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Ranking the Microsoft Surface launch rumors: What's probable, what's not

Microsoft's Surface Laptop and Surface Pro could all see refreshes, and it sounds like a significant storyline will be the diversity of chip platforms.

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Most of Microsoft’s Surface product lineup is scheduled for a potential refresh at Microsoft’s October 2 event in New York City, and educated guesses, rumors, and potential reports of new Surface hardware are beginning to, er, surface. But which ones make sense?

Last October, Microsoft’s Surface launch included the Surface Pro 6, Surface Laptop 2, the Surface Studio 2, and the Surface Headphones. Earlier in 2018, Microsoft announced the Surface Go and the Surface Book 2.  Theoretically, Microsoft could refresh all of these products, which would make for an epic Surface event next month.

surface headphones case Rob Enderle

Microsoft’s Surface Headphones didn’t get a whole lot of traction. Could earbuds be the next generation?

Microsoft has a wide variety of chip platforms from AMD, Intel, and Qualcomm to tap for new Surface hardware. For one, there are no fewer than six viable Core microprocessors around which Microsoft could build a Surface device: the existing 8th-gen Intel “Whiskey Lake” U-series laptop and “Amber Lake” Y-series chips; Intel’s ”Ice Lake” 10th-gen platform, also in U- and Y-series configurations; and the upclocked 10th-gen “Comet Lake” platform, also in U- and Y-series splits. Intel’s Pentium Gold chips, the foundation of the Surface Go, can still play a role.

Then there are AMD’s new Ryzen Mobile processors, which have historically struggled to find traction in notebook PCs. Finally we have Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx chips, which promise improved performance and all-around connectivity.

Depending on how you count it, that’s six different chip platforms from which to choose, and that’s before you start diving down into individual families such as the Core i5 or Ryzen 7. Now let’s handicap the rumors around specific product features...

Surface Pro 7 using USB-C: Credible

Thurrott’s Brad Sams begin making claims last year that the Surface Pro 7 (and probably the Surface Laptop 3, too) would include a USB-C interface, as part of Beneath A Surface, a book he wrote about the past and future of Surface devices. To be fair, most people expected Microsoft to migrate to USB-C last generation, as virtually all of its competition has done so, as well as the Surface Book 2. The question now is whether Microsoft will do away with the Surface connector, a staple of all Surface devices, or double it up, as it has done with the Surface Book 2. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Pro 6’s Surface Connector (the long slot on the side of this Surface Pro 6) provides power and I/O, but Microsoft hasn’t done much more with it.

Our guess: USB-C replaces the Type-A connector already on Surface devices. If Microsoft does away with the Surface connector, the USB-C port will probably be Thunderbolt-enabled. If not, it’s more likely that USB-C will exist alongside the Surface Connector as a more generic I/O.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 IDG / Mark Hachman

In the Surface Book 2, a USB-C port sits alongside the Surface Connector. 

Surface Pro 7 using Comet Lake: Credible

It’s reasonable to assume that Intel’s Comet Lake is going to appear in one Surface product, and Ice Lake in another. Winfuture.de believes the Surface Pro 7 is going to run Comet Lake, and in the following configurations:

  • Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Intel Core i3, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, 256GB SSD
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, 512GB SSD

This is also credible, not the least of which because these are some of the default configurations for most every laptop at some time or another. But remember, Ice Lake boasts an upgraded Iris Plus-capable GPU, while Comet Lake boasts faster clock speeds. Deciding to boost clock speeds on a tablet while reserving Ice Lake’s graphics horsepower for a Surface Laptop 3 or Surface Book 3 makes more sense.

Intel comet lake clean ice lake vs comet lake Intel

A “OEMJL” listing in GeekBench (code names Microsoft has used before) suggests an SP7 could use Ice Lake, but we’re still skeptical.

A new Surface 7: Plausible

Quite frankly, between the Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Laptop 3, there's an enormous amount of gray area that could encompass numerous processor choices. Frandroid introduces a new wrinkle: a Surface 7, somewhere between the Surface Go and the Surface Pro lineup. 

The Surface 7, the blog suggests, would essentially be a next-gen Surface Pro, with thinner bezels and an updated design. This, too, could be the home of the Snapdragon 8cx. 

It's hard to believe that Microsoft would carry a Surface Pro, and a Surface, and a Surface Go, so we'd think that a "Surface 7" might mean a hold on Surface Go development, for now. But we've criticized the Surface Pro lineup for remaining relatively static, so an update would be nice to see. 

A 15-inch Surface Laptop 3: Plausible

The original Surface Laptop was a wonderfully purpose-built laptop for students. The Surface Laptop 2 didn’t change much, while the competition reacted. Winfuture.de again is suggesting a 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 may be in the offing, together with the existing 13-inch model.

microsoft surface laptop 2 keyboard Microsoft

Who wouldn’t like a larger Surface Laptop? But Microsoft may not see it the same way.

It’s reasonable. I don’t see any particular need for a 15-inch Surface Laptop, but it would broaden a product line. On the other hand, it would also represent development work above and beyond any revisions to the 13-inch model. Past iterations have suggested that Microsoft has been conservative in making hardware changes. 

A Surface Laptop 3 with mobile Ryzen: Likely

Updated Sept. 30 with new details.

Winfuture.de is also claiming it’s seen private retailer data that suggest the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 (along with, possibly, some other device?) could include AMD’s mobile Ryzen chip inside of it. We’d like this to happen, and if so it would be an enormous validation for AMD’s mobile ambitions. Thurrott’s Brad Sams is also on record claiming that Microsoft is testing an AMD Picasso SOC inside a Surface. 

We wrote originally that an AMD-based Surface could be a leap, but we're hearing more information that says it's actually going to happen. What we don't know is whether it will be in a Surface Pro or a Surface Laptop. AMD has a relatively tiny presence in the mobile market beyond its A-series chips, and most every Surface to date has used an Intel-manufactured processor (the exceptions being the Surface 2’s Nvidia Tegra chip and the Surface RT). Based on what we're hearing, though, we'd say that a mobile Ryzen appearing in a Surface of some type is close to 100 percent. 

Update, Sept. 23: Winfuture is doubling down on its mobile Ryzen reporting, claiming that there are six models of Surface Laptop 3s in the works, with unannounced six- and eight-core mobile Ryzen 3000 chips inside. Prices would range from $999 to $2,399, the site says. 

Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx inside a Surface: Definitely

Update Sept. 30: 

In conjunction with our earlier story about multiple chip platforms in the Surface lineup, we're hearing that the Qualcomm 8cx will definitely be in a Surface Pro product, tentatively called the Surface Pro X. (That may in fact be a placeholder name for a Surface Pro 7.)

Winfuture.de again predicts that a revamped Surface Pro 7 will use an Intel Core m, which the Surface Pro tablet has used previously. Brad Sams takes another tack—that the Surface Pro 7 may have an option that uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx instead. 

Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx PCMark app performance Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s own estimates of its Snapdragon 8cx chip put it alongside of a Core i5 “Kaby Lake-R” chip.

If Microsoft believes in its Windows-on-ARM vision, then designing a Surface around an ARM chip is a no-brainer, and the 8cx is the obvious choice. So far we haven’t seen the platform squeezed into anything smaller than a clamshell form factor, so a Surface Pro 7 may be an option. I still think that the Surface Go makes sense; however, if you want an always-connected, all-day machine, the Surface Laptop makes more sense. But—and this is a big but—the minute some student can’t complete an assignment because of incompatibilities, Surface’s reputation in the educational space will tank, and fast. There’s a lot of upside with a Snapdragon Surface, but a lot of potential downside, too.

A dual-screen Surface: Show, not sell

Intel began promoting dual-screen PCs in 2018, and we saw more prototypes this past summer at Computex with Honeycomb Glacier and others. Microsoft, too, reportedly has a “Centaurus” dual-screen tablet in the works, taking a page from devices like the Galaxy Fold.

Intel twin rivers prototype Mark Hachman / IDG

Intel’s “Twin Rivers” prototype was optimized for content consumption.

A dual-display device implicitly asks users to type on glass, however. PCWorld editors split sharply on this—I think it’s a bad idea, akin to running on bare feet. My editor, Melissa Riofrio, is much more open to the idea. It would be difficult for Microsoft to discard its excellent Surface keyboards for a device that does... what? Consume content? And run what OS? The consensus seems to feel that Microsoft may show a dual-display device at the Surface launch, and not sell it quite yet. A dual-display device is terrifically exciting from a content-consumption standpoint, but we’d hope that Microsoft presents a viable business case for it, too. (And, of course, there's always a Bluetooth keyboard.)

A Surface Book 3 with RTX hardware: Wishful thinking

The status of the Surface Book 3 is decidedly in question. It’s certainly time for Microsoft to update its mobile powerhouse laptop, though the Surface Book 2’s power problems suggested that Microsoft may need to rethink its design. A July bug blocking the Surface Book 2 from receiving the May 2019 Update—and playing 3D games—because of discrete GPU issues has not been officially fixed since then, either. (On my Surface Book 2, however, the discrete GPU works.)

Acer predator triton 500 07 Acer

Acer’s Predator Triton, announced at CES, uses an Nvidia mobile RTX chip.

If Microsoft were to revamp the Surface Book 2, though, it could certainly stand to refresh it with either Intel’s Comet Lake or Ice Lake chips. It’s unclear whether Microsoft would prefer to go with Ice Lake’s Iris Plus graphics and a discrete GPU. It would be a big deal, however, if Microsoft were to bet big and put an Nvidia mobile RTX chip inside. There have been absolutely no leaks suggesting this is happening, but it’s a future that Microsoft could bring into the present.

Updated on Sept. 30 at 9:55 AM with new reporting and rumors.

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