Another week, another tech event, but after the rather under-whelming Apple keynote and the downright bizarre Amazon Echo hardware showcase, I wasn’t sure just what to expect from Microsoft’s recent Surface event.
Not too long ago, just the word Microsoft would conjure up dreary visions of bar charts, spreadsheets and business software that would send anyone, with maybe the exception of the nerdiest of corporate IT system admins, to sleep. But for the last few years Microsoft has thrown off that boring, stuffy image, and unveiled some high quality, well designed and well received hardware. Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft at its core is still a company focused on business and enterprise, but products like the Surface Pro, Surface laptop and especially, the Holo-lens headset show that it’s still able to surprise us and keep up with the cooler, funkier tech giants out there such as Apple, Samsung and Google.
Microsoft held its Surface Hardware event on October 2nd in New York and, as expected, unveiled updates to the existing Surface hardware line up, but also showed some new, interesting additions. Here’s a quick roundup and some of my impressions.
Surface Laptop 3
The previous versions of the Surface laptops have always impressed with their build quality and design, and the latest generation sticks with this slim and sleek form factor. When it comes to the tech goodness, hardware wise, the 20% larger touch pad, improved keyboard and inclusion of a USB C port, are all updates that you would expect to find in any laptop released today. However, things get interesting when it comes to the processors Microsoft has chosen to power them.
There are 2 models available, the 13.5 inch is powered by a 10th Generation Intel i5 or i7 processor, while the 15-inch model is running an AMD Ryzen CPU. Microsoft say that the AMD Ryzen has been designed specifically for the surface laptop 3, but as to what exactly that means we’ll have to wait and see.
The addition of the Ryzen processor option is an interesting one, and I’ll be curious to hear just how well this possible Intel beater performs when reviewers get their hands on the Surface laptop on October 22nd. The 13-inch version starts at $999 and the 15 inch starts at $1100 U S.
Surface Pro 7 & X
The Surface Pro is a powerful tablet device that is very popular because it is probably the only tablet that comes anywhere close to the much-overused claim of being a ‘laptop replacement’, especially with the keyboard case attached. Again, much like the new Surface Laptop, the Surface Pro 7 hasn’t had a major redesign, and hardware wise, it too includes Intel’s new 10th generation processor and adds a USB C port and starting at $799 it’s a solid update to a popular device. But just like the Surface Laptop, Microsoft surprised us with a second version called the Surface Pro X. Featuring a bigger screen and 2 USB C ports, the big difference is that it uses an ARM based processor that you’d expect to see in a smartphone rather than a Windows based tablet. Microsoft again said that the Qualcom-based CPU had been especially designed for the Surface Pro X, and reports from people who managed to get ‘hands on’ with it at the event say the performance is impressive. The benefits of using an ARM processor like this is that it is incredibly power efficient, promising all day batter life, and also supports LTE natively, meaning you can easily add it to a mobile data plan for an internet connection anywhere you want to use it. It sounds great in theory, but there is one possible problem, and that is software compatibility. Although Microsoft has made great progress since the Windows RT days, some software, such as Dropbox won’t run on the ARM processor in Windows. At least, not yet. For me, this brings up red flags when it comes to running assistive software such as Jaws or NVDA. Again, we’ll have to wait and see when the Surface Pro 7 and X are released sometime in the next couple of months.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a tech event without some wireless Bluetooth ear buds, and Microsoft wasn’t going to be left out. These, slightly larger than normal, ear buds have an 8-hour battery life, with the carry case offering a further 24 hours of charge. I mentioned that they are larger than, for example the Galaxy Buds or Air Pods, but the reason for this is that they have a touch pad on the side which is used for functions such as skipping tracks etc. I was pleased to see that, unlike the Amazon Ear Buds, the Surface Buds do not go into the ear canal but rather sit in the ear like Apples Air Pods. This does mean that there is far less ambient noise reduction, but for visually impaired people like us, means they are far more suitable for use on the go. I’m sure we’ll see more features added to the track pad function in the future, but with a price tag of $249, no noise cancellation and with so much competition out there, these could be a tough sale for Microsoft.
Surface Duo & Surface Neo
Microsoft also gave us a sneak peek at a whole new form factor they are working on which they plan on releasing late next year. The Surface Duo and Neo are dual screen devices which is something we haven’t seen from Microsoft before. The Surface Neo resembles 2 iPad Minis joined by a hinge. You’re able to fold the Neo into many different positions depending on what task you are doing and is powered by a special version of Windows 10 especially written with dual screen functionality in mind. Unlike other recent foldable devices, Microsoft has chosen to use 2 obviously separate screens joined rather than 1 large foldable screen. However, the device is incredibly thin and versatile. The Surface Duo takes the same idea, but shrinks it down to phone size, meaning that it’ll fit in your pocket. The Duo runs a version of Android, again especially written to cater for the dual screens and again can be folded into many positions.
Although it’s always exciting to see tech take a new direction, I’m not yet convinced that there is a real need or added productivity to having 2 screens instead of 1. And of course, how would a screen reader work in this environment?
Overall, Microsoft again delivered an interesting event, with a nice spec update to the Surface Laptop and Pro range and, more importantly for me, also still managed to throw in the few surprises with new processors and form factors. As I said earlier, there are some slight concerns about accessibility when it comes to the Surface Pro X and the dual screens of the Neo and Duo, but until we get these in our hands, I may be worrying over nothing.
Well done Microsoft, now bring on the next tech event.
Co-host & audio producer on the Double Tap Canada radio show. Occasional contributor to Double Tap TV, full time shed resident.