Next-Generation Surface: What To Expect12:00 PM EST Mon. Sep. 02, 2013
There is little doubt Microsoft is readying a take-two of its Surface tablets. Nvidia confirmed it's working with Microsoft to build the next Surface tablet, and sleuths at AdDuplex are seeing telltale signs of a next-gen tablet on its network called "Microsoft Corporation Surface 2."
But if a Surface 2 is going to succeed, it's going to need to radically shed its image as an overpriced flop.
But Microsoft can't just squelch the trash talkers with a bigger Surface 2 marketing budget with more tablet-toting dancers. It needs to best its competition with unique capabilities, better hardware that gives people a reason to pass over the iPad and an army of Android tablets.
So how can Microsoft right the tablet wrongs that led to a $900 million Surface writedown for the company? There is no shortage of Surface 2 clues from Microsoft partners, not to mention Microsoft itself.
Microsoft has not officially said it's working on a Surface 2 tablet, so there is no official launch date. But reports hint that Microsoft's big Surface 2 unveiling will align with the official release of Windows 8.1 to consumers on Oct. 17. That's when Surface will be revealed with general availability by the holiday buying season. There is also a report, from NPD DisplaySearch, that the Surface 2 production volumes won't ramp up until the first quarter of 2014 to coincide with an official general availability date.
There also may be a revealment of the next-gen Surface capabilities as early as Sept. 26. That's when Nokia is expected to launch its "Vanquish" Windows 8.1 tablet at a New York press event, according to reports from Windows Phone Central.
The flop that was Surface RT will be back. Since Surface RT's inception, the ARM-based tablets have filled an important niche for Microsoft, allowing it to compete against an army of Apple and Android tablets. Those other tablets run power-sipping ARM processors and are immune to the crapware, viruses and piracy issues that plague the x86 Windows ecosystem. For that reason, Surface RT is still a good pick (in theory) for companies that want to lock down the user experience and, at the same time, give them access to Microsoft Office applications on a tablet.
And if there were still any doubt behind Microsoft's commitment to RT, ZDNet put them to rest in July, when Mary Jo Foley quoted Brian Hall, the general manager of Surface marketing, as saying to her: "Microsoft is 100 percent committed to Surface RT, and Windows RT going forward and has no plans to drop work on either product."
Despite better chip options that could include Intel's higher-performance Bay Trail Atom and Haswell x86 energy-efficient chips, Microsoft is reportedly working with Nvidia to power the next-generation Surface RT 2 tablet. Nvidia's CEO Jen-Hsun Huang spilled the beans to CNET stating, “We're working really hard on" Surface 2. He added Surface RT 2 will still be powered by Nvidia’s Tegra 4 SoC.
But Bloomberg, citing people knowledgeable with Microsoft's plans, said Qualcomm's Snapdragon ARM-based processors have been tapped to run on a number of Surface RT systems. Picking Qualcomm -- whose chips enable so-called LTE, or long-term evolution, wireless connections -- would give Surface RT much needed wireless broadband capabilities.
The next Surface model will come in a number of different sizes following the lead of Apple and Android tablet makers, who all have full and pint-sized versions of their tablets. According to NPD DisplaySearch's analyst Richard Shim, Microsoft will release a 7.5-inch display/tablet with a pixel density that bests the Apple Mini with 1,400-by-1,050 resolution.
The Wall Street Journal reported in April that Microsoft plans a new lineup of Microsoft tablets, including a 7-inch model, citing sources within Microsoft. DigiTimes is reporting a Surface 2 model with a 9-inch screen. The consensus: Surface shoppers want more than one size to choose from.
Pricing speculation is all over the map, but none of the pricing reports suggest the Surface will be inexpensive. NPD DisplaySearch, which has said it has the inside scoop on Surface 2 production, said Microsoft will release a 7.5-inch Surface 2 Mini with a starting price of $400. By comparison, the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 both start at $330.
One thing we do know is that consumers are very price-sensitive when it comes to tablets. If Microsoft wants to compete with its less expensive rivals, it won't stand a chance unless it can bring prices down.
Perhaps Surface's biggest downfall is a lack of killer apps to woo iPad and Android tablet owners over to Microsoft. The good news for Microsoft is, it knows software. The bad news is, Microsoft can convince a meaningful number of developers to port existing apps and create new ones for its Windows RT and Windows 8 platform.
According to a CNET interview with Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, the next version of the Surface will include Outlook. That's in line with other reports that Microsoft is prepping a touch-friendly version of Office, code named "Gemini," that includes the Modern UI interface so users can ditch the desktop.
The ability to run Windows apps in Surface's desktop gives Microsoft a unique edge over Apple and Android. But in a smaller form factor (a Surface mini) running Word or PowerPoint becomes less ideal. The idea of, once and for all, porting its Office suite to a Metro-Style UI would help give a next-gen Surface RT mini some much needed oomph.
There is a growing consensus that Microsoft needs Intel's power-sipping Haswell processors in its Surface tablets to help it shore up its weak spots -- power and performance. It may also be a no-brainer, considering Intel's fourth-generation Core iX Haswell processor is already doing well in a number of tablets and convertibles.
The Haswell chip would allow Microsoft to make the case that the Surface Pro 2 is a laptop replacement (considering how many laptops run Haswell chips). Couple Haswell's power efficiency with the fact that the fanless chip would allow for a bigger built-in battery inside a tablet's tiny chassis, and you come a long way to fixing Surface's lacking battery life.
For Windows users that loathe Microsoft's IE browser, Surface Pro will be able to browse via a new touch-friendly version of Google Chrome and a Metro-ized version of Firefox that will sport a tiled "Modern" interface.
The Firefox 26 version is slated for release Dec. 10, according to Mozilla, the open source community developing Firefox. The touch-ready browser will be designed to run in the Windows 8.1 tiled interface as opposed to the desktop. As of now, there are no plans to bring Firefox 26 to a future Surface RT model. Microsoft bars third-party developers from accessing the Surface RT's desktop mode.
Google Chrome on Surface and Windows 8 touch devices has been hampered by the browser's lack of touch support. But recent alpha builds of Chrome, called Canary, bring touch functions to the browser, allowing users to navigate with swipes, and pinch and zoom. Chrome already runs in Windows 8's Modern UI. Meanwhile, there's been no word on support for the Surface RT.