Xbox Surface: Does a Standalone Gaming Tablet Make Sense?

Since the idea of an Xbox-angled gaming tablet is back out there, and with the Wii U looming, I have a few questions about this hypothetical Xbox Surface.

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Microsoft tablet PC Surface is shown at the launch event of Windows 8 operating system in New York, October 25, 2012.

The Verge recently restoked a rumor started in June. Its claim, five months ago, was that Microsoft was building a 7-inch gaming tablet dubbed “Xbox Surface.”

You’ll recall Microsoft unveiled its Surface (not “Xbox”) tablet on June 18, and it finally arrived a few weeks ago on Oct. 26. My colleague Harry McCracken, who reviewed it, called it “impressive” and its interface “inventive,” though noted its chief deficiency, as with nearly all fledgling platforms, was a lack of apps.

According to the June Verge story, which included a purportedly leaked “partial” tech-spec sheet, Xbox Surface would be a standalone 7-inch gaming tablet with an ARM-processor, 288 MB of memory and a 1280 x 720 resolution display, all paired with a base station that would stream content wirelessly, invoking comparisons to Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii U.

Inside that base station, according to the document: dual PowerPC processors, 5 GB of memory, a 250 GB hard drive, a custom AMD graphics processor, an Ethernet port, HDMI and component video, four USB ports, optical audio and support for up to four wireless game controllers. All that, and you’d be able to output video from the base station at up to 1440p, or 2640 x 1440 pixels — higher than standard 720p or 1080p HDTVs as well as most mid-sized desktop computer monitors topping out at 1920 x 1200.

Was this actually the next big gaming idea from Microsoft? Could the so-called Xbox Surface actually be the next Xbox?

Assuming the document wasn’t a hoax — and The Verge had no evidence to suggest it was or wasn’t — either a console followup or console tie-in seemed likely. Microsoft’s official consumer tablet is Surface, after all. The device outlined in the document seemed more like a Wii U analogue, though the apparent lack of thumb-sticks or other buttons suggested a shift toward something that looked more like a mainstream tablet.

The Verge wondered whether Xbox Surface would be part of Microsoft’s big June surprise. It wasn’t, and with Surface officially the story, the idea of a separate gaming tablet sounded implausible.

But not impossible, and The Verge is once more claiming that “multiple sources” are confirming an Xbox Surface gaming tablet is still in the offing, that the tablet will run a pared down version of Windows, that the original spec sheet for the tablet and base station was accurate, and that work on “the final implementation” is underway.

I won’t speculate on the rumor’s veracity, because whenever tipsters are involved, who knows. But since the idea of an Xbox-angled gaming tablet is back out there, and with the Wii U looming (out on Nov. 18), I have a few questions about this hypothetical Xbox Surface.

For starters, does it matter that — if any of this is true — it sounds an awful lot like Microsoft taking its cues from the competition? It’s easy to forget or overlook how much Kinect owes to Sony‘s Eye Toy, after all, as well as Nintendo’s Wii (for popularizing motion control). And you could argue Apple has skin in this game, the way it allows you, using AirPlay Mirroring, to pair an iOS device like the iPad with its hockey puck-style Apple TV and game on a big screen.

Microsoft’s contribution is Xbox LIVE. The Xbox was a PC in a box. The Xbox 360 is still essentially a PC in a box. Kinect is certainly more sophisticated than Sony’s Eye Toy, but it’s still essentially an Eye Toy (and in my view, still much too inaccurate for more than a novelty experience).

That said, I don’t think novelty matters as much as the experience for sale. Blizzard didn’t reinvent the wheel when it released World of Warcraft after all. It simply built a better one.

But would an Xbox tablet be that better wheel? Would a tablet designed uniquely for gaming and hitched to a set-top box be interesting to gamers? Interesting to those already allied to this or that tablet brand? Interesting if the Xbox tablet lacked traditional controller buttons?

Would it have enough local storage without driving the cost into the stratosphere (remember, this is the company that charges exorbitant prices for Xbox 360 hard drive upgrades)? What kinds of standalone or base station-paired games would we play? Aimed at what demographic?

Would interest wax then wane, as it did with the Wii? Would gamers pay probably a pretty penny to add a 7-inch tablet to a growing stable of control interfaces? Why build a separate Surface tablet anyway? Why not integrate the existing Surface tablet? Why not introduce a “Surface Mini” people could use away from the Xbox and make the entire Surface lineup compatible with whatever this base station is supposed to represent?

Or is Microsoft hoping to rebrand the idea of “Xbox,” repositioning it to signify general multimedia devices, not just something gaming-centric? (It’s a philosophical shift it’s already been pushing with the Xbox 360.) Is this about brand and service consolidation? Speaking of the Xbox 360, if this tablet were to arrive prior to the next Xbox console, as The Verge claims it will, would it work with the Xbox 360? Is this Microsoft’s way of extending the Xbox 360’s life? Of reinvigorating an aging console that’ll be on par horsepower-wise with Nintendo’s Wii U?

What would an Xbox tablet lack, given the specs in the supposedly leaked document, when contrasted with the Wii U?

Take the Wii U’s augmented reality angle, where you can drop certain objects on the Wii U GamePad’s touchscreen and, by way of the controller’s Near-Field Communication chip, those objects are “scanned” into whatever app or game you’re interacting with. Would an Xbox tablet do that? Would it need to?

What about the stuff not listed in the leaked spec sheet? Built-in cameras? Motion control support (accelerometers and gyroscopes)? Would it be finger-touch only, or work with a stylus?

To be fair, the spec sheet reads “partial technical specifications,” so any of this and more could be in the offing — assuming anything’s in the offing at all.

That last thought gives rise to a final question: Is it just smoke and mirrors? A sham, or even a Microsoft-fed decoy to mislead Internet gossips? To keep us from sussing out what the company’s really up to?

Which, of course, could always be something like an Xbox Holodeck — because we all need one of those.