Microsoft becomes full-fledged PC hardware vendor with Surface Book
By Keith Liu October 7, 2015
- New laptop leads Microsoft strategy to expand Windows 10 user base
- More than 110 mil Windows 10 installations since launch
MICROSOFT Corp’s hardware division announced its first ever notebook PC, the Surface Book, highlighting clear intentions to chart its own course in the growing 2-in-1 PC market rather than just relying on third-party partners like Lenovo Group Ltd and HP Inc.
At the Windows devices event in New York on Oct 6, Terry Myerson (pic below), Microsoft’s executive vice president of the Windows and Devices Group said, “We design our Microsoft devices to create and invent categories”.
The biggest example of this is the company’s Surface Pro 3, which, despite ups and downs in the past, has proven to be a success, raking in more than US$3.5 billion last year, according to Myerson.
It’s a form factor which Apple Inc. and Google Inc. are keen to emulate, going by the recent launches of the 13-inch iPad Pro and the Google’s 10-inch Pixel C, both of which include keyboard attachments.
The Surface Book takes this concept to the mainstream PC market, offering a thin but robust-looking laptop that comes with a full-sized keyboard, 12 hours of battery life and a detachable 13.5-inch display.
Most importantly (for many mobile workers at least), it does away with the kick-stand and the weight is evenly distributed so it can be comfortably used on a lap (unlike the Surface Pro 3) - there’s a reason why they’re called laptops, after all.
The Surface Book’s internals, powered by Intel’s latest generation processors, are housed within the display unit, but unlike most 2-in-1 devices in the market, the dock contains not just a second battery (to meet that all day battery life claim), but an optional NVidia discrete graphics card as well as two USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot.
It addition, it includes a full glass touchpad to complement the backlit keyboard.
The screen can also be attached in the opposite direction and folded down (similar to Lenovo’s Yoga PC series) so users can harness the full power of the Surface Book using touch and pen interfaces.
Analysts like Forrester’s JP Gownder who attended Microsoft’s event was very positive on the new device.
“Microsoft showed why it's now an innovator in the industry again. With Surface Book, Microsoft's take on a laptop with a revolutionary form factor and true computing power, Microsoft has done something akin to what it did with the release of the Surface Pro 3 -- set a bar for the entire rest of the industry to try to reach,” he said in a note.
Traditional PC vendors should take notice, since the Surface Book is aimed at the more lucrative high-end space which Apple and Lenovo’s ThinkPad models currently dominate.
“From performance to form factor innovation, the device stands out as a powerful competitor to the MacBook and a clear substitute for bulkier Windows machines,” Gownder added.
Unveiling the product at the event, Panos Panay, Microsoft’s hardware engineering lead said the Surface Book is two times faster than Apple’s Macbook Pro.
Made from the same magnesium alloy construction found on the Surface tablet products, the laptop features a powered locking mechanism which enables users to pull out the screen easily but at the same time is firmly attached when docked.
The Surface Book’s display comes with 6 million pixels (3000 x 2000 resolution) or 267 ppi (pixels per inch) with a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s similar to the Surface tablets, so holding it in portrait mode would feel familiar to using a typical clipboard.
It also supports the company’s new Surface Pen, which provides 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, a virtual eraser at the top of the pen and swappable tips.
However, as one would expect from a premium PC product, the Surface Book doesn’t come cheap, as prices start from US$1500 for a Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128 SSD (solid state drive) model all the way up to US$2700 for a Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD unit (local pricing and availability as yet unannounced).
Surface Pro 4 – smaller bezels, better performance
Where then, would this leave Microsoft’s other key Windows 10 product, the Surface Pro 4?
The tablet which Microsoft says can replace your PC has been upgraded with a slightly larger display despite the same footprint, offering now a 12.3-inch display (compared to 12-inches before), thanks to the thinner bezels.
The Surface Pro 4 is also thinner and lighter overall, but performance-wise, Panay said it’s 30 percent faster than the Surface Pro 3 and 50 percent faster than Apple’s MacBook Air.
He also showed off the new Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard which not only works with the Surface Pro 3 but comes with more spaced-out keys and better travel. Unfortunately, they are still sold as a separate accessory for US$130.
The designers also addressed one of the biggest gripes of the Surface Pro 3, which was the lack of a pen storage option. With the Surface Pro 4, the Surface Pen attaches magnetically to the side of the tablet.
While it doesn’t have the same wow factor as the Surface Book, the Surface Pro 4 offers a more affordable option to get into the 2-in-1 game, with prices starting at US$899 for an Intel Core M model.
Panay also promised future configurations of up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB storage options.
Lumia smartphones can transform into PCs
Microsoft also unveiled the long-rumoured flagship smartphones, the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950 XL, in what is seen as a clear trend these days by hardware vendors to offer two versions of their devices at different sizes and price points.
The Lumia 950 comes with a 5.2-inch display while the 950 XL sports a 5.7-inch screen, taking it firmly into the phablet category.
Taking much of the technology from its Nokia acquisition, the new smartphones feature high-end cameras with 20 megapixel sensors, optical image stabilization and Carl Zeiss lenses, dedicated camera buttons and the new fast USB-C connection.
More uniquely however, it offers what Microsoft calls ‘tablet-class liquid cooling technology’ used in its Surface tablets, which aims to tackle the overheating issues which many new high-end smartphones seem to be facing.
But clearly the focus was on talking up Windows 10’s Continuum feature as the key differentiator for the smartphones, which essentially turns the device into a mini PC.
Connecting the Lumia to the new Microsoft display dock via the USB-C cable, the smartphone’s interface shows up on the monitor like a PC, with the Start menu mirroring the Lumia’s home screen.
Universal apps (like Microsoft Office apps) look and work just like they do on a laptop computer, and files can be saved on the phone, the cloud or even removable drives.
Users also control the interface just like they do on a PC, with full keyboard and mouse support.
How well this would resonate with phone consumers and IT professionals is still up in the air, but key factors would be the availability of Universal Windows apps and support from the developer ecosystem.
The future on Windows
In a bid to shore up developer interest in the platform, Myerson said at the event that Windows 10 has been installed on more than 110 million PCs to date (in about 10 weeks since the launch), and that developer revenue had increased four times since the new Windows Store went live.
The company’s game console, Xbox One will get upgraded to Windows 10 by the holiday season, adding millions of customers more to the ecosystem.
He also announced that Facebook would be releasing Universal Windows apps for the Facebook, Instagram and Messenger clients, among a slew of other content partners.
With this hardware launch spanning across laptop, tablet, smartphone and game console categories, the time could finally be here for Microsoft to see through its vision for Windows, as outlined by company chief executive Satya Nadella, “a mobile, personal, trusted service…a unified platform for people, developers and IT.”