Editorial

Microsoft's new Surface PCs won't have Thunderbolt 3, and that's OK

The leaks are in, and there's little left to the imagination for what Microsoft will announce at its big event in New York City tomorrow. We're expecting the Surface Pro 7, a Snapdragon 8cx-powered Surface tablet, and 13.5- and 15-inch flavors of the Surface Laptop 3.

One thing that they'll all have in common is the lack of Thunderbolt 3, something that's been widely criticized in the Surface lineup for a couple of years now. After all, most other premium PCs on the market have the technology, which supports data transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps, and allows you to connect two 4K monitors (or a single 5K monitor) on a single port.

Microsoft finally adopted USB Type-C in the Surface Book 2 in late 2017, and then in the Surface Go. But when the Surface Pro 6 and the Surface Laptop 2 launched last year, the products still omitted the port.

That's changing with this year's refresh, according to the leaks. We'll see USB Type-C, but it will likely be USB 3.1 Gen 1 like we saw with the Book 2 and the Go. That means it will support speeds of up to 5Gbps, just like the proprietary Surface Connect port. We still won't get Thunderbolt 3, like we already get from Dell's XPS lineup, HP's Spectre lineup, Lenovo's Yoga lineup, and more.

Put down the pitchforks

But that's OK, because truthfully, Thunderbolt 3 doesn't actually make a lot of sense in these products. Thunderbolt is an Intel technology, and most of the PCs being announced tomorrow are not using Intel CPUs. The Surface Laptop 3 is to be AMD-based, and the ARM-based Surface 7 is, well, ARM-based.

While Microsoft could feasibly include Thunderbolt 3 in its Intel-based Surface Pro 7, especially if it uses Intel's 10th-generation 'Ice Lake' processors that have Thunderbolt 3 integration, it probably wants to have some level of consistency across the entire lineup. And that actually makes sense.

This is the first time we've seen some real diversity in the chipsets that Microsoft is using in its products. In the early days, we had the Intel-based Surface Pro and the ARM-based Surface RT, but since Windows RT was killed off, it's been Intel-only. With tomorrow's announcement, it seems that the Redmond firm won't be showing favoritism to any of its CPU partners.

So when will it make sense to use Thunderbolt 3 in a CPU-diverse lineup? I'm glad you asked. The answer is that it will make sense when USB 4.0 is available. Intel is indeed releasing the Thunderbolt 3 spec, but it's coming with USB 4.0, so that will likely arrive next year. Once that's available, it can be used with any CPU platform.

And people probably don't even need it

I hate to be that guy that tells you that you don't need some awesome top-end technology, but the truth is that you probably don't. Thunderbolt 3 has a wide range of use cases, but a lot of them would benefit from dedicated graphics. For example, you probably wouldn't want to plug two 4K monitors into your Surface Pro 7.

Ultrabooks that have two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and there are many, can make use of it though. You could actually use one of them to plug in an external GPU and the other to connect those two 4K monitors. Like I said, there's a wide range of possibilities. But when we're considering that the Surface Pro is the only product launching tomorrow that could even possibly include it, and the fact that there's no way Microsoft will give us more than one USB Type-C port, there's not that much that you can do with Thunderbolt 3 that you can't do with USB 3.1 Gen 1.

In fact, we'd probably be better off complaining about the lack of the 10Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 2 or the 20Gbps USB 3.2.

Speaking for myself though, the main reason I want USB Type-C is just for charging. I can't stand the fact that if I have two laptops with me and one is a Surface, I have to bring a second charger. Every other premium PC on the market uses USB Type-C to charge.

The other reason to want USB Type-C, in general, is future-proofing. Surely, if you spend well over a thousand dollars on a new PC, you'd want it to last a few years. You'll want to be able to connect new peripherals as USB Type-C continues to become more mainstream.

But I think we can put down the pitchforks when it comes to Thunderbolt 3. It just doesn't make sense for this announcement. If you really want it, you can either get one of the many third-party, Intel-based products that have it, or you can just wait for USB 4.0.

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