With the launch of the Xbox Series S/X, Microsoft has entered a new age of console gaming with support for ray tracing, 120Hz refresh rates, and more. But with continued expansion of Microsoft’s Surface family of PCs, I can’t help but wonder if the time for an Xbox gaming laptop has finally arrived.
Now at this point there are probably a lot of people out there shouting, “But Xbox is for consoles you dummy!” Not so fast. Sure, the Xbox name may have first appeared on a console way back in 2001, but in the years since, Microsoft has expanded the Xbox umbrella to include a huge range of content, hardware, and services across devices, such as Xbox Play Anywhere, which allows you to buy a game once and get two versions of the title that you can play on an Xbox or a PC whenever you want.
There’s also Xbox Game Pass, which is a monthly subscription that lets you download a rotating selection of games, that once again can be played on both console and PC. And that’s before you even mention Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which includes the ability to stream games to a tablet or phone from servers in the cloud. Microsoft also created Xbox Remote Play, so even if someone in your home is hogging the TV, you can still stream your games locally from your Xbox to a nearby phone, tablet, or PC.
On top of that, Microsoft has also worked to expand support for a number of Xbox-branded accessories for the PC, including headsets and gamepads, with recent Xbox controllers being so popular that they have essentially become the default wireless gamepad on PC. The Xbox name outgrew its humble console origins a long time ago, and will only continue picking up momentum.
But most importantly, Microsoft itself doesn’t even consider the Xbox brand to be a console-only thing. Xbox chief Phil Spencer has spoken publicly at length about how Microsoft considers Xbox to be a platform that spans a wide range of categories and devices. Spencer told the Guardian that “the primary outcome of all the work that we do is how many players we see, and how often they play,” while also adding that “putting our games on PC becomes a reason that somebody doesn’t have to go and buy an Xbox Series X. I’ll hold fast to this. We publicly disclose player numbers. That’s the thing I want us to be driven by, not how many individual pieces of plastic did we sell.”
Xbox is about providing access to Xbox features and games regardless of what device someone might prefer to play on. After the successful launch of the Xbox Series S and X, it feels like one of the best ways for Microsoft to expand the Xbox platform is to finally make a proper Xbox laptop (and I’m not talking about one of those one-off Xbox-in-a-suitcase contraptions.)
This comes down to branding, and while there isn’t really a wrong answer, there are several factors that make a gaming laptop from Microsoft fit better under the Xbox umbrella than as an addition to Microsoft’s existing Surface laptop lineup.
The first major consideration is the Surface brand itself, which is largely comprised of systems designed for mainstream productivity and content creation. Nothing about the Surface family of devices really says gaming, and the fact that the cheapest Surface with a discrete GPU is the 13-inch Surface Book 3—which costs $1,700 for an Nvidia GTX 1650—highlights that if you want a gaming laptop, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere. Same goes for the 15-inch Surface Book 3, which starts at $2,000 for a barely faster Nvidia 1660 Ti GPU, while the new Surface Laptop 4 sadly doesn’t offer any configs with real graphics cards. Even the Surface Studio 2—which seems like an artist’s dream machine—maxes out with an Nvidia GTX 1070.
Now it might seem like a weird strategy for Microsoft to leave a hole in the Surface portfolio for gaming, but if you take a step back, that omission begins to make sense. With the Surface line, Microsoft is focusing on core computing needs, while also stealing a page out of Apple’s playbook by catering to digital artists that might normally gravitate toward a Mac.
Every Surface has a touchscreen, with most also featuring handwriting and stylus support, which are definitely nice features to have, but aren’t exactly core features for a modern gaming laptop. Same goes for the kind of screens Microsoft uses in its Surface gadgets, which are more focused on providing rich hues and strong color accuracy instead of fast refresh rates. Frankly, if Microsoft released a relatively high-performance Surface laptop for gaming, it would feel out of place and might even scare off less adventurous, non-gaming folks.
On the flip side, you have the Xbox brand, which has become synonymous with gaming—not just on consoles, but across multiple platforms, thanks to all the features Microsoft has added to Windows 10 like the Xbox Game Bar and the ability to chat with your friends on Xbox using a PC or phone.
But more importantly, by slapping an Xbox logo on a new gaming laptop, Microsoft could focus more on including features that matter to gamers: displays with fast refresh rates, more powerful GPUs, and a wider selection of ports. Microsoft could even add native support for the Xbox’s proprietary wireless audio signal to an Xbox laptop, which would help ensure users get the same hi-def audio experience on both devices. (By default, when connected to a PC, the Xbox Wireless headsets reverts to Bluetooth, instead of the higher quality wireless audio signal is uses when synced to an Xbox.)
There’s just so much room for Microsoft to make a purpose-built gaming laptop with deep Xbox integration that extends across multiple platforms, and I’m honestly surprised Microsoft hasn’t made one.
From a design standpoint, there are a million different directions Microsoft could take an Xbox laptop, but the kind of system that would make the most sense would be a hybrid between a Surface Laptop 4 and something like a Razer Blade 15 or an MSI Stealth 15m. Imagine a relatively thin 15-inch system (15-inch systems are still the most popular size for laptops) with an aluminum or magnesium body, a miniLED or LCD display with a high refresh rate (and maybe even touch support for good measure, though it’s not essential), lots of ports, and the same keyboard Microsoft already uses on Surface machines, but with RGB backlighting as a small nod to gamer aesthetics. I’ll leave the inclusion of Alcantara up to Microsoft, though I suspect even fancy microfiber cloth won’t stand up to Dorito dust and spilled Dew very well.
Microsoft could even tweak the 15-inch chassis it already uses on larger models of the Surface Laptop 4 to be a bit thicker and better accommodate a discrete GPU and the requisite cooling. And while Razer sort of has a lock on black and green when it comes to gaming laptop colors, Microsoft could easily shift to a two-toned black-and-white design to better fit the current look of the Xbox Series S and X.
To really drive home that Xbox synergy, Microsoft could also include support for HDMI 2.1 and at least a 120Hz (or possibly even 240Hz) display, to best replicate the high-refresh gaming experience you’d get from a Xbox Series X. And of course, there’d also be a range of current-gen CPUs and GPUs from Intel, AMD, and Nvidia, so that even when you’re on the road in a place with bad cell service or weak wifi, you can still play AAA games at relatively high settings.
If Microsoft builds in native wireless support for the Xbox Wireless Controller and the Xbox Wireless headset, the company could bundle those accessories for $100 (normal retail price for both totals $160) and entice buyers with a discount. Heck, Microsoft could even pull the same move it does for the Xbox Series and package an Xbox laptop alongside a 24-month sub for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and make it part of the Xbox All Access program. This way, you wouldn’t even need to pay up front for a shiny new Xbox gaming notebook.
And as long as we’re talking about far-out features, Microsoft could even tack on a slot that supports the Xbox Series’ storage expansion card, allowing people to potentially use those storage cards interchangeably on both their console and laptop. I admit that’s kind of a stretch, but I can dream.
In the end, regardless of whether you think a Microsoft gaming laptop fits better among the Surface or Xbox families, when you look at Microsoft’s larger gadget lineup—which includes laptops, 2-in-1s, tablets, giant touch displays, game consoles, and even phones thanks to the Surface Duo—it’s actually kind of silly that gaming laptops are one of the few categories Microsoft hasn’t really touched. With the continued expansion of Microsoft’s gaming division, slapping an Xbox logo on the lid of a new gaming laptop and cramming some Xbox DNA inside seems like really natural fit.