The Surface Book, Microsoft's first laptop, isn't purely a laptop. The detachable touchscreen makes it really more of a convertible, albeit one with a more traditionally notebook-style keyboard than the Surface Pro 4's Type Cover.
This setup generated a few 'the laptop to replace the Surface to replace your laptop' gags at the Surface Book's unveiling, but the hardware involved is no joke: this is a top-spec, MacBook Pro-challenging productivity device with a premium price to match.
One aspect of the Surface Pro tablets inherited by the Surface Book is their relative chunkiness. At 232x312x22.8mm, the Surface Book is nearly a full 5mm thicker than the 13.3in MacBook Pro, although admirably it weighs the same at 1.58kg.
Microsoft has been keen to promote the Surface Book's unique 'dynamic fulcrum' hinge, which consists of small segments that seem to roll outward, lifting up the screen, which is attached to the final segment, rather than pivoting on a fixed point. It's a nice aesthetic touch, but honestly it's not yet apparent what, if any, advantages the hinge offers over the mechanisms used by existing convertibles.
Speaking of which, a more impressive feature is the mechanism used to hold the Surface Book's screen in place. It comprises spring-loaded wire locks, which engage or disengage electronically rather than using a flimsy lever to unclip the display. During the launch event, Surface Group corporate vice president Panos Panay demonstrated the wire lock's strength by waving a Surface Book around by its screen before effortlessly releasing it with a button press on the keyboard.
Connectivity is handled by a decent collection of two USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card reader and a Mini DisplayPort, as well as 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Like the new Surface Pro 4, the Surface Book includes a magnetic clip on the tablet section's edge which holds a compatible Surface Pen in place - a handy addition for those with illustrative or notation duties.
A gigantic 3000x2000 resolution ensures the Surface Book has a sharp 267ppi, even with its 13.5in display. That's precisely the same pixel density as the Surface Pro 4, although the bigger Surface Book naturally has the higher resolution.
It's also much sharper on paper than the 13.3in MacBook Pro, which sports a 2560x1600, 227ppi display. Short of the most expensive 4K laptops, don't expect the Surface Book to have much competition in this department when it launches.
The Surface Book will launch with (what else?) Windows 10 Pro pre-installed. We maintain that this is the single best operating system for convertibles, as the Continuum interface can switch between a laptop-friendly desktop view and the touchscreen-optimised tablet mode on the fly. The extensive software compatibility offered by Windows 10 Pro also puts it leagues ahead of Android and iOS as a tablet-powering OS for enterprise use.
It's not perfect, as some IT managers may take issue with Windows 10 Pro's mandatory updates and potentially insecure WiFi Sense sharing feature, but these aren't a huge price to pay for its usability advantages and built-in security tools, like Device Guard anti-malware.
Microsoft is loading the Surface Book with Intel's 6th-generation Skylake chips, specifically from the Core i5 and Core i7 series - the top of the line, in other words. As with the Surface Pro 4, PC-quality performance is well and truly on the table, especially with the Surface Book's hefty 8GB and 16GB RAM options.
An Intel HD Graphics 520 chip is also included across all models, but the really high-end editions - starting at $1,899 - will be fitted with a dedicated 1GB Nvidia GeForce graphics processor as well. This will be placed in the keyboard, so the Surface Book won't be able to take advantage of the extra power when used as a tablet, but should capably handle tasks like 3D modelling and gaming while connected.
Another nice touch is that the 8MP rear-facing and 5MP front-facing cameras are capable of 1080p video capture. A pleasant bonus of this is that the front camera's broadcasting quality should be pretty high as well, making for smooth, clean video calls.
It will also come in useful for Windows Hello, a Windows 10-exclusive feature which allows the user to sign in to a device by looking at the camera. Face recognition software, which is smart enough to avoid being fooled by a photo, will verify that it is indeed the registered user and sign in for them.
With an estimated 12 hours of video playback time, the Surface Book's battery is well ahead of most laptops - but not, notably, the MacBook Pro, which also claims up to 12 hours under the same conditions. Still, that's hardly something to complain about, as both machines should easily last a working day of intensive use.
Models with 128GB, 256GB and 512GB of SSD have all been detailed. Even a 1TB storage option, unprecedented for a convertible, has been announced, although the price for it has not.
That said, 512GB will be plenty in most professional fields, and even the smaller 128GB and 256GB models still offer much more space than the vast majority of consumer tablets.
Credit where it's due: Microsoft's debut attempt at a laptop has the quality hardware and bold design choices of a much more experienced manufacturer. There's very little to dislike in terms of raw specs, from the bang up-to-date processors to the 3K display and lengthy battery life.
However, we have some concerns. Firstly, the prices are borderline terrifying: $1,699 for a middling 256GB, 8GB RAM model, and up to $2,699 for 512GB of storage and the extra Nvidia graphics processor. Secondly, there's significant overlap between the Surface Book and the new Surface Pro 4, the biggest difference seemingly amounting to which keyboard they attach to.
We can't help but wonder whether Microsoft should have settled for making a non-convertible laptop, which would be cheaper. As it stands, even the MacBook Pro is much more affordable, and less likely to trip over the Surface Pro 4 in a dash for market share. We'll have to wait until 26 October, when the Surface Book launches, to see whether Microsoft's touchscreen-heavy strategy truly pays off.
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