Did Microsoft Really Out-Apple, Apple Inc, at its Own Game With The Surface Book?

Usman Pirzada
Posted Oct 20, 2015
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Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is one of the strongest brands in the world, with amazing products designed for, and targeted at, the high end market. Their products have very competitive performance and amazing aesthetics, but are usually priced quite a bit higher than what the fair value of the hardware and software combination should be. The result of this strategy is that the market perceives them to be the go-to standard for a high quality and seamless user experience. Unfortunately for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), they have often lost out to Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) on the last few points. But all this stands to change with the Surface Book. 

Technical analysis of the Surface Book – A curious case of Apples to Apples

Speaking from a hardware perspective, Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) offerings have usually been sufficiently powerful to compete against the rival Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) product, but thanks to the market perception of them being the lower class product – it has mostly never worked out. That is, until the Surface Book came out. While it is too early to tell for sure whether the product has been a success or not, we can immediately see that Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is doing something very different this time – and in a good way.

The Surface Book not only has killer aesthetics and killer performance, but its pricing is so extravagant that it makes Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) look like the “value” product. Which is something I thought I would never see. And the result of this aesthetic, performance and pricing combo is readily visible. Tremors have been felt throughout the ultrabook industry and already the critics are responding in a very appreciative about the Surface Book.

Successfully pursuing the ‘Apple ideology’

Does the Surface Book have an amazingly sleek and calm design? Yes. Does it have killer performance that runs circles around  Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) offerings? For the most expensive configurations, yes. And does it have good value or bang for the buck? Absolutely not. Effectively, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has managed to beat Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) at its own game and designed a product more Apple-like than the Macbook Pro itself. Which is nothing less than a herculean feat in its own right. You can say that company has managed to out-Apple,  Apple Inc. itself.

So lets get down to the nitty gritty shall we? Right off the bat I can tell you that contrary to what Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) claims – base models in the same range as rival models from Macbook Pro will not offer “double” the power of their counterparts. It doesn’t mean they wont offer amazing performance – just that it wont be two times as much as the equivalent Macbook Pro.  Infact, if you really want to realize the ”double the performance of the Macbook Pro” claim, you will have to opt for the most expensive configurations.

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The display

Lets start with the display. The Surface Book rocks a 3000×2000 resolution 13.5 inch screen with 267 pixels per inch (which is an extremely high number for this large a screen). The Macbook Pro on the other hand offers a slightly lower resolution of 2560×1600 and has a 13.3 inch screen with 227 pixels per inch. Ofcourse, its not just about detail, one of the most important factors when talking about panels is the viewing angles and color accuracy. The MacBook Pro’s retina display has brilliant vieweing angles and a color gamut which covers approximately 91% of the sRGB spectrum. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) on the other hand claims to have a screen that supports 100% of the sRGB color gamut, but excuse me while I reserve judgment until that claim is tested by a third party. Do note that the screen of the Surface Book supports touch (and the Stylus) while the screen of the MacBook Pro is just that – a screen.

Surface Book 3

The internals

The internals of the device are ofcourse just as important and it is here that the differentiation between the various models starts to become apparent. The base model of the Surface Book can be had for $1499, a cool $200 above the starting price of the Macbook Pro (which is $1299). For the extra 200 bucks you will get yourself an Intel Core i5 processor based on the Skylake series with the Intel HD 520 integrated graphics. The Macbook Pro has a slightly older version of a Broadwell based Intel Core i7 and Intel Iris Pro 6100 graphics. If money isn’t an issue than you can upgrade to the fully tricked out Surface Book at $2699 for an Intel Core i7 processor and a discrete GPU from Nvidia.

The Nvidia ‘discrete GPU option’ detailed

Now just recently, the full details of the discrete Nvidia unit leaked out and turns out it’s a custom Maxwell silicon based on the Maxwell Geforce 940M with 382 CUDA Cores. So this will be quite a few shades faster than the integrated solution offered by Intel, since we are talking about proper entry level graphics here. I would also like to point out that the normal variant of the Geforce 940 utilizes DDR3 memory while as this model has GDDR5 memory and consequently much higher bandwidth (and significantly faster performance).

Since the custom silicon also has 384 CUDA cores based on the MX 1.0 architecture, the benchmarks of the Geforce 940M are the perfect metric to get a very accurate idea of what its performance baseline will be. The full benchmark suite can be found over at Notebookcheck.net but to give you an idea the Geforce 940M with 2GB DDR3 memory scores an average score of 1617 points whereas the Iris Pro 6100 clocks in at around 1020 points. Since the performance of the chip should be affected by the upgrade from DDR3 to GDDR5 memory, I wouldn’t be surprised if this difference of approximately 60% actually translates to something near a full 100%.

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Miscellaneous

Both products offer 8 GB of RAM (upgrade-able to 16GB) and 128 GB of SSD storage (upgrade-able to 1TB). The MacBook Pro has a tested backup time of approximately 10 hours, while as the Surface Book as a claimed backup time of 10 hours as well. If you take the option with the Nvidia GPU inside then the Surface Book will weigh exactly the same as a MacBook Pro – both clocking in at 3.48 Pounds. If you chose to go with the base model then the Surface Book is actually lighter than the MacBook Pro at 3.34 Pounds. The Macbook Pro has a 720p front camera only while as the Surface Book as an 8 Mega Pixel back camera and 5 Mega Pixel front camera (remember, it doubles as a tablet once the keyboard is detached). Ofcourse, the final hurdle (and one that really cannot be overcome) is that of the Operating System. The MacBook Pro runs the OSX 10.11 El Capitan whileas the Surface Book will be on Windows 10. Do note that Windows 10 will also offer the services of the digital voice assistant – Cortana, while as Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has yet to integrate Siri into its desktop OS.

Conclusion

So we took a look at the fundamentals offered by both products and it amuses me greatly to say this: Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) devices offer better (relative) value for the average consumer – unless money is no problem or you are a professional with very specific needs, in which case the Surface Book is the slightly better choice. It is worth noting that the primary edge of the Surface Book currently is 1) the tablet form factor (including the stylus) and 2) the inclusion of the custom Maxwell silicon. While the first edge will remain with it for quite some time, the update to Skylake Integrated graphics should dilute the disparity between the Surface Book and the latest Macbook Pro Model. All in all, both devices offer exceptional performance and will serve their owners very well. Ofcourse, this is something that is always the case with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), but probably the first (in recent times) where you can safely say the same for a Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) product.

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