Microsoft recently announced the "Surface Book," which it dubs "the ultimate laptop." Like many Windows-based laptops in the past few years, it includes a touchscreen. But, as a special surprise twist, the Surface Book is also a tablet. Pop the touchscreen free of the keyboard base and it's a totally usable computer. Lock it back in and you get souped-up graphical performance, and all the traditional benefits of a laptop: you can use it on your lap, and type, and use a mouse, and actually accomplish things.

A short synopsis of Tom Warren's review of the Surface Book for The Verge might go something like this: it's a great laptop, and it would be an even better laptop if it wasn't also a tablet.

As innovative, interesting, bold, and technologically impressive as the Surface Book is — and it needs to be all of those things to make a laptop / tablet hybrid truly worthwhile — it's still held back by its tablet-ness. It's heavier and thicker than a comparable laptop, the screen wobbles due to the unique hinge, the screen's weight makes it slightly awkward on your lap. #hybridproblems, basically.

The Surface Book is astoundingly close to making those problems go away, but it's not a 100% winner, and my guess is a couple "pure" laptops released this year (at least one of them made by Apple) will be chosen by most professionals looking to upgrade to Intel's latest laptop chips.

But, like, what is a "laptop" actually? It's funny when a word you use for an object you interact with every single day turns out to have absolutely zero meaning. It used to be easy to tell the difference, but Microsoft's Surface Book so thoroughly blurs the line, it's now nonexistent. If the definition of "laptop" includes a screen with a detachable keyboard dock, then every tablet on the planet (like Apple's new iPad Pro, for instance) has this potential.

Maybe "laptop" means something more than form factor. Maybe "laptop" is a state of mind.

"Laptop" is the thing that does all of the things you need a computer for. Maybe a desktop can render video quicker, maybe a tablet is better for Netflix in bed, maybe a hybrid like the Surface Book handles pen input and impresses your co-workers. But those are nice-to-haves; "laptop" represents what's necessary.

"Laptop" is the thing that does all of the things you need a computer for.

When people use their laptops, they don't stop and say, "Wait, let me get my tablet so I can accomplish this specific task more efficiently." They answer emails on their tablet in a pinch, but not primarily. Drawing on a tablet is fun and expressive, but it turns out nobody pays them to draw. Netflix is better on their TV or tablet, but searching for a movie to watch on Netflix is easiest on a laptop.

In 2008, six months after releasing the first iPhone, Apple defined what the minimum for a laptop is: a screen, a keyboard, a touchpad, a headphone port, a charging port, a plug for an external display, and just a touch of USB connectivity. I remember that first MacBook Air well, because I bought one and it was terrible. It was overpriced, underpowered, had terrible battery life, and eventually the hinge busted on me and Apple refused to fix it.

Fast-forward to 2015, and I think it's instructional to see what has changed in Apple's MacBook Air, which has been widely regarded by the technology press as the best laptop on the market for roughly the past five years: basically, nothing. The MacBook Air has stood still, while the Intel processors inside have become rapidly more powerful and more efficient. Now, instead of being crippling slow, the Air is a middle-of-the-road performer, capable of playing World of Warcraft and running professional media production apps. Now, instead of conking out after a few hours, a brand new MacBook Air easily gets over 10 hours of battery life. The original Air's scandalous lack of a DVD drive, ExpressCard expansion slot, VGA plug, and even a decent amount of hard drive space, haven't held the line back — they set it free.

Meanwhile, Apple has refused to add a touchscreen, a Retina-like screen, or even LTE to its flagship computer. A hybrid option where the screen turns into a fully functional tablet computer? Perish the thought. It's not that those features aren't interesting or cool — Apple sells an LTE-equipped tablet, and a Retina-screened MacBook — but those are all features that either add to the bulk of a laptop, or decrease battery life.

I'm not saying Apple gets to determine for all eternity what a laptop is. I'm just saying they're pretty good at laptops. Where other manufacturers go wrong is they try and improve upon the MacBook Air formula by adding features, which means they're missing the whole point. A "laptop" does enough, but never more than enough.

A "laptop" does enough, but never more than enough.

There's no such thing as "best of both worlds" in computers. Choices matter. Hybrids like the Surface Book are great for people who perfectly straddle the tablet and laptop use cases — who constantly switch between keyboard and pen, desk and walk-and-talks, angry memos and Angry Birds. Everyone else's perfect "laptop" will probably be a lot more boring, and a good deal cheaper.

But.

You know what would be cool? A world where we actually needed Surface Books. What if our lives were like Microsoft Surface commercials? We'd flit effortlessly between different roles. An architect for one moment, consulting with a professional on your home remodel. Then you're drawing up a clever football play for Russell Wilson. Then you're playing Madden, streamed from your Xbox. Then you're answering work emails and flicking away distractions with your finger. And then you're in some big song-and-dance number, and you can't even remember where you put your Surface Book because your life is amazing and who even cares anymore you're going to die happy, loved by your family and respected by your peers.

The Surface Book is not an inferior product because its hardware is too ambitious. It's an inferior product because its hardware is more ambitious than the digital lives we've thus far concocted.


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year