Perfection is impossible. Its an human asymptote. We have a general sense, in theory, what it should look like or how it should work… but it is literally impossible to reach as long as we operate as human beings. But that doesn’t mean we cannot get closer and closer. We can. lol this of course is still a comical concept, because no matter how close we get to perfection, we are still relatively super far away… infinitely far away to be exact, which of course makes design and engineering super interesting. We can rest assure that there is always more work to be done, and that we can always advance technology while refining and simplifying functionality and design.
Microsoft just made a big leap in that process towards perfection with the unveiling of the most revolutionary laptop in human history. And I don’t say that lightheartedly. I mean it. From power, to design, to OS, to flexibility, to general creativity, this thing has literally smacked every existing device square in the mouth, perhaps even cannibalizing its little brother the Surface Pro 4.
Introducing the Surface Book. Yes Book… there is clearly a serious battle going on between Microsoft and Apple marketing teams. The iPad Pro is after for the Surface Pro 3, now Microsoft comes back at Apple with a much more powerful punch. But before we dive into specifics, lets give a quick briefing of how we’ve landed in this particular moment in personal computing history.
Steve and Steve were the first real successful engineers and distributers of the Personal Computer. Computers were around far earlier then Job’s era, but they were mostly used in high tech labs and government facilities. They were the equivalent to today’s super-computers which are used in labs that work with huge amounts of data and really complex mathematical analysis. But it was Jobs who challenged the status quo and placed the computer in people’s homes. Bill Gates took this further and built software tools for those computers in people’s houses.
This was a great step. But it wasn’t everything. The computer was heavy and needed to be constantly tethered. If you wanted to write a Word document in your favorite coffee shop, you were out of luck lol. You’d better have paper and pencil and a paper. (more on that in a moment)
Well the solution was simple, put a battery in the All-in-one, shrink everything, and you’re good to go… literally. And so they did that. Technically speaking, the first mass-produced laptop was this son of a gun…
The Osborne1 by Osborne Computer Corporation released in 1981. But to be honest, this thing likely wasn’t super lap-worthy, and the screen was far too small for normal usage. This attempt was followed by quite a few attempts by the likes of HP, IBM, Compaq, and Espon, but Apple’s second attempt at battery powered computer, the Powerbook (released 1991) I would say is the most laptop-worthy origin when it comes to the laptop form-factor.
And ever sense 1991, Apple has maintained an edge with the laptop category, much to the gratitude of chief designer Jony Ives who’s famously known for applying the same level of attention to detail to computers as one would to a designer piece of furniture.
Unfortunately, it took other hardware manufactures decades to get the memo, and so it was always a no brainer which computer you would buy if you wanted the most premium device…. an Apple computer.
But eventually OEMs did catch on… Quite comically so. For a while it seemed as though other OEM’s were copying Apple’s design language without even thinking twice about originality. Hence…
And while these are still relatively aesthetically pleasing devices, they are still lack originally and they give Apple’s MacBook’s more credence in mimicking process. Microsoft saved the PC market from its expected death by introducing the first Operating System that could function as a tablet OS and a desktop OS simultaneously; Windows 8.
And while Windows 8 wasn’t the prettiest sight to behold either, it was an integral step in computing history…. a step that Apple is refusing to take to this day. You see, the great visionary Steve Jobs believed that tablets would one day replace the laptop as the PC for the average consumer. And in a way, this is somewhat true. But he failed to realize that the physical keyboard remains an integral component to people’s productivity lives. As much as we’d like to get rid of it, we cannot find any alternative to typing on physical keys that will produce more efficiency and speed and textual accuracy. And so the question we now have to ask is:
how do we create the future of personal computing with the same productive prowess as the past?
Well the question sort-of insinuates a combination of two parallel worlds.
Form Factor = Tablet + Laptop
Software = Mobile + Professional
Hardware = Light + Powerful
In essence, this is the methodology by which Microsoft envisioned their Surface line of products, with its newest edition the Surface Pro 4.
Aka, “the tablet that can replace your laptop”, which I think its a pretty misleading catch phrase. I would much rather coin it as “the next PC” or the “new computer”. Because in reality, you can still buy a better laptop, and you can still buy a better tablet than the Surface. And thinking of the Surface in this manner can diminish the appreciation that is due. What makes this device unique is that it can be whatever you want it to be and do really well at it. In comparison, if you wanted the same functionality as a Surface Pro 4, you would need to buy a powerful laptop and a tablet with an active digitizer…. which would not only cost significantly more than the Surface, but it would be more weight in your bag, more pieces to keep track of, more time when you want to switch from one to the other, and most importantly… more power cords plugged into your already cluttered desk wall. The Surface is the first computer that can do whatever you want it to do…. it is essentially the proper evolution of the tablet and the laptop. But it wasn’t enough.
Despite Surface Pro’s surprising level of success in the market, there were many people that still felt that there were compromises too large to risk betting on. For example, the Surface’s battery life is less than satisfactory at around 6-7 hours on a full charge. The display is only 12.3 inches diagonally, which is pretty small for many professionals. The kickstand and keyboard cover, although innovative, were are still not as lap friendly as a traditional laptop. And perhaps most importantly, the Surface Pro lacks a dedicated GPU which is essentially for many creative pros.
Microsoft’s Surface Book seeks to overlap the Surface Pro’s advantages while offering some distinct features of its own. Featuring a 10point multi-touch 13.5inch 3k display with a sleek unitbody magnesium alloy design, the Surface Book is a downright beauty. And at first glance, its a laptop. But what makes the Surface Book unique is that 90% of the PC is housed in the display so that you can deathwatch and use as a large canvas tablet, or “Clipboard” as Microsoft calls it. You essentially get the same specs as in the tablet portion of the Surface Book, but because there is no USB 3.0 port on the clipboard Microsoft was able to make a thinner tablet than the smaller Surface Pro 4. And rumor has it that its lighter as well…. and I can attest to this as I have had hands on with both the SP4 and the Surface Book. The Surface Book tablet portion is so unbelievable light that it feels as if you are holding a dummy model.
Moving on, the keyboard is where things get super interesting. You have the option of including a discrete graphics card in the keyboard, which kicks in when the clipboard is connected and resigns when the clipboard is detached. Its a brilliant design decision. From dynamic backlighting to a glass touchpad, the Surface Book keyboard is not a gimmick, its high quality design. The magnesium alloy used for the Surface Book is a very light silver shade which is smooth to the touch, and cold of course. I personally love how depending on the lighting, the Surface looks pale white, and in other conditions the Surface looks “space grey” 🙂 It’s a very unique approach to relatively uneventful metal.
Something that most of you will scratch your head for is the folding hinge which seems to have a flexibility problem. There is an unmistable gap when the Book is closed, and for many people, this is an eye sore. The hinge Microsoft used for the Surface Book is a custom hinge that is designed to both withstand the added weight of the clipboard and to add some extra surface area to support the Book when in laptop mode. Its a clever approach, but it would be nice to see a hinge that achieves the same goals without the gap. I personally find the gap peculiar and attractive at the same time, but I think it can be a turn off to many other people.
There lies one other downside in this nearly perfect laptop, the clipboard battery life. Because most of the PC is in the tablet portion, Microsoft had to make sure that the tablet portion wouldn’t be unproportionally heavy in comparison to the keyboard. If the clipboard is too heavy, the computer will constantly tip when it reaches a certain degree of rotation. So you will find about 3 hours of battery on the clipboard and up to 9 hours of battery on the keyboard portion. This equality to 12 total hours, but I would like to see at least 5-6 hours of battery in the clipboard portion. 3 hours is tiptoeing the boarder between the clipboard being an afterthought and it being a daily use case.
Aside from these small gripes, I definitely see the Surface Book as the new generation of personal computing for the next half decade or so. I am a firm believer in minimalism and ridding ourselves of the things that are not essential. The Surface Book rids me of any need to get a separate tablet and separate PC. It is the first laptop I have ever seen that does all that I would want a laptop to do…. Power, mobility, stability, versatility, note taking, sketching, fun, productivity, personal, interactive, all in one package. Microsoft has started a movement, and I am very eager to get involved.
So is it the Ultimate Laptop? Well yes and no. The concept is, but the implementation is about 15 percent away from ultimate status. Here are some things I think Microsoft should focus on for the Surface Book 2:
- Improving clipboard mode battery life up to at least 5-6 hours
- Close the hinge gap
- Add tilt sensitivity to Surface Pen
- Upgrade discrete GPU to at least GTX 950
- Increase screen real estate
- Include kickstand in clipboard