Microsoft's new Surface devices, by the numbers

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We examine the facts and figures behind Microsoft's recently announced Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book devices.

Microsoft's recent Windows 10 devices event saw the unveiling of the widely anticipated Surface Pro 4, and the somewhat less anticipated Surface Book. The former is a 12.3-inch upgrade to the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 tablet/laptop hybrid (tagline: 'The tablet that can replace your laptop'), while the latter is a high-end detachable-screen 13.5-inch laptop (tagline: 'This is the ultimate laptop').

The Surface family was born in October 2012 with the ARM-based Surface running Windows RT. Since then, we've seen one more ARM/RT-based device (the Surface 2), three iterations of the Core ix/Windows-based Surface Pro (Pro, Pro 2 and Pro 3) and the Atom x7/Windows-based Surface 3.

surface-pro4-book.jpg
The new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.
Images: Microsoft

Design, build quality and performance have generally been good, although criticism, at various points along the way, has been directed at the Windows RT platform (which has since languished and is not part of the Windows 10 family), battery life, the kickstand (and, more generally, 'lappability' with the Type Cover keyboard attached), the power connector, the lack of a 'home' for the stylus, the lack of GPS and mobile broadband, plus wi-fi connectivity and overheating issues. Still, the aggregated review scores (from AlaTest) for the different Surface models, arranged in chronological order, have been impressive:

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surface-reviews-alatest.jpg
Data source: AlaTest

A consistent feature of Surface devices has been their relatively high prices, especially when you factor in the keyboard (a necessary component if a tablet is to 'replace your laptop'), which is a $130/£110 optional extra. Microsoft's 'brief' for the Surface range has always been to demonstrate to OEMs what can be done with a Windows-based tablet/laptop hybrid, so the premium pricing may be designed to avoid competing too keenly with its own hardware partners -- two of whom, Dell and HP, are now actually reselling Surface devices (along with added enterprise services and apps).

Despite this premium pricing, after a slow start -- Microsoft had to write off $900 million-worth of Surface inventory in fiscal Q4 2013 -- Surface sales have climbed to $888 million in the most recent quarter (Q4 2015), having topped a billion dollars in Q2:

surface-revenue-fiscal.jpg
Data source: Microsoft

As the Surface range has matured, Microsoft has felt confident enough to explicitly compare its devices to Apple's iPad tablets and MacBook laptops in presentations and adverts. This is fair enough on technology grounds, but the comparative sales figures show that Microsoft has a long way to go in that department:

surface-revenue-calendar-apple.jpg
Data sources: Microsoft, Apple

Let's have a look at how the new Surface devices stack up in terms of their key specs and pricing.

surface-pro4.jpg
Image: Microsoft
Surface Pro 4

In his Jobs-style presentation (complete with 'one more thing' in the shape of the surprise Surface Book) at Microsoft's 6 October launch event, VP of Surface Computing Panos Panay took a dig at Apple and its recently announced iPad Pro, saying "the category is transforming, it's reinvented...we have competitors, you may have noticed, they're chasing it -- it's pretty cool," before vowing to "reinvent the category again" with the Surface Pro 4.

Here are the key specifications for the fourth-generation Surface Pro tablet/laptop hybrid compared to its predecessor:

Surface Pro 4 Surface Pro 3
Screen size 12.3in. PixelTouch 12in. ClearType Full HD Plus
Screen resolution 2,736 x 1,824 (267ppi) 2,160 x 1,440 (216ppi)
Touchscreen 10-point 10-point
Keyboard Surface Pro 4 Type Cover, Surface Pro 4 Type Cover with Fingerprint ID (optional) Surface Pro 3 Type Cover (optional)
Digitiser + stylus Surface Pro 4 Pen (1,024 pressure levels, interchangeable pen tips) Surface Pro 3 Pen (256 pressure levels)
Dimensions 292.1mm x 201.4mm x 8.45mm 292.1mm x 201.4mm x 9.1mm
Weight 766g (m3), 786g (i5, i7); 285g for Type Cover 800g, 295g for Type Cover
CPU Intel Core m3, i5, i7 (6th Gen.) Intel Core i3, i5, i7 (4th Gen.)
GPU Intel HD Graphics 515 (m3), 520 (i5), Iris (i7) Intel HD Graphics 4400
RAM 4GB, 8GB, 16GB 4GB, 8GB
Connectors USB 3.0, audio, Mini-DisplayPort, cover port, SurfaceConnect USB 3.0, audio, Mini-DisplayPort, cover port
Internal storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Storage expansion via MicroSD, USB 3.0 via MicroSD, USB 3.0
Wireless 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile broadband no no
GPS no no
NFC no no
Sensors ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer
Cameras (rear/front) 8MP / 5MP 5MP / 5MP
Claimed battery life 9 hours 9 hours
User-replaceable battery no no
Charging connector SurfaceConnect proprietary (magnetic)
OS Windows 10 Pro Windows 10 Pro
Security features UEFI, TPM 2.0, BitLocker, Windows Hello, Windows Passport, Device Guard UEFI, TPM 2.0, BitLocker, Windows Hello, Windows Passport, Device Guard
Price $899-$2,699 (tablet), $129.99 (Type Cover), $159.99 (Type Cover with Fingerprint ID, $199.99 (Surface Dock) $799-$1,799 (tablet), $129.99 (Type Cover), $199.99 (Surface Pro 3 Docking Station)

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There's plenty to get potential buyers excited about here, including the high-resolution 267ppi PixelTouch display, the 1,024-pressure-level Surface Pen (which docks magnetically with the tablet when not in use), the redesigned Type Cover with island-style keys and glass touchpad, plus memory up to 16GB and SSD storage up to 1TB. However, we'll have to wait for the hands-on reviews to confirm that the Surface Pro 4 delivers the functionality, performance and usability promised by the spec sheet.

Assuming it delivers satisfactorily, what about the pricing? True to form, the Surface Pro 4 is a premium device, ranging from $899 for the entry-level Core m3/128GB SSD/4GB RAM configuration to $2,699 for the top-end Core i7/1TB SSD/16GB RAM model. That's just for the tablet: to use the Surface Pro 4 in laptop mode, you'll need to shell out another $129.99 for a Type Cover, or $159.99 for one with Fingerprint ID. Want to use it on the desktop, with a couple of large monitors plugged in? That'll be another $199.99 for the redesigned Surface Dock. Fully maxed-out, the Surface Pro 4 will cost you a princely $3,188.97 (Core i7/1TB SSD/16GB RAM/Type Cover with Fingerprint ID/Surface Dock).

How do these prices compare with Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air? There are three roughly equivalent configurations, and here's how they match up:

Surface Pro 4 SP4 + Type Cover 13-inch MacBook Air
Core i5 / 128GB / 4GB $999 $1,128.99 $999
Core i5 / 256GB / 8GB $1,299 $1,428.99 $1,299
Core i7 / 256GB / 8GB $1,599 $1,728.99 $1,449

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When you factor in the Type Cover keyboard, the Surface Pro 4 comes out slightly more expensive than the MacBook Air -- especially with the higher-end Core i7 configuration. Note though, that the MacBook Air lacks a touchscreen and a stylus, and can't be configured with more than 256GB of SSD storage or 8GB of RAM.

And what of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro? If you're happy to run a mobile OS rather than a desktop one, you'll pay $799 for the 32GB model, $949 for the 128GB model and $1,079 for 128GB plus LTE mobile broadband. Apple has also taken a leaf out of Microsoft's book by charging extra for iPad Pro accessories, including the Smart Keyboard ($169) and Apple Pencil ($99). So a 128GB iPad Pro with 4GB of RAM, a keyboard and a stylus costs a total of $1,217 -- that's $88 more than the equivalent Surface Pro 4 with a Type Cover ($1,128.99).

surface-book.jpg
Image: Microsoft
Surface Book

When it came to the Surface Book laptop, Panos Panay mused: "What if you wanted a Surface, but a laptop Surface?...what if we could do for laptops what we did for tablets?" before unveiling what Microsoft is calling 'the ultimate laptop'.

That's a bold claim, but this 13.5-inch convertible has some impressive specs to back it up. Here's how the Surface Book stacks up alongside its Pro 4 stablemate:

Surface Book Surface Pro 4
Screen size 13.5in. PixelSense 12.3in. PixelTouch
Screen resolution 3,000 x 2,000 (267ppi) 2,736 x 1,824 (267ppi)
Touchscreen 10-point 10-point
Keyboard detachable from tablet Surface Pro 4 Type Cover, Surface Pro 4 Type Cover with Fingerprint ID (optional)
Digitiser + stylus Surface Pen (1,024 pressure levels, interchangeable pen tips) Surface Pen (1,024 pressure levels, interchangeable pen tips)
Dimensions 312.3mm x 232.1mm x 22.8mm 292.1mm x 201.4mm x 8.45mm
Weight 1,526g 766g (m3), 786g (i5, i7); 285g for Type Cover
CPU Intel Core i5, i7 (6th Gen.) Intel Core m3, i5, i7 (6th Gen.)
GPU Intel HD Graphics 520 (i5), Nvidia GeForce dGPU (i5, i7) Intel HD Graphics 515 (m3), 520 (i5), Iris (i7)
RAM 8GB, 16GB 4GB, 8GB, 16GB
Connectors 2 x USB 3.0, audio, Mini-DisplayPort, SurfaceConnect USB 3.0, audio, Mini-DisplayPort, cover port, SurfaceConnect
Internal storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
Storage expansion via SD, USB 3.0 via MicroSD, USB 3.0
Wireless 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile broadband no no
GPS no no
NFC no no
Sensors ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope
Cameras (rear/front) 8MP / 5MP 8MP / 5MP
Claimed battery life 12 hours 9 hours
User-replaceable battery no (batteries in tablet and keyboard sections) no
Charging connector SurfaceConnect SurfaceConnect
OS Windows 10 Pro Windows 10 Pro
Security features UEFI, TPM 2.0, BitLocker, Windows Hello, Windows Passport, Device Guard UEFI, TPM 2.0, BitLocker, Windows Hello, Windows Passport, Device Guard
Price $1,499-$2,699 (laptop), $199.99 (Surface Dock) $899-$2,699 (tablet), $129.99 (Type Cover), $159.99 (Type Cover with Fingerprint ID, $199.99 (Surface Dock)

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Once again, we'll need to wait for hands-on reviews to pronounce on the industrial design (particularly the Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge mechanism linking the tablet and keyboard sections), the performance (particularly the interplay between the CPU-integrated graphics in the detachable tablet and the optional discrete Nividia GPU in the keyboard section), the cooling system and the claimed 12-hour battery life (there are two batteries, one in the tablet, one in the keyboard).

It should come as no surprise that the Surface Book is an expensive beast -- it's considerably more costly than Apple's equivalent 13-inch MacBook Pro configurations, for example:

Surface Book 13-inch MacBook Pro
Core i5 / 128GB / 8GB $1,499 $1,299-1,399
Core i5 / 256GB / 8GB $1,699 $1,499-$1,599
Core i5 / 256GB / 8GB / dGPU $1,899
Core i7 / 256GB / 8GB / dGPU $2,099 $1,799*
Core i7 / 512GB / 16GB / dGPU $2,699 $2,199*

* These configurations lack a discrete GPU (dGPU)

Once again, it should be noted that the MacBook Pro lacks a touchscreen and a stylus, and the 13-inch model also lacks a discrete GPU option.

Outlook

Microsoft's 6 October event was not just about Surface -- it was designed to showcase the evolving Windows 10 ecosystem and also included the new Microsoft Band, developments in the HoloLens mixed reality headset, and new flagship Lumia smartphones.

As far as Surface is concerned, Microsoft may not generate anything like Apple's revenues in the tablet/laptop space, but its latest Pro 4 and Book devices should give pause for thought in Cupertino, and generate a lot of interest from business and professional users -- well-heeled ones at any rate.

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