I still remember the day vividly. On a scorching hot and sunny October morning last year, Microsoft invited a throng of reporters, YouTubers, and influencers to see the future of the Surface.
That morning, Microsoft’s always exuberant chief product officer Panos Panay — often called Microsoft’s Jony Ive — unloaded a barrage of new Surface products like the dual-screen Surface Duo and Neo and Surface Pro X that literally had me at the edge of a high stool I was struggling to stay sat on. Unlike Apple’s former chief design officer, who preferred to sit back and let marketing execs and engineers introduce his team’s new products, Panos dominates the stage.
He’s personal, convincing, and electrifying without ever seeming desperate to oversell Surface products. You can sense the confidence he has in the product and the integrity of the design as he weaves into the small audience before his intimate stage to show them fine details like the sound of a kickstand. He has a strong conviction that the Surface team didn’t phone it in. Every decision, no matter how big or small, is deliberate and purposeful for a better product.
I would go as far to say Panos’ reality distortion field was instrumental in making Surface devices formidable foes to Apple’s aluminum cool. He serves it up while Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella navigates the company through services and the cloud.
His humble spectacle was not on display this morning when Microsoft announced a handful of new Surface devices, including a faster Surface Book 3, a revamped Surface Go 2 with larger and higher resolution display, Surface Headphones 2, and the availability of Surface Earbuds. They’re all nice small improvements to existing products, but largely unremarkable. After blowing it out in style last October, the Surface family has peaked. It's time to blow it all up and make things explosive again.
The new toys
Looking at what’s new for the new Surface devices, I’m honestly bored.
Surface Book 3 — The Surface Book 3 looks exactly the same as the Surface Book 2. Same two display sizes (13.5- and 15-inch), same ports, and still no Thunderbolt 3 (a security risk apparently). They’ve got new 10th-gen Intel processors that are “more than 50% faster than Surface Book 2,” improved graphics (both Intel Iris Plus and more powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q, GTX 1660 Ti, and Quadro RTX 3000 GPU options), up to 32GB of RAM, and faster M.2 2280 SSD.
Surface Go 2 — The Surface Go 2 is a little more exciting. The screen is now larger at 10.5 inches with slimmer bezels and the resolution is a crisper 1,920 x 1,200. Otherwise, its design is identical to the first-gen Surface Go. That said, it still has some questionable guts in the $399 base model which has a wimpy Intel Pentium Gold chip (Pentium still exists?!), an inadequate 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of eMMC storage. You can spec that up with 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of SSD for a total of $529 or configure it with a faster (but still very underpowered) Intel Core m3 chip, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of SSD for $629. Microsoft also claims the battery life is longer with up to 10 hours.
Surface Headphones 2 — Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2 have the same tick-tock update. Same design, now available in black, for $100 cheaper than the original at $249. Most of the changes are internal: improved active noise-cancellation, five more hours of battery life (20 hours versus 15 on the original), Bluetooth 5.0, and ear cups that swivel to 180 degrees.
And lastly, the Surface Earbuds announced last fall will ship on May 12 for $199.
Time to leave the comfort zone
As you can see, these are very modest updates. Incremental and not revolutionary. It was a real struggle to force myself to watch Microsoft’s product videos that walk you through the new features.
It’s not Microsoft’s fault that the coronavirus pandemic left it without an in-person venue to throw an announcement party. Every company is scrambling to figure out how to announce new products through online experiences.
The new Surface devices are evidently so uninspiring because they don’t seem to offer anything game-changing. They're just minor tweaks to already solid hardware. Hearing Panos unpack the engineering grind that went into making the Surface Pro X so thin and light, the app emulation working behind the scene to run X86 apps on its custom ARM-based chip, the power efficiency advantages, etc. frame the device to relatable real-world use. The Surface Pro X ended up falling short on its promise, but it moved the needle forward.
Similarly, despite the Surface Laptop 3 looking virtually identical to the Laptop 2, its fast charging (still a rarity on laptops) was immensely notable. I joke about how weird the Surface Earbuds look, but I applaud Microsoft for daring to try something fresh. The earbuds may resemble ear gauges, but at least no one can accuse them of being AirPods knockoffs. Also, silly as it maybe is, what other earbuds work with Microsoft Office?
The venerable software-turned-devices-maker summited and is phoning it in until the next breakthrough.
And who can forget the very exciting Surface Duo and Neo? Okay, fair, Microsoft admittedly deserves flak for announcing the two dual-screen devices a year early only to have to delay them inevitably because of the pandemic. But how dope are those two devices? Call them vaporware because they’re not available (yet), but I cannot wait to get my hands on a Duo and Neo. I’m more excited for them than all the janky foldable phones that have been released so far.
My point is: today’s Surface announcements lacked gusto from Microsoft. Not even Microsoft could make these products sound thrilling. We’ve truly hit peak Surface. The venerable software-turned-devices maker summited and is phoning it in until the next breakthrough.
Such is par for the cycle of device releases you say, right? That’s true, but I look at the major jump in performance and usability from the Surface Laptop 1 to 2 and Surface Pro 5 to 6, and see real-world tangible innovation amidst maturation.
As I write this, I’m musing about the Surface Studio 2, Microsoft’s all-in-one desktop surface with massive 28-inch tilting touchscreen. What a remarkable desktop that completely fades away leaving only a giant pane of glass to manipulate like a computer from a sci-fi movie. It’s two-years-old and still costs a small fortune, but I can’t bring myself to remove it from my Microsoft Store cart and close the tab. I glance over at the Surface Dial that I have connected to a non-Surface Windows 10 desktop and rotate it to control the volume, scroll Input’s home page, and change tracks in Spotify. The vibration feedback from it invisibly and quietly assuring me it registered inputs. It's such an underrated accessory.
Months into the pandemic outbreak, it’s easy to crave reliability and value. But it’s important that device makers don’t trade these for innovation when necessary. Panos, whenever you’re ready, I'm waiting to see Surfaces break out of the comfort zone and start disrupting everyone again.