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Pen mightier than keyboard: Surface Pro 3 pen could be hint of Mini to come

Microsoft's new Surface aims to conquer by keyboard and pen. One's easier to shrink down onto smaller screens than the other, and maybe that's no accident.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Perhaps the biggest surprise at Microsoft's Surface event today was what wasn't announced: the Surface Mini. Instead, Microsoft went big with a 12-inch Surface Pro 3 . The new Surface has lots of tweaks aimed at being easier to use: a more lap-friendly design, a new keyboard cover, and maybe notably, a brand-new pen.

That pen might be the key to where smaller Microsoft tablets are headed in the future.

The new Surface Pro 3 is still gunning to overtake the laptop: that means a bigger screen size, and, well, a more comfortable way to work on your lap. It makes sense that no Surface Mini was unveiled in this context: after all, eight-inch tablets are smaller. And most importantly, it's hard to marry a comfy keyboard with an eight-inch device. I know: I've tried a lot of Windows 8 8-inchers, and used the iPad Mini a ton. Small tablets have a huge convenience factor, but I use them for reading and browsing and leave the keyboards at home.

In fact, if I'm recommending an iPad to someone, I always suggest the Air over the Mini if that person is remotely interested in doing any typing on a keyboard. Smaller accessories just don't feel right.

Perhaps Microsoft can nail an 8-inch Surface Type Cover, and do it in a way that feels better than anything else. I'd love it to be true. I doubt it's physically possible without pushing the keyboard beyond the tablet's edges. But, a pen...a pen would be easy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Surface Pro 3 can take notes and send them to the cloud with the push of a button. The new pen can wake up the Surface automatically for more pad-and-pen-like instant writing. A good deal of the Surface presentation was focused on the new pen, and its personal appeal. A smaller Surface Mini could easily adopt that pen, and offer the same instant-note-taking magic.

Microsoft Corporate VP Panos Panay demonstrated making red-pen edits on a movie script in Final Draft, writing quick notes and ideas down, and solving crossword puzzles on the go. You could do any of these easily on an eight-inch screen. I love the idea of red-pen edits on the go, and I know a lot of my colleagues do, too, but you don't need a twelve-inch screen for that.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung has already discovered this: the Note phones and tablets have a very advanced S-Pen stylus that many people swear by. It works well on larger and smaller screens. And maybe that's what Microsoft is test-driving here with the Surface Pro 3: a new pen, and a new method of input.

If the new Surface pen succeeds, and apps begin to take great advantage of it, maybe a Surface Mini isn't far behind after all.