Microsoft charges into laptop market with Surface Book

Notebook-that-replaces-a-tablet starts at $1,499, goes on sale Oct. 26

Microsoft today introduced its first legitimate laptop, the Surface Book, a keyboard-equipped premium-priced notebook that can gymnastically twist into a slate or snap apart to serve as a tablet.

"What if you wanted a Surface, but you wanted a laptop Surface? What if we did a laptop?" asked Panos Panay, Microsoft's top executive for its Surface portfolio, during a two-hour presentation in New York that also saw the unveiling of the Surface Pro 4, a pair of flagship Lumia smartphones and device accessories.

A fired-up Panay answered his own question. "We made the ultimate laptop. We made Surface Book."

The Surface Book may be a sibling to the existing Surface Pro line, but the crucial difference is that the former is more a notebook-that-replaces-a-tablet than the latter, which for the last three years has worked from the other end as a tablet-that-replaces-a-notebook.

Weighing in at 3.5 lbs. as a complete package, the Surface Book boasts a 13.5-in. high-resolution display, a sixth-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processor -- from the chips code-named "Skylake" -- up to 16GB of RAM, and solid-state storage space ranging from 128GB to 512GB.

microsoft surface book

Five models are available, with varying amounts of RAM and storage space, different CPUs and for the three upper-end models, a discrete Nvidia GeForce GPU (graphics processor unit). The line starts at $1,499 for a Book with 128GB of storage, 8GB of memory and a Core i5 processor, then climbs to the top-of-the-line $2,699 device with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory, 512GB of storage and the Nvidia GPU.

Between those bookends, the Surface Book costs $1,899 (two separate models) or $2,099.

Although the Book's keyboard is included with the purchase -- unlike its Surface Pro 4 sibling and earlier devices in the Surface collection -- it does detach, a reveal that Panay held until almost the end of his time on stage. Minus the keyboard, the device weighs 1.6 lbs., or slightly less than the Surface Pro 4 sans its optional keyboard.

Analysts at the briefing were impressed. "What they did was a really good follow-up to the Surface Pro 3," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, referring to the tablet-becomes-a-notebook Surface Pro 4. "Then they one-upped it."

That ante was the Surface Book, which remained firmly in the slice of the market in which Microsoft has long said it wants to play. "Although the Surface [Book] is technically a detachable, it's another step in signaling that Microsoft is still not happy with what the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are producing," said Moorhead.

Steven Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group, was also piqued, but argued that that wasn't surprising, considering the price points. "It's really nice when you can focus on building a premium product at a premium price," Baker said after the Microsoft event concluded, referring to the Book's positioning in a category where corners did not have to be cut. "It's well-designed and engineered."

Ryan Reith of IDC got his look at the Surface Book last week on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash. campus, and echoed Moorhead and Baker. "It's expensive and very nice looking," Reith said today. "It's a big machine, and definitely a laptop."

But he had reservations. "The hinge is unlike anything else I've seen," Reith added. "It doesn't really close all the way. It's like a book that's had three chapters cut out and the binding doesn't touch. They put a lot into that hinge, but it makes the Book look a little funky."

microsoft surface book hinge

The special hinge on the Surface Book can perform all kinds of interesting tricks.

Reith admitted that may be a minor detail to some, or even many, but he thought it important, if only because of the constant comparisons Panay drew between the Surface Book and Apple's top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, a two-screen-size notebook set that starts at $1,299 for a model with an Intel Core i5 (although not a CPU out of the Skylake collection), 128GB of storage, a 13.3-in. high-res display and 8GB of RAM in a 3.5-lbs. package.

"When something [like the Surface Book] looks like nothing in the industry, you take notice of the details," said Reith. "The MacBook Pro is so sleek and closes up so snuggly that the Book's hinge stood out to me. I found it a mixed bag."

While a rumor or two had floated before today that Microsoft might unveil a larger-sized Surface Pro tablet, the Book was a well-kept secret that caught virtually every analyst by surprise. "It threw me for a loop," admitted Reith.

"Microsoft is taking a unique angle here," said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that follows only Microsoft. Calling the Book, a "laptop-first" device -- unlike the Surface Pro, which he considered, contrary to Microsoft's marketing, as really a tablet-first design -- Miller tied the new notebook to Microsoft's similar philosophy for Windows 10.

"Best of both worlds," said Miller, reflecting on not only the tablet-notebook conundrum, but also on Windows 10's strategy to be a first-rate blend of touch and traditional mouse-and-keyboard operation and user interfaces (UIs).

"Microsoft's trying not to compromise" with the Surface Book, said Miller. And in most ways, it succeeded.

Baker, too, put the Book into context. "What they're focusing on here is the value level of productivity," he said, referring to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's campaign to cast his company as the benchmark in productivity software and as a productivity platform.

Microsoft began taking pre-orders for the Book today, and will start selling them at retail -- and delivering pre-ordered units -- on Oct. 26.

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