With Surface Book 2, Microsoft shows off its vision of the PC's future

Microsoft claims its new Surface Book 2 devices pack more computational power than any competitor. Can these super-premium devices convince other PC makers to raise the bar as well?

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Microsoft Surface Book 2: Specs, pricing, availability

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Video: Microsoft Surface Book 2 first look

Microsoft has never been shy about going head-to-head with Apple when promoting its Surface PCs. The Surface Book 2 line, announced Oct. 17 alongside the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, follows in that rich tradition.

At a recent invitation-only event in San Francisco (East Coast reporters had a separate event a few days later), Surface boss Panos Panay offered a sneak peek at Microsoft's new flagship devices, in 13.5-inch and 15-inch models, and compared them directly to the MacBook Pro 13 and 15.

Must read: Microsoft Surface Book 2 is bigger and better (CNET)

In terms of specs, it's really no contest, Panay argued. For performance-obsessed designers and creative professionals, Microsoft has a distinct advantage, at least for now. On paper, the new Surface Book 2 models offer twice the performance of their Apple-branded rivals, with 70 percent more battery life and a brighter, higher-resolution display.

surface-book-2-usb-c-port.jpg

That USB Type-C port (left of the Surface Connect port) is a first for the Surface line.

In the 13.5-inch model, that's three times more computational power than the first-generation Surface Book in a nearly identical package. The top-of-the-line 15-inch model is five times more powerful than its predecessor, thanks to an 8th-generation Intel Kaby Lake Core i7 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU. (The 13.5-inch model has a slightly less powerful GTX 1050 GPU and also offers a version without discrete GPU.)

But those specs are only part of the story. The point of the new Surface Book isn't just to offer an alternative to Apple's laptops. An even bigger motivation is to show other PC OEMs how to compete in the profitable high end of the market, where Apple has an outsized market share.

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The way to compete against Apple, Microsoft argues, isn't just with faster hardware, but rather with a different vision of what a PC is and what it does. And that vision involves all the factors, hardware and software, that separate modern PCs from Macs.

I only had a few minutes of hands-on time with the new Surface Book 2 devices, so this isn't a review. But because the Surface Book 2 design is virtually unchanged from the original Surface Book, it's easy to look at the internal changes (and the one big external addition) and make some predictions.

Doubling down on the 2-in-1 concept

Like its predecessor, the Surface Book 2 display detaches so that it can used as a tablet. That means two batteries, one in the display and one in the base, which collectively add up to an eye-popping 17 hours of claimed battery life. (I expect real-world battery life measurements to be smaller, but if these devices can consistently last for 10-plus hours, it will be a remarkable achievement.)

On paper, the new Surface Book 2 isn't exactly svelte, checking in at 3.4 to 3.6 pounds for the smaller laptop and 4.2 pounds for the larger model. But, in the hand, both devices feel amazingly light and well balanced.

That's especially true after detaching the tablet from the base. Using the Surface Book 2 as a tablet invites comparisons to the iPad Pro, which is only a few grams lighter than the 13.5-inch Surface Book 2. For any task that involves a pen, it's extremely comfortable.

In fact, when I held the two pieces separately, they were so light I was convinced they were engineering mock-ups. Snapping the display and the base together again and typing a few sentences made me aware of just how speedy this laptop is, and it didn't feel heavy at all.

The Windows 10 vision

In the past five years, Microsoft has managed to fundamentally shift expectations for what a high-end business PC should do. Meanwhile, Apple has stayed relatively true to the conventional PC model, saving its hardware innovation for iOS-based mobile devices.

The biggest differentiator, of course, is the touchscreen, which is essential for any 2-in-1-based device. The Surface Book 2, like its cousin, the Surface Pro, also offers robust support for the Surface Pen, and the Fall Creators Update release of Windows 10 enhances that support impressively.

Every Surface device also supports authentication through facial recognition with the Windows Hello feature. It's remarkably effective and almost magical in operation. (That feature is only now beginning to appear in the latest iPhones and isn't available on Macs at all.)

I expect premium build quality from any device with the Surface label, and these devices didn't disappoint. The keyboard has a snappier feel compared to the original Surface Book, which is already one of the best laptop keyboards in the Windows world.

After years of suffering with janky touchpads on Windows PCs, it's a joy to use the Precision Touchpad on Surface devices. The touchpad alone used to be a reason to prefer a Mac; that's no longer true. A lot of the credit for those improvements goes to Windows 10, which provides that baseline support.

Microsoft's USB-C conundrum

One crucial difference between the Surface Book 2 and its predecessor is so small you might not notice it at first. On the right side of the device, where the mini-DisplayPort adaptor used to be, you'll now find a USB Type-C port. The design still includes two USB 3.1 Type-A ports on the left side.

I've seen some confusion over what that single Type-C port is capable of, so I got some detailed specs earlier today.

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Microsoft expects that the most common use case for that port will be to plug in an adapter that feeds video to an HDMI or DisplayPort connection. But the same port also supports USB 3.1 (Gen 1) devices, which means you can plug in an external storage device or network adapter and expect it to work. (The port does not support the Thunderbolt standard.)

The USB Type-C port also supports power delivery. Depending on the Surface Book base, the USB Type-C port can draw either 39W or 95W, the same as the Surface Connect power supply. The catch is you must use a USB Type-C charger with an actual Type-C port that supports the Power Delivery 2.0 or 3.0 standard. (The 87W MacBook Pro charger should work just fine.)

On the other hand, if you plug in the USB Type-C charger that came with your phone, you're less likely to succeed. Any charger that uses a Type-A to Type-C adapter will not charge, and a USB Type-C compliant charger that outputs relatively low power (7.5W minimum) will be agonizingly slow.

You can also use the USB Type-C port in reverse, to charge an external device. Maximum power output is 15W (5V at 3.0A), which should be fine for phones, tablets, and other small external devices.

Microsoft continues to argue that its blade-shaped Surface Connector is a better choice for power supply and docking with the Surface Dock. But for anyone who wants a USB Type-C dock, the new connector is a perfectly good option. (For older models, a dongle will soon allow USB Type-C connections to the Surface Connect port.)

Ironically, Microsoft faces the same problem as Apple, which is still figuring out whether (and if so, how and when) to replace its proprietary Lightning connectors with USB Type-C, and in the meantime, it has both.

The Surface Book 2 devices aren't cheap, starting at $1,499 and going to nearly $3,300 for a fully outfitted 15-inch device.

Those rarefied price points are distinctly Apple-like, but they send a clear message to other PC OEMs: If you build a premium device, demanding business buyers will pay a premium price.

Previous and related coverage

Windows 10 Update: How Microsoft is thinking differently about hardware and software

Maybe this 'One Microsoft' thing really is taking hold -- at least if you believe Microsoft's account of how the latest Surface Book, Windows 10 feature update and new Office release all came to be.

Microsoft Surface Book 2: Specs, pricing, availability

Microsoft's new MacBook Pro competitor will start shipping new 13.5-inch and 15-inch Surface Book 2 high-performance laptops as of mid-November. Here's what to expect.

Windows 10 Fall Creators Update: New features to try, but don't rush to install it

The fourth feature update to Windows 10 is here now. It's packed with a wide assortment of new and refined features, including some new security options designed to block zero-day exploits and ransomware. But should you upgrade now?

Microsoft's Surface Book 2 is what the next MacBook Pro should be (but almost certainly won't)

If Microsoft's new Surface Book 2 ran macOS, it would be the perfect MacBook Pro.

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