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Reimagining Personal Computing

The future of computing is looking increasingly like a combination notebook/tablet.


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

For people like me who track the ebbs and flows of the computing market — in all its various forms — the last few weeks have been interesting, to say the least.

First we saw Apple extend the iPad into its most computer-friendly (or computer-competitive?) form, with the release of the iPad Pro and its accompanying Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil.

Then Google unveiled the Pixel C, an Android-based two-in-one device with a detachable keyboard and a high-resolution (308 ppi) 10.2-inch screen.

Finally, Tuesday saw the release of the much-anticipated Surface Pro 4 from Microsoft, as well as the unexpected Surface Book.

The clear takeaway from all of this is that, despite early criticisms, Microsoft clearly struck a chord with the Surface devices — particularly the Surface Pro 3 — and the future of computing is looking increasingly like a combination notebook/tablet. This is ironic in several ways, because many people wrote off these two-in-one devices as a fad, and arguably, the two-in-one category didn’t really exist until Microsoft brought out the Surface.

But now, several years, several iterations and several similar competitors later, it seems that Microsoft may have been onto something after all. In fact, the Surface Pro 3 has done surprisingly well, and nearly singlehandedly rescued the clamshell form factor from tablet-dominated oblivion.

Of course, I say this despite the fact that Microsoft insists on calling Surface a tablet, and refuses to bundle the keyboard that nearly every single Surface purchaser ends up buying and using anyway. In practical, real-world use, however, essentially every single Surface Pro 3 I’ve ever seen is used like a clamshell notebook with a detachable keyboard.

Microsoft gave people interested in this unique design even more compelling reasons to consider one at its Tuesday launch event. The new Surface Pro 4 builds on the heritage, design and even peripherals of the Surface Pro 3, but adds important extensions of its own.

First, the company reduced the bezel size of the display and increased the screen size from 12 inches to 12.3 inches, all while maintaining its 3:2 aspect ratio. As expected, the company also updated the Windows 10-only device to Intel’s sixth-generation core (code-named “Skylake”) CPUs, offering variations with a Core M, Core i5 and Core i7. In addition, the company added a redesigned, magnetic Surface pen and a Microsoft-designed IR camera that can do facial recognition for Windows Hello. There’s also a new set of improved keyboard options, including one with a fingerprint scanner, and all of them are backward-compatible with any previous Surface.

The real surprise of the day, however, came from the company’s new Surface Book — what Microsoft calls the first Surface notebook. Housed in a sleek, 3.5-pound aluminum design, the device offers a 13.5-inch, 6K-resolution display (3K by 2K), the infrared facial recognition camera, the redesigned Surface Pen and Intel’s latest CPUs. In addition, however, there’s a detachable metal keyboard that houses an additional battery and optional nVidia GPU. The “tablet” portion of the device — which the company claims is the thinnest core i7 computing device in the world, holds enough battery for three hours usage, but connected to the keyboard, you can get 12 hours, as well as access to the optional GPU (connected via PCIe over Microsoft’s proprietary Surface dock connector).

Pricing starts at $1,499 for the sleek new device, and ranges to more than $2,000 with GPU and high-capacity (up to two terabytes) solid-state storage. Microsoft claims it’s going directly after the MacBook Pro’s bread-and-butter audience — creative types, graphics professionals and other highly-demanding users. While it remains to be seen how well the new Surface Book does, my brief time with the device suggests that PC vendors and Apple have some serious new competition in the more “traditional” notebook space.

Given that Microsoft also used this event to unveil more details about its HoloLens head-mounted computer, and to showcase how its new high-end Windows 10 Lumia 950 smartphones can function like a PC by connecting directly to an HD monitor (or TV) and leveraging Bluetooth or USB keyboards, Tuesday’s event truly showed the range to which Microsoft is extending the concept of personal computing.

All told, it was an impressive display, and one that will likely be looked back on as having started some important reimagining of what personal computers can and should be.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research LLC, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. Reach him @bobodtech.

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