Microsoft Expands Surface Lineup; Announces Updates to Windows on Arm

This week the Surface Team at Microsoft announced a new, more affordable notebook called the Laptop Go and an update to the Qualcomm-based Surface Pro X. The former fills a gap in the company’s lineup and is going to appeal to many buyers. The latter reaffirms Surface’s commitment to Windows on Arm and will take advantage of several software updates the company also announced this week, including new and updated native apps and new 64-bit x86 emulation capabilities.

Expanding the Lineup
The Surface team has had a monumental year and a very busy Fall. Back in September, they announced the Surface Duo, its category-launching, Android-running, dual-screen having re-entry into the don’t call it a smartphone, smartphone. I’ve had the privilege of using that product at length, and it’s made a believer out of me in terms of the utility of a two-screen mobile device. Similarly, last year’s Surface Pro X helped cement my long-held belief that there is a place in the market for Windows on Arm. This week’s new hardware does not usher in any new categories but is monumental, nonetheless.

The Surface Laptop Go starts at $550 and includes a 12.4-inch touchscreen display, an Intel 10th Gen i5 processor, up to 16GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. It comes in three colors (Ice Blue, Sandstone, and Platinum) and supports One Touch sign-in through Windows Hello and a Fingerprint Power Button. I’ve long been a big fan of the design of the existing Surface Laptop, now on version 3, which starts at about $960. The new Laptop Go brings many of those same design sensibilities to a lower price point. And like the Surface Go detachable—which brought to market a lower-priced Surface tablet—I expect the Surface laptop to appeal to a wide range of buyers and to ship in notable volumes.

With the Laptop Go, Microsoft is attempting to bring the Surface brand downward into the mid-priced market without tarnishing its premium status. It pulled it off with the Surface Go, now in version 2, and starting at $399, and I expect it to do it here, too. We watched Apple do something similar with the launch of its $399 iPhone SE, which I suggested might just be its most important iPhone launch of the year.

Microsoft’s timing of the Surface Laptop launch bodes well, too. As I noted earlier this year, as COVID-19 swept the globe, the first technology product many people, companies, and schools moved to purchase was the PC. That resulted in a blockbuster second quarter, and all signs point to the just-completed third quarter as being similarly robust. We should see those strong volumes carry into the holiday quarter, even as the world continues to contend with the pandemic and the resulting economic hardships. All told, it seems a very sensible time to launch a well-designed but affordable notebook product into the market.

Focus on Windows on Arm
In addition to the Surface Laptop Go, Microsoft also announced an update to its flagship tablet, the Surface Pro X. The first Pro X launched last October, leveraging a custom processor Microsoft partnered with Qualcomm to design called the SQ1. This year’s refresh offers an update to that processor, called the SQ2, as well as a new platinum exterior finish option. The new device slots in at the top of the Surface Pro X lineup with a starting price of $1,500, while the existing Matte Black version 1 with the SQ1 chip remains in the lineup with a starting price of $1,000.

The updates to the Surface Pro X line will appeal to buyers looking for the best performance they can get from an Arm-based Surface. But perhaps more important was the news that dropped just before the Surface announcement, which was that Microsoft was bringing a host of improvements to the broader Windows on Arm platform and its supporting apps. Chief among them: Plans for an updated version of the Edge browser it promises will run faster and use less battery and a new native Microsoft Teams application. Finally, starting in November, it will roll out support for 64-bit x86 emulation to the Windows Insider Program. That last part is incredibly important, as to date the platform has only supported emulation of 32-bit Windows apps. That lack of 64-bit X86 emulation left out many modern desktop apps. This support, which will roll out widely next year, could be a game-changer for the platform if the performance of those apps is good.

With the updated Surface Pro X and the upcoming enhancements to the Windows on Arm platform, Microsoft clearly affirms its plans to support the platform going forward. To date, industry support for Windows on ARM has been tepid at best, with Lenovo being the only other major PC OEM to consistently ship products utilizing Qualcomm’s newest PC parts. However, as Apple moves to ship its first Macs using Arm-based Apple Silicon later this year, I can tell you that the broader PC industry is watching closely. With these improvements to the Windows on Arm platform, Microsoft makes it much more compelling for these OEMs to move to support it with new products down the road.

And those same OEMs will also be watching closely to see how both the updated Surface Pro X and the new Surface Go Laptop perform in the market during the all-important holiday quarter. Over the years, Microsoft has built up an impressive portfolio of devices that spans form factors, technologies, and price points, silencing anyone who doubted the company’s commitment to hardware. With these latest products, Microsoft expands its lineup again, positioning Surface for a big holiday quarter and continued growth into the new year.

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Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

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