This is probably why the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book don’t have a USB Type-C port

By Ng Chong Seng - on 13 Oct 2015, 5:19pm

In case you missed it, Microsoft did a mega event in New York last week, where it unveiled a host of new consumer devices, including the Microsoft Band 2 activity tracker, the Lumia 950/950XL smartphones, the Surface Pro 4 tablet, and the Surface Book laptop.

Sporting Intel’s latest 6th-gen Core processors, gorgeous screens that you can also write on with the Surface Pen, plenty of RAM and storage options, and impeccable build quality, it’s hard to nitpick the “tablet that can replace your laptop” and the “ultimate laptop”.

Other than one thing: the glaring omission of any USB Type-C ports on both devices.

One thing that Paul Thurrott got right is that unlike the Google Pixel C and Lumia 950 series, the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book don’t need a USB-C charging port because they already have an established Surface Connect solution. More importantly, this magnetic interface can also connect to the new US$200 Surface Dock that’s capable of driving two 4K-capable screens over two mini-DisplayPorts, and additionally has one gigabit Ethernet port, four USB 3.0 ports, and one audio-out port. This proprietary solution’s bandwidth is effectively the combination of the Pixel C’s dual USB-C/USB 3.0 ports’ bandwidth, and then some. Keeping the Surface Connect port and making the Surface Dock compatible with the Surface Pro 3 in the process instead of replacing it with a symmetrical and reversible USB-C port is a tradeoff I posit Microsoft thinks is worthwhile at this stage.

More bandwidth is one reason why Microsoft kept to its Surface Connect solution, instead of going for USB 3.0/USB-C. But why not use Thunderbolt 3/USB-C?

Of course, one also shouldn’t take USB-C (the connector) and USB 3.1 (the protocol) to mean the same thing. With a 5Gbps maximum speed, the MacBook and Pixel C’s USB-C port is basically running USB 3.1 Gen 1, the same bandwidth as USB 3.0. Can Microsoft swap one of the Surface Book’s USB 3.0 ports that uses a full-size Type-A plug to a Type-C one? Sure, but how many USB-C peripherals do you have currently? Again, I can only posit that Microsoft thinks USB-C peripherals (especially storage devices) will only become popular in a year’s time, and it’s not too late to add a USB-C port or two on the Surface devices then.

The other intriguing thing aside from the new Surfaces’ lack of USB-C is the lack of USB 3.1 (Gen 2) mention. With two full-size USB 3.0 ports and no Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port unlike the newly announced Dell XPS laptops, it seems to suggest that the new Surfaces aren’t using Intel’s Alpine Ridge controller. That's the easiest answer. Suddenly, the ultimate laptop doesn't look that ultimate anymore.

That said, what if the new Surfaces actually do support Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 Gen 2, but is running it over its own Surface Connect interface? Or maybe the real reason why there’s no Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port on the Surface Book is because the controller is used for the interfacing between the Surface Book’s CPU/RAM/storage-equipped screen and GPU-equipped keyboard base? Of course, I’m totally into speculation-land here, but hey, it has been a long while since I’m that excited about a Microsoft hardware product, so cut me some slack here.

The Surface Connect interface (the longer plug in the center) is also used to connect the Surface Book's screen (clipboard) and keyboard base; this means you can charge the tablet portion independently. But what's running over those two 20-pin double-sided connectors?

Long story short, considering backward compatibility and looking at the current crop of USB-C gear, I can understand the choice of ports on the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. If anything, I think Microsoft should have added a USB-C port (even if it’s running USB 3.0) on the Surface Dock. And who knows, maybe Microsoft can release an updated keyboard base with a USB-C port a few months down the road, so that users won’t have to wait a full year for Surface Book 2.

Really, who knows what surprises Microsoft has in store for us next.

For 30 seconds, I was like this old lady when Microsoft's Panos Panay unveiled the Surface Book in New York last week, soaking in every moment. (Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images.)

Ng Chong Seng

Ng Chong Seng / Former Deputy Editor

I write. I also fix things.

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