Yesterday Microsoft unveiled the Surface Pro 4, which, in the company's words is "the tablet that can replace your laptop." Then, as part of a "one more thing" reveal, it also unveiled a new laptop, the Surface Book.
Be in no doubt that, on paper at any rate, these devices are the best when it comes to Windows tablets and laptops. Microsoft has taken the very best components currently on offer -- specifically the sixth-generation Intel Core processors, PixelSense displays, and handfuls of RAM -- and put them inside a thin, sleek, and durable magnesium alloy chassis.
These devices are the business.
Which brings me to the second point: Business. These devices aren't aimed at the home user or the gamer. These devices have business written all over them. From the gigabytes of RAM to the TPM modules to even the images used to promote these devices on Microsoft's website, it's clear that the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book are aimed squarely at professionals. What kind or professional -- business, designer, musician, artist, engineer -- is up to you, but there is no question in my mind that these are not your usual mass-market budget fare built to satisfy a low price point.
Which brings me to the price.
The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book start at a very reasonable $899 and $1,499 respectively, but if you load these puppies up to the brim you need to take a seat before taking a look at the price tag. A fully-loaded Surface Pro 4, featuring an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD for storage, or the highest-specced Surface Book, which features an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD for storage, will both set you back $2,699. These devices will undoubtedly deliver the performance, but it won't come cheap.
During the unveiling demo Microsoft pointed out that the Surface Pro 4 is 30 percent faster than the Surface Pro 3 and 50 percent faster than the MacBook Air, while the Surface Book was described as being about twice as fast as the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
So how does the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book compare to the iPad Pro or the MacBook Pro? Well, I could devote a lot of time and effort to dissecting the specs and trying to make valid comparisons between the two ecosystems but to be quite honest there's little point. Comparing the Surface Pro 4 to the iPad Pro is an apples versus oranges comparison, while comparing the Surface Book to the current MacBook Pro, which is due for a hardware refresh anytime soon, is comparing old apples to new oranges.
I could crunch data and pull out conclusions that would please some fanboys and inflame others, but it's pointless (not that that will stop the folks who like to trumpet their favourite multibillion dollar corporation from doing so). These are different animals aimed at different ecosystems.
That said, there are some points worth floating to the surface:
- It's all about ecosystem. Where do you want to be? Windows, OS X, or iOS? If you're a Windows shop, and that's where you want to be for the foreseeable future, this hardware could be responsible for some seriously scary purchase orders in the near future.
- Much like the iPad Pro and the MacBook Pro, the focus here is on high-end premium not the "build it cheap and ship it fast" mass-market. Some may see this as a missed opportunity, but they're wrong because that end of the market is already saturated.
- Barring any real-world issue, the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are the best Windows-powered tablets and notebooks available. There, I've said it. The OEMs will no doubt try to copy them, but premium products are a great way for regular OEMs to lose a lot of money. Microsoft doesn't need these devices to bolster its bottom line, it needs them to foster the Windows 10 ecosystem.
- Those "starting at" prices are just the beginning, and at the top end these systems are far pricier than Apple's offerings.
- Remember that the 13-inch MacBook Pro being used to compare the Surface Book to is powered by fifth-generation Intel Core hardware and is due for an upgrade before the year's out.
- That Surface Pen will be interesting to those with a creative flair as it allows on-screen inking.
- Neither the Surface Pro 4 nor the Surface Book features a Thunderbolt port, so high-end Mac users who have invested in Thunderbolt hardware are unlikely to be interested.
- That said, those USB 3.0 ports offer a great deal more expansion opportunity over the iPad Pro.
- Microsoft's own message is confused. At the same time as unveiling the Surface Book laptop it was calling the Surface Pro 4 "the tablet that can replace your laptop," which sort of suggests it thinks laptops are on the way out. OK, the Surface Book is a hybrid, but all but the most educated and well-informed buyers still think of them as laptops.
If I were in the market for a high-end Windows system where price wasn't an issue then, assuming that there are no real-world gotchas (take a look at the reviews for the Surface Pro 3 power supply for one reason why I never bought a Surface Pro 3) then it would be either the Surface Pro 4 or the Surface Book.
That said, three things that bother me:
- The rigid hardware upgrade structure is annoying. For example, if you want a Surface Book with 512GB of storage then you have to go for the Core i7 with 16GB of RAM.
- As my colleague James Kendrick pointed out, the price tag of the Surface Book is hard to swallow, especially for first-generation hardware (and I'm feeling like this despite being someone who buys Apple hardware).
- When I buy Apple hardware I know that as long as I take out AppleCare coverage I have a device that's going to last me a minimum of three years.
Microsoft's hardware comes with a one-year limited warranty and I don't see any option for extending that. UPDATE: Several readers have pointed out that Microsoft offers a two-year extended warranty covering all sorts of mishaps for $250.
What I can say with near certainty is that if Microsoft had come out with the Surface Book before I made the switch to Mac then there's a chance that I might not have made the switch. It's a shame that Microsoft got too obsessed chasing the iPad to come out with something as obvious as a laptop. I guess it needed to get that whole Windows 8 touch-first nonsense stuff out of its system.
The Surface Book is the product people have been asking for. Whether it's at a price people are willing to pay is another matter (that's a gamble Microsoft is clearly willing to take), but you can't say Microsoft hasn't delivered the goods.
I wonder what Microsoft's hardware partners make of such a bold and on the whole very well executed, incursion into their territory? I'm convinced that Microsoft's hardware partners will lose more sleep over this than Apple will.