Analysts like to describe product advances in terms of “tick” and “tock.” Intel and Apple, in particular, seem to run out ahead with a passel of new features -- the “tick” -- and follow that up a year or so later with incremental improvements: the “tock.”
Microsoft's Surface Pro models have been one tock after another since the original was introduced in early 2013. But today, at Microsoft's gala event in New York, we heard a very loud tick in the form of the Surface Book, a new convertible laptop that corporate vice president for Surface Computing, Panos Panay, proudly unveiled as “the thinnest, most powerful PC ever created.”
The Surface Book could finally make Microsoft a laptop player to be reckoned with. This is one sexy piece of hardware. Think of it as a Surface Pro with goosed performance and a real, hinged, attached keyboard that can be removed easily.
The cutting-edge design of the Surface Book is unique. The 13.5-inch screen can be detached and used as a tablet -- or popped out, rotated 180 degrees, and folded back down over the keyboard. The net result is a flop-over screen like that of the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, except that you can also carry the very thin screen all by itself.
Microsoft offers an optional Nvidia GeForce GPU that plugs in the keyboard base and helps drive the Surface Book's performance to Tesla-ludicrous levels. Buy the GPU and you get an extra battery in the keyboard. As with the Surface Pro 4, the screen runs at 267 PPI. There are two USB 3 ports and a full-size SD card slot, all in the keyboard base. The backlit keyboard has 1.6 mm throw (yes!) and a big glass trackpad. Microsoft claims 12 hours of battery life. It also says there’s a Hello-capable face recognition camera. We shall see.
The Surface Book with an i5 CPU, Intel HD graphics 520, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage lists at $1,499. Up that to 256GB storage for an extra $200, or go all the way up to an i7 with 16GB memory and 512GB of storage, and the Nvidia GeForce processor puts you in nosebleed country at $2,699.
Of course, we won’t know for sure if the Surface Book can live up to its promise until we’ve had a chance to review the real, final product.
Ironically, today’s announcement began with the Surface Pro 4, which fell into the same-old, same-old category. The Surface Pro 4, with a Skylake class processor, apparently drops the SP3’s fan -- not exactly an improvement in the “tick” category. The screen size went from 11.6 inches to 12.3 inches without increasing the size of the case, at a sub-Retina density of 267 pixels per inch or 2,736 by 1,824. There’s a new stylus with an “eraser” on the back and one year battery life; the stylus is magnetic, so it sticks to the Surface without a loop. There’s one USB 3 port (the i5 and i7 machines have a USB charging port and a larger battery) and a MicroSD card reader. A lighter, thinner cover with 1.3 mm throw (ho-hum), larger, glass trackpad and fingerprint reader on the right round out the tock-tock-tock evolutionary nature of the Surface Pro line.
Surface Pro 4 comes with Intel Core M, i5 or i7 processors. The basic M3 with 4GB of RAM and 128GB storage costs $899. The full-tilt i7 with 16GB of RAM and 512GB storage ramps up to $2,199, plus the $130 keyboard, of course.