Hands-on at Surface event: New direction or more of the same? Yes and yes

Whether you measure by sheer numbers or by potential game-changing impact, this year's event offered the most news of any Surface event since the original launch seven years ago.

Microsoft's new Surface devices are loaded with 'impressive engineering' The seven-year-old Surface line welcomes a slew of new and updated devices -- including a few surprises. Ed Bott walks us through the highlights. Read more: https://zd.net/2nK4rFf

Earlier this year, a PC industry analyst predicted in public that Microsoft would shut down its Surface business unit by the end of 2019. The CEO of Lenovo and Dell's chief commercial officer agreed. If you took the other side of that bet, go collect your winnings.

No, 2019 isn't over yet, but Microsoft made it pretty clear at this week's jam-packed Surface event in New York City that it won't be holding a going-out-of-business sale anytime soon. If you watched the live stream of the event, you probably heard enthusiastic cheering throughout the presentation. Those cheers weren't from the assembled press and analysts. Instead, they were from a group of "Surface fans," who had been invited by Microsoft to witness the festivities.

And those fans had plenty to cheer about. There were the usual iterative improvements in some familiar Surface stalwarts, a few interesting newcomers, and one I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that reveal at the end.

It was, in short, the most eventful product launch in the seven-year history of the Surface line. If anything, this year's announcements suggest that Microsoft isn't pulling back but is gearing up to expand its hardware business.

I had a few hours after the event to spend hands-on time with the new lineup of devices and to talk with some Microsoft engineers and executives. Whether you measure by sheer numbers or by potential game-changing impact, this year's event offered the most news of any Surface event I can recall since the surprise debut of the first Surface devices seven years ago.

Let's start with the Surface Laptop. The most conventional product of all gets some iterative improvements and a logical extension of the line. There's now a machined aluminum option in addition to the Alcantara fabric cover on the base, and the addition of a 15-inch model is welcome for creative professionals who want a bigger workspace.

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The most interesting change, though, is Microsoft's decision to partner with AMD on the internals of the 15-inch Surface Laptop. They claim that tweaks to the AMD Ryzen Surface Edition will bring that model "the fastest graphics performance of any laptop in its class." (The smaller Surface Laptop gets the 10th Generation Intel Ice Lake CPUs.)

One important change in the Surface Laptop line that might have gotten lost in the shuffle is a fairly fundamental change in serviceability. Remove the feet to expose screws that allow the top to be removed, exposing the SSD and other internal components for servicing. That removes a major deployment blocker for corporate customers.

Meanwhile, the Surface Pro 7 proves that you don't mess with success. Because the basic design of the Surface Pro hasn't changed in four years, older accessories are still usable. This year's upgrade includes the same Intel 10th Gen Ice Lake processors as in the smaller Surface Laptop, along with a single USB Type-C port. The blade-style Surface Connector survives for at least one more generation.

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Image credit: Microsoft

All of those new devices, by the way, support fast charging, which means they can go to an 80% charge in about an hour. Microsoft claims that battery life will be over 11 hours.

The new Surface Pro X could easily turn out to be the sleeper hit of this year's round of announcements. Personally, I think it should have been called the Surface Go Pro (although the copyright lawyers in the audience might have a word or two to say about that) because it combines the key attributes of Microsoft's small, ultralight, always-connected Surface Go with the proven commercial appeal of the Surface Pro.

There's a custom Arm chip in the Surface Pro X as well as built-in LTE support, and Microsoft managed to squeeze a 13-inch display into a chassis with the same dimensions as the one that accommodates a 12.3-inch Surface Pro by slimming down the bezels on either side of the screen. (It's a trick that Dell has used for several years on its excellent XPS 13 line of laptops).

The Surface Pro X ticks all the boxes on my list of must-have features for my next notebook, including a 3:2 display ratio and built-in LTE support. The built-in storage for the new Surface Slim Pen, which also charges the device when it's not in use, is a bonus. I can't wait to get my hands on it.

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Image credit: Microsoft

A few small details I noted after spending some hands-on time with the Surface Pro X: First, the tablet portion has smooth, rounded edges, in contrast to the sharp chamfered edges of the Surface Pro. Second, the solid state storage device is accessible via a small slot under the kickstand (it opens with the same tool you use to access a SIM slot). In theory, that means you can upgrade or replace the solid state storage without having to buy a whole new device.

And finally, if you open the About page in system settings, you'll see a surprising name where you should see the details of the custom SQ-1 Arm processor (developed as part of a Surface-Qualcomm partnership).

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The custom SQ1 processor gets a familiar codename in these early display units.

Fabrikam, of course, is one of Microsoft's longstanding fictional company names, used in demos to avoid copyright hassles. Presumably, that codename will be replaced with the real processor name before the November 5 public release of the Surface Pro X.

And then there were the two big surprises at the end of the event, with the reveal of the Surface Neo, a dual-screen tablet running Windows 10X, a variant of Windows 10 specifically designed for use on devices with multiple screens. The surprise was tempered significantly by the fact that its details had been leaked a few days before the event and by the announcement that it won't be available for purchase until the end of 2020.

But the real jaw-dropping moment was the unveiling of the Surface Duo, an Android-powered dual-screen phone-and-then-some, which will also be available for sale in the holiday 2020 season.

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The Surface Duo (left) and Surface Neo (right) were roped off at the launch event.

Photo credit: Ed Bott

In the hands-on portion of the product showcase, both of the new dual-screen devices were roped off, which means only a handful of tech media reporters were allowed a closer look at the hardware.

That inspired longtime analyst Joshua Topolsky to call the new device "vaporware" in a fairly scathing tweet:

Microsoft execs told me the logic behind the extra-long lead times has to do with the need for developers to build apps that take advantage of the new devices. That means seeding hardware into developers' hands (a process that should start around the beginning of the new year) and iterating on the OS software based on feedback from those developers. Once those devices are in the wild, of course, there's no way to keep them secret.

If you think that's a strained explanation, allow me to remind you of the fate of the original Surface RT in 2012, which was fatally damaged by a lack of apps and cost the company nearly a billion dollars in writedowns. In addition, that long hardware development cycle works to the benefit of the other OEMs that will presumably be shipping Windows 10X tablets and dual-screen phones running the same Microsoft software.