They are also showcases for MacOS and Windows 10.
Each makes a powerful statement about what laptops are today and where they are going.
The two share underlying technology. Both use the same Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processor families.
Both have high-resolution displays. While the Surface Book packs more pixels per inch, most everyday users won’t notice.
Both come in a slim clamshell case. They have decent battery life. They are powerful and mobile.
Yet despite similarities they couldn’t be more different.
Surface Book is a touch-screen hybrid. The MacBook Pro is a more traditional non-touch screen laptop. More traditional not traditional: most 2016 MacBook Pro models have a Touch Bar.
You could see these differences as a fork in portable computing’s evolutionary path.
There are matters to consider. You may prefer Windows 10 or MacOS. There is a fortune invested in apps. You could have a lifetime of habits, skills and muscle memory tied up in one or other operating system.
You may have a deep-seated philosophical or ideological objection to Apple or Microsoft. This may, or may not, be rational.
You may want a device with a detachable screen that acts as a tablet. Plenty of ports are important or you have an aversion to dongles. You may want to punish Apple for not keeping faith with whatever was on your personal MacBook Pro wish list.
Or you might like the look of the Touch Bar.
All these considerations are valid. Only a fool would spend a few thousand dollars without thinking them through. The important thing is you have a real choice between two quite different machines.
What you do with your hands
Switching from one line to the other is more than just a one-off investment in a new laptop.
Yet the most important choice between the two ranges is simple and fundamental question:
Do you prefer to work where your hands stay on the keyboard plane or are you happier reaching up from the keyboard to hunt and peck screen buttons?
Apple thinks you’ll be more productive and comfortable keeping your hands on one plane. Microsoft begs to differ.
Getting this decision right is vital. It depends on what you do with your computer.
People who touch type, who write vast numbers of words each day might do better going with Apple’s keyboard-centric approach. 1
If you use your laptop more as a consumption device, then Microsoft’s touch-screen way of working may better suit your needs.
Again there’s a qualification: may. Some readers who want a touch screen computer could be better served with something else. That could be an iPad Pro or it could be another brand of tablet.
There are qualifications here because you don’t need me to tell you what to buy2. Once you’ve figured out how the physical user interface relates to the way you work, you’ll know yourself which is right for you.
The question may be simple, the answer is not.
Clash of ideas
Both computers appeal to the same class of demanding, well-heeled user. They both look and feel good. They deliver enough power. Both cost a lot compared with alternatives.
Apple is sticking with the clamshell-keyboard-screen laptop format that has been around in one form or another since the early 1980s.
While it uses an old format, the MacBook Pro is not conservative. You only have to listen to the critics who decry the lack of ports or sneer at the Touch Bar to realise just how different it is to what went before.
Computer makers don’t alienate customers with incremental design changes.
Surface Book a break with tradition
Microsoft’s Surface Book is a departure. It is a hybrid device that works as both a conventional laptop and a tablet.
Sure hybrids are no longer new.
Yet the Surface Book feels like a fresh take on the format. At the time of writing it represents the state-of-the-art for hybrid devices. It is the most advanced, the most polished and the most powerful hybrid you can buy.
The Surface Book has an elegant approach to docking and undocking the two parts. Most hybrids involve compromise. They sacrifice something of their laptop personality and part of their tablet identity.
Microsoft avoids this.
Philosophy beyond hands
It can sound pompous to talk of philosophy in this context, but there is a clear divide in the thinking behind Microsoft and Apple’s designs. It goes beyond the hands flat or hands moving between screen and keyboard choice.
Microsoft built its device for people who want both a laptop and a tablet in a single package. Most likely, people who buy a Surface Book will use it as a laptop most of the time with occasional tablet forays.
The Surface Book has a touch screen. This isn’t because it can function as a tablet, it’s because Microsoft sees touch screens as the future.
Microsoft bet the farm on touch technology when it released Windows 8. That was a mess of an operating system. It belongs among the great technology missteps of modern times. The mistake could have killed a less robust business than Microsoft.
Consumers are less keen on touch screen laptops than Microsoft anticipated. There are good reasons for this. Touch interfaces are still clumsy. The jarring step between Windows tablet mode and desktop Windows is still not resolved. Moving your hands off the keyboard isn’t alway efficient.
This makes for cognitive dissonance. The effect is not as pronounced in Windows 10 as in Windows 8, but it has not gone away. If you’re a Windows user and you don’t like or need the touch interface, it is easier to ignore in Windows 10.
The Surface Book is the most expensive Windows laptop choice. You’ll be hard pressed to find an everyday computer that costs more. Although if it meets your needs, the Surface Book is worth every penny.
You can buy a Surface Book for NZ$2750. That money gets you a model with only 128GB of storage and an i5 processor. Going all the way to a i7 power plant and 1TB of storage will lighten your bank account by NZ$5800.
That’s a big investment. Yes, if you work all the time with your computer and it lasts more than a couple of years it only amounts to $50 a week.
Apple’s prices are at the same nosebleed altitude. A bare bones 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar but with 256GB of storage and an Intel i5 processor costs NZ$2500.
If you crank the spec up all the way to a 2.9GHz i7 chip and 2TB of SSD storage, a graphics card and extra graphics memory then you can spend a whopping NZ$7250.
As with the Surface Book, you’re only going to go for the full monty if you run applications that need all the power. If you do, then the price of the hardware is among the least of your problems.
Hands on Apple touch screen
Apple doesn’t offer touch screen laptops. At least it doesn’t offer touch screen laptops running MacOS.
You could argue the iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard or with a decent third-party keyboard gives you what amounts to a laptop.
Whatever that is and whatever its merits, it does not compete with the Surface Book or the MacBook Pro.
It’s possible Apple may one day build an iPad with the power and versatility of a Surface Book or MacBook Pro. It won’t be soon, the chips needed to build such a device don’t exist today.