We have reached the middle point of 2016, and amid gloomy news of Microsoft's ailing phone business and the company's ambiguous intentions in the mobile space, there is still one bright beacon of hope for the iOS and Android-averse: the Surface Phone. While there have not been any official confirmations from Microsoft about the phone's existence, the internet has been rather adamant: after all, the Surface line of hybrids are so successful, so exquisitely constructed, that it would make no sense not to have a phone of all phones bearing the moniker in this mobile day and age, right?
Only the future can tell. In the meantime, let's look at the rumors surrounding Microsoft's secretive handset.
Visual appearance probably ranks pretty high on people's list when it comes to mobile devices, with the likes of Apple and Samsung championing the design-focused approach to creating stunning handsets. Sure enough, there have been plenty of so-called "leaks" and speculations surrounding what the Surface Phone will look like. Images have ranged from a heavily Lumia-inspired design:
...to something that's essentially a resized version of Microsoft's Surface line of 2-in-1s:
One thing that's in common in all of these concepts and rumored designs is that they always heavily borrow elements from Microsoft's existing hardware lines--perhaps understandable, given how distinctive and recognizable Microsoft's design has become. The Lumia design has always been a standout from the crowd of screen-on-slab, and Microsoft's premium Surface 2-in-1s are the pinnacle of design in the Windows PC world (heck, the biggest reason we were clamoring for a Surface Phone was because we wanted a mobile Windows handset with a Surface level of craftsmanship.)
Nevertheless, Surface hardware has always been about breakthrough innovation in design that can serve as templates for other makers to follow, not "kick-stand and pen" as a rigid formula. What better example to give than the Surface Book: Microsoft blew our mind with the distinctive yet functionally sensible dynamic fulcrum hinge, with the ultra-thin detachable screen. The overall design somehow screams Surface while looking almost completely different from any other offerings currently on the market. That kind of functional innovation is what the Surface moniker implies, and what we should expect in a Surface Phone: the result may be familiar, yet very different from what anyone has imagined.
One thing we can be reasonably sure about, however, is the fact that the shell will be VaporMg-ed (referring to the process whereby Microsoft uses magnesium to create the distinctive "luxury watch" finish of its Surface devices). If there is one lesson that should be learned from the current mobile race, it's that plastics don't sell.
Here there are less speculative words flying around: most once agreed that the Surface Phone, if it ever exists, should sport Intel's latest Atom processor, if not as a gesture of brotherhood between two long-time partners (which even spawned a new tech word, Wintel), then for the chip's ability to run Win32 programs in addition to mobile apps. While the idea of full-fledged Photoshop with its already horrible scaling on a sub-7-inch screen sounds as abysmal as you'd imagine, it's also hard to resist the lure of having all your familiar desktop programs literally at the tip of your finger, in the palm of your hand and projected to an external monitor via Continuum.
Unfortunately, Intel's decision to cancel its latest Atom chipsets and give up on mobile have turned all these hopeful thoughts into unrealized dreams. No new Atom on the horizon means Microsoft will have to look to something else if it wants to compete in being the best and greatest with the fast-growing ARM market. Will it be one of the low-power M processors previously reserved for large Windows tablets and ultrabooks? Will Microsoft be able to somehow solve the heat problem and cram a laptop-grade processor into a phone's body by next year? It's hard to say, and hardly anyone has a legitimately informed guess at this point.
Let's look at some other strange bit of hearsay. RAM and storage space are just as important to a good app experience as the processor, and a new rumor has been circulating lately of the Surface Phone having truly beastly numbers in these departments. Specifically, the rumor suggests that the Surface Phone will be coming in multiple variants, with storage up to 500GB and RAM up to 8GB; powering it all will be a Qualcomm 830. While those specs feel good and sound dreamy, the burning questions remain: why and how? These are laptop specification, bar the Qualcomm chip (which is the most believable part of it all), and unless the Surface team uses dark magic in their manufacturing, such a phone will not exist for a long, long while yet. Most likely some desperate fan's make-believe.
Daniel Rubino over at Windows Central seems to have a much more realistic idea of Surface Phone tier list in mind. According to a source, three variants of the phone will exist: Consumer, Business, and Prosumer/Enthusiasts. The Consumer version will likely replace Microsoft's ailing Lumia handset as the principle Windows phone of the masses. The Business version should focus on enterprise features over being pretty and powerful. Finally, the Prosumer/Enthusiasts version is where everything is thrown in, kitchen sink included, with crazy hardware specs and equally over-the-top pricing.
Take all of this with a grain of salt, however.
Pricing, availability, and other tidbits
Microsoft is certainly not doing very well in the mobile hardware space, and if the company comes out with a Surface Phone, the pricing and availability will be of vital importance in the device's appeal. The latest rumor on pricing suggests an initial unit price of a meager $400, but that comes alongside the 500GB rumor and so you should be a bit less inclined to listen. After all, the Surface Phone is going to be Microsoft's principal mobile phone going forward, and given how the company has priced its Surface hardware, we see no reason for Microsoft to undercharge on a new addition to the line here. We can expect the price of the phone to at least match other competing flagships, if not more.
On the availability side, there has been fewer rumors on where and when the handset will be released. WC's Rubino also has some inside information on this topic: the Surface Phone could be released as early as in Spring 2017, or more specifically, in April 2017, to coincide with the release of the new Redstone 2 update for Windows 10 on all devices. This update will reportedly bring many new features to both mobile and desktop Windows, and new first-party Surface hardware, phone included, would be the best way to showcase all the new capabilities of Microsoft's updated OS. As for the other details, rumors suggest of pen capabilities for Microsoft's new phone, which will fit in with the Surface theme. Continuum is also almost a given with the rumored productivity and business focus.
As for other details, rumors suggest pen capabilities for Microsoft's new phone, which will fit in with the Surface theme. Continuum is also almost a given with the rumored productivity and business focus.
Overall, the rumors reflect Microsoft and Windows phone enthusiasts' burning desire to finally have a phone that can stand proudly, or even crush, the competition in all aspects. Some of the rumors are quite out there, while others are much more believable and might even be true.
Microsoft has successfully revolutionized the 2-in-1 concept with the combination of Windows and Surface hardware. Therefore, one has some reason to hope that with Panos and his talented team at the helm, the Redmond tech giant may be able to do it again in the mobile world--if not in one generation, then in three. After all, the company is certainly in no rush to fill in the handset void, as it cut jobs, took some losses, and diverted attention away from mobile hardware.
Whatever the future brings, it sounds exciting and will be spectacular. Let us know in the comments what you're hoping Microsoft will release when it brings forth the mythical Surface Phone.