Microsoft is pushing its new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book as premium devices, an excellent strategy that should take some more steam out of Apple’s momentum in the PC market. But for premium devices, Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are missing a few premium and forward-leaning features. And the most problematic is USB-C.
Other premium hybrid PCs, like Google’s Pixel C and Pixel Chromebook, use USB-C as an all-in-one expansion port that can, with the proper dongle adapter, provide power, video-out, and even storage expansion. New high-end phones, including Microsoft’s Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, likewise use USB-C in a hybrid fashion: Using a Continuum dock, these phones can drive video-out up to 1080p and multiple USB peripherals (keyboard/mouse/storage), all while powering the device.
So why doesn’t Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book include a USB-C port?
For starters, USB-C is more forward-leaning than anything, as none of us actually have any USB-C peripherals. Instead, what we have are USB 2 and USB 3 peripherals, which use a larger and non-reversible plug. If you’re using a system with a USB-C plug (like the 2015 MacBook), you will need to pay for and travel with a separate USB-C converter to use these peripherals, and pray you don’t lose it. On a Pixel Chromebook, Google offers both kinds of ports, which I think is the right choice.
With Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, Microsoft is offering a single USB 3 port, as with previous Surface Pro devices. But the new Surface Dock doesn’t offer USB-C either.
Part of the reason for the omission that it doesn’t need USB-C to power Surface: Microsoft uses a proprietary power connector, now called Surface Connect, which also acts as an expansion bus for the devices. On Surface Pro 4, the Surface Connect port is used for power, using the same power connector that debuted with Surface Pro 3. And it is used to connect Surface Pro 4 to the Surface Dock. With Surface Book, the Surface Connect does triple-duty: It is how the tablet/screen part of the device connects to the keyboard/battery base. It is for power, via the keyboard base (using the same power plug as Surface Pro 3/4). And it can be used to connect to Surface Dock.
Because of Surface Connect, a big piece of the USB-C solution stack is not necessary on Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. And even USB-C-based devices, like Lumia 950 and 950 XL, will still connect to either Surface just fine, because those devices ship with USB-C to USB 2/3 cables; the USB-C to USB-C cable for the Continuum dock is specific to that peripheral (and comes with it).
But I still think that not having this port available is a mistake.
As some have argued, USB-C is future-proof, and many storage peripherals coming in the next year will be based on this standard. More to the point, perhaps, adding USB-C would show that Microsoft “gets” it. USB 3 is the present, as we all have USB 3 peripherals, but it’s also the past. With Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, Microsoft is bringing the thunder. But without USB-C, it’s just a distant thunder.
And to be clear, I don’t think that Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book should replace USB 3 with USB-C. I think Microsoft should simply add a USB-C port right next to the USB 3 port on the devices. And add two or more USB-C ports to the Surface Dock.
It’s the right thing to do. Sadly, it won’t happen until Surface Pro 5, Surface Book 2, and Surface Dock 2.