If Microsoft indeed intends to release a shrunk-down Surface Mini this month, as an invite for a "small" Surface event suggests, merely downsizing the tablet's design to fit an 8-inch frame ain't going to cut it. Sure, the Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 are beautiful pieces of kit, but they're made for big-screen productivity--the Surface Pro is essentially an Ultrabook without a keyboard. That experience won't translate well to a smaller form factor, better suited for content consumption than content creation.
Beyond that significant concern, a Surface Mini would be stepping into a crowded field of competitive 8-inch Windows tablets, all of which sport an almost disappointing degree of uniformity. The Surface Mini needs to stand out to succeed.
But how can Microsoft honor the natural strengths of the 8-inch form factor while still staying true to the Surface ethos? Here's what I'm hoping to see in the Surface Mini.
1. An LTE option
Microsoft's been skimpy on the portable connectivity options for the Surface line thus far. While an LTE-equipped Surface 2 was released in March, that's the only of four Surface models to sport a cellular modem. And that's fine! 10-inch tablets tend to stay in one spot--be it a living room or office--and that spot tends to have Wi-Fi.
An 8-inch tablet is a different beast all together, though--and one much more likely to be tossed into a travel bag for on-the-go email or Netflix sessions. Microsoft should offer a Wi-Fi-only version of the Surface Mini for budget-conscious folks, but an LTE upgrade is essential, especially given Surface's portable productivity focus. Getting things done often means checking Outlook or answering Skype messages on the bus.
2. Thinner, lighter, longer-lasting design
The Surface and Surface Pro aren't technically bulky, but they aren't all that svelte, either. Mass reduction matters in tablets, and doubly so in travel-ready 8-inch tablets. I'm hoping Microsoft skips the full-fledged Core processors in favor of something much more energy-efficient. Maybe even...
3. Mobile-first ARM processors and Windows RT
Yes, ARM processors. Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 chips are blazing-fast and utterly enduring. All the other 8-inch Windows tablets available now have turned to Intel's Atom processors, which are built using the PC-focused x86 architecture and thus allow access to the full version of Windows 8, but let me tell you something: Using the desktop on a small tablet sucks. Poking at microscopic menus and pinching-and-zooming all the time to make things legible gets real old, real fast.
Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 made for ARM processors, won't run traditional desktop software; instead, it only runs the Modern apps available in the Windows Store. But that's a good thing on a small tablet. Modern apps are designed with mobile devices in mind, complete with larger interface elements that work wonderfully on diminutive touchscreen displays. Plus, media apps--the very apps small tablets function best with--are one of the Windows Store's rare strengths.
If Windows RT can shine anywhere right now, it's on a Surface Mini.
4. Office apps
Small tablets are about media and games, but Surface is about productivity. For Microsoft, productivity means Office. The Surface Mini needs Office preinstalled. Period.
Windows RT ships with Office 2013, including Outlook, but Office is a must-have preload for the Surface Mini even if Microsoft decides to go with an Atom processor and Windows 8. Beta access to the touch-first versions of Office currently in development would be a great addition--especially if the next suggestion comes to fruition.
5. A digital pen
Separate reports from Neowin and ZDNet say the Surface Mini will ship with a digitizer pen, just like the Surface Pro 2. Frankly, it's a wonderful idea. A digitizer pen--which is much more technologically capable than a mere capacitive stylus, as explained in this HowToGeek article--would give the Surface Mini a leg up over the flood of other 8-inch Windows tablets. Paired with a prominent Live Tile for the Modern-style OneNote app, the Surface Mini could establish itself as the go-to note-taking and basic diagramming tablet: Professionally capable, yet eminently portable.
6. A thoughtful app experience
Tablets are all about the apps. Microsoft's Windows Store lags behind Apple's App Store and Google Play, but Microsoft could help the Surface Mini's use case by providing a thoughtful, tailored Start screen, rather than the stock Windows 8.1 Live Tile jumble.
Give prime positions to the Video, Music, Games, Reading List, and Bing News apps, as those apps translate wonderfully to the small-screen experience. Make sure shortcuts to Office are there, and that OneDrive and Skype stand out.
But don't stop at that! Preload non-stock apps that would show well on a Surface Mini. Give OneNote prominent placement to highlight the digitizing pen's potential. Add Xbox Smartglass so that you can control your Microsoft console with your tablet. Install Nook (or the mysterious "Microsoft Consumer Reader") to provide a great reading experience out of the box, as small tablets and e-books go together better than rum and coke. Toss in Halo: Spartan Assault and Skulls of the Shogun to emphasize the gaming chops of small slates and drive home the Windows ecosystem's new universal app capabilities. And don't forget the oh-so-wonderful Fresh Paint!
App discoverability doesn't have to be relegated to preloaded programs, either. When you register your Surface Mini with a Microsoft Account, Microsoft could email you a list of Windows Store apps that offer a great diminutive display experience--think Netflix, Slacker Radio, Kindle, and ESPN.
7. An onramp to the Windows ecosystem
Microsoft's pushing devices and services these days, so it makes sense for the company to push its ecosystem in the consumption-friendly Surface Mini. Plus, doing so could be a nice bonus for buyers. I'd like to see the Surface Mini include some free credit toward Microsoft's Video and Music stores, and perhaps even a small amount to the Windows Store itself. Maybe the Windows Store credit code could be included in that "suggested app" email I just mentioned?
Extra OneDrive space would also be a boon. With small tablets being so storage-constrained and cloud-focused, a permanent 10GB-plus boost to your OneDrive storage would be a gracious "Thanks for buying" to folks who pick up the Surface Mini. Alas, a OneDrive bump is more likely to be a temporary boost, forcing buyers either to pay up or have their docs revert to read-only mode when it comes time to renew. That's the route Microsoft took when it handed out 200GB of free SkyDrive space to Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 buyers--a generous total, but one that disappears two years after purchase.
8. The build quality we expect...
The Surface line is known for its eye-catching VaporMg chassis, vibrant 1080p displays, and abundant-for-a-tablet port options. Keep it up Microsoft! (But don't forget the thin-and-light tip from earlier.)
9. ...but without the kickstand or Touch Cover accessories
Haven't you been paying attention? A small-form-factor tablet begs to be held in the hand and thrown in your bag, not propped up on a table with a keyboard that's either 1) proportionally gigantic, or 2) incredibly cramped because of the 8-inch form factor. I mean, just look at this picture of the Acer Iconia W4. It's ridiculous. Do you really want to work like that?
Yes, the first wave of Surface devices are famous for their Touch Cover and kickstand, but those icons simply have no place on a tiny tablet unless they're nestled in a proper tablet dock and being used as a PC proper. Play to the Surface Mini's strengths; don't shoehorn it into being something it's not.
10. A more Windows Phone-like virtual keyboard
Windows 8.1's virtual keyboard isn't a complete stinker, but it isn't a standout either. I'd love to see a variant of Windows Phone 8.1's stellar Word Flow keyboard--complete with swipe-typing capabilities missing from Windows 8.1 proper--appear on the Surface Mini. It's a borderline must-have for the tablet, which--as I've already said--won't play all that well with physical keyboard accessories.
Don't expect it to be cheap!
If Microsoft implements even just a few of these features--the continued Surface build quality and the widely rumored digital pen, say--there's no way that the tiny tablet will be priced as cheaply as a Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire, unless Microsoft takes a big loss on each slate simply to kickstart the Windows ecosystem.
That said, the Surface Mini can't be priced above the iPad mini if Microsoft wants it to be even a modest success with every day users. (The original iPad mini costs $300; the Retina version starts at $500.) Witness how disastrous the Surface RT's run was when it matched the full-sized iPad's $500 price point: The company wrote off nearly a billion bucks and still loses money for every Surface sold to this day. The further the Surface Mini stays away from the $500 price point, the better.
Yes, Microsoft's mini-tablet has room to rise to the surface in a sea of tablets, as Windows Phone's Cortana says. But to be truly successful, the Surface Mini needs to bring a thoughtful, differentiated approach to the table while still making sure the 8-inch slate doesn't completely obliterate the bank. We'll know May 20!