Microsoft just updated its Surface PC hardware, adding faster processors and new design options to its Surface Pro, Surface Laptop, and Surface Studio computers. It’s also launching a pair of Surface-branded, Cortana-enabled wireless headphones, the first of their kind for Microsoft’s Surface line.
Headphones aside, Microsoft’s PC announcements, which were shared today at an event in New York City, are more of a refresh than a big reveal of something brand new. Microsoft is one of a handful of tech companies to host hardware-related events this fall; Apple held its smartphone event in early September, while Google’s is scheduled for next week, on October 9. Still, Microsoft’s newest wares underscore that the company is committed to making its own PCs, which it first brought to the market six years ago.
The Surface Pro 2-in-1 is one of the products getting an update. The Surface Pro 6 will have the latest quad-core, 8th generation Intel Core processor, which Microsoft claims makes it 1.5 times faster than the Surface Pro 5. It also comes in a black finish, along with the previous platinum coloring. Otherwise, not much is new about the Surface Pro 6. Its battery life is said to match last year’s Surface Pro—around 13.5 hours—despite the added processing power. Unfortunately, it still lacks USB-C ports.
It ships in mid-October, and a Core i5 model with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 128-gigabyte SSD will cost you $899. That’s not including the Pro’s signature Type Cover Keyboard or its stylus pen. Add those in for $160 and $100, respectively, and you’re looking at a “tablet” that costs well over $1,000. But to call it a tablet is something of a misnomer, since Microsoft has always positioned the Pro as a device with laptop-level power in a hybrid form factor.
‘We’ve redesigned everything for the fit and flow.’
Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer
Microsoft’s clamshell laptop is also getting a processor bump and a new aesthetic option. The Surface Laptop 2 will ship with an 8th generation, quad-core Intel chip, a significant bump up from the Intel Kaby Lake dual-core processor in the first Surface Laptop. Like the Surface Pro 6, the Surface Laptop 2 will come in matte black, in addition to burgundy, cobalt blue, and platinum. Microsoft says its thermal management system has been redesigned, with passive cooling handling more of the workload. This means the fan is used less often, and it should be less noisy than the first Surface Laptop.
Like the Surface Pro 6, the Surface Laptop 2 is more of a refresh than a dramatic redesign. Microsoft says it had to update things like the USB, Mini DisplayPort, and the Surface Connector, Microsoft’s proprietary port for magnetic charging and docking. “We’ve redesigned everything, because when you go to matte black, believe it or not, it adds 40 to 80 microns of thickness to the product,” Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, said in a phone interview with WIRED. “So we’ve redesigned everything for the fit and flow.”
The Surface Laptop 2 also doesn’t have USB-C ports, a puzzling decision, since Microsoft’s relatively new Surface Go and its Surface Book support USB-C. The Surface Laptop 2 will be available in mid-October, alongside the Surface Pro 6. It starts at $999 for the base model, which includes a Core i5 chip, 8 gigabytes of RAM (a bump up from the 4GB that shipped in last year’s base model), and a 128GB SSD.
The $3,500 Surface Studio 2 is in a whole other category of PCs, aimed at designers, video editors, and other creative professionals. This is the second generation of this giant machine. It’s a gorgeous PC with a 28-inch PixelSense touchscreen that lays flat and supports touch, pen, and a funky control dial. Again, with the newest Surface Studio, you’re looking at an internal upgrade more than any kind of external change, though Microsoft says the display on the new one has been calibrated to show more accurate colors.
The Surface Studio 2 ships with an i7-7820 processor, a 64-bit quad core chip that was released in 2017 and is based on the Kaby Lake architecture—a bump up from the 6th-generation Skylake processor that was in the first Surface Studio. The new all-in-one Studio 2 also has improved graphics, and is supposed to handle file processing 50 percent faster. By the way, that $3500 price tag is the starting price, and will get you an Intel Core i7 chip, 16 gigabytes of RAM, 1 terabyte of internal storage, and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 graphics.
Finally, there are the Surface Headphones, the truly new part of Microsoft’s fall hardware release. The $349 headphones are wireless and over-the-ear, designed with Skype users in mind. They pair with Windows 10 devices using Swift Pair, a software feature that Microsoft rolled out in an Windows 10 update back in April. The sensor-filled ‘phones automatically pause the music or mute calls when you take them off and restart when you put them back on. Each ear cup has two beam-forming microphones to make phone calls or summon Cortana (provided you’re connected to a Cortana-enabled device). Those will be available “later this holiday season.”
The headphones, along with an update to Microsoft’s Your Phone app, which lets you view or sync certain mobile phone functions on your PC, show that Microsoft is trying to fill in more of the device gaps that might exist in a busy professional’s life. The Surface Go, released this past summer, was another part of that strategy: Microsoft wanted to tap into a customer set that might not spend $1,000 on a tablet but would be OK spending half of that. So far, the strategy seems to be working. Panay said over the phone that the Go has been “exceeding expectations; our data is showing that a lot of Surface Go buyers are new customers. They weren’t customers who bought a Pro and then a Go, they bought a Go first.”
But there is still that gaping hole: a mobile phone, or any device with a mobile OS. In half a dozen years, Microsoft has managed to establish itself as a maker of its own high-powered, well-designed PCs, as well as wearables and accessories that coexist alongside those PCs. That still hasn’t made up for its spectacular failure in the mobile phone market; and smartphones, despite reports of market saturation, are an essential tool for both business and personal use. Microsoft’s efforts to integrate its software more and more with mobile phone interactions is an important step, but still means that its ceding a large part of customers’ overall software experience to its competitors.