There are three design elements that set the Surface Book apart from the MacBook Pro.
First, Microsoft brings touchscreen functionality to the Surface Book. Apple, on the other hand, forces you to choose between touch on the iPad and traditional keyboard and touchpad inputs on the MacBook franchise.
Second, the screen detaches. The form factor is actually similar to the Surface Pro 4, but rather than a slim Type Cover, the Surface Book utilizes a more solid and traditional keyboard dock constructed of metal. The keyboard dock is more similar to the keyboard base of a traditional notebook, like the Apple MacBook Pro, or HP's convertible Spectre x360, making for a more stable laptop experience when Surface Book is used on your lap.
And third, once the screen detaches, users can interact with the display using touch or the new Surface Pen.
In terms of form factors, users can use the Surface Book as a laptop, with improved lapability compared to the Surface Pro series, as a tablet, in display mode with the screen docked and facing away from the keyboard or in tablet mode with the screen docked on top of the keyboard.
To get the maximum performance out of the Surface Book, you'll need to keep the tablet docked to the keyboard, as that's where the discrete Nvidia GeForce GPU is housed. To keep performance speedy, the GPU makes use of GDDR5 memory.
The discrete Nvidia graphics found in the dock is in addition to the discrete Intel HD Graphics that's part of Intel's sixth generation Skylake architecture on the tablet portion of the Surface Book.
For its design novelty, Microsoft isn't the first to envision delivering more power to computer users through a dock. Before Lenovo launched its ThinkPad Helix, the company had a prototype convertible with an ARM processor on the tablet portion, allowing the slate to be used as an Android tablet with longer battery life. When docked to a keyboard that housed a more powerful Intel Core i5 processor, the prototype convertible would switch to the desktop-class Windows OS when in laptop mode.
Another device with more powerful docking capabilities is the MSI GS30 Shadow gaming notebook with its graphics dock. Unlike the Surface Book and prototype Helix, the MSI GS30 is just a plain laptop, and not a convertible device. When the notebook is docked to its base, which houses speakers and a more powerful graphics card, gamers will get desktop-like gaming performance from the laptop.
Apple will likely update its MacBook Pro to Skylake in the future, but the exact refresh timing is not known. Currently, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is powered by Intel's fifth generation Broadwell architecture and Intel Iris Graphics 6100, so performance isn't quite as zippy as with Skylake. Additionally, there is no option for discrete graphics on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. For discrete graphics, you'll need to move up to the larger 15-inch model.
Another benefit to Skylake is that the integrated graphics can drive up to two additional 4K displays simultaneously, which is beneficial for small business owners who desire the flexibility of a tablet when on the go, a laptop for productivity and a multi-monitor workstation setup when at a desk.
Microsoft didn't mention the specific Nvidia graphics chip that is bundled with its Surface Book, but likely the company is using software optimization to extract the most performance. Small business owners who work with copious amounts of data, edit photos and videos or play games on their down time may benefit from the power of having a discrete GPU, and this is where the Surface Book edges ahead of the smaller MacBook Pro and even the Surface Pro 4.
"Ounce for ounce, this is the fastest 13-inch product ever made," said Panay in his keynote presentation, noting that performance is roughly twice that of a MacBook Pro.
Microsoft made a big deal about the battery life of the Surface Book. Microsoft boasts that the laptop will be able to achieve 12 hours of battery on a charge, which is two hours longer than the 10 hours promised by Apple on the MacBook Pro.
Small business owners who work remotely without access to a power outlet will appreciate the battery boost. To put that in perspective, that's roughly a day and a half of battery life if you abide by the eight-hour work day. It's unclear how Microsoft measures battery life, and whether the discrete GPU will have any adverse affect on battery numbers.
Another big improvement Microsoft made to battery life is with standby time, with Panay claiming that the Surface Book will experience no power drain when the lid is closed in standby mode.
Power of the Surface Pen
Another key differentiator between Surface Book and the MacBook Pro is the inclusion of the active stylus. Like the Surface Pro 4, Surface Book comes with the Surface Pen, and Microsoft made improvements to its pen that makes inking easier.
One improvement is the inclusion of the eraser at the end of the pen, which Panay claims comes with enough friction to feel like erasing with a real eraser.
Overall, the pen is an evolution of the Surface Pen on the Surface Pro 3, offering 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and allowing you to quickly launch into OneNote with a click of a button.
These features aren't available on Apple's MacBook Pro. For inking capabilities, you'll need to invest in the iPad Pro, but Apple Pencil is an optional accessory that's not included in the price.
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