Microsoft’s New Surface Book 3 Laptop’s Microphones Make for an Ersatz Smart Display

Microsoft’s new Surface Book 3 laptop will perform a lot like a smart display, thanks to the far-field microphones embedded in the computer. The laptop, which also converts into a tablet, arrives just as Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant ends many of its consumer-facing functions in favor of enterprise clients.

Surface Sound

The Surface Book 3 comes with two far-field studio microphones. They are considerably higher quality than the ones in the previous iteration of the computer. The microphones are capable of recognizing and parsing speech from farther away and with greater accuracy than the Surface Book 2 could. Far-field microphones are how smart speakers and smart displays are able to interact with people from across a room and understand them even when there are other sounds. Their inclusion in the Surface Book 3 makes it possible to control the laptop from a distance and speak with others on a call through the computer without having to sit directly in front of it. With video conference calls a central part of many people’s days during the current health crisis, advanced microphones are likely to be even more useful than under other circumstances. And, the Dolby Atmos speakers ensure that the user could hear any sound coming from the computer at the same distance.

The question is what voice assistants will be used and for what purpose. Cortana has been undergoing major changes as part of the updates to Windows 10. It’s no longer going to be integrated into the taskbar. The voice assistant instead will be an independent app connected with Microsoft 365. That means it won’t run smart home devices, play music, or support third-party voice apps. Microsoft’s update for Windows 10 this month even temporarily shut down Cortana’s ability to respond to its wake word. Cortana may end up used on the laptop just for those more work-related tasks, with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant apps installed on Windows for everything else.

Voice Competition

The Surface Book 3 includes many upgrades and improvements on the three-year-old Surface Book 2 beyond the audio elements, of course. The 13.5-inch and 15-inch variations include 10th generation Intel chips, a few generations ahead of the Surface Book 2 as well as quad-core processors. And the higher-end version of the laptop includes professional-level graphics and more memory. The laptop officially launches on May 21 and will cost $1,600 for the cheapest version.

The price may be a hint that the laptop is mainly for work or creative purposes, microphones, and all. Some Lenovo computers for those who need high-powered machines started including higher-end microphones several years ago, and the new Apple MacBook Pro also includes more advanced microphones that compare well with the Surface Book 3. The option to turn the laptop into a kind of smart display may be just the new standard for high-end laptops like the Surface Book 3, similar to how it can convert into a touch-screen tablet.


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