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“There’s no such thing as a [Surface] Pro 5,” Panos Panay, corporate vice president for Surface at Microsoft, told CNET last week. Microsoft won’t update the Surface Pro 4 until it can make a change that’s “meaningful,” said Panay. The company is looking for “an experiential change that makes a huge difference in product line.”
This statement comes in spite of Surface sales tanking hard in the first quarter of this calendar year, with the hardware’s staleness a growing problem. Microsoft hasn’t updated Surface Pro 4 for 18 months now; the systems still use Intel’s Skylake processors rather than the latest Kaby Lake chips. A switch to Kaby Lake wouldn’t be huge, though it would help battery life across the board, give the bottom-priced Pro 4 a decent performance boost, and provide support for hardware-accelerated 4K video. But it would also go a long way toward showing that Microsoft still regards the system as a going concern.
Panay’s words (probably) don’t mean that there is literally no Pro 5; as with most public statements of this kind, what he means is “there is no Pro 5 that we’re willing to talk about or acknowledge at this time.” Right now, the company wants the focus to be exclusively on its new Surface Laptop, and talking about Surface Pro 5 would both distract from this and risk further reducing Pro 4 sales.
But the statement does look peculiar in the light of anticipation surrounding a mysterious new event that Microsoft is holding in Shanghai later this month. On May 23rd, the company says that it will “Show the world what’s next” at the China event. We have been told to “Save the date” but have not thus far been invited, with space apparently being “limited.” Panay has tweeted that he’s going to be at the Shanghai event, and his tweet is hashtagged “Surface.” The current belief is that Microsoft will be going to China to launch the Surface Pro 5—but those rumors also indicate that the Pro 5 update will be anything but meaningful: it will be a system virtually identical to Pro 4 but with a Kaby Lake processor.
This would be an upgrade that the Pro 4 needs, but the timing is strange—a minor update like this could have been made six months ago, and if it had been, sales wouldn’t have fallen off so sharply. A potential upgrade is also hard to reconcile with Panay’s claims about meaningful updates. In his CNET interview, he explicitly said that a mere processor change is not what he means when it comes to being meaningful.
Then again, the company has made relatively incremental updates before; Surface Pro 3 to Pro 4 bumped the processors (from Haswell to Skylake), made the screen slightly larger and bumped the resolution, and added Windows Hello facial recognition. These were all welcome changes, but calling them “experiential” is a stretch. Rather, the Pro 4 offered a honed, refined version of the Pro 3 experience. If the Pro 5 shows a similar iterative improvement, it won’t be the experiential change that Panay says he wants, but it will be a solid and desirable update all the same.
One other way of squaring the circle does come to mind: Surface Pro 4 will be updated to use Kaby Lake, but it won’t be called Surface Pro 5. Surface Pro 4 R2, anyone?