Microsoft has already cracked the professional and creative markets with inventive tablets and a desktop that turns into a virtual drafting table.
Now it’s chasing another category many believe is Apple’s to lose: the US$1000 (NZ$1440) laptop for everyone.
Microsoft, a company once derided for buggy software, unstable hardware and indifferent design, debuted the Surface Laptop on Wednesday.
The machine boots up in seconds, has a touch screen and gets a claimed 14 hours of battery life (two better than Apple’s MacBook Air).
Weighing in at 1.25kg, a fraction less than the Air, the Surface Laptop, which comes in four colours – silver, gold, blue and burgandy, boasts a 13.5-inch screen and is one of the thinnest and lightest products in its class.
The base model has a Core i5 processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. It can be configured with higher specs with three other options.
Microsoft is targeting the education market – and even threw laptops inside backpacks stuffed with textbooks, notepads and keys to simulate school-kid wear-and-tear.
Yet the Surface Laptop’s affordable price, portability and features could appeal to a far broader audience-including Mac loyalists.
Microsoft set out to make a laptop with better-than-average battery life because students said they wanted a device that would last through a long day of classes.
The trick was to design a machine with a bigger battery that was still slim and light.
Working with Intel, the team shrank the motherboard, the circuit board containing a computer’s main components, to provide space for the bigger battery. Intel also helped Microsoft make the machine run cooler.
In an effort to make the surface around the keyboard more pleasing to the eye and touch, designers used Alcantara, a synthetic microfibre that’s more durable than the suede it mimics.
With its hardware and software teams working together, Microsoft created a new version of its operating system, called Windows 10 S, that’s tailored to the laptop.
Terry Myerson, who runs both groups, said inspiration for the “S” came from the auto industry, which often uses the letter to flag sporty, high-performance models.
The new OS is designed to prevent the computer from slowing down over time and remaining predictable even if under assault from malware-a selling point long touted by Apple’s iOS.
Other manufacturers will install Windows 10 S into their own machines, giving Microsoft a way to compete with cheap machines running Google’s Chrome OS.
Users can still install Windows 10 Pro over Windows 10 S, but they won’t be able to switch back.
The OS also runs only apps offered on Microsoft’s app store.
The new OS unlocks performance and features not found on many Windows-based machines. The laptop wakes from sleep almost instantly when the lid is opened, and takes seconds to turn on from a fully powered-off state.
The slick computer, which will be available in the US on June 15, arrives at an auspicious moment for Microsoft.
The company is riding the success of its Surface Studio and Surface tablets (though sales slipped in the the most recent quarter, dragging down total revenue).
Meanwhile, Apple has come under fire from Mac owners for focusing on the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch-and letting the Mac lineup languish.
The Air hasn’t had a serious makeover since 2010, just a modest upgrade two years ago. Stung by the criticism from the disgruntled faithful, Apple has pledged to do better.
Of course, luring Mac devotees will take some doing because Apple’s OS syncs almost flawlessly with the iPhone, making it a snap to transfer photos, send and receive text messages and make online payments from a Mac.
Users will lose that ability if they switch to the Surface Laptop. And despite the impressive hardware, people are used to the Mac interface, another sticking point.
Finally, students may balk at paying almost US$1000 when they can get an adequate laptop for much less.