Can Microsoft’s Surface PCs get out of their rut?

I’m not sure when I found myself expecting disappointment from Microsoft’s PC hardware. Maybe it was when the Surface Pro X arrived with a gorgeous design, but a woefully undercooked Windows-on-Arm experience. Or perhaps it was when the company gave up on the intriguing dual-screen Surface Neo, following the underwhleming launch of the Surface Duo (effectively killing the Courier concept twice). I do know that last year’s Surface Pro 9 5G — an Arm-based PC that had no business wearing the “Pro” badge — was the last straw.

Even though Microsoft managed to make the dream of a hybrid tablet PC come true, the company’s Surface business has been in a rut for years. And, really, there’s not much hope in sight.

Perhaps that’ll change once we see Microsoft’s latest batch of devices during its New York City event on Thursday. But given that this week kicked off with Surface mastermind Panos Panay leaving the company, there’s a good chance there won’t be much to get excited about. The most recent batch of rumors, via DigitalTrends, suggest we’ll see a (much-needed) Surface Laptop Studio 2, Surface Laptop Go 3 and Surface Go 4 unveiled this week. We’d also expect to see the requisite Surface Pro updates with Intel’s most recent hardware, without much of a design refresh.

Former Microsoft executive Panos Panay demonstrating the Surface Pro 3.

STAN HONDA via Getty Images

Microsoft kicked off 2023 by admitting that Surface sales had tanked during the 2022 holiday quarter, which dovetailed with a massive decline in the broader PC market. Since then, the company has been noticeably quiet about its device plans. In contrast, Apple has been steadily refreshing its computers with its latest M-series chips, and it made a huge splash with the Vision Pro, a bid for spatial computing and mixed reality that’s far ahead of what the HoloLens 2 offers.

Part of Microsoft’s problem is that the initial pitch for the Surface — a tablet that can be your laptop! — just seems tired now. In 2012, it was honestly exciting to see Microsoft kick off an entirely new PC form factor. The company managed to turn the Surface Pro tablets into devices we could recommend, and it spurred on PC makers to develop their own hybrids. But at the same time, ultraportable laptops got lighter and more powerful. Why bother juggling a flimsy keyboard and kickstand on your lap when you could be far more productive on an XPS 13?

It didn’t help that Windows never became a truly tablet-friendly operating system. The Surface was developed with Windows 8 in mind, but users hated the Start page and the shift away from the traditional desktop. Windows 10 was a hasty apology for all of Windows 8’s mistakes. Since then, Microsoft has treated touchscreens as an afterthought, always secondary to the holy keyboard and mouse/trackpad.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

While I enjoy the flexibility of using touchscreens for scrolling and doodling on Windows laptops today, I wouldn’t be caught dead using the Surface Pro 9 without its keyboard. Windows tablets also don’t make much sense when the iPad and cheaper Android tablets exist. Both Apple and Google are also pushing to make their platforms better for general computing and multitasking. That’s effectively taking the opposite approach from Microsoft: Turning tablet platforms into PCs, rather than trying to shove Windows into slates.

Industry observers agree that Microsoft may have to reconsider its PC strategy. “I think Surface needs to get back to its roots and consider what is the ultimate Windows experience for hardware and software on a PC,” said Anshel Sag, Principal Analyst at Moore Insights and Strategies. “I think that definition has changed with the growth of AI.”

For Microsoft, going back to its roots might involve a stronger push into Windows on Arm compatibility. The company has made significant progress since the disastrous Surface with Windows RT, but using last year’s Surface Pro 9 5G made it clear the experience could be better. Emulated apps like Chrome were noticeably slower than typical Windows PCs. “It doesn’t really feel like Microsoft has taken this [Windows on Arm] challenge seriously until maybe a year or two ago,” Sag said. “Now it has, but it’s undoubtedly behind, and I think that’s going to cost its OEM partners and growth potential.”

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

It’s also hard for Microsoft to generate much excitement around its devices when it consistently stumbles with new releases. The Surface Laptop Studio was a genuinely cool attempt at crafting a more powerful Surface with a tilting screen, but it was underpowered due to its quad-core CPU. (It was also meant to replace the Surface Book, another concept that died because Microsoft became trapped by its design decisions.) The Surface Duo was a potentially more sturdy dual-screen concept than a true foldable phone, but software and performance issues held it back. (Its sequel wasn’t much better.) Samsung, meanwhile, managed to transform its Galaxy Fold from a nearly unusable beta to something we actually like.

Instead of expecting to be delighted by Microsoft’s PC and mobile hardware, I’ve learned to expect compromise and heartbreak. To its credit, Microsoft has churned out some hardware that can appeal to mainstream shoppers. The Surface Laptop is still a fetching ultraportable, and the Laptop Go was a noble attempt at crafting an inexpensive-yet-premium laptop. But the whole point of the Surface was to change the face of computing. Microsoft can’t manage that if it keeps getting in its own way.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at 

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