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port can handle data transfer speeds of 5Gbps and 3.1 Gen 2 can handle 10Gbps, Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data at 40Gbps. Not only that, but you can use it for powering your device, and you can connect up to two 4K monitors to a single port.

So where can you find a PC with this magical port? Look at you, asking the good questions. Thunderbolt 3 is available on pretty much any premium PC on the market, except anything called Surface. In fact, the first and only Surface device to include USB Type-C at all is the Surface Book 2, and even that's just USB 3.1 Gen 1.

Microsoft has avoided USB Type-C in general for a long time. One of the problems is that not all cables and chargers are equal, and using the wrong one might fry your PC. Of course, this is something that every other OEM has worked out already.

Another issue is that Microsoft tried a standard charging method once before, with the Surface 3. That PC used micro-USB for charging, and people ended up trying to use their phone charger, complaining that it took to long to charge.

And finally, Microsoft has built a range of accessories, such as its Surface Dock, around the proprietary Surface Connect port. Surface Connect is also based on USB 3.1 Gen 1, so it's capped at 5Gbps, meaning that if Microsoft ever wants to build a Surface Connect Dock with Thunderbolt 3, it simply can't.

While Microsoft has cited this third reason as one of the main reasons it hasn't been able to move to Thunderbolt 3, it's just not true. Many OEMs have went the route of including Thunderbolt 3 and their old proprietary charging system, so the user had the choice of the new standard, or charging via old legacy cables that they had lying around.

The only PC that would actually require some real engineering work to add Thunderbolt 3 is the Surface Book lineup. With Surface Book, all of the ports for the PC are in the base, but the CPU, storage, and RAM are all in the display. Since the base is connected to the display via Surface Connect, it can't handle the data transfer that would come in through the Thunderbolt 3 port.

Conclusion

The entire point here is that Microsoft is charging premium prices for PCs that really aren't premium. The Surface Book 2 is the only one in the lineup with the latest chips, and none of them have Thunderbolt 3.

Some might say that they don't need the power of a quad-core processor, or that they don't need Thunderbolt 3, but would you really want to pay thousands of dollars on a PC that doesn't have the latest hardware? After all, every single one of Microsoft's competitors/partners is using all of this stuff already, and doing some really cool things.

Ultimately, what you're really paying for in the high price of a Surface is the form factor. As mentioned earlier, the form factors of the Surface Book and Surface Studio haven't been widely imitated by OEMs yet, although Dell did just announce some convertible all-in-ones recently.

But there are tons of competitors for the Surface Pro. The tablet that can be used as a laptop has become very popular across the board from virtually every OEM that exists. And of course, the Surface Laptop is just a laptop, so you can get one of those anywhere. In other words, despite their premium price, the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop are offering nothing that its competitors aren't, and they're actually offering less.

Microsoft needs to refresh the entire lineup sooner rather than later, even though the Pro and Laptop were only launched last June. The Surface Book would logically be the last one to be refreshed, since it already contains a modern Intel chip, and it needs more engineering to add Thunderbolt 3.

Hopefully, Microsoft will introduce a Surface Studio with a real desktop processor this year, and we'll get refreshed models of the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop with eighth-gen processors and Thunderbolt 3. There's just no reason for it to be this way.

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