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Microsoft's October 2nd Surface event recap - The good, the bad, and the ugly

This week Microsoft held what is becoming an annual outing of new or refreshed Surface devices. The event was not streamed, which highlights the reality that no new ground-breaking form factors were going to be introduced, save for some new headphones.

Surface chief Panos Panay took the stage and gave arguably one of his best sells to date of what are, at best, modest refreshes. While the devices look better than ever, the actual changes leave a lot to be desired if you're looking to push your dollar with cutting-edge hardware.

Here are some takeaways from October 2 and what Microsoft got right and what they got wrong.

The Good

Microsoft did get a few things right with its October 2 event even if the announcements were not awe-inspiring. Here are a few.

Faster update cycle?

Although hardware refreshes in the form of Surface Pro 6, Surface Laptop 2, and Surface Studio 2 are a bit weak the fact that Surface Pro and Surface Laptop appear to be getting a more regular update cadence is noteworthy.

Just last year, Panay told Windows Central they prefer to do significant refreshes only when there is something substantial to add that brings a dramatic improvement.

At least for Surface Laptop and Surface Pro, one could argue that jumping from a dual-core Intel processor to the newer Intel quad-core series is significant, but it's unclear if the new experience is disruptive or just quaint. After all, the "Kaby Lake-R" i7-8650U came out in late 2017 and had been used extensively by HP, Dell, Lenovo for a year. Those companies are already moving on to Intel "Whiskey Lake" processors at the same time Microsoft is adopting "Kaby Lake-R".

But one criticism levied against Microsoft in the past was that hardware updates – like the two years for Surface Studio and Surface Book – are too long. This faster turnaround by the Surface team – even if underwhelming – is at least an attempt to keep Surfaces where the market is.

The cynic in me, however, thinks maybe this is just an attempt to spur more sales for the holiday season.

Surface Studio 2 fixes a lot

In my Surface Studio review I made it clear that the overall design, display, and functionality of the desktop PC was perfect, but the hardware did not match the goals of the device.

The biggest offenders like a slow hybrid-drive (a fast SSD combined with a slow hard-disk drive) and graphics options like the NVIDIA GTX 965M or 980M were absurd.

Of all the refreshed devices Surface Studio 2 got the most right with 1 or 2TB real SSD options for storage, a more performant i7-7820HQ (no more Core i5), and NVIDIA GTX 1060 or 1070 for graphics.

We could hem and haw about how Surface Studio 2 still has a mobile processor, but as someone who owns and uses the original Studio, I can say it is the SSD and new GPU that is important here. These two improvements fix the bottlenecks in Surface Studio and will make a massive difference in daily usage.

Oh, and having a Type-C 3.1 (10Gbps) port on the back – while not as good as Thunderbolt 3 – is still a welcome addition. Combined with the even better display that is brighter and has more contrast and this is the desktop PC that I've been wanting.

Back in black

Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2 now come with an optional black color scheme. This option is something many users have been requesting ever since the original Surface Laptop was introduced.

I find it ironic that all we used to have been black laptops until companies like Microsoft, HP, and Dell tried something new. Now, everyone wants to go back. Well, Microsoft listened and delivered. Having seen both devices the amount of detail, e.g. interior of the ports and hinges are all black too is notable.

My usual gripes about black laptops still stand – scratching that metal reveals a garish silver and the finish shows fingerprints – but hey, you do you and rock your Surface like it's 2012.

Surface Headphones

Surface Headphones

Surface Headphones

I'm not sure the market needed Microsoft to step in and create new premium headphones, but I like it for a different reason. It shows that the Surface team is moving beyond premium PCs and is trying to create a whole ecosystem of products.

We've already heard rumbling of a Surface web camera, and there's a growing cadre of mice and keyboards. Why not speakers, wearables, and more? It works for Apple and Razer. Even HP and Dell create all their accessories making Microsoft here more the norm than the standout.

Either way, if you're a fan of Microsoft's hardware, then these headphones are good news even if you never plan to buy them.

The Bad

Despite the welcome changes noted above, there were a few misses too that overshadow them.

No LTE

For a company pushing Always-Connected PCs, Microsoft is indeed not leading the charge with hardware. Companies like HP and Lenovo are leaning hard on LTE-enabled devices this holiday season, yet Microsoft will only have Surface Go and the older Surface Pro model as a contribution.

At least with Surface Pro (2017), Microsoft pre-announced an LTE model as coming. It took entirely too long, but at least it's here, and it's excellent.

For Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2, there's nary a mention or even a promise of an LTE option down the road. I wrote back in June that Microsoft needs to lead here and it's clear it is not. That feels like mixed messaging.

Older processors

Putting quad-core processors into the same chassis of Surface Laptop and Surface Pro is no easy feat. The thermals dramatically change, and Microsoft had to respond by redesigning the thermal solutions to both mobile devices for 2018. I'm told Surface Laptop 2 should be quieter with the fans kicking in only when the CPU hits 90 percent usage.

But these "new" processors are from late 2017 and not the fresher "Whiskey Lake" ones launching in October in laptops from Lenovo, Dell, and HP. It also means like those extra PCIe lanes that come with Intel's latest chipset are not available.

The flip side to this complaint are the drivers, which are now mature enough to all but guarantee a smooth experience for people who buy these new devices. Conversely, if you're paying that much for a laptop expecting the latest in processor technology seems like a reasonable expectation one that Microsoft fails at delivering.

No new Surface Dock

The current Surface Dock is years old, a bit clunky, and doesn't seem powerful enough for the 15-inch Surface Book 2. We've heard rumors of a new, more powerful dock that may even support internal graphics to boost power, but nothing of the sort was announced on October 2.

The wait continues.

No "Andromeda"

We all knew going into this event that Microsoft was not prepared to talk about a genuinely pocketable Surface a.k.a. its "Andromeda" project. But its absence was noticeable if only because the rest of the announcements were minor (those hardware refreshes) or unusual (those headphones).

It's clear, more than ever, that in this growing Surface family of products and accessories a genuinely mobile option is missing. Initially, our sources hinted that October was the intended launch goal for Andromeda, but due to the software (Windows Core OS) not being polished enough the launch is postponed until it is ready.

Surface head Panos Panay seemingly confirmed such a device is his goal in a recent interview with The Verge, but that is no consolation for those who want an answer now.

The good news here is Microsoft knows the seriousness of launching something like Andromeda to the market. Such a product needs to be nearly perfect. The Surface team won't release until then, but at least when they do we'll know won't be half-baked.

The Ugly

While there are a few disappointments with this year's Surfaces, the biggest is the most obvious: ports.

No Thunderbolt 3 or even Type-C

Surface Laptop 2 and Surface Pro 6 both do not have any new ports. Instead, we're stuck with the same USB Type-A and mini DisplayPort. Because Microsoft eschewed using Intel's latest processors and boards the potential to go to Thunderbolt 3 was immediately lost.

Another component of this problem is cost. Microsoft sees these refreshed devices as just that. Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2 have the exact same chassis from last year. Adding Type-C and especially Thunderbolt 3 would require a redesign of the physical device as well as the entire motherboard and components.

But putting aside the reasons – including pressure from enterprise customers – the lack of a Type-C port on Surface Laptop 2 and Surface Pro 6 is a massive letdown especially at this price point.

While we can take consolation in knowing that a "major" refresh for Surface Pro is expected next year that's makes recommending anyone buying these PCs somewhat tricky this holiday season - at least if you care about such things. Oh, and Surface Headphones have Type-C, so there's that.

Wrap up

Depending on your expectations – sorry, no holograms or a Microsoft-branded Android phone – Microsoft's October 2 event is best classified as under-delivering.

The mainstream press at least seems impressed with the new lineup, and general consumers will likely be pleased as well, but the overall range of announcements was minimal. Had something like "Andromeda" been announced the rest would be OK, but without a star device, a hole in the presentation was very noticeable.

For the more hardcore Surface fans – myself included – I was happy to see Surface Studio 2, but I'm struggling to get excited for the "new" Surface Pro 6 or Surface Laptop 2. The black color scheme is neat, but hardly a reason to upgrade, and at least for my usage I never had that many complaints about performance with either PC.

Does the lack of a Type-C hurt either device for regular consumers? Probably not, but it wouldn't have hurt to have it either.

There are also smaller bits like no new Surface Dial, why we're back to numbering releases like Surface Pro 6, or why Microsoft still insists on using Marvel for Wi-Fi.

The devil though is in the details with Surface. It's clear Microsoft is going for a more conservative approach where it can deliver a stable, reliable, and delightful experience instead of pushing the extremes or featuring the latest hardware innovations. That's a lesson learned from the original Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 launch where it was burned by adopting Intel "Skylake" way too early.

That safe strategy may not be a bad thing as apparently, it has worked for Apple who rarely jumps at the latest Intel hardware, and we may be witnessing a repeat here. Whether or not customers respond the same way remains to be seen, but at least Consumer Reports is now back on board.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

80 Comments
  • Yup...to this whole write-up
  • Agreed, it's as if I wrote it. Just not as entertaining ;-)
  • Dan, they delivered what you predicted and even a (little) bit more. I'm not sure why you're being so harsh in this article. You weren't harsh in the prediction articles. I agree with what you wrote, as usual though. I really dig the information you and the writers there provide.
  • "Dan, they delivered what you predicted and even a (little) bit more. I'm not sure why you're being so harsh in this article. You weren't harsh in the prediction articles."
    Maybe, but it's all out of love. Even after writing this I know I'll use the new Surface Pro and Laptop 2 and be pretty happy, but I just want to push the Surface team, or rather nudge them in certain areas.
  • That's true about USB-C. A USB-C port has never seen an adapter it didn't like, and it's seen a lot. :-)
    But what about the mini display port? I don't know anybody that uses that without an HDMI converter. If they are sticking with USB-A, then they should have an HDMI out as well.
  • Ironically I do use the display port, but then I'm lucky my 4K monitors have 2 mini and 1 standard display port, among the many ports, though if it had an HDMI I just use a different port and at least it would work in some hotels. The USB-C on the other hand is starting to become an issue for me, granted all my peripherals apart from a Samsung SSD use standard ports, it's charging through USB-C like on the Go, would be very helpful, I have a USB hub with networking, with a removable cable, so I can take it with either my Pro or Go, but if I take my Pro, I have to carry its charger as well as a USB-C charger which can manage all mu other devices my phone, my external battery pack and my wife's Dell XPS 13. To me USB-C is finally hitting prime time usefulness and apart from the limited improvements it's the biggest reason to hold back on a purchase of the new Pro.
  • USB C != Thunderbolt 3 Thunderbolt 3 is what's need for eGPU; Type C is for (1) charging (2) display out (3) data. It's one port that does it all and it's amazing. mini DisplayPort in 2018? Why? Can't charge, can't do data - it's a one trick pony. Even for display out most prefer HDMI.
  • Can you verify this but it's my understanding that all USB c ports aren't the same and that may be one of the issues Ms is trying to avoid now to avoid the support that comes with USB c not being standardized as far as the port and even certain USB c cables in addition to thunderbolt 3 specifications
  • You basically get USB 3.1 with Type-C or Thunderbolt 3; Surface Go is 3.1 with power delivery. It's really not an issue unless Microsoft wants it to be. If you just go TB3 then that's it, there's nothing more at this point and it's backwards compat. But we don't need TB3, can just have 3.1 + PD like Surface Go.
  • Can't there also be 3.0 that's type c?...hold on. Before I finish, I absolutely agree with you as far as the tb3 and everything being backwards compatibility.
    Although I don't agree with ms's reasoning, if this even is the reasoning in the following continuation... If it's possible to also have 3.0 type c, which correct me if I'm wrong, Ms is trying to avoid the incompatibilities and support of devices that use type c but don't play to every spec bc type c can be almost any combo of 3.0/3.1/tb3/power but not data/ power with data/ data no power/ tb3 but no power (guessed on the last one lol be gentle) Am I way off here as far as the possible reasoning? And reminder; like I said, even if this is the reasoning, I think it's weak at best for a premium priced device in Q4 '18
  • Sure, they can have Type-C without power delivery. MSI does this. It's rare, but can happen. Microsoft did not have ANY issue using Type C 3.1 on Surface Studio 2 and Surface Go, so I find the point moot about "confusion".
  • They should add free this Surface Connect - USB-C adapter (power+display+data):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPzE0XuZViU
    I believe even e-GPU is doable this way (see "external" GTX1060 supported via the same Surface Connect in the Surface Book 2), but this need software workarounds to be done by Microsoft.
  • You do a great job, Dan. Constructive criticism.
  • Dan, PLEASE nudge them to make the computer component of the Surface Studio replaceable! It's a terrible waste to spend all that money for that beautiful screen and associated controls, only for the entire unit to get outdated as soon as the core computer is no longer enough. I'd be happy if you could just opt for a pass-through/dock base unit so I could just connect my desktop to the display through it via HDMI/Display Port/etc., and my other peripherals as well.
  • Nailed it. A performance boost is nice. But I will NOT own a device that isn't always connected ever again. Switching to the SPLTE has been the single best hardware decision I've made in years.
  • Thanks for another great article, Dan.
  • Generally agree with this, but LTE is niche, niche and more niche. Stats don't lie and most people just don't use LTE enabled devices tablets and laptops. Also done with the USBc matter for now. I would prefer it, but would place it under the bad and not ugly. It's really more of a charging issue and a cool factor than a real problem
  • "Generally agree with this, but LTE is niche, niche and more niche. Stats don't lie and most people just don't use LTE enabled devices tablets and laptops. "
    You'll see partners in the coming weeks announce even more laptops with LTE options though. It's going from niche/enterprise to mainstream. Also, it forces the question: Is LTE in laptops niche because no one wants it, or because most major Ultrabooks don't even offer the option for it? I find it difficult to claim it's "niche" because it's unwanted when consumers are never even given the choice. That'll change very soon in the coming weeks. Regardless, Microsoft is the one pushing this idea, which means they should be leading on it. I mean, for crying out loud the Surface Go gets LTE, but not new Surface Pro or Surface Laptop 2? Who has the more money to spend on optional LTE - a Go user or Laptop 2 user?
  • It's not widespread because users have to pay a monthly fee to use it. Sure I'd like to have connectivity on a Surface, but I'm not willing to pay exorbitant fees to my carrier to do that. I think that's the #1 think keying most people from doing it.
  • Yes, agreed. Mainstream LTE only makes sense if it's eSIM and easy to buy/set up through the Store. If MS is smart, they'll actually announce it as a feature, start marketing it, and figure out a good way to educate people well in advance of the "big reveal". The whole ultra-secretive mentality they've had the last few years when it comes to Surface/hardware is really off-putting, and in some cases, counterproductive to their long-term goals.
  • If you build it, they will come. It's all in the planning. I grabbed a free third line from T-Mobile during a promotion over a year ago. Threw it in a random LTE device knowing that I would want it for either Andromeda (Still waiting) or an LTE enable Windows device. I just got my SPLTE less than a month ago. I was playing a long game, and most consumers won't be doing that, but the point is that LTE can be obtained in a cost effective manner.
  • "It's not widespread because users have to pay a monthly fee to use it."
    This is nonsense. People didn't want to pay for data on phones either, yet here we are paying $1,000 for smartphones and $80 for data. This is what people who don't understand how technology progresses say. Also, no, your assumption is just that. There's very few mainstream laptops with LTE to test this theory. Pay attention later this month as that's going to change. In 2-4 years all this "No one wants LTE in a laptop" arguments are going to look silly. Y'a'll all behind the times, too busy looking at the current.
  • I would not add an LTE laptop to my Verizon account today because my 2 GB monthly capacity would be used up quickly watching video streams and keeping OneDrive synced. And since I'm in a Wi-Fi bubble most of the time, and can use my cellphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot in a pinch, not having LTE on my laptop(s) is not a hardship. But if in 2 or 4 years 5G becomes cost competitive with Cable/Wi-Fi for home broadband in my area then I'd switch to LTE in a heartbeat on all my devices.
  • That's so true about the Go having better options. Personally, I don't want LTE because mobile data costs too much.
  • Modems and LTE bands change too often. Only makes since to tether to a phone, which you most likely will upgrade more often than a PC. The answer as to why it isn't there is obvious. Plus, 5g is around the corner and it's bands haven't been clearly defined. Please, "pump the brakes" on this need for LTE in laptops kick. It isn't important right now. I have stated before, as long as you can use Hotspot on your phone (that's most likely... Always on your person) the need or as you state "having a choice" will always be niche.
  • Stats don't lie? Sure they do. And they make the grounds for alternative facts and can kill innovation.
    Most people don't use driverless cars either. Most people didn't use tv, they used radio. Kill that noise and move along.
  • @Monte Constable1
    LTE is not niche, it's because the options offered by OEMs are non existent or the offered add-ons are far too expensive. Even more so now when the entire world is literally going mobile, hot desking is now the norm for many places as it's far too expensive to lease large office spaces. So either the office moves to into areas where it's economical but you lose the accessibility in the city along with transport links or the employees go mobile. Companies are choosing the latter and with BYOD pushing IT policy changes greater than before. Corporations are seeing the value of allowing people to bring their own laptops and lock them down with IT policy as it means they don't have to maintain software assurance contracts and purchase new laptops. Which allows them to save and perhaps increase the pay to their staff. So no, LTE is not niche. LTE is more prevalent than ever and with 5G it will be ubiquitious. Lastly, more and more people are using tablets and their phones for work as the youth of yesterday go into employment they are bring their smartphone and table addiction with them lol (another factor why BYOD is picking faster than before). Also the argument that LTE data is expensive is a farce, you guys in the US pay far too much for data. I pay £19 for unlimited LTE, unlimited minutes and texts - the compromise is that the provider has no 2G fall back and has crappy reception inside buildings (due to the LTE frequency band they use) but that won't matter when 5G becomes mainstream.
  • Sorry... And, to be specific...."LTE on a Laptop" or 2 in 1 device is INDEED Niche.
  • Since when is niche an argument against having it as an option? 4K displays were niche up until about 1 year ago...all tech is niche at the beginning. This is not a counter argument, it's just an ordinary observation about technology.
  • Disagree, LTE is not niche. More and more users are requesting this and it kills me that MS didn't come to the table with LTE for the SP6, laptop and the Surface Go. They have had enough time to get these devices to market.
  • It's the S year like iPhones. That's why they didn't live stream it. Still nice to see the refresh.
  • Please don't say anything about the USB-Type C port.
    Here is a detailed article y Microsoft skipped it. (Is Microsoft hurting USB-C?)
    https://mashable.com/article/microsoft-surface-headphones-pro-laptop/#Nq...
  • That's all complete nonsense when you remember that the $399 Surface Go has Type-C. Or Surface Studio 2 has Type-C Or Surface Headphones, which has Type-C. Don't believe PR defense for the reality in front of you. This isn't even about getting rid of Type-A, it's about getting rid of mini DisplayPort - why defend that in 2018?
  • Oct 2019 will be more interesting. I plan on waiting for the Go LTE. I don't need to replace my SP.
  • and don't forget the 950 series windows phones had USB type C YEARS ago.
  • Talking about Holograms, I don't saw any new announcement for Augmented reality support on the CPU's of the Surface Laptop 2 or the Surface Pro 6, maybe the only Surface Devices that officially support this technology are the Surface Book 2 and the Surface Studio, since they got beefier CPU's.
  • Simple: Ban Microsoft products until they introduce USB type-C and announce Surface Andy...
  • Lol I don't think you understand how bans work
  • Then they'd never be able to release anything...
  • Why the lack of mention of intel iris graphics missing from both the surface laptop AND the pro 6? Both are pretty big downgrades, benchmarks shows the the uhd 620 is easily half the performance of the irisi graphics in last years surface devices. Totally unacceptable
  • It comes to thermal limitations. Both the Surface Laptop and Pro 6 are designed to use the 15W U-series Intel processors. As far as I know, these do not utilize the Iris graphics. To get Iris Graphics, MS would have to use the 28 watt U-series Intel processors. That would mean having to re-engineer the internals and / or the entire device. Obviously, that didn't happen this year.
  • I hadn't realized that. Another reason for me to not worrying about upgrading my Pro 5.
  • "Why the lack of mention of intel iris graphics missing from both the surface laptop AND the pro 6?"
    There is no Iris for 8th gen 15W processors. That simple. Same reason why other companies then have to use MX150, which is a whole other can of worms (and easier to do in a laptop than a tablet, but not impossible).
  • It still is worth mentioning for those who don't keep up with all the Intel variations. A bump down in GPU spec should be noted.
  • Definitely agree.
    But on the other hand utilising of Intel Iris Plus Graphic within my SP5 caused spontaneous screen crack due to thermal issues, resulting from the design flaw, and cost me about $500 for replacement (M$ refused warranty exchange). There is a number of SP5 users with the same experience. So, they would also need to solve thermal issues first, what is not the case in SP6 i am afraid.
  • Yooooo!!!!! I swear my sp3 had that happen!!! One day I was using it and noticed this huge crack! Never dropped it and RARELY ever move it from or on my desk. I thought I was tripping! Dan or Zac?!? Can we look into this?! I thought I was the only one!!!!
  • I would think more people are willing to pay a little more on a great phone with LTE as a hotspot then pay more for a laptop with it built in. You only pay for one service and it works just as fast, at least from my experience. I use T-Mobile on my Windows phone and hotspot my Surface Pro 4 with ease.
  • This is not how the future works. This is not how business work. What do companies that deploy laptops to workers do for data - with eSIM you can remotely deploy and manage data on the laptop for work. You can do that right now. With a phone and tether, who pays what data for when? Try managing 50 laptops and 50 employee-owned phones for that headache. So many of you are missing the big picture here of why eSIM is huge for enterprise. I must do a better job.
  • Lol, you're fighting a losing battle Daniel as too many don't read and prefer sound bites - not to mention not many can recall what happened two weeks ago. I blame the smartphone + social media addiction and the rat race of working untill people turn in grey specs of dust. I do think a video about esim would be helpful... albeit for a short time until people forget again haha....
  • Daniel, don't confuse user feedback in a forum with the reality of where mobile computing is going. We may not be there today, this announcement clearly highlights that, but we're heading in the right direction. I'm sure you will agree the HP Envy X2 is a great example of mobile computing done right and it will only improve with each iteration of the Snapdragon 850-1000. eSIM in the enterprise makes so much sense, and that logic extends to the personal space as well.
  • You are spot on Daniel - don't cave. On AT&T you can add a tablet to your data pool (30gb in our family plan) for $10/month. If you are talking about a corporate expense even that is negligible given the alternative in our company's experience - folks don't like the additional inconvenience of tethering so the "just hop on" hotel, coffee shop, or restaurant WiFi hotspot to check their mail (and often their bank accounts, home security camera, you name it) - privacy and security just flushed...
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