The future of Microsoft Surface: What to expect from the Surface Pro 4

Just over ten months ago, Microsoft launched the Surface Pro 3 in New York City. While the first two generations of Surface tablets were undeniably clunky, the SP3's clean lines and bright, forceful design have carved out a niche in the 2-in-1 market that no other manufacturer has matched. Read our Surface Pro 3 review.

Yearly version updates are inevitable, but I suspect that Microsoft doesn't plan to overhaul the Surface Pro 3 radically. In fact, here's what I think Microsoft may do: release an "updated" SP3 with an ultra-low-power processor in the near future, then reveal a significantly redesigned Surface Pro 4 in the autumn to coincide with the launch of Windows 10.

Microsoft made a dramatic leap from the Surface Pro 2 to the Surface Pro 3.

As for upgrade specifics, it's just a matter of connecting the dots – and for clues we look to Intel, not Microsoft. Intel touts its fifth-generation, 14-nm Core chips (aka "Broadwell") as drop-in replacements for the earlier 22-nm "Haswell" chips inside the Surface Pro 3. This suggests Microsoft could update the existing Surface Pro 3 cheaply and with few engineering tweaks.

Intel's redesigned Skylake chips, due this fall, should require new motherboards. This presents a good opportunity for crafting an entire new generation of Surface tablets – whose central selling point, I believe, could be a suite of apps built on Windows 10, depth cameras, and services like Microsoft Hello.

What's new in the Surface Pro 4?

Before we delve into the flashy new features, let's look at battery life, one of the most critical specs for any mobile device. I'll take a Surface Pro 3 over a MacBook Air any day, but even the most loyal fan must concede that the MacBook Air still handily outpaces the SP3 in terms of battery life – and even more so with Apple's updated MacBook. 

But with Intel's Broadwell chip, Microsoft has a chance to close the gap. Intel says that its Core M chip can extend battery life by an additional 1.7 hours compared to a system powered by the Haswell-based Core i5, the chip that powers the mid-range Surface Pro 3. Intel's new "Cherry Trail" Atom chips extend battery life even further.

In our own processor-intensive battery tests, the SP3 lasted about 4 hours, although you'll get more life if you limit yourself to light web surfing and office work. Still, Apple says that the new MacBook can last 8 or 9 hours, so Microsoft could use some extra oomph here. That might come in part from the smaller Broadwell processor module, which requires about half the space as the Haswell chip. Who knows, Microsoft might be able to leverage extra space for a larger capacity battery.

If I were Microsoft, I'd announce the "refreshed" Surface Pro 3 near Microsoft's Build conference next month, and smile coyly and serenely when journalists ask about the upcoming "Skylake" processor.

Behind the scenes, however, I'd also have my engineers busily redesigning the Surface Pro lineup in anticipation of the next Intel processor, Skylake, and the wire-free future Intel believes in.

Say Hello to the Surface Pro 4

It's important to remember that Skylake represents a new Intel architecture, not a process shrink. Instead of significant reductions in power, Intel is promising to overhaul the entire PC experience by eliminating wires: replacing ethernet with 802.11ac, ditching power cords for wireless charging, and even including LTE support for connecting on the go.

Microsoft already markets a number of wireless charging accessories for its Lumia phones, but I'm not entirely convinced that a Surface will ever include that feature. Consider the geometry: A Surface tablet is generally propped at an angle, while wireless charging works best when the tablet lays flat against the charger. 

Regardless, I think the truly killer addition in Surface Pro 4 will be a depth camera. It's the key ingredient to Microsoft's vision of computers that recognize us via sight and sound.

Depth camera are already part of other tablets, such as this Dell Venue 8 7000.

You may already be familiar with depth cameras if you've been following Windows 10. The new OS will include Microsoft Hello, a friendly name for the biometric technologies that have already appeared on Apple's iPhone, Samsung's Galaxy phones, and other handsets. Hello uses either a fingerprint reader or infrared depth camera to "scan" your face, identifying yourself to the computer. From there, Windows validates your identity to Microsoft services, and around the web.

For Surface Pro 4, Microsoft could explore a number of different depth camera options. It could opt for a version of the camera found in Kinect for Windows. It could also use Intel's RealSense 3D camera, a version of which is already embedded  inside the Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet. Microsoft execs have also told PCWorld that they can use existing Webcams to achieve the same effect.

If I were Microsoft, I'd be tempted to launch a revamped Surface Pro 4 around the launch of Windows 10 this summer. If Microsoft were to launch a refreshed Surface Pro 3, however, that would jam all those Surface releases right on top of one another. Instead, I'd ship a refreshed Surface Pro 3 "designed for Windows 10" before the Windows 10 launch, and wait a few months to announce a Surface Pro 4 that's "optimized for Windows 10," perhaps to coincide with the the beginning of the fiscal year in October.

And I'd also introduce a key hardware tweak: I'd finally slot the Surface stylus inside the chassis, Galaxy Note-style. It's a simple convenience that's long overdue.

New services for the Surface Pro 4

If consumers accept Hello as a way to avoid using passwords – and while some undoubtedly won't, I expect most will – Microsoft can seize that user interest by adding related authentication services. We already know that Microsoft's Cortana assistant will listen attentively for spoken commands. But Hello's ability to identify and verify you have larger implications: Imagine ordering your Surface Pro 4 to "Buy now" while browsing an Amazon page, for example.

Keep in mind that everything I share above is just crystal-ball prognostication. While Windows 10 will be everywhere at Microsoft's Build conference, we don't know for sure what Microsoft's hardware teams have planned.

But Microsoft's announcement of Hello and the addition of the RealSense depth camera in Dell's tablet fills me with confidence that eventually the Surface line will include such a camera. And if you think the Surface Pro 3 embodies what a great tablet should be, then look out – an even better one is coming.

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