Microsoft has confirmed that its Surface 3 tablet, already in short supply, is in the process of being phased out. Microsoft will stop distributing the device by December at the latest, with no word yet on whether the company will replace its lower-end Surface hardware. In a statement sent to press, a Microsoft spokesperson said:
Since launching Surface 3 over a year ago, we have seen strong demand and satisfaction amongst our customers. Inventory is now limited and by the end of December 2016, we will no longer manufacture Surface 3 devices.
The original Surface RT and Surface Pro were announced just over four years ago, but neither was a smash hit out of the gate. The Surface RT was built on an underpowered Nvidia Tegra 3 and Microsoft badly flubbed its messaging on how its ARM-compatible version of Windows differed from its x86 counterpart. Surface 2 offered much-improved performance courtesy of Nvidia’s Tegra 4, but it was Surface 3 that returned the lower-end Surface platform to the x86 arena, courtesy of Intel’s x7-Z8700 SoC. That chip offers a base clock of 1.6GHz, a 2.4GHz base frequency, two LPDDR3-1600 memory channels, and a Scenario Design Power (SDP) rating as low as 2W.
Of the three non-Pro Surface tablets, the Surface 3 was by far the best-received of the bunch, which makes Microsoft’s cancellation with no word of a successor a bit of a surprise.
The Surface 4 SoC conundrum
Normally, Microsoft would continue adopting Intel’s lower-end Atom SoCs for Surface devices while relying on a mixture of Core M and Core i3/i5/i7 parts for the Surface Pro or Surface Book families. Intel’s decision to cancel its smartphone and tablet products undoubtedly threw a wrench into these plans, and it’s not clear what alternate hardware Microsoft could even use.
Surface 3, without its Type Cover. Small tablets need small CPU cores.
Intel doesn’t provide TDP figures for its Atom Z8700 family and it doesn’t give SDP ratings for its Core M hardware. The lowest TDP configuration for current Core M chips is 3.5W — respectably low, but not a useful point of comparison since we don’t know how the two metrics relate to each other. Intel’s list prices, on the other hand, are a matter of public record — and the $281 price tag on a Core M is far above the $37 list price for an Atom SoC. You can say good-bye to x86 2-in-1’s at $400 – $500 price points if OEMs have to move to Core M processors.
AMD doesn’t appear to have anything that would fit Microsoft’s needs, either. The company made a few overtures to the tablet market several years ago but never seriously tried to enter the market. An updated version of AMD’s Puma+ SoC built on 14nm might have been able to address this space, but AMD decided not to update its cat cores past the 28nm node (at least, not in the PC space).
Rumors suggest that Microsoft might have held off on updating the Surface family this year so it can launch new hardware alongside its next major Windows 10 release, codenamed Redstone 2 and expected to arrive in early 2017. Redmond’s options for a new Surface 3 successor, however, will still be quite limited. It can opt for Apollo Lake and accept higher power consumption, but the increased thickness and noise wouldn’t play well with consumers and Microsoft isn’t going to launch an ARM-only Surface 4. Keep in mind, all of this discussion applies only to the standard Surface family — Microsoft is expected to update the current Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 later this year or early next.
The simplest path for Microsoft to take would be to kill Surface 3 outright, keep iterating on the Surface Pro family, and let third-party OEMs like Dell and Asus handle the lower-end of the market. It would be disappointing to see the lower-end Surface line die just after it finally found secure footing. Unless Intel is willing to build custom hardware for Microsoft’s relatively limited needs there may not be a replacement solution on the market.