Intel Tiger Lake and Microsoft’s Surface Duo/Neo: Redefining mobile hardware

Disclosure: Most of the companies mentioned are clients of the author.

There have been a series of potentially market-changing announcements this month (and some haven’t happened yet).  The two already public are Intel’s blended CPU/GPU called Tiger Lake, which could change the performance/battery life dynamic for mobile PCs, and the Microsoft Surface Duo, which is attempting to displace smartphones with a more productivity-oriented alternative.

There’s been no update on the Microsoft Surface Neo, but it’s the first product I know of that is expected to get the Tiger Lake combo, and it should be similar to the Duo – just larger. (And it may swap phone capabilities for similar functions via Teams and Skype.)

I think it is past time for a disruptive change to the mobile PC and smartphone ecosystems, so let’s explore that prospect this week. Because change is clearly in the wind. 

How we got here

The origin of the now-current clamshell laptop design pretty much goes back to the IBM PC Company, which made that design famous with their Thinkpad 775CD. (Lenovo now owns that brand and line.) It was meant to blend low performing power-hungry processors and wired network capability into something with battery life measured in minutes and performance that would make the slowest PC today seem blindingly fast then. The screen size was better than what preceded it, and given that 15-in.  monitors were standard, the size disparity between laptops and desktops wasn’t that great. But Thinkpads were wicked expensive, and without wireless connectivity, most buyers couldn’t justify the cost; sales were a fraction of the overall PC market. 

Since then, fast wireless has arrived, performance has come up sharply (as has battery life) and performance deltas between desktop computers and laptops are generally more connected to the GPU – where Intel has historically underperformed – not the CPU. The hardware is thinner, but that old clamshell design remains. 

Smartphones, ironically, also first came from IBM; it was called the Simon. It was huge, expensive and had limited performance. Few saw it, few bought it. The smartphones that sold at volume had keyboards and came from Palm, RIM (Blackberry) and Microsoft. In a way, they were like little notebooks, but most didn’t fold, and the focus was business, not entertainment.  Both Microsoft and Palm had internal groups that wanted to create consumer smartphones like the iPhone. But those efforts were killed, ironically, because top executives at both firms didn’t think there was a market for them. 

Apple in 2007 unveiled a focused consumer device, leveraged its iPod market dominance, and took over the market with an iPod-like phone. Highlighting a surprising lack of strategic planning, the old leaders of the smartphone market crowned the iPhone the leader. They followed by exiting the business (Microsoft, RIM) or being sold for parts (Palm).  

These disruptive changes happened before we had “the cloud” and before the massive advances in wireless connectivity, the latest being Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.  Now, decades later, I think the market is ready for another disruptive change.

The Surface Duo/Neo

At the heart of both of Microsoft’s platforms is a focus on productivity, not entertainment.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t have entertainment features. Both will play games and show movies. (And the Duo, due to its dual-screen design and prop-ability, may be better than the current iPhone-led design language.)

The Duo uses a version of Qualcomm’s latest high-performance processor, the Snapdragon 850; the Neo uses a custom version of Intel’s most mobile part, the upcoming Tiger Lake.  Both are blended CPU/GPU platforms and have enhanced memory management and performance-per-watt advantages over prior designs. The result should be a better balance between performance and energy use. 

Both designs are twin-screen and focused on improving productivity. This focus is particularly useful on a collaboration product like Microsoft Teams where you want to see who you are remotely talking to and need to see what they’re presenting.  

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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