Microsoft's Xbox-Surface tablet: What could it be?

An Xbox-Surface tablet is apparently in the works. Could it be the killer accessory for the next Xbox, a standalone device, or both? There are advantages and pitfalls to each.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
3 min read

The Surface tablet: Can it take another leap forward as an Xbox device? Josh Miller/CNET

Microsoft apparently has a gaming tablet complete with Xbox branding on the way in the near future, perhaps to coincide with the release of the next-generation Xbox. In a year full of tablets of all shapes, prices, and functions, what does this mean? What can we hope for? What are the pitfalls? Here's what immediately comes to mind.

The Wii U CNET

As the Kinect was to the Wii, the Xbox tablet could be to the Wii U.
Nintendo once took family gaming by storm with motion-control technology. The Kinect arrived afterward with a similar pitch, stealing some of Nintendo's thunder. Nintendo's imminent Wii U console has a tablet game controller with dual-screen functions. Could an Xbox tablet be developed with similar ideas in mind for the next Xbox? I'd say the odds are strong, especially when it comes to augmenting gaming or adding innovative new concepts to game control like the Wii U promises to do.

Can it run Xbox Live games, or will it require its own ecosystem of titles?
The biggest concern with an Xbox tablet is whether it'll share the Xbox ecosystem. Ideally, you should be able to import at least Xbox Live Arcade games into the tablet. Apple has found a way to nurture a vast library of iOS apps, but Microsoft doesn't have anything like that for Windows 8. Would the Xbox tablet rely on Windows 8 for its software, Xbox, or both?

Don't be like Sony and its PlayStation Mobile tablets.
The cautionary tale here is in the incredibly awkward way that Sony made its Xperia phones and tablets and PlayStation Mobile software feel like a parallel universe to the rest of the PlayStation brand. PlayStation Mobile runs its own set of games and apps, and can't run most of what you'd want to play on a PlayStation 3, PS Vita, or even PS2/PSP. An Xbox tablet needs to feel like an Xbox device, not a Microsoft device.

Don't be a Zune.
Microsoft has had a bad run of well-designed dead-end entertainment products going back to the Zune. The jury's still out on the Surface. An Xbox tablet should wisely try to connect Surface and Xbox functionality as much as possible, or risk being vestigial.

Price: As high as the Surface, or more like the iPad Mini?
I have a fear that an Xbox tablet would be expensive, but recent 7-inch tablets show signs of affordability. With an entry price of $329, the iPad Mini is expensive compared with budget tablets like the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, but it's a hard price to beat for a gaming tablet, which the Mini most definitely is. If an Xbox tablet had an ARM-based processor with Tegra-based graphics, it could slide in at a reasonable price.

The iPad Mini Sarah Tew/CNET

Biggest competitor: iPad Mini.
Make no mistake, the incredibly fun-to-hold and affordable iPad Mini is Microsoft's biggest obstacle to gaming tablet success. The Mini is a true gaming system with a huge amount of software. Hard-core gamers may scoff at that statement, but few others would. And Microsoft has to find a way to answer back.

What about SmartGlass?
Microsoft has already made a big deal out of cross-platform tablet-to-Xbox compatibility via Microsoft SmartGlass. Would an Xbox Surface tablet incorporate those ideas, or would Smart Glass compete?

Can the Xbox tablet be more than any other tablet?
What makes a tablet a "gaming tablet"? Will it have better graphics, or maybe even a set of physical controls like the Wii U GamePad? Perhaps Microsoft needs to go in the other direction and make an Xbox tablet an entertainment device, tapping into casual consumption and portability more than the Surface does. Make it good for reading, movie watching, game playing, and basic software, and keep the design clean.

Will it break out of the 'gaming ghetto'?
I say this in jest...somewhat. The iPad Mini manages to not stamp itself as a "gamer's product." An Xbox tablet should avoid being seen merely as an Xbox accessory in order to be truly successful; at the same time, Microsoft needs to maximize Xbox connectivity and not just throw the Xbox name around as a casual branding play like Sony did with PlayStation Mobile.