First Look: Surface Book is an attempt to reinvent the laptop

Microsoft, not content with building its first laptop, wants to reinvent the category.

The result is the Surface Book, a 2-in-1 hybrid that transforms into a tablet when needed. While hybrids are not exactly new, the Surface Book has a few innovative touches that may live up to the hype.

Take its hinge, which looks like a coiled spring. When you open the lid (up to a maximum of 125 degrees), the hinge extends outwards and increases the laptop's footprint. This helps to stabilise the Surface Book, differentiating it from the top-heavy feel of most hybrids.

How the Book transforms into a tablet is similar to a typical hybrid - you detach the screen from its keyboard. But instead of using magnets to hold the two halves of the device, Microsoft uses a clamp based on what it dubs "muscle wire technology". It is unlocked only when an electrical charge runs through it, and it feels very secure.

To detach the screen from the keyboard, you press and hold a button on the keyboard for 2 seconds. This duration is to prevent accidental taps while typing. This button also works while the device is not turned on.

Sometimes, it may be inconvenient to press this button. For instance, when you have flipped the screen around and attached it back to the laptop (commonly known as stand mode) to bring the screen closer to you. In this case, you can touch an icon in the Windows task bar instead of pressing the button.

This locking mechanism makes sense because Microsoft decided to put the optional graphics chip in the keyboard base. If Microsoft had gone with the usual magnets, which can be detached without pressing a button, problems will arise when apps are in the midst of using the graphics chips - you may end up losing data. Instead, the Surface Book will prompt users if such a scenario happens and prevent them from detaching the screen.

The downside of this hinge is that the screen is not flush with the keyboard when closed, which some may find an eyesore. But Microsoft has turned this to its advantage. The company says it has increased the key travel (1.6mm) for the keyboard because of the extra height allowance. This is impressive and almost comparable with some gaming laptops (1.8mm).

Like Google's flagship Chromebook Pixel and the Surface Pro tablet, the Surface Book has a 3:2 aspect ratio that gives users more vertical screen real estate. The screen resolution is 3,000 x 2,000 pixels, which puts it on a par with other high-resolution displays.

The 13.5-inch screen is about the size of an A4 piece of paper. Despite the relatively large size, the tablet is light and well-balanced. The Book comes with the Surface Pen stylus that attaches to the side of the display via magnets.

Intel's latest sixth-generation processor, memory and storage are located within the tablet half of the Surface Book. A small battery (up to 3 hours) powers the tablet. Microsoft says the battery life is up to 12 hours when the Book is used as a laptop. The company claims this is the fastest 13-inch laptop ever made and up to 50 per cent faster than the Apple MacBook Pro.

The Surface Book has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and a mini-Display Port. A proprietary Surface port is used for charging. It can also hook up to the optional Surface Dock accessory.

Microsoft was keen to stress that the Book is more of a laptop than a hybrid. It is more powerful and more expensive than the Surface Pro 4 tablet, but provides a superior typing experience.

Microsoft has not revealed the local price and availability of the Surface Book. But given that the US starting price is US$1,499 (S$2,100), it will not be cheap in Singapore.

This article was first published on October 15, 2015.
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