A spec bump and a size bump for a laptop should be the easiest story in the world to tell. For example: Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 has new processors, new graphics cards, slightly tweaked designs, and is now also available with a new 15-inch screen. Simple.
But for Panos Panay, the head of Microsoft’s Surface division, nailing that story is a struggle. He can enthuse about the intricacies of the updated hardware design of this powerful machine, which is designed with a snake-like hinge that allows you to remove the screen and use it as a tablet. He will tell you about its upgraded, eighth-generation quad-core Intel processors, Nvidia graphics cards, and improved battery life. He’s unafraid to mention his primary competitor, the MacBook, by name, and he’ll claim these laptops beat Apple’s in several categories.
When we sat at a conference table in Microsoft’s headquarters earlier this month to look at the new Surface Books, Panay did all of those things, but none of those things are really a story. So we sat in that room for spell, and as I messed around with the laptop, Panay talked about who it was meant for and what it was capable of. None of the stories were gelling, if I’m being honest, and I think he knew it, too.
So we bailed on the conference room, and he took me to see how the laptop was made and, just as importantly, how the story gets made.
Here’s what I learned in that conference room: for the Surface Book 2, Microsoft is stepping up to the eighth-generation Intel processors, which essentially means there are quad-core options available. The 13-inch version comes with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 with 2GB of graphics memory. The 15-inch Surface Book 2 has the GTX 1060 with 6GB of graphics memory. There are, of course, a multitude of different configuration options, but prices for the 13-inch model start at $1,499, and at $2,499 for the 15-inch version.
The Surface Book, if you’re not familiar, was Microsoft’s first “true” laptop, introduced in 2015. Since then, it’s seen a few minor spec bumps, but not major changes. This year’s Surface Book 2 also doesn’t really introduce major changes — at least not when it comes to the basic look and feel of the device.
The most unique part of the Surface Book is the hinge, which uncoils like a tread rolling off a tank. It’s designed to increase the horizontal depth of the base of the laptop, which is necessary because the screen is heavier than usual. It’s heavier than usual because you can detach it and use it as a standalone tablet.
The Surface Book is not an ultraportable laptop; it’s a big, powerful beast of a laptop. It is not small, it weighs more than many other laptops, and it costs much more, too. It’s a device you get because you want a ton of power. Even people who like the idea of tablet Windows PCs are probably better off with the Surface Pro, unless they need to regularly do something very compute intensive. Although it’s not specifically designed to be a “gaming laptop,” it should be able to handle fairly high frame rates — especially on Xbox games.
All that silicon should also make the Surface Book 2 powerful enough to handle VR, video editing, and gigantic Excel spreadsheets. Panay says that the Office team worked closely with the Surface team to optimize the two for each other. It’s also going to be a flagship platform for this year’s Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, which places a heavy emphasis on “Mixed Reality,” Microsoft’s term for VR and AR experiences.
Beyond just the specs, Microsoft did a ton of work that is only barely noticeable on the outside. The thermals have been reconfigured to pump more heat away from the chips; in the case of the 13-inch model, the tablet lid can do that without the need for fans. There are, of course, fans on the base of the laptop and also on both parts of the 15-inch version.
The hinge on both models has been updated and strengthened to be more sturdy while taking up less internal space. Microsoft says it needed to directly fuze the “fangs” that hold the lid in place to the hinge because the 15-inch version needed more stability. It still takes a good second or so for the detach mechanism to engage so you can lift off the tablet, and I wasn’t really able to feel any of the changes to the hinge.
The keyboard deck has been slightly tweaked to give it cleaner lines. Panay points out that Microsoft even went so far as to redo the areas around the cameras at the top of the screen, so there are fewer visible cutouts.
Microsoft is finally putting a standard USB-C port on it (in addition to USB-A ports, an SD card slot, and the Surface Connector), which it expects most people will use for displays. It’s not, unfortunately, a Thunderbolt version of that port.
The company is claiming both versions of the laptop can get 17 hours of battery life, and will happily compare that number to the MacBook Pro’s claimed 10 hours. But it’s Surfaces and Apples, so to speak. Microsoft bases its test on a video playback loop, while Apple says its test is more mixed use. It’s probably safe to trust that the Surface Book 2 will have a great battery, but I don’t know that I’d leave my charger at home for a weekend trip.
They are impressive pieces of hardware, no doubt about it. Microsoft ticked all the boxes you’d expect on a premium laptop: a beautiful display, a great keyboard and trackpad, and refined design. But I still like the Surface Book in theory more than I do in practice. The curved hinge is clever, but it nevertheless leaves a big gap when it’s closed, and it makes for a very thick computer.
However, I was impressed at how light the detached tablets were. Even the 1.8-pound 15-inch version was surprisingly easy to hold and use, especially in a portrait orientation.
But if what I just described to you was the whole story of the Surface Book 2, it wouldn’t stand a chance against the MacBook Pro. It’s clear that convincing creative professionals to switch over from the Mac is one of the goals here, and I think Microsoft is well aware that lots of people aren’t super happy with the MacBook Pro right now. Still, even though there’s consternation in Apple Land, Microsoft has to work harder to break through into consumer consciousness.
Microsoft invited us to its headquarters to give us the inside look at the on-campus hardware design lab — which is larger, better staffed, and better-equipped than you might expect. We saw a table filled with prototypes and 3D-printed parts, looked at rapid prototyping machines, talked to engineers about muscle wire locking mechanisms, and spoke to designers about the material properties of magnesium.
The company is rightfully proud of its labs. Microsoft has been showing this lab to reporters for awhile, but this time around I got the sense that the people who sweat the details of hardware at Microsoft have found a new, reliable rhythm for designing its products. We’ll give you a deeper dive on what we saw later.
That lab tour was delayed, however, because Panay called that audible in the conference room. Instead of going to look at the labs right away, he led me to a video editing suite. As we walked, a coterie of PR flacks furiously made quiet phone calls and texted one another about what was happening. Everybody seemed very nervous, extracting a promise from me that I would only reveal the broad outlines of what I was about to see, not the details. I agreed, if only to see whatever weird thing was happening through to the end.
All of that was build-up to walking into a dark room where a half-dozen or so video editors were working on the announcement video for the Surface Book 2. Panay and Microsoft put a lot of emphasis on these videos. When Microsoft announces new hardware, sometimes there might be a keynote where “Panos is Pumped,” but not always. Sometimes there might be a story where the company invites a journalist in to its labs (ahem), but not always.
But there’s always a video, and its purpose isn’t so much to show off the specs, but instead to incept some emotion about the product into the primitive parts of your cortex. You are likely familiar with this genre: Apple’s Jony Ive waxing on about phone design, Google trying very hard to make its products seem jaunty instead of ominous, Samsung listing a kajillion features on its latest phone.
Microsoft’s oeuvre has evolved over the years. The original Surface was introduced with such a hilariously over-the-top dubstep soundtrack that we had no choice but to mock it by applying the same style to Ovaltine. It still makes videos where a camera lovingly pans over materials that magically float into place on a gadget, but more recent videos aim for a more nuanced emotional hit.
The Surface Studio was introduced last October with a cover of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that didn’t improve on Gene Wilder’s version, but aim for something a little less creepy. The Surface Laptop was introduced this past May with a moody cover of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease.
You can see what Microsoft is trying to do: reassign the emotional resonance you inevitably have from the song onto its product, but in a way that twists the song into an orchestral, epic moment. It turns your purchase decision into a cinematically heroic act. It’s a mix of nostalgia and newness, the “science of popularity” Derek Thompson describes in Hit Makers — just applied to technology instead of pop music. It’s Don Draper talking about “a sentimental bond with a product,” but carried out on YouTube instead of on a Kodak slide carousel. As an act of emotional manipulation in the service of consumerism, it is genius.
But if you wanted to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, you could: these videos are not trying to trick you; they’re trying to tell the story of the product. For Panay, it’s important that each of his products become associated with some sort of primal feeling. It’s a very strange thing to say about a product that has the purpose of running Windows, which is just about the least emotional thing you could imagine. That makes it all the more important that Panay finds a sentimental core for his hardware to imprint on you.
That seriousness of purpose is evident when you see Panay onstage, where his quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) intensity can feel more like some kind of subsonic wave than product rundown. Whether he means to or not, he’s cultivating his very own Reality Distortion Field.
Sitting in that video editing suite, I watched multiple versions of the unveil video for the Surface Book 2. Even though they all broadly had the same footage, each had a different soundtrack, therefore each had wildly divergent emotional cores. I don’t know which one (if any) Panay is going to go with, but I expect it won’t be some chest-thumping, raw power kind of video. That is maybe surprising, because the Surface Book 2 is, in fact, a raw power kind of machine.
Update: here’s what Microsoft went with: Fly me to the Moon:
I also don’t know how much of the whole thing was theater — whether it was planned all along to blow up an hour of the lab tour to go watch Panay offer feedback and critique on his team’s videos. Panay says that often he and his team learn what emotion they’re trying to evoke in consumers from the process of making these videos, not from the process of making these laptops.
Is the Surface Book 2 better than the MacBook Pro? Can macOS users really be convinced to switch to Windows 10? Is it more powerful? More versatile? All of those answers have to be “yes” for Microsoft to convince people to switch. But even if all those answers are “yes,” it won’t be enough. Switching computing platforms sucks. You have to really want it, not just at an intellectual level, but at an emotional one, too.
This video and the ads that follow are going to be just as important — perhaps more important — than the hardware itself. Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Panay is directly working on a video with his own internal team instead of farming it out to a marketing agency.
Panay and his team obviously spent a ton of time improving what these laptops do, but it’s in that dark room where they figure out what these laptops mean. It’s that second part that will determine whether they succeed or fail.
Correction: The sidebar originally had the wrong amount of graphics memory on the 13-inch model. We regret the error.