Is a smaller Surface tablet about to land? That’s the word on the street, and with Microsoft’s Surface revenue increasing more than 50% during the first quarter of 2014 (according to its latest financial report), it would be make sense to build on that momentum with a new model soon.
That said, no new Surface is guaranteed success: Microsoft is still sore from writing off $900 million of unmoved Surface RT stock back in 2012, and new CEO Satya Nadella will be keen to avoid repeating Ballmer’s missteps.
One area where a Surface Mini could excel that’s been central to the product line’s appeal is productivity. From the start, all Surface tablets have come with excellent keyboard accessories, a chunk of free OneDrive cloud storage and a free copy of Office Home & 2013, giving any new product a platform to build on.
No small task
But let’s not get carried away: Microsoft still has its work cut out, and then some. A need to diversify the Surface product line to include devices smaller than the current 10.6-inch category is important for the company to remain competitive.
Apple has enjoyed a lengthy head start with its iPad Mini and iPad Mini 2 with Retina tablets, which now run the Microsoft’s capable Office for iPad suite. Even Microsoft’s own hardware partners including Acer, Toshiba and Dell and Lenovo have been putting out 8-inch devices running full-fat Windows 8 for almost a year at a price that by far undercut even the cheapest Surface on the market.
The question is: what areas will Microsoft focus the Surface Mini’s strengths? Will it go down the predicted productivity route, or could it throw a curveball by outing a miniature rottweiler of a gaming and general entertainment machine?
Surface Mini release date
Just when will you be able to clasp a cold hard Surface Mini in your palms? In short – we don’t know – but after almost a year of guesswork, the rumors are getting louder.
A date of May 13 reared its head after an Amazon product listing for a Surface Mini appeared online. Posted by electronics wholesale Vostrostone (VSTN), the listing, which is still online, says that the case has "Specifically designed cutouts for Microsoft Surface Mini tablet". Whether it’s the real deal is yet to be seen, but it certainly sounds convincing.
The Surface Mini was widely expected to land by the end of the 2013 to launch in tandem with the Surface 2, but was pushed back to 2014 due to a combination of business strategy and supply chain issues, according to Neowin.
Surface Mini specs
Microsoft’s more powerful Surface tablet, the Surface Pro 2, is a little thicker than the Surface 2 due to housing higher-powered Intel Core-series chips, so it would take some feat of engineering to pack similar power into an even smaller, more portable Surface.
As such, it’s more likely that the Surface Mini will pack an less powerful Intel Bay Trail CPU, which would allow it to run full-fat Windows 8.1 without being a bloater. That’s a likely possibility in the view of Chinese website WPDang, which reckons an ARM-based version running Windows RT may also be in the works.
Surface head Panos Panay kept us guessing by saying that the division is working on devices with "multiple aspect ratios and sizes", opening the possibilities to a Surface device with a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is used by Apple’s iPad range. All of Microsoft’s Surface tablets have so far featured a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is more suited to multimedia and gaming in landscape mode.
When rumours of a Surface Mini first emerged from the mill, talk centered around the possibility of a seven-inch Xbox Surface tablet. According to a leaked document, the new tablet would be 1280 x 720 pixel resolution, which seems a little low considering competing eight-inch devices have offered a slightly higher 1200 x 800 pixel-resolution throughout the past year.
Surface Mini software
In term of software, will the Surface Mini run full-fat Windows 8, or its much-maligned cousin, Windows RT? Many will be hoping for the former, but we’re not brave enough to completely rule out a return of the operating system that seemingly refuses to die. (Hey there, Nokia Lumia 2520.)
Whichever version of Windows it rocks, the Surface Mini is reportedly going to land as a note-taking device, according to Neowin, which reckons that it’ll come with proper pen support using something like the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2′s Wacom digitizer.
It’s also possible that the Surface Mini could take advantage of the Xbox’s Kinect-like motion capture tech. Sure, Windows 8′s Charms and touch-sensitive commands work better on smaller devices, but they’re no substitute for a keyboard and mouse, and the ability to control the OS using your limbs may go some way to helping out.
According to WPDang, the Suface Mini will track face and hand movements using gesture-based controls similar to those found on the Samsung Galaxy S4, which will let you swipe through screens using your hand movements and dims the screen when not being looked at.
Surface mini price
It would make sense for Microsoft to follow Apple’s lead by pricing the Surface Mini at a lower cost than its larger Surface models, much as the Cupertino-based company did with the iPad Mini.
Eight-inch tablets running Windows 8 initially hovered around the £340 mark but have dropped considerably in the past year. Acer’s Iconia W4 now costs in the region of £240, and Dell’s Venue 8 Pro starts at £249, and Lenovo’s Miix 2 starts at the same.
The good news is that even if Microsoft does load Windows 8 onto the Surface Mini, it won’t likely be doing so at a premium (compared with Windows RT). The company announced in April that it’ll be offering Windows 8.1 with devices under nine inches for free, which means you won’t be paying a premium to experience full-fat Windows.