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Microsoft arms Surface Pro 9 with Qualcomm SQ3, 12th-gen Intel chips

Plus, the Surface Laptop drops AMD, Studio arrives with an even higher price, and more

Ignite Microsoft put a coat of polish on its Surface line this week, including its third-generation tablet powered by an Arm-based CPU.

During a virtual presentation Wednesday, coinciding with its Ignite conference, Microsoft showed off five new Surface devices, including two Surface Pro tablets, a pair of Surface Laptops, and a revamped Surface studio.

The launch also marks the end of Microsoft’s Arm-powered Surface Pro X as a distinct product. Instead, Redmond’s ninth-gen Surface Pro can be had with either an x86 Intel 12th-gen Core or Evo processor, or a 5G-equipped Arm-compatible SQ3 system-on-chip (a customized Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 developed with Qualcomm).

The Intel-based systems come with either a Core i5 1235U or a Core i7 1255U CPU. Both feature 10 CPU cores and 12 threads and a base TDP of 15W. However, according to Intel’s documentation, the chips can be run up to 55W under load. Surface Pro models with 256GB or more of storage also feature Intel’s Xe graphics.

Microsoft offered little detail on its Arm-based SQ3 chip, apart from talking up its neural processing unit (NPU), which the Windows giant showed off accelerating real-time noise reduction, AI upscaling, and background blurring effects in Microsoft Teams calls. What we do know is the chip features an Adreno 8cx Gen 3 GPU, indicating the SQ3 is essentially a tweaked Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 notebook processor family.

The SQ3 also appears to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, more power efficient than Intel’s chips. Microsoft is claiming the Arm-based systems can achieve up to 19 hours of battery life, while the Intel systems are said to top out at 15.5 hours.

SQ3-equipped Surface Pro 9 may have an efficiency advantage, but it’s hampered by more restrictive configurations and a higher starting price to boot. The Intel-based systems can be equipped with up to 32GB of LPDDR5 memory, 1TB of NVMe storage, and Thunderbolt 4 ports. By comparison, Microsoft’s Arm-based systems are limited to just 16GB of LPDDR4x memory, a maximum of 512GB of NVMe storage, and standard USB-C ports.

Beyond that, this year’s Surface Pro is a pretty standard aluminum and glass affair with a 13-inch 2,880 x 1,920 120Hz display. That chassis appears largely unchanged from last year’s Surface Pro 8, with the exception of a new front-facing speaker and microphone array.

The Surface Pro 9 is available October 24 starting at $999 for the Intel-based model or $1,299 for the 5G-equipped Arm model. And as always, don’t forget to factor in the added cost of a Surface Type Cover.

Surface Laptop 5 now in sage green

The Surface Laptop line also received a modest update this fall, which included a new sage-green color and an upgrade to Intel’s 12th-gen Evo processors.

The Surface Laptop 5 uses the same 10-core 12th-gen i5 and i7 processors as found in the new Surface Pro 9, and Microsoft claims the chips are 50 percent faster than the outgoing Surface 4. However, battery life actually appears to have declined from the 19-hour claim of last year’s AMD-powered Surface Laptops.

Speaking of AMD, Microsoft has purged the chip designer from its Surface lineup this generation. For several generations now, customers have had the choice of AMD Ryzen or Intel-based Surface Laptops. However, it appears that won’t be the case for the software giant’s 5th-gen notebook.

Customers will also be disappointed to discover that despite Microsoft Teams emerging as a leading collaboration suite, thanks in no small part to the pandemic, the Surface Laptop still doesn’t have a 1080p webcam. For that, you’ll have to spring for one of Microsoft’s 2-in-1s.

Microsoft digs deep in parts bin for Surface Studio refresh

Finally, after years of waiting, Microsoft has breathed new life into its Surface Studio all-in-one. And by new, we mean they crammed a bunch of old parts into a $4,499 system and tacked on a couple of Thunderbolt ports.

Dubbed the Surface Studio 2+, the system features a 28-inch touch screen with a 4,500 x 3,000 pixel display that’s hinged for use as a graphics tablet. Meanwhile, the compute hardware is baked into the base of the system.

As well as showing off its Surface kit this week, Microsoft kicked off its Ignite developer conference on Wednesday, with a bunch of cloud security initiatives, and claims to have launched more than 100 services and updates to its products and online services.

"AI is the ultimate amplifier," said CEO Satya Nadella in an opening address at the event. "It's going to change what an application looks like, what the design language of an application is and how it gets built and how it gets delivered. We are committed to making the promise of AI real for you and doing this responsibly."

On a more practical basis, announcements included:

  • A limited preview of the DALLE-2 image generator in Azure and plans to integrate it with its Designer app
  • An expansion of Microsoft's Intelligent Data Platform for developers, with MongoDB and Yugabyte DB getting on board
  • Expanded app development support for Teams
  • A Places app for managing hybrid-remote offices
  • Shared tabs within collaborating teams via Edge Workspaces
  • And Teams Premium, with live translations and other features, due to arrive this February.

On the topic of compute hardware, the Surface Studio 2+ spec sheet suggests Microsoft actually intended to launch this machine last year, but may have been hampered by supply chain challenges. The machine is equipped with an older quad-core Core i7 11370H and a 6GB Nvidia RTX 3060 mobile GPU. The machine comes standard with 1TB of NVMe storage and 32GB of DDR4 memory. In fact, as of publication, that’s the only configuration Microsoft is offering.

For fans of the Surface Studio, that’s still a respectable upgrade over the seventh-gen i7 and GTX 1060 powering the Surface Studio 2. Plus the inclusion of Thunderbolt ports — a feature Microsoft inexplicably avoided until just recently — means customers who do shell out the 4.5 grand for the machine now have an upgrade path for high-speed networking, storage, or an external GPU enclosure.

On the topic of Microsoft’s premium Surface products, one machine that didn’t get an upgrade is Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio, which was introduced at last year’s fall Surface event. ®

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