Microsoft has finally done it: it’s created a laptop that can replace your tablet. Wait … that doesn’t sound right.
Jokes aside, I wouldn’t blame you for being confused by the Redmond Campus’s latest creation, the Surface Book – a super premium laptop-based hybrid device – when it looks to have finally cracked the nut on the tablet that can replace your laptop with its Surface Pro 4.
By all means, none of this is to say anything of the Surface Book itself. Microsoft has arguably produced the most versatile, inventive and gorgeous Windows laptop ever made. But it’s tough to envision where this aluminum-clad notebook fits within Microsoft’s market-leading product lineup when it’s effectively created a laptop and tablet within a single device – twice.
For now, let’s take a closer look at the absolutely pristine laptop that Microsoft devices team lead Panos Panay and his crew have expertly crafted.
Design and display
The Surface Book truly is a sight to behold, and that’s not an overstatement. Like the Chromebook Pixel, Microsoft’s take on the laptop employs unique dimensions all around.
That super sharp, color-rich 3,000 x 2,000-pixel screen measures 13.5 inches at the diagonal, while the device is just 12.3 inches wide. This is because 1.) Microsoft achieved some extremely narrow bezels 2.) the screen fits a 3:2 aspect ratio, just like the Surface Pro tablets and 3.) the screen’s height is closer to that of a laptop with a 14-inch screen, at 9.14 inches. And like both the Pixel and 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Book is a bit hefty altogether at 3.48 pounds.
At that resolution, the Surface Book touts 267 pixels-per-inch (ppi), edging out the MacBook Pro’s 227 ppi and the Pixel’s 239 ppi. Colors on the screen simply pop, and it’s incredibly responsive to touch, thanks to Microsoft new, trademark PixelSense technology. Simply put, it brings the optics and touch controller elements closer to the glass than ever before. Oh, and the screen sports a 1,800:1 contrast ratio, making for some seriously deep blacks.
The laptop is cased entirely in brushed magnesium and, just like its rivaling Pixel and MacBook Pro, features a pronounced lip in front of the awfully smooth, glass-laminated trackpad for easy opening. I also found the keyboard to be wonderfully comfortable to use, with deep enough travel and a great amount of punch.
Opening the laptop is made even easier with Microsoft’s also-trademark Dynamic Fulcrum hinge. Looking like a tiny metal gauntlet, this inventive new hinge serves one important purpose: increasing the surface area of the laptop’s base to counter the weight of the tablet it’s attached to. A bonus: it looks just so damn cool.
Sure, this new hinge leaves a sizable gap between the display and keyboard when closed. But, because it closes in a sort of semicircle rather than flat, like most other hinges, it makes for a comfy hold when toting about.
Microsoft’s ‘One More Thing’
Panay wowed the audience of journalists, analysts and Microsoft fans during the Surface Book’s reveal with a sort of "One More Thing" moment: he detached the screen from the laptop base. Not only is this Microsoft’s first laptop, it’s also the firm’s third hybrid device.
The way in which the tablet – which Microsoft refers to as a clipboard – fits into the base is so seamless, that many (including this guy) couldn’t have guessed that reveal. But more importantly, that seamless transition makes for the first 2-in-1 laptop taking the laptop-first approach to truly impress me both aesthetically and functionally.
Microsoft achieved this through what it calls a Muscle Wire detach mechanism. In conjunction with some powerful magnets, this mechanical solution makes for an incredibly strong connection – so much so that you can hold the laptop open by either end and not worry.
Basically, every detachment of the tablet from the keyboard base requires you to press a special key on the uppermost row of the keyboard to release these tensed wires. Once that’s done, a green prompt will tell you it’s OK to remove the tablet. (Of course, the tablet can be attached in either direction.)
Why all of the hoopla over just attaching and detaching a tablet? That’s because Microsoft managed to house a custom-built Nvidia GeForce graphics chip within the base. This allows the Surface Book to handle far more graphically complex tasks when in one piece, while allowing the tablet to operate on its own with an Intel Core i-series processor inside.
Plus, the system is smart about when the GPU is in use, warning you before removing the tablet through a similar green prompt. This is all thanks to Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connector used throughout the product line, which offers enough bandwidth to manage such intense graphical tasks, not to mention communication between the CPU and GPU.
With either the latest Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, the Nvidia GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, either 8GB or 16GB of RAM and PCIe flash storage ranging from 128GB to 1TB, the Surface Book is one power-packed computing machine. As for connectivity, the Book offers 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE.
When it comes to inputs, Microsoft managed to cram in two USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card reader, mini DisplayPort, a headphone/microphone jack and the firm’s own Surface Connect port for power and docking. Naturally, this device has cameras: a 5-megapixel (MP) front-facing shooter with Windows Hello face authentication and an 8MP snapper in the back – both of which can record 1080p video.
Powering all of this is an undisclosed battery that’s said to power the device for up to 12 hours of video playback when they’re together.
Panay directly referenced consumer demand in introducing the Surface Book, and Microsoft appears to have delivered on that in spades. There’s no doubt that, once again, the Redmond firm has set the bar for mobile computing hardware. This is how you make a Windows laptop.
That said, you’re going to have pay a pretty sum for such a luxurious notebook – $1,499 (about £978, about AU$2,081) to start – when it launches on October 26. That price will surely keep this device to professionals creative or otherwise and the odd Microsoft mega fan with wads of cash.
I must say that, for Microsoft having spent years to only just perfect its laptop replacement device, seeing it go and just release a hybrid laptop is more than confusing. Albeit gorgeous, versatile and incredibly clever, the Surface Book doesn’t exactly transform my idea of what a computer can be, like the Surface Pro 3 and now Pro 4 have.
This is just one seriously souped up, beautifully designed and ingeniously engineered laptop, and that’s OK.