Lachlan Smith

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I would love a Surface Mini

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April 02, 2015

With the Surface 3 just announced, talk is back on whether a Surface Mini is potentially in the surface product pipeline.

At 10.8" The Surface 3 is only 1.2" diagonally smaller than it's big brother the Surface Pro 3. That makes the Surface 3 viable as a small laptop, slightly better suited to flying. The limitations of the Atom chipset means the Surface Pro 3 is better for professional users who want to connect multiple displays, run professional software, and run casual games.

The Surface 3 however has some interesting advantages. Most importantly the fanless design means that the tablet remains completely silent. While the Surface Pro 3 remains silent for the most part, the full Windows environment continues to be haunted by rogue software that insists on doing dead work despite not being the foreground application or tab. Web pages are by far the worst, the desktop model of allowing inactive tabs to consume 100% of a CPU core is outdated and causes the Surface Pro 3 fan to kick in on websites with rich multimedia advertising (particularly flash). Hopefully project Spartan with Windows 10 addresses some of these issues as Safari on OS X currently does a much better job conserving energy on the web. The ModernUI version of IE does a much better job but it's inability to run windowed limits it's viability. Win32 software simply needs to do a lot more to conserve energy and not do useless work. This is one advantage of the Windows RT system which had the Win32 API removed.

The Surface 3 also has LTE options announced that the Surface Pro 3 doesn't have which makes it truly useful as a mobile internet device for people who don't have WiFi everywhere and find tethering incredibly annoying.

A fanless, LTE Surface Mini would be perfect. While the Surface Pro 3 is the size of a full size A4 notebook, a Surface Mini the size of a 9x7 (228.6 x 177.8 mm) exercise book with stylus support would be even better, particularly for K-12 education. I propose the following specifications:

  • 9" Display, 3:2 ratio, 1680 x 1120 pixels, 224 PPI
  • Dimensions: 229 x 162 x 8.1 mm (9 x 6.38 x 0.32 in)
  • Weight: 433 g (0.954 lb)
  • Intel Atom x5/x7
  • 2/4 GB RAM
  • 64/128 GB Storage
  • Front & Rear Cameras
  • Surface Pen Support
  • LTE Option

Not just a wild guess on weight. When you compare Surface tablets with the Nexus 9 they are roughly the same density. A sub 1 lb Surface tablet would be a huge selling point for travellers and education use. The Vapour MG chassis is significantly less dense than a similar aluminium chassis lending to a density closer to plastic than aluminium enclosed devices. The biggest hurdle are batteries, and while all Atom x3/x5/x7 processors are rated for the same SDP (scenario design power) of 2 W, the power consumption is then linear with screen area. A 9" Surface Mini would require 70% of the power to light its screen to the same brightness as the Surface 3. We don't know the energy rating of the Surface 3 battery yet so there is no way to figure out how much battery would be required to power a Surface Mini, but I would expect about 25 Wh like in the Nexus 9 and iPad Mini 3. The 42 Wh battery in the Surface Pro 3 is closer to the Macbook Air.

Not as thin as competitors but a realistic estimate. The inbuilt kickstand means the surface can never be as thin as a tablet without one. Going from Surface Pro 3 to Surface 3 Microsoft shaved off 0.5 mm, it would be reasonable that they could reduce by a further 0.5 mm, mostly in reduced material thicknesses due to the smaller size. The bending moment will be lower enabling designers to reduce the section modulus by reducing glass thickness, and Vapour Mg chassis thickness. I have a feeling a lot of weight was taken of out the Surface 3 kickstand already, leaving only room for material thickness reductions in going to a smaller tablet.

Still differentiated from other Windows Tablets. There are a lot of other small windows tablets, even a few with a Wacom digitizer. These small windows tablets currently all occupy the smaller than 8" space, many closer to 7". The creep in screen size of netbooks shows that 7" screens aren't very popular, so a 9" screen is perfect. Even Google thinks so with the Nexus 9 (8.9"). With the 3:2 ratio screen, a 9" Surface would still be more useful than a 10" 16:9 aspect netbook being 2.3 mm taller to reveal more content.

Still large enough for a type cover. The Surface Type Cover interface is 228 mm wide, with the indent in the tablet only 201 mm wide, at 229 mm wide a Surface Mini could support a Type Cover. The keys would need to be smaller, but would still be able to provide a comparable typing experience to a 9.8" iPad keyboard at 240 mm width (except can be used on an airplane due to USB rather than Bluetooth connection), and superior experience to a 7.9" iPad mini keyboard. The trackpad experience would degrade as it too would be smaller, but the touchscreen makes up for this. I made a mock-up of what such a type cover would look like (dimensions in millimetres).

Bbcode image

Small enough for a tri-fold cover. Some people may want to supplement their Surface Pro 3 with a Surface Mini, in this case a type cover may not be necessary and a cheaper tri-fold cover option could be made available.

More airplane friendly. The Surface Pro 3 is almost too big to comfortably use in short haul economy seats. I expect review units for the Surface 3 to tell the Surface 3 story but I feel it's no better or worse due to the fixed positions of the kickstand. A Surface Mini has the potential to be much more usable in an economy airline seat.

The software is not ready. It is my opinion that with a surface this small you will want Windows 10 and the touch first edition of Office to make the most of using the device primarily as a tablet, and not a laptop as most people use the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft needs a device that is in the tablet first space, and I think a Surface Mini is that device, but it needs the software support from inside Microsoft in the form of Windows 10 and Office need to catch-up first. Lots of business people have spent good money on trying to draw on their iPad Mini in board rooms around the world. A Surface Mini is the device that can not only find it's place comfortably in the classroom, but also in the board room.

Would it be good enough for Photoshop? Yes, the Australian government gave year 9 NSW students Thinkpad X130e laptops with Celeron 857 processors, 4 GB RAM and pre-loaded with the full Microsoft Office and Adobe CS software suites. The Celeron 857 has a Geekbench 3 score of 1021 single core (1863 multi core), The Surface 3 has a Geekbench 3 score of 1009 single core (3430 multi code), Intel Atom x5-Z8300 only has a Geekbench 3 score of 766 single core (2227 multi core). Meaning that for multi core use such as Photoshop an Atom x5 will be faster than the Thinkpad X130e. For single core use such as Microsoft Office, no observable difference should be felt by the user (or maybe faster due to flash memory).

Will it be good enough for ____ game? The answer is probably not if it's not really old and you didn't download it from the Windows Store. But would you want to play crisis on a 9" screen anyway?

I think a 9" Surface Mini is an interesting space Microsoft could investigate that Windows OEMs aren't currently invested in, but with some competition in the Android landscape, and the 9" size makes it a better competitor to the Apple iPad. While the 10.8" Surface 3 will be decent, it doesn't compete in the 10" and under tablet space in terms of ultra-portability. The 8" and under tablet space currently dominated by Windows OEMs are saturated and there is no quality offering between 8 and 10" with pen input and LTE options that Microsoft could capitalise on. And as for price, let the marketing people worry about that, but knocking $100 off the Surface 3 starting price to $399 USD would be competitive with Google and Apple offerings.

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