At a time when many thought Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) might back away from the hardware business, or at least limit its product offerings, the company surprised the crowd at its Windows 10 hardware event by introducing its first-ever laptop.

Called the Surface Book, the new device borrows a lot from the hybrid tablet/laptop it's named after. Still, if the Surface Pro 3 is "the tablet that can replace your laptop," then Surface Book is the laptop that also works as a tablet. 

Surface Book in its laptop configuration. Image source: Microsoft.

It seems subtle, but it's a powerful difference. Microsoft has created a computer that compares favorably to the top-tier MacBooks that also works in two different tablet configurations. It's a bold entree into a hyper-competitive market, but the Windows maker has jumped in with its best foot forward.

What is the Surface Book?
It's a 13.5" laptop powered by either a sixth-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processor with up to 16GB of memory and an optional discrete graphics chip. The laptop comes in a variety of configurations, starting with a 128GB solid-state drive and going all the way up to 1TB.

The device weighs just 3.34 pounds, including the keyboard (varying slightly depending upon the model), and it offers what the company calls a 13.5" PixelSense(TM) display with 3000 x 2000 (267 PPI) resolution, an aspect ratio of 3:2, and 10-point multi-touch. It comes with an advanced stylus, USB-C for charging, a 5MP front-facing camera, an 8MP rear-facing camera with autofocus, dual microphones, and front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby audio. It also offers 12 hours of battery life, according to the company, and it's pretty to look at, with a magnesium casing and a silver color.

Surface Book starts at $1,499, can be pre-ordered now, and ships October 26.

Image source: Microsoft.

It's more than just specs
While Microsoft has delivered some pretty impressive specs with the Surface Book, that's only part of its appeal. The laptop/tablet hybrid is fully a laptop -- it's not a tablet with a keyboard tacked on -- but it's more than that, offering three distinct operating modes, as Microsoft explained on its website.

  • Powerful laptop: Surface Book is a powerful laptop with a full-sized, backlit keyboard for fast and natural typing.
  • Portable clipboard: The 13.5" PixelSense display detaches easily from the keyboard to become a thin, light tablet that works perfectly with OneNote and Surface Pen.
  • Creative canvas: Turn the screen around and reattach it to use Surface Book like a creative canvas.

Arguably, Surface Book replaces not only a high-end Mac laptop, it also replaces an iPad -- all without sacrificing anything in either experience. That's a leap forward from the Surface Pro 3, which is an excellent hybrid, but it's a tablet first that adds a keyboard for a pretty good, but not perfect, laptop experience.

Microsoft has found its mojo
Surface Pro 3 was arguably the first piece of Windows hardware that generated much of a stir in the tech community. Surface Book continues that, giving Microsoft a laptop that will have people either eagerly placing a pre-order or dreaming of ways to justify or pay for a machine that starts at $1,499.

Surface Book is surprising in that it's something different that seems the proper mix of beautiful and practical. It's a laptop that appears to equal anything else on the market, with added tablet functionality, which makes it even more useful.

It might take time to win market share at these prices, but Microsoft has sent a clear message that it's serious about the hardware business, and it intends to rival all comers in the laptop game.