No one in the tech industry wears their heart on their sleeve quite like Panos Panay. The Windows Devices head is sometimes almost overwhelmed by his own passion for Microsoft’s Surface products. Panay’s enthusiasm bubbles over, he goes off script, and he often over-shares.
Either all that is true, or Microsoft has never had a savvier product lead. Whatever the case, Panay’s product fervor is infectious and, when he explains why he’s so excited about Microsoft’s new Surface Book 2, you believe him.
Panay unveiled the two new Surface Book 2 hybrid laptops, a 13-inch model and big-rig 15-incher last week at a relatively low-key event that, while timed as the last Microsoft media get-together before the launch of Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (Oct. 17), was squarely focused on a launching the redesigned portables.
“I just want to talk to you about these products,” said Panay earnestly. He’d been instructed to keep it low-key, stay seated, and just chat, but, as usual, Panay was prowling before the group of journalists assembled causally on couches, benches, and cushioned chairs. Behind him, under fabric, were the two new laptops.
Microsoft is aggressively pursuing the mobile-workhorse market that Apple has carved out.
Panay spoke, as he often does, with enormous pride about the growth of the Surface brand over the last five years and how, in those early days in 2012, the team would challenge each other to spot a Surface in the wild.
“Who can take the first picture?” he remembered. That first picture turned out to be a Microsoft employee on an airplane.
When I sit down with Panay after the launch to talk about his vision for these Intel quad-core, 8th generation Core i-running systems, I also note that just a week earlier, when I pulled out my Surface Pro on a recent flight to the West Coast, the woman two seats away did the same.
Panay smiles and says, “It’s indicative now. It’s happening.”
With the Surface brand now more firmly established in consumer’s minds, Microsoft continues to expand the brand across multiple mobile devices, Surface Laptop, Pro, and Book, and on the desktop with the Surface Studio. Now, with the new Book 2, especially the super-sized 15-inch model, Microsoft is aggressively pursuing the mobile-workhorse market that Apple has carved out with the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Panay called the new $2,499 15-inch Surface Book 2 “a beast,” telling us it’s five times more powerful that the original Surface Book, claiming it’s capable of pushing a stunning 4.3 trillion math operations per second.
“No laptop has ever pushed this much computational power in this mobile a format,” said Panay.
He also claimed that the Surface Book 2 offers 70% more battery life than a comparable MacBook Pro.
For all that power, the Surface Book 2, both the 13-inch ( $1,499) and 15-inch, looks almost exactly the same as the original 13.5-inch laptop. Microsoft still puts the core processor in the 3:2 aspect ratio screen, which is essentially a touchscreen tablet that sits on the dynamic fulcrum hinge. The screen (6 million pixels with 260 ppi on the 15,; 267 ppi on the 13) still detaches with the press of a button and can be used alone or flipped around, reattached, and then folded down on top of the keyboard to an angled “Studio Mode” for drawing. The keyboard base still houses copious amounts of battery and, in some cases, a discrete Nvidia GPU.
However, as is often the case these days in mobile technology, there is very little about the Surface Book 2 that isn’t new.
There are over 1,000 new parts in Surface Book 2, Panay tells me later. Even that iconic hinge that lets you use one finger to lift the substantial screen while keeping the base firmly on the table, is all new.
Earlier that day, Microsoft Design Chief Ralf Groene told me as I lingered over an exploded view of the new hinge in the Surface Book 2 demo room that Microsoft re-engineered the entire hinge and attachment mechanism.
I noticed that when I detached and reattached the screen, the operation was quieter and surer. Groene told me that the redesign cut down on screen wobble.
It’s made out of ceramic now,” says Panay later. This has the side benefit of making the Book 2 slightly lighter.
“We have to design from inside out; we don’t design from the outside in,” says Panay as way of explaining why the Surface Book 2 is not, visually, a new design. He also notes that the design has become iconic for customers looking for a certain level of performance in a laptop.
And the Book 2 does take the Surface brand performance to some new, uncharted places.
This may be the first Intel Quad-Core i7 CPU (8th generation) running in a tablet without a fan (13-inch model, only). The tablet cools passively. Earlier, I noticed a tiny grill runs the entire outside edge of the tablet.
“When you don’t need a fan, it starts to change a lot of things. One, it takes weight out of the product. Two, passively cooling means you’re not working with any noise, any barriers from a tablet perspective… and you’re burning less battery,” says Panay.
Microsoft is promising 17 hours of battery life for the Surface Book 2. “I’m using my Book 15-inch,” grins Panay, “I can’t remember that last time I charged it. It’s just crazy and it’s so fun to me right now.”
It sounds a little less crazy when you consider this is, in the case of the 15-inch model, a nearly 4.22-pound laptop (the 13-inch weighs 3.67 pounds). The tablet alone alone gets you a still-solid 5 hours. For comparison, the Surface Pro weighs 1.73 pounds (Core i7 model) and gets you 13 hours of battery life.
If Surface Book 2 users primarily use the product as a tablet, this might be a problem, But Panay explains that the typical Surface Book user detaches the screen in relatively short, 20-to-30-minute bursts.
“Of course, the way we manage battery is, when you’re docked or back plugged into the keyboard, we push the power equally through this [to the screen and base], so it makes it easy to detach whenever you need to and you have power. It works out pretty well for our users,” he says.
Microsoft’s redesign work extends to the keyboard and mouse.
“The keyboard has got its own new feel,” says Panay, who boasts to me about the laptop keyboard’s 1.55 millimeters of travel, (the amount of movement you get when typing a key), adding that it’s significantly better than the, according to him, 0.55mm of travel found on the latest MacBook Pros.
That satisfying typing feel is a direct result of the Surface Book’s unusual design. While the MacBook elegantly squeezes virtually all its technology into the base, Microsoft gets to split at least some of it between the base and the 7.7mm-thick tablet.
“I will profess to you it’s perfect for the elegant typing experience,” says Panay, warming to his subject, “the buttery smooth feel, the make/break of being productive and typing as fast as you can… and we do a bunch of typing tests.”
Yes, USB-C, finally
There is one other notable change to the outside of the Surface Book 2: the introduction of a USB-C port (there are also two USB Type-A ports and an SD card slot).
Back in May when Microsoft unveiled its new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop, I asked Panay why the company still hadn’t adopted USB-C. Panay said that, “It’s not that it’s not great. It’s not that people don’t use it, but it’s not ready for these products yet. It’s not ready for our customers.” He did add that it would eventually show up in their products.
And now it has.
The USB-C port replaces the DisplayPort and, as such, is primarily intended to drive an external display.
“What I want to be careful of is, I don’t want to remove the Surface Connector that’s so important to people. That quick charging, that matters,” he says, still trying to qualify the introduction of this single port.
Panay admits that the USB-C port can also be used to read an external hard drive and, yes, charge the Surface Book 2.
And yet he hedges again, trying to warn people off plugging in any random USB-C-based charger.
“You can charge off of it, of course, but that’s not the goal. Because you’re going to find chargers that simply don’t work and that’s not what I want for customers,” he says.
Inside a beast
The Surface Book 2 is designed for creators and those who are building the future, said Panay during his presentation. The Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU backed by 6GB of RAM (in the 13-inch, there’s a 1050 with 2GB of video RAM) will support processor-intensive tasks like CAD, 3D and video rendering.
During the presentation Panay impishly played an unfinished Surface Book 2 sizzle video that elegantly, and with copious amounts of exquisite 3D-rendering, demonstrates how the new design came together.
Later, Panay is still beaming about going rouge and sharing the video early. “That video you saw, we are pushing renders of that video on this device. Not sure how we’ll talk about that in the future, but it just gives you that essence…We can do our video editing right on the fly. We can recreate that product, rendering the sound and the images. It’s pretty cool.”
That raw power, however, may also excite another audience: gamers. Panay called the system “amazing for gamers,” telling me later that its remarkable to have this kind of gaming power in a system this small. “This should look like a massive gaming rig,” he says.
When I tell him that my son owns one of those huge gaming laptops, Panay encourages me to bring home 15-inch review unit I’ll eventually get and “take it to your boy and let him have at it.”
Before we finish, I bring Panay back to a question I’m often asked, “Which Surface should I buy?”
Panay breaks it down:
There’s the Surface Pro, which is all about versatility. So, if you need a laptop with significant battery life but that can truly support work on the go, this is probably your pick.
The Surface Laptop is “a laptop in its truest form,” says Panay, “It’s about beauty and precision design,” and adds, “There are a set of people who want a laptop that’s performant, that’s light enough, that’s thin enough, but must be iconic or beautiful, it has to be.”
The Surface Book 2 is about pushing performance. It’s really for the creative in the 3D rendering app Maya, the engineer in CAD.
To see if that product messaging and reality come together for consumers, Panay spends a lot of time in Microsoft Stores observing customers who come into buy new systems.
“So, there’s a reality to that moment. Somebody walking in and wanting to buy a product and understand it and the reality to the marketing messages,” he says.
He wants the product truth, how the Surface feels, what its components can do, to match the marketing message so that when the customer does arrive in the store, the choice is obvious.