The Fall of 2012 saw the release of the first Surface devices, the Arm-powered Surface RT. It’s perhaps apt that a decade later Microsoft is rolling out one of its biggest updates to the Surface range, with new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop hardware, along with an updated Surface Studio and a selection of accessories to extend Surface to new users and the world of hybrid work.
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Here come the Surface Pros
Last year’s Surface Pro 8 introduced a new design for the Surface Pro family, still offering the same kickstand-based 2-in-1 build but with a thinner body and more rounded sides, much like the Surface Pro X. The Pro 9 continues this design, swapping in a set of 12th generation Intel processors with Thunderbolt 4 support (Figure A).
Where things really change is the addition of a new processor type to the Surface Pro family, Microsoft’s own SQ3, based around Qualcomm’s 5G Snapdragon. This means that there’s no need for a separate Arm Surface; it’s now just another version of the latest iteration of that original Surface RT design. By making this choice, Microsoft is putting Arm and Intel at the same level and treating them as equals.
This time round, too, there are new colors (Figure B), including Forest, a rather attractive green. Sadly, you don’t get colors with the Arm version, which is only available in Platinum. Every now and then Microsoft does something slightly different with Surface, and this year it’s working with London-based design store Liberty to produce a laser-etched version of the Pro 9 using Liberty’s well-known floral designs. It’s matched with the same pattern on a keyboard, using the same shade of blue as Windows 11’s Bloom logo.
Intel-based devices get the option of 8GB, 16GB and 32GB of DDR5 memory, with Arm only offering 8GB and 16GB of DDR4. Both get the removable SSDs introduced with the Pro 7+ and Pro X, again with four options for Intel, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB and 1TB, and three for the Arm, with a maximum of 512GB.
The SQ3 processor in the Arm Surface Pro 9 SKUs is a pointer to Microsoft’s vision of an artificial intelligence-infused Windows. Its built-in neural processing unit is used to deliver computer vision-based camera extensions that frame pictures for you, correct gaze positions in video chats and automatically blur backgrounds without overloading your device. The NPU in the SQ3 certainly adds plenty of power to the chipset, clocking in at over 15 trillion operations a second.
As well as an NPU, the SQ3 includes Microsoft’s security processor Pluton, tying in with Windows 11’s enhanced hardware security features. This should allow enterprises to experiment with the new security tools, while still supporting existing secured core security features on Intel-powered hardware.
There’s no difference in weight between Intel and Arm versions, with both coming in at 1.94 lbs. If you get the 5G version with support for mmWave, it’ll weigh a fraction more thanks to the extra antennae needed to work with the additional frequencies.
A tweak or two to the Surface Laptop
The fifth generation Surface Laptop keeps its wedge design, with 13.5″ and 15″ options (Figure C). Like previous versions it mixes USB A and C ports with Microsoft’s own Surface Connect and is perhaps best thought of as an incremental upgrade to a reliable platform, which Microsoft’s Panos Panay calls “our most loved Surface.”
The biggest changes here come under the hood by adding 12th generation Intel processors and Thunderbolt 4 support. Moreover, Microsoft has made the surprising decision to drop AMD from this generation, even though AMD’s latest processors include its Pluton security processor.
Fresh life for Surface Studio
Surface Studio’s big screen all-in-one format proved popular with designers and artists, with its signature 28″ screen folding down to a desktop drawing board. That same design gets an update in Studio 2+ (Figure D), with a more powerful processor and graphics processing unit.
It’s now built around an Intel 11th generation i7 and an NVIDIA GeForce 3060, giving it a similar specification to the Surface Laptop Studio. That’s not to say it’s not powerful, as it shares its DNA with Microsoft’s flagship laptop, giving it 50% more CPU power and twice the graphics power of the original Surface Studio 2.
If it had picked up a 12th or even 13th generation CPU, the Surface Studio would have deserved a bump from Surface Studio to Surface Studio 3. But, as it’s using an older processor, giving it an interim designation makes sense, much like how the Surface Pro 7+ sat between the Pro 7 and the redesigned Pro 8. It’s still a unique device, remaining a worthy alternative to devices like Wacom’s Cintiq.
Alongside the new Surfaces, Microsoft is finally shipping its adaptive accessories—a set of mice, joysticks and buttons that can be customized with printable accessories (Figure E). Like the Xbox adaptive controls, these will help open up computing to a wider audience, providing a framework that helps anyone who can’t use a traditional keyboard and mouse.
More new accessories are targeted at hybrid work, with an Audio Dock and the Teams-focused Presenter+ remote. These should help anyone working from home, with the Audio Dock offering high quality meeting audio and all the ports you’re likely to need and the Presenter+ controlling slides and meetings.
Not only hardware
Microsoft may be showing off its hardware today, but it’s not forgotten that it’s very much a software company. Along with the new Surfaces, it’s unveiling new design applications, starting with a new member of the Microsoft 365 family: Microsoft Designer (Figure F). Built on top of Open AI’s DALL-E 2 AI service, it allows you to type a few prompts and generates a design, adding and changing as you add new prompts and edit old ones. If you’ve used the Designer tool in PowerPoint, you’ll find the tool familiar, as it builds on it as a stand-alone application.
Interestingly, Microsoft is planning on building Designer into its Edge browser and into its Bing search engine, so you can create images and publish them online without having to change tools. Designer will start as a web-based preview, with a limited set of tools. It’s intended to evolve, eventually launching as a free tool with premium features for Microsoft 365 subscribers. Alongside these tools it’s also launching a Microsoft Create website to curate templates and tools for all of its various design tools, including Office and the ClipChamp video editor.
Microsoft is using a custom DALL-E 2 dataset to reduce the risk of Designer, and the associated Bing Image Creator, generating inappropriate content. It will apply filters to the prompts used, blocking sensitive topics. Outputs are as important as inputs with AI, so at the same time it’s going to be monitoring results for biases and adding more diverse images to the service training dataset. Microsoft learned a painful lesson from its Tay chatbot and is working to make sure that won’t happen here.
With a mix of software for designers and a batch of new Surfaces, Microsoft is showing that it is a platform for creatives and creators, while using AI to help the rest of us take advantage of its design tools. With AI everywhere and NPUs in the latest Arm Surfaces, there’s more than a hint of things to come in the air this fall.
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