Next Up for Microsoft: New Hardware

Posted on May 7, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware with 0 Comments

Next Up for Microsoft: New Hardware

After two straights weeks of mammoth Microsoft conferences—the developer focused Build 2015 in San Francisco last week and the inaugural Ignite 2015 in Chicago this week—my mind is of course turning to the next big thing for the Redmond computing giant. And while there are certainly more trade shows—’tis the season, after all—and major software releases to come, the biggest questions I have about Microsoft’s 2015 are about hardware.

Microsoft has gone to great lengths to explain that the “mobile” part of its “mobile first, cloud first” mantra is really referring to the mobility of experiences, and not to devices and other hardware. But for all its successes in software and services, Microsoft is also a hardware maker. It has a killer family of keyboards and mice, of course, and you’d probably have to travel deep into the Amazon to find someone who hasn’t at least heard the word Xbox.

But I’m not all that worried about keyboards, mice or Xbox consoles and accessories. Sure, we’ll see a number of updates there this year, including, I believe, an Xbox-branded TV tuner card with DVR capabilities for North America. But for the first time ever, Microsoft has—or will soon have—a complete hardware portfolio. And some of the biggest entries in that portfolio aren’t even available yet.

With that in mind, here’s what I’m expecting and hoping to see Microsoft deliver throughout the rest of 2015, along with some conjecturing about specific hardware configurations, availability, and pricing.

Surface Pro 4

Surface Pro 3 was the first truly successful Surface device and it will define how Microsoft moves forward with subsequent devices. You see that influence in Surface 3, obviously, but Surface Pro 4 will be even more familiar—perhaps even almost identical from a form factor perspective—thanks to Microsoft’s August 2014 promise to make the next Surface Pro compatible with all existing accessories, including the Surface Pro Docking Station.

There are a few ways a Surface Pro 4 can and should differentiate from its predecessor. The most obvious is to offer hardware that is unique to Windows 10, including a Windows Hello-compatible front-facing camera. I’d like to see a second USB port as well, of course.

But there are other questions around Surface Pro 4, of course. The first is whether it will utilize Core i3/i5/i7 processors or a Core M, the latter of which could conceivably lead to a fanless/silent device. I have no insider information about this coming device, but I would be surprised if Microsoft put a non-Pro processor in Surface Pro 4, unless it was just as an entry-level option. So my bet is on the Core-i range of processors.

As for availability, all signs point to a release that is semi-concurrently with Windows 10, so an announcement roughly one year after that for Surface Pro 3—i.e. anytime now—actually does make some sense.

Surface Mini

Few people understand how close Microsoft came to making a colossal mistake last year: It actually built about 1000 Windows RT-based Surface Mini tablets, intending to give them out to reviewers at a May 2014 launch event. (Indeed, Surface Pro 3 was originally conceived as the less interesting device for that launch.) But Satya Nadella and the senior leadership team voted to kill the product at the last second, leading to disappointment in some circles and hope that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft will revive the project.

I think it makes sense to do so, but only if the device can be priced below Surface 3, just as Surface 3 is priced below Surface Pro 3, giving the Surface lineup an obvious series of pricing tiers. This means Windows 10-based, Atom-based, and a price range of perhaps $350 to $500 with an optional Pen and (non-keyboard) cover. It’s doable.

The only question is whether Microsoft will bother. But with the firm is trying to position Surface as a premium brand, I think a $400-ish Surface Mini makes accomplishes that in a market of $200-ish Windows mini-tablets. Plus, it would make Microsoft’s biggest fans very happy.

So will they ever do this? Honestly, I don’t believe so. So I’ll file this one under wishful thinking. I can dream.

Lumia

For a year now, Microsoft has pushed a bewildering array of low-end Lumia smart phones, plus a handful of truly excellent mid-range phones—the Lumia 730/735, Lumia 830, Lumia 640 and Lumia 640 XL—which hint at the greatness we can expect from new flagships. Folks, 2015 is the year. And while we will absolutely see more low-end and mid-range Lumias this year, the flagships are coming.

The timing is easy enough: Microsoft has publicly stated that new Lumia flagships will run Windows 10, not current versions of Windows Phone. And when you consider that Windows 10 Mobile—for phones and small tablets—won’t ship until after Windows 10 for PCs, and the long-standing schedule for fall Windows Phone releases, I think October/November is about right.

Carrier availability is of course the issue, as always. I have no information about that, sorry.

As for the phones themselves, we have rumors, credible rumors, of at least two devices. In keeping with the 640/640 XL convention, which Microsoft and its fans seem to like, these devices will likely be branded as the Lumia 940 and 940 XL, and can be thought of as replacements or upgrades for the Icon/930 and 1520, respectively. Both will have nearly identical internals—64-bit Qualcomm processor, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage with microSD, and 20 megapixel PureView cameras—so the big difference is the screen: a 5.2-inch unit on the 940 and a 5.7-inch version for the 940 XL; both will be QHD displays, meaning a resolution of 2560 x 1440.

One can and should expect these devices to have Continuum for phone compatibility, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t provide front-facing cameras with Windows Hello support.

Surface Hub

I already wrote about Microsoft’s amazing new Surface Hub devices in Hands-On with Surface Hub, so check that out for the full details. The questions here are “when?” and “how much?”

As for when, Microsoft says it will ship Surface Hub in calendar year 2015, but I’d expect that to mean the second half of the year.

Pricing is a gray area. Predecessors to Surface Hub, including the original Surface table and the Perceptive Pixel displays, were quite expensive, and I expect Surface Hub to follow suit. There are two models coming, a monster 84-inch version with insane specifications and a slightly more pedestrian 55-inch version with a 1080p screen. PPI displays were $100,000 or more at launch, but Surface Hub can’t hit that level of pricing. I am curious to see where they hit.

HoloLens

After an exuberant, immersive experience with HoloLens in January—see Hands-On with Microsoft HoloLens—I was disappointed in the narrow field of view in the shipping hardware, as described in Hands-On with (a Near Final) Microsoft HoloLens. So was everyone else, by the way. So I expect Microsoft to at least make small improvements to the field of view before it ships this device to the public. (What it really needs is a “Pro” version with a much bigger, welder-style front-lens to be truly immersive, but whatever.)

Future versions will let Microsoft minimize the hardware size and improve the experience, but this will never be something you walk around with outside—a la Google Glass—unless some serious miniaturization happens. It’s an indoor device that will be used in a single room.

As with Surface Hub, I expect HoloLens in the second half of the year. And while I don’t expect the device to be prohibitively expensive—maybe $500 to $1000 or so—I would also be surprised to see Microsoft selling this in boxes in Best Buys and other retailers. In this 1.0 form, HoloLens needs to be sold with a partner who will provide software, services and support for vertical markets like real estate, architectural, and the like. It’s no game machine—well, aside from Minecraft perhaps—and isn’t something that can compete with VR headsets like Oculus Rift.

Long story short I expect Microsoft to use the Microsoft Band approach and stage the rollout of HoloLens so that only those with the greatest need will even have access to the device at first.

Microsoft Band 2.0

Yes, Microsoft is working on a second Band. No, I don’t know anything about it, and I have to sort of think that the firm intended its array-laden initial Band release to serve as an inspiration of sorts for other hardware makers that could then also connect to Microsoft Health.

The current Band has issues, and while some can be fixed via software—proactive “get up and exercise, you load” notifications most obviously—others, related to size and bulk, and battery life, cannot. I spent the past week wearing Microsoft Band on one wrist and a Fitbit on the other, and aside from the disconcerting differences in reported activity, the biggest differences were quite obvious: Fitbit is smaller, lighter and less obtrusive, and it can go a week on a charge. I need to charge Band every day, or every 1.5 days if I put it in Do Not Disturb mode.

So I expect to see a thinner and light Band 2.0 in time for the holidays. I’d like to see it come in under the current pricing of $200 as well–$150 seems about right—but that’s just me hoping for the best.

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