Surface Book: Microsoft to turn unsuccessful tab into unsuccessful laptop

Just joshing, Redmond – its first proper tab-top is packed with power and $1500 price tag


As expected, Microsoft has updated its Surface Pro fondleslab with a new model powered by Intel's latest silicon. But unexpectedly, it has also produced a laptop version of the platform that is going to make Apple sick.

The Surface family had a rocky start, some might even say unsuccessful, with small marketshare gains – but we're told newer slabs are showing signs of promise. Now Microsoft has taken the hardware one step further in an attempt to really grab people's attention.

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"The Surface Book is the ultimate laptop," gushed Panos Panay, Microsoft's veep of Surface computing, on Tuesday at a launch event in New York City. "Ounce for ounce, it's the fastest laptop ever made – twice as fast as the MacBook Pro."

The laptop's 13.5-inch screen is detachable, and on its own acts as a tablet. The machine has two batteries and twin GPUs – a bog-standard Intel GPU in the screen and an Nvidia GeForce GPU in the base unit, and if the software can handle using both, then you've got an Alienware-grade gaming machine.

Used as a laptop, the Surface Book will give 12 hours of battery life, and just using the screen alone will have "a few hours," according to demo staff. The machine runs Intel's sixth-generation Core i5 and i7 processors, comes with 8 or 16GB of RAM, and has options for 128, 256, 512GB, or 1TB solid-state hard drives.

Also bundled in are two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, an eight megapixel back camera, and a forward-facing five megapixel sensor that's also compatible with Microsoft Hello biometrics. It uses the same charger as the latest Surface Pro systems and has charging ports on both the screen and the base of the unit.

To detach the screen, there's a button on the backlit keyboard which must be depressed for two seconds – to avoid accidentally pressing it while typing, a Microsoft flack explained. It can be attached either way around, turning the entire unit into a tablet if need be.

This solves what Panay called (repeatedly) the lapability problem with Surface – quite simply most tablets can't be comfortably used on your lap with a keyboard attached. Google has done sterling work in this area, but Microsoft has just decided to build a convertible laptop to fix the issue.

The screen/tablet alone weighs 1.6lb, while the whole unit is a very portable 3.34lb, or 3.48lb with the extra GPU option. The whole device will go on sale October 26 for $1,499, but that's for the base spec model without the extra graphics chip. If you want the graphics grunt you're looking at around $1,900.

The Surface Book is going to cause some serious head scratching at Apple. Quite frankly, it makes the MacBook Pro line look like yesterday's jam, operating system aside.

On that point, a couple of Reg readers asked via Twitter if it's possible to run Linux on the device. When asked, the flack grimaced and said that, as it's a standard Intel system, running a Linux build should be possible, but said he'd get back to me with a fuller answer.

Oh yes, and there's a new fondleslab

Microsoft kept the Surface Book launch tightly under wraps, but – as expected – the Surface Pro fondleslab got an upgrade.

Panay said that the Surface business is now worth $3.5bn to Microsoft and the last build of the tablet doubled sales of the device. The fourth iteration is even better, he promised, while putting the boot into Apple.

"We have competitors – you may have noticed – chasing it, that's pretty cool," he said. "What do you do? Do you double down, or do you thunder, or do you reinvent the category again? Guess what we chose." (Hint: thunder, as in AC/DC's Thunderstruck.)

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The new Surface Pro 4 is a bit thinner at 8.4mm, 30 per cent faster than the previous model thanks to the latest Intel silicon (and 50 per cent faster than the MacBook Air he noted), and now comes with up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of solid state hard drive.

The screen has been enlarged slightly to 12.3 inches within the same shell by squeezing down the bezels for more acreage. The whole unit is also slightly lighter than its predecessor. Prices start at $899 and the new units are available from October 26.

For ports you get a full-sized USB 3.0 and a mini DisplayPort slot. Microsoft also unveiled a desktop adapter for the fondleslab (which also works with the Surface 3) containing four USB 3.0 ports, two 4k DisplayPort slots, and an Ethernet socket.

Redmond has also tuned up the accessories for the Surface. The TypePad keyboard has been rebuilt with wider keys and a trackpad that's 40 per cent larger, and a fingerprint reader has been added that can be used by both the Surface 3 and 4 models.

The rear camera has been upgraded to eight megapixels and the front camera can now handle Microsoft Hello biometric facial scanning. While that's handy, hackers have shown it's a far-from-perfect security option.

The Pen has also got an upgrade. Panay said that around half of Surface owners use the pen function. The new stylus has a one-year battery life, interchangeable tips for different work purposes, and now clips onto the rim of the device.

Taken together, the new hardware poses serious threats to Apple's hegemony as the luxury laptop and fondleslab vendor of choice. Cook & Co will have to respond to this – and Apple's record is good at innovation – but Microsoft has drawn a line in the sand with the new models. ®

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