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Microsoft Launches Surface Pro 8, Laptop Studio, Go 3, Duo 2

Microsoft resurfaced the Surface division Wednesday with a number of refreshes, launches, and updates. The Surface Pro 8 was announced, as expected, with support for 120Hz refresh rates, user-replaceable SSDs, and Thunderbolt 4 ports. This is the first major redesign for the Surface Pro family since the Surface Pro 3 eight years ago. The system now more closely resembles the Surface Pro X, including the use of that machine’s 3:2 form factor. The screen resolution has also been very slightly bumped, from 2736×1824 to 2880×1920.

The new Thunderbolt ports. The Surface Pro 8 keeps Microsoft’s proprietary power connector.

The Surface Pro 8 will use 60Hz refresh rates out of the box rather than 120Hz, likely in a bid to keep battery life reasonable. The Surface Pro 8 is compatible with both the Surface Slim Pen and Slim Pen 2, but it’s no longer compatible with Microsoft’s older line of keyboard covers. If you still have covers from the Surface Pro 3 through the Pro 7, you’ll need to replace them with the Surface Pro Signature Keyboard.

Upgradeable storage. M.2 2230 drive shown.

The Surface Pro 8 is still Intel-only, but Microsoft has refreshed the platform with Tiger Lake hardware and a maximum of 32GB of RAM, up from 16GB max on the old Surface Pro 7. There’s also a new 4K rear camera. Microsoft is claiming up to 16 hours of battery life for the new platform.

The Surface Pro 8 starts at $1,100 for a machine with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage, but the keyboard is $180 and the Surface Slim Pen 2 is $130, though you can buy both for the low, low price of just $280.

Surface Laptop Studio

Microsoft’s major new device unveil at this year’s event was the Surface Laptop Studio, which is intended as a replacement for the Surface Book. Instead of a detachable screen, the laptop’s display can pull forward and tent over the keyboard or fold down into a tablet form factor.

The Surface Laptop Studio is available in a single 14.4-inch screen size that splits the difference between the Surface Book’s 13.5-inch and 15-inch form factors. It has a display resolution of 2400×1600.

The Surface Laptop Studio is much heavier than the Surface Book, but Microsoft isn’t using the additional weight for cooling, evidently. Like the Surface Pro 8, the SLS tops out at a quad-core CPU — Microsoft clearly isn’t looking to push the envelope in terms of performance per lb.

The SLS continues one characteristic of the Surface Book family and offers the option to buy a low-end Nvidia GPU as an alternative to Intel Xe graphics. In this case, the GPU on offer is Nvidia’s RTX 3050 Ti with 4GB of VRAM. This is fine for gaming in 1080p at the moment, but ray tracing and higher-end gaming will be out of reach.

One major change common to both the Surface Pro 8 and the Surface Laptop Studio is the ability to swap the SSD Microsoft ships via a user-accessible port in the back of the system. This is a great feature to see Microsoft include, but there’s a caveat. While the interface is standard NVMe, Microsoft has opted for M.2 2230 drives, not the M.2 2280 drives that are much more common on the PC market.

A quick glance at stores shows that M.2 2230 drives are harder to come by and tend to be smaller than M.2 2280 drives, as you’d expect. They also sometimes carry a price premium for larger sizes. This is still a positive improvement compared to not being able to fix hardware at all, however.

Microsoft also announced a Wi-Fi-only model for the existing ARM-powered Surface Pro X, with no other changes. Anyone considering a Pro X in 2021 should be aware that the platform is still using a Microsoft-branded Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx that wasn’t terribly fast when it was announced in 2019. While the 8cx does offer eight cores, it emphasizes battery life, not performance. This is useful, however, if you want a lightweight system without paying for a modem you don’t intend to use.

Surface Go 3

Visually identical to the Surface Go 2, the Surface Go 3 offers a marginally faster CPU in the form of the Pentium Gold 6500Y. There’s one Ice Lake CPU available now in the Surface Go 3 — a Core i3-10100Y. It is not clear how much of a difference the faster CPU makes in the Surface model. Relative performance over time will be determined by how effectively the system is cooled as much as by any objective performance characteristic.

The Surface Go 3 remains a tough sell. Its basic configuration offers a relatively anemic 4GB of RAM and just 64GB of storage, and you can’t buy more than 128GB in the system, total. MicroSD is available for additional storage, but microSD storage performance is a fraction of what NVMe provides. Also, the SSD on this model is not user-replaceable.

The Surface Go 3 might be a reasonable system if you have a handful of lightweight tasks that you know won’t change over the lifespan of the device, but the specs are woefully underpowered for any other use case.

Surface Duo 2

Finally, there’s a refreshed version of the Surface Duo, the Surface Duo 2. We can’t even mock Microsoft for redundancy; Intel had “Core 2 Duo,” and the arguably more confusing “Core 2 Quad” for several years. The Duo 2 will feature an improved camera, faster SoC (Snapdragon 888, up from Snapdragon 865), NFC, and 8GB of RAM. It’s barely thicker — 5.5mm per half — and the OLED panels are now slightly larger. The display is 8.3 inches measured across the diagonal, compared with 8.1 inches for the Surface Duo. Microsoft appears to have narrowed its bezels rather than embiggening the hardware, and the OLED panels now support 90Hz refresh rates.

There’s now a spine display that allows you to see a few pixels of screen for notification purposes when the device is closed. Other foldable devices tend to offer a second display on the exterior of the device for this purpose, but the Surface Duo doesn’t. This change should help address that weakness.

All of this sounds nice, but the largest complaints around the Surface Duo focused on its buggy software, how few applications took meaningful advantage of its dual screens, and its large, cumbersome form factor. The most interest we’ve seen in Surface Duo was a few months back when it was demoed running Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming beta and folks realized it was the closest thing to a portable Xbox Microsoft had ever built. Nothing about the Duo 2 seems to address the fact that the hardware doesn’t fit the typical Android usage paradigm. In order to make the Duo attractive, Microsoft has to build software for it or entice third parties to do the same. So far the company hasn’t addressed that weakness.

All of the x86 systems announced today are Intel systems; Microsoft did not refresh the Surface Laptop. On the whole, it’s a reasonable set of improvements for the Surface line. Microsoft is obviously betting on a new form factor to carry the Surface Laptop Studio forward. We’ve seen other manufacturers experiment with odd display configurations before without much coming from it long-term, so we’ll see if the SLS proves to be a trendsetter.

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