Recently, I purchased a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I’d been looking for a lightweight, powerful computer that could go with me everywhere, and despite its year-old age and lack of current processors or forward-looking things like USB Type-C, the Surface Pro 4 beat out the other options that have come out this year for my needs. A killer Black Friday deal pushed me over the edge and here I am typing on the Surface Pro 4 right now.
The Surface Pro is a very good mobile computer: it’s light, thin, fast, and versatile. Microsoft has also addressed many of the bugs that were present when I reviewed it at launch over a year ago, making it a reliable machine as well. I’ve used it everywhere from the train to the office to my couch.
But while the Surface Pro is very good right now, it could be great with just a couple additions: longer battery life and integrated cellular connectivity, whether that’s LTE, 5G, or beyond. Mobile professionals will tell you that a perfect mobile computer can last all day away from an outlet and can get connected to the internet no matter where it is, without having to rely on Wi-Fi access or using a hotspot from another device.
The Surface Pro could go from very good to great
Today, Microsoft dropped the news that it will soon enable the full Windows 10 operating system and all of its legacy apps to run on ARM-based processors — essentially the same chips that are in your phone. ARM processors offer a different set of benefits compared to the x86 Intel chips every Windows laptop uses now — most notably better power efficiency and integrated cellular connectivity.
A Surface Pro with an ARM processor could potentially alleviate my two major issues with the current product: its battery life and lack of cellular connectivity. ARM-based tablets such as the iPad or Google Pixel C can go days between charges; I’m lucky to get through half a day with my Surface Pro. It’d be wonderful if my Surface Pro could do the same as those other tablets while still giving me a full Windows 10 experience.
Integrated LTE would let me get connected to the internet quickly and easily no matter where I am, and it wouldn’t require me to bogart my phone’s data connection (and battery life) to do so. Consumers might not be willing to pay for a second data connection on their PC or tablet, but when it comes to getting work done, mobile professionals definitely are.
Doubling down on the Surface Pro as Microsoft’s “ultra mobile” option would make a ton of sense given that Microsoft now has an ultra-powerful computer in its lineup with the Surface Book. I could easily envision a product lineup split between the Surface Pro for mobile professionals running on ARM processors and the Surface Book for those with more powerful needs running on Intel’s latest chips.
Of course, this scenario depends greatly on just how good Windows 10 is on ARM. Microsoft released a video demonstrating the full version of Photoshop running in Windows 10, which is promising, but doesn’t totally prove to me that everything will be great in practice. It’s important that the Pro doesn’t leave the Surface Pro: it needs to be just as fast and nimble and powerful as it is now. It also needs to be able to push external displays without skipping a beat — one of the joys of using the Surface Pro is getting to my desk and plugging in my giant 34-inch monitor and continuing my work unimpeded. (Try doing that with your iPad Pro.)
Microsoft does not have a great history with Windows on ARM
Further coloring this story is Microsoft’s poor history of both Windows on ARM and Surface computers with integrated cellular. The awful Windows RT and Surface RT was the company’s first effort to get something running on mobile processors and it was hampered by poor performance and dire lack of applications that would work on it. The Surface RT was so bad that it very nearly tanked the Surface line entirely. It’s worth noting that this new effort is different: unlike RT, which was a different platform entirely, Microsoft is now promising that that full-fledged Windows 10 and all of its legacy apps (via emulation built directly into Windows 10) will work on devices running ARM chips. (There are concerns with emulation itself as well, just ask anyone that tried to run PowerPC apps on Macs when Apple switched over to Intel processors and the nightmares that ensued, but my hope is that Microsoft has worked to mitigate issues with it.)
Microsoft has released Surface computers with integrated LTE in the past, most recently the Surface 3 that was available from Verizon in the US. But the Surface 3 was distinctly not pro: it had a smaller display than the Surface Pro 3 and ran on Intel’s weaksauce Atom processors that provided a pretty lousy experience doing anything intensive.
That history aside, I’m hopeful that Microsoft’s new effort with ARM and mobile processors is more than just a play to finally make the smartphone a full PC, as my colleague Tom Warren pointed out. I hope that Microsoft (and its partners) is able to see how the platform could make the Surface Pro the ultimate mobile computer, the one that I’ve been asking for for years.
Mobile professionals are begging you Microsoft, make it happen.