What can we expect from Microsoft’s Surface smartphone
If Microsoft does release a Surface smartphone in 2013, as reports suggest, then what will it be like?
During the past two months we've heard numerous reports about Microsoft's desire to release a Surface-brand smartphone during the first half of 2013. As rumours go this one is pretty juicy – but it also makes a lot of sense.
Microsoft is said to be already testing out smartphone designs with component suppliers in Asia, according to the Wall Street Journal, with a view to getting something to market inside the first two quarters of next year.
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop has officially welcomed the move, suggesting an official Microsoft smartphone would do wonders for the Windows Phone brand, and perhaps even bolster sales for other players within the ecosystem, too.
As of Q3 2012 Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 owned just two per cent of the market, placing it well behind Android (75 per cent) and iOS (17 per cent).
With Windows Phone 8 Microsoft is looking to remedy this by ramping up its presence within the space over the next 12 months. The company aims to secure third place in front of RIM by the close of 2013.
Doing this will require the wholesale adoption of Windows Phone 8 by consumers en masse – a trend many analysts don't see happening any time soon. But could a Surface smartphone change all this? Perhaps. But it will depend on a lot of factors.
Here’s our take on what the Surface smartphone could be like.
Without any leaks it’s almost impossible to speculate about what the Surface smartphone might look like other than the fact it'll be rectangular, have a display, and can be placed inside your pocket.
Microsoft is reportedly testing multiple designs, which could mean multiple handsets at varying price-points or multiple versions of a single handset. Either way, details are pretty scant in this respect, although a singular device seems most likely at this stage of the game.
That said, judging by the build-quality and choice of materials used on the Surface RT it’s fairly safe to assume that a Surface smartphone, should one ever appear, would be a seriously premium affair no doubt derived from the same materials and production processes as the Surface RT slate.
Conclusion: premium-grade materials, slim chassis, constructed using advanced production processes.
Keeping up with the Jones’ dictates that all high-end smartphones require an HD display of at least 4.3-inches. Thanks to the advent of Android larger display sizes, particularly 4.3-inches and increasingly 4.7-inches, are now the norm – much to the dismay of Apple.
In terms of display resolution, the upper limit of Windows Phone 8, as dictated by Microsoft, is WXGA (1080x800 pixels), so it’s unlikely that Microsoft would launch a handset with a display setup unlike one we’ve already seen.
Generally speaking we’d expect to see some kind of LCD panel used on the Surface phone with a minimum pixel density of around 300ppi . Microsoft could also opt for an SLCD3 display like the one found on HTC's J Butterfly, which is currently only available in Japan.
Although an SLCD2 setup is most likely, in our opinion, as it keeps things simple. And being a first-generation device, Microsoft will want to hold some things back.
Conclusion: either a 4.3-to-4.7-inch LCD setup with a pixel density around 300ppi. An overhauled version of Microsoft’s ClearType HD is also a potential, although its inclusion may depend on what display technology Microsoft goes with.
Windows Phone 8, unlike its previous iteration, Windows Phone 7, now supports multicore processors, opening up a myriad of possibilities for gaming and multitasking. So far we’ve seen plenty of dual-core offerings from HTC, Nokia, and Samsung. But we’ve yet to see a quad-core variant.
Could the Microsoft Surface smartphone be the first handset to use Qualcomm’s ultra-powerful Snapdragon S4 Pro processor?
This would give Microsoft an edge over other players in the ecosystem and Qualcomm’s new chip is expected to become increasingly dominant in Q1 2013, which is exactly when the Surface phone is expected to land.
We’ve seen the S4 Pro in action on a Qualcomm developer tablet and were suitably impressed with what we saw. Initial benchmarks taken at the chipset's launch in the US revealed it to be something of a monster, leaving absolutely everything else well and truly in its wake.
Conclusion: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset is a potential. Failing that the handset will use Qualcomm’s still excellent dual-core S4 Snapdragon setup.
Imaging is a tricky one, particularly with Nokia and its PureView technology already in the space, and could go one of two ways:
1. A standard 8-megapixel setup, similar to what we’ve seen from HTC and Samsung
2. Or something a little bit more impressive like the shooters we’ve seen on recent Sony and Nokia releases.
We think Microsoft will keep imaging nice and simple and use a basic 8-megapixel setup with LED flash and 1080p video recording. Hardcore camera tech, despite being very cool, is still very much a niche – as well as costly – feature on the vast majority of smartphones.
Case in point: how many people do you know that care about PureView? Not to mention the fact that it bulks handsets up considerably, and consumers like their phones thin.
Conclusion: 8-megapixel setup with dual-LED flash and 1080p video recording capabilities.
Here’s a list of potential extras we’d like to see Microsoft utilise inside its Surface phone:
- Wi-Fi Direct – better P2P file sharing between devices.
- LTE – wider support for 4G in the UK across Vodafone and O2’s upcoming networks.
- NFC – great for playing music and sharing content to supported-devices, such as speakers.
- SD-support – just because Windows Phone 8 supports it and having more storage is always better.
- Wireless charging – still very much in its infancy, but a cool feature all the same.
- Bluetooth 4.0 – introduces a wealth of improvements over version 3.0, such as the ability to maintain a constant connection whilst doing additional tasks.
Why a Surface Phone makes sense
Although we’ve speculated heavily about what a Surface phone might entail above, not much is known about the device at present, but a bespoke smartphone from Microsoft does make a lot of sense when viewed in the correct context.
Microsoft has stated officially that it plans on making more hardware in the future, which could mean more tablets, such as the rumoured 7-inch Xbox Surface slate, or a Surface smartphone. Perhaps even both.
Initial sales of the Surface RT tablet have been modest, but success in a new space always takes time – unless, of course, you’re Apple.
Securing success in both the tablet and mobile markets will require heavy investment from Microsoft, and that can't just come via marketing spends. Hardware is the key here and Microsoft knows this – hence the Surface RT and forthcoming Surface Pro.
To be a true player in the mobile space Microsoft, like Apple and Google before it, will need to release a handset – one that’s designed in-house, used by Microsoft staff, and could be priced aggressively in order to capture valuable floating consumers in a similar fashion to what Google has just done with its Nexus 4.
Then there’s Microsoft’s constantly evolving ecosystem, which now includes everything that Apple and Android does - music, video and cloud, as well as a little bit more: Office, top-notch security, wireless streaming and deep integration with existing Windows-powered hardware.
Basically when it comes to the Surface phone it’s not a case of whether Microsoft will release one. It’s more a case of when.
If current reports are to be believed it’s looking likely that Microsoft’s first Windows Phone 8-powered handset will land in the first half of 2013, perhaps even as the poster boy for the first significant update to the platform.
We're officially excited by the prospect of this device. And you should be too!