Don’t want the Surface Book? Here are the next best things

Oh the dilemma of the Surface Book. On the one hand, it is an engineering marvel, a testament to just how much tech we can cram into a small, premium package, with its powerful innards, multitude of input methods and gorgeous screen wrapped in svelte profile chock full of innovative mechanism (the dynamic fulcrum hinge and muscle wires still put a smile on my face each time I see them in action, and I still marvel at Microsoft’s smart move in separating the GPU and battery from the computing part). On the other hand, the price would definitely not resonate with a lot of people: with a beginning price of $1499 that goes upward of $3000 for the highest specs model, it’s clear the Surface Book is not a machine to be made in large number, nor is it for the common mass. “What choice have we?” you may lament as you evaluate your love for its potent combination of power and elegance against the fullness of your wallet, but we are here to tell you that all is not lost, and you do, in fact, have some choices around thanks to the multitude of Windows OEMs standing up to Microsoft’s hardware challenge, which we will be happy to introduce to you.

As a foreword, we need to talk about the categories for evaluation. First of all, no mobile OS here: this is a strictly desktop-class productivity discussion; Ipad Pro, Pixel C or similar will have to sit out.  Also, while none of the computers available on the market today can match the Surface Book’s combination of power, lightness, longevity and beauty (there’s a reason Microsoft claimed it made the “ultimate laptop” after all), in order to be considered a worthy alternative, the laptop needs to come close or match the Surface Book in a few following aspects:

Power: the Surface Book features a 6th-generation Intel Core i processor with integrated HD graphics in the “clipboard” part, as well as a dedicated custom-made NVidia GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 RAM in its base part, which, while not suitable (but workable) for high-end gaming, is a sizeable boost of performance over integrated graphics. It should be safe to assume that for the tasks you may specifically want a Surface Book to perform, anything less than a Core i5 would be insufficient. Dedicated graphics would be a nice plus.

Form factor/Versatility/Mobility: While Microsoft wow’ed us with the Surface Book’s detachable screen, or “clipboard” during their presentation, it is still, first and foremost, a laptop, whose tried-and-true clamshell design works equally well on your lap and a table. The form factor is arguably the biggest reason why one would consider the Surface Book over Microsoft’s other excellent product, the Surface Pro 4; because of this, anything that do not adhere to the laptop-first design is an out (sorry, Surface Pros and clones.)

That said, it’s not a coincidence that Panos Panay received a standing ovation after his dramatic revelation of the Surface Book’s detachable screen. Touchscreen hybrids are fast becoming the norms and not the exception in the PC world, and the versatility they bring is really a case of how-did-we-live-without-this for many people. While the Surface Book’s laptop mode fulfills the dream for many, the fact that Microsoft doesn’t stop there and make it an all-in-one device that can serve a great variety of use cases, in a super thin and sleek package is what seals the deal. A Surface Book replacement needs to retain the laptop look while adding the versatility of hybrid.

Input: Two words need only be said: Surface Pen. While there have been many hybrid laptops on the market ever since Microsoft’s OS revolution with Windows 8, there a not many that provide a digital inking tool, and fewer do it satisfyingly. The new Surface Pen, coupling with the G5 chip found on both new Surfaces, is a huge improvement over the previous version found on the Surface Pro 3, and a somewhat return to form (or close enough) of the Wacom experience found on the first 2 Surface Pros, finally giving a quality handwriting and digital drawing experience to those who need them. And honestly, at the premium price the Surface Book is asking compares to many similar-spec’ed competing laptops without a writing tool, we would have to think that the Pen plays no small part in purchasing decisions.

After taking all of the above categories into account, we would like to present you with what we think would be the most reasonable alternatives to the Surface Books:

VAIO Z (2015)

Personally, the VAIO Z had been my dream laptop right up to the point before the Surface Book announcement. If the name sounds familiar to you, yes, they are the same VAIO that got cut off from Sony last year and bought by a Japanese investment fund, hence the lack of the word “Sony” in the name (Sony, however, still sells the laptop on its online store as well as provide driver support), and no, it is not the Sony VAIO Z released in 2011, albeit with some design similarities.

Why It’s Worthy: Meaning to represent a new beginning for Vaio with the letter “Z” – Zero, it means – the VAIO Z is a true back-to-the-root for the company (or division) once famous for creating absolutely premium, mouth-watering innovative hardware, and it’s everything a laptop user could want, putting it squarely in Surface Book’s territory of premium laptops: a 13.3-inch qHD touchscreen with 100% SRGB coverage, a svelte laptop hybrid weighing only 1.35kg, aluminum and carbon fiber casing, noise-reduced backlit keyboard with 1.2 mm keystroke. Build quality is a given: the VAIO Z is “made from Japan” inside and out, with every piece manufactured and put together at VAIO’s home base, the small Japanese town of Azumino. The makers reportedly agonize over every detail of the machine, including texture of the palm rest area, and from reviews, it feels really, really good.

The Vaio Z obviously looks to impress. Image courtesy of satouchi.com

The VAIO Z obviously looks to impress. Image courtesy of satouchi.com.

Vaio Z - Opened view.

VAIO Z – Opened view. Image courtesy of satouchi.com

The hybrid part of the VAIO Z is perhaps one of the most elegantly implemented in the hybrid laptop world: instead of the lift-and-fold mechanism popularized by Lenovo, or the more outlandish ones made by VAIO itself in another life, the VAIO Z simply have a screen that can be flipped back 180 degree to face the other way in an equivalent of the  “stand mode” on Lenovo Yoga laptops, which can then be closed down to turn the VAIO Z into a somewhat thick, but entirely usable tablet. The flipping is done with a completely mechanical switching, avoiding the unreliability of software-based solutions, and it looks silky smooth in action. The screen flips into position with a satisfying click, and when closed down face-up, due to the construction, creates a slight downward slope which is excellent for writing and something owners of the Surface Pro 3 can easily appreciate. However, the mobility  cannot be matched with the Surface Book’s detachable “clipboard”, which is by itself a super light, plenty powerful Core-i tablet albeit a bit short-lived, and the Surface Book still reigns supreme in this regard.

Vaio Z's flip mechanism explained. Image courtesy of satouchi.com

Vaio Z’s flip mechanism explained. Image courtesy of satouchi.com

Despite the VAIO Z’s elegant profile, Vaio managed to cram in a 28W processor of either Core i5 or i7, something you will hardly find in any ultrabook on the market save for Apple’s Macbook Pro 13 inch line, which they achieve with a new cooling system dubbed the “Z-engine;” that is not to mention up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD storage. What this means is that if we count CPU processing power of the same chip generation, the VAIO Z would outperform both the Surface Book and Surface Pro, and the onboard Iris Graphics card is no slouch either (Vaio dubbed the Z “Monster PC” at launch for a reason).

If that does not sound attractive enough to you, the VAIO Z also offers pen input with a new version the iconic Vaio Pen, an N-trig digitizer offering up to 1024 level, similar to what can be found on Microsoft’s newest offerings, despite coming out a whole 7 months before the latter. Battery life is top notch, with VAIO’s estimation coming at 15 hours and reviews reporting 12 to 13, easily wins out in longevity against most competitor.

The Vaio Z features a new-and-improved full-size pen with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Source: VAIO.

The Vaio Z features a new-and-improved full-size pen with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Source: VAIO.

The caveats? Firstly, unlike the Surface Book which will be coming to a lot of countries, or even its younger sibling, the VAIO Z Canvas, which hit US shore just recently, VAIO has for some reason decided to only sells the Z in Japan. This does not mean you cannot purchase it though: Japan-import sites like Denkify offer some pretty good options with free shipping to the US, and there is an option to choose the English keyboard layout to replace the default Japanese one.

Of course, with how premium we have already established it to be, the VAIO Z commands a significant price tag, which brings us to problem two: while the price of a well equipped VAIO Z with Core i7 and 16 GB of RAM approximates $2,000, which is not as much as a Surface Book would demand from you for similar configuration, tax would push the price closer to Microsoft’s machine.

Problem number 3: The VAIO Z came out in March this year, sporting a 5th-gen Broadwell processor, which, while certainly sufficient for most tasks, would certainly welcome an upgrade to Skylake, what with all the reported amazing graphical performance boost for Intel’s newest chips. The first wave of Intel’s 6th-generation 28W processor refresh however, will only come in early 2016 (applies also to competitors like the Macbook Pro,) meaning that it’s probably a good choice to wait for a bit longer to get the best bang for your buck, while wishing for a miracle that will make VAIO changes its mind and start bringing the laptop over. With the Surface Book being delayed for certain markets, however, the wait might be more beneficial to some.

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 460

Unveiled in September this year before seemingly sinking into obscurity, the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 460, along with its smaller sibling, the ThinkPad Yoga 260, are Skylake refresh versions for Lenovo’s popular Thinkpad Yoga line of convertible laptop, with some improvements to overall designs, specs and functionality. While the Thinkpad Yoga 460 is neither as light, good-looking, nor long-lasting as competitors from Microsoft and Vaio, as a whole package, it presents few trade-offs compare to Surface Book’s  must-buy features, while offering enough uniqueness that will attract a lot of customers.

ThinkPad Yoga 460 with pen in all its glory. Image courtesy of Engadget.

ThinkPad Yoga 460 with pen in all its glory. Image courtesy of Engadget.

Why It’s Worthy: First of all, the looks. The ThinkPad Yoga 460, as part Lenovo’s premium business-oriented line of machine, is unabashedly a laptop first and foremost. The Thinkpad look is certainly one of the few iconic designs among a sea of me-too laptops, equal to Apple’s products at least in the business world, and while there have been some alterations over the years, especially since Lenovo took control of the brand, the base look is still retained: from the utilitarian black color, to the Thinkpad logo with a glowing-red dot, to the trackpoint that captures viewership and demand identification as soon as you open the laptop, it has a long-time classic look and feel that will appeal to a number of fans.

As a ThinkPad laptop, the 460 upholds the standards imposed upon its legacy, including a wide, comfortable backlit keyboard that’s almost universally held as the standard for all laptops, an excellent trackpad, and the famous trackpoint by which many users swear, complete with physical button.  The Surface Book has no advantages in this regard.

Bearing the Yoga moniker, of course, gives the Thinkpad Yoga 460 certain transforming qualities (pun intended). Lenovo popularized a specific form factor with its Yoga laptop line, in which the screen can be opened up to 360 degree, to completely fold to the underside of the machine, effectively turning it into a clunky tablet mode The same mechanism is found on the 460, and as with the tradition since the first Thinkpad Yoga, Lenovo has added a clever feature exclusive to its business laptop line, dubbed “Lift’n Lock” that allows for the casing part surrounding the keyboard to raise up as the screen is folded past 180-degree, making the keys unpressable in tablet mode.

The screen can be flipped 360 degree to form stand mode or go full tablet. Source: Press

While this feature alleviates one of the biggest weaknesses of the Yoga form factor, the feeling of the keys still being there certainly cannot compare with the smoothness of VAIO Z or Surface Book’s bottoms, and will certainly put off some users. The ThinkPad is also quite a bit heavier than both competitor’s offerings, weighing at a substantial 1.8 kg, which makes it much clunkier to use than the VAIO Z and Surface Book, even with the latter’s screen still attached; with the clipboard part alone, the Surface Book wins in mobility and versatility.

The weight is somewhat justified however, when it comes to power. Featuring the newest Skylake 15W chips, a dedicated Nvidia GeForce 940M graphics card, user-upgradeable to 16GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage, the ThinkPad Yoga 460 will certainly not disappoint you in the computing department, whether intensive work or for even modern games. While it’s not “pound-for-pound” more computing power than the Surface Book – the weight is unmatched for a notebook with dedicated graphics – it’s certainly more powerful in many regards. Did we mention it also has LTE-WAN built-in as an option?

On the input side, unlike the previously mentioned entries, Lenovo uses Wacom AES for its digitizer on the ThinkPad Yoga 460, a new active pen technology from Wacom. It offers double the level of pressure sensitivity found in the Surface Pen at 2048 levels, which sounds cool but should not provide any discernable differences over the later for regular users. Users, however, has reported very positive result with the pen, almost approaching the feel of Wacom’s older ERM pen tech, which is generally upheld as the gold standard for digitizer pen experience. Best of all, the included pen is rechargeable, and small enough to fit safely to a slot on the side of the machine akin to Samsung’s Galaxy Note line, as opposed to the full-sized pen found on either the Surface Book or Vaio Z. While this may be a positive or negative depends on the user, it’s definitely a plus in mobility: Surface Book use magnets to hold the pen on one side, which is prone to breaking off, and the VAIO Z offers no storage methods. It should also be noted that a full-sized ThinkPad Pen Pro can still be purchased additionally.

The new small, rechargeable pen on the Thinkpad. Image courtesy of Engadget.

The new small, rechargeable pen on the Thinkpad. Image courtesy of Engadget.

Finally, the biggest reason why someone would consider Lenovo’s offering over the Surface is price. The ThinkPad Yoga 460 starts at $1,099, and if previous iterations are any indications, the maxed out model would still be only two-thirds the price of a similarly specced Surface Book. If functionality is of importance to you over form, and you don’t mind a bit of added weight, the Yoga 460 would certainly seems like a better choice, financially.

The biggest points against the ThinkPad Yoga 460, however, have to do with build quality and Lenovo’s overall ambiguity in availability info. A look at the laptop’s huge thread on TabletPCReviews reveals much confusion as coveters dig for information regarding when and where it will be available (the most luck seems to be had with Best Buy, where users reported previous versions have been quietly updated), along with cries of screen defects, weird hinge noises among others: definitely not as premium as something like the Surface Book. Of course, it needs to be said that the ones with problems are in most cases a vocal minority, and there are almost equally as many users having a  great experience. After all, the Surface Book is also enjoying its fair share of early post-launch problems, albeit mostly having to do with software, which we hope will be ironed out in the next big Windows 10 update.

The added weight may also  put off a lot of people whose focus are on mobility: 1.1 pounds may not seem like much until you start carrying the machine around, or use it in tablet mode to give a presentation, at which point you will probably wish you had something like the Surface Book’s detachable screen, that you can easily take off and impress people with minimal effort. And let’s be honest here: the Surface Book just looks so much better than the ThinkPad. ThinkPads have never been lookers, and the new carbon-fiber plastic casing, while potentially more durable than the materials used on previous models, doesn’t make the ThinkPad Yoga 460 a substantial improvement in the aesthetics department for the series. It’s the difference between something that gets the work done, and something that does that equally well and get people talking; it’s subtle, but may be a make-or-break for many.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, yes, those are everything I can personally recommend to you. Of course, we can make a bit more concessions, and go may be a notch lower on the power spectrum, but at that point, the idea and ultimately, the lure of a machine like the Surface Book would be lost: it has a very specific audiences, creatives and the Apple users of the world who are not afraid to put down serious cash for the ultimate computing experience. It was truly hard to find a worthy alternative to the Surface Book, which is a testament to how awesome it is as a package: there are certainly laptops that are either lighter, more powerful, longer-lasting, or even with better pen than the Surface Book, but as a package of power, mobility, longevity and versatility, the Surface Book is truly unmatched. Even the options mentioned above represents some unwanted concessions, that won’t be addressed for a while to come, at least until PC makers start to copy the Surface Book; at which point, we hope, Microsoft has gone on to redefine yet another hardware category. After all that’s the whole reason behind the Surface line, isn’t it?

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