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Avoiding Surface tension: Why Microsoft closed a Book to open a Studio

Microsoft's scrapped its detachable to deliver a "pull-forward" convertible that produces less usage case overlap in the Surface product line and aligns its high end better to its priorities.

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The curving hinge of the Surface Book created an idiosyncratic profile that included a small gap at the juncture of its decks. But even that small bit of space turned out to be more than the space available for the 2-in-1 product in the Surface product family. The book has closed on the Surface Book, leaving the Surface Laptop Studio to start a new chapter.

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Microsoft carried over some elements of the Surface Book approach to the Laptop Studio -- something to sit at the top of its mobile lineup and offer a better typing experience than the Surface Pro. Like the Surface Book, using it in its most slate-like state means losing access to the companion keyboard, although Bluetooth is always an option. And, as with the Surface Book, Microsoft worked engineering magic with the product's internal wire management through the product's hinges to realize accelerated performance across its poses. (While Microsoft doesn't promote it, the screen of the Surface Laptop Studio can be flipped back away from the keyboard to create a presentation mode.)

As Microsoft notes, the Laptop Studio borrows a little something from each of the other Surface family members. It offers the traditional clamshell looks and functionality of the Surface Laptop (or really any laptop) and the lay-almost-flat profile of the Surface Pro. And its "pull-forward" design certainly evokes its namesake, the Surface Studio, whose long upgrade absence may indicate it is next in line for a replacement. Unlike the Surface Book, though, the Laptop Studio's display doesn't detach. That means it's far more likely to be a desktop-bound device and precludes some on-the-go usage scenarios. On the other hand, using the Surface Book display untethered meant losing access to the GPU. And then, of course, there was that slight learning curve of the detaching mechanism.

The Surface Laptop Studio is far from the first "pull-forward" convertible. Earlier this year, HP -- which had also dabbled in a dipping desktop with its Windows 8-era Envy Rove "tabletop" -- released the Elite Folio, complete with a Surface Slim Pen 2-like flattened stylus. While that product shared the Laptop Studio's "postures," HP's Qualcomm-powered device was aimed at those who valued ultramobility versus graphics horsepower. Acer also had a similar take on this style of convertible in 2014 with the Aspire R13 with its side-mounted "Ezel Aero" hinge. All support a middle-ground option between clamshell and tablet mode that Microsoft refers to as "stage mode" in which the keyboard is hidden. So engaged, it can lead to the occasional "flow" interruption, but Microsoft has sought to minimize this by making moving between stage and clamshell mode as effortless a one-handed glide as possible.

How does Microsoft's new power laptop entrant differ in its portfolio fit? In my recent column on the iPad mini 6, I mentioned how Apple had put more product space between its smallest iPad and the baseline iPad by imbuing the former with characteristics of the iPad Air. Similarly, the Surface Book's retirement now leaves the Surface Pro (and entry-level Surface Go) as Microsoft's only computers that can really take on applications that demand a true slate.

That leaves the Laptop Studio's value proposition a bit closer to that of the Surface Laptop, which didn't exist when the Surface Book launched. But the positioning change aligns with Surface's purpose, First, given that a major thrust of the Surface Line's mission is to compete with Apple, the chess pieces line up well, with the sleek Surface Laptop taking on the more utilitarian MacBook Air and the Laptop Studio taking on the Macbook Pro. Of course, one of Microsoft's attack points in that competitive battle has been trying to refute Apple's notion that the laptop and tablet need never merge, and particularly the Laptop Studio's support for touch and integrated pen manifest Microsoft's case, at least for creative professionals.

Second, if Surface is to bring out the best of Microsoft, Laptop Studio reflects where Windows 11's touch functionality is most mature: on a surface. For example, when one pulls forward the display into stage mode, Windows 11 adjusts its interface for a more touch-friendly experience, but still a far cry from the kind of touch-first experience we associate with the iPad and Android, one that also did not exist on the detached Surface Book. Perhaps Microsoft will reach that long-sought experience one day. Perhaps, given the relative rarity with which most 2-in-1 users use their devices as a tablet, it will never become a high-enough priority. Regardless, for now it's about accommodation, not optimization.

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