Tables Turn As Microsoft Innovates While Apple Iterates

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For years, Apple has championed its ability to control every aspect of the products that it designs and builds, including the operating system. Apple has used this tight integration to great effect with both its iPhone smartphone family and its lineup of Mac desktops and notebooks, tying them all together with iCloud. Historically, Microsoft relied on ecosystem partners and OEMs to build machines that make use of its software products. However, the company came around to its own branded product portfolio approach with its Surface/Surface Pro line of tablets and expanded that vision with the Surface Book and most recently, the Surface Studio

But in Microsoft’s move to compete with Apple’s strategy and have total control by making both the software and the hardware for its branded consumer PCs, is the former doing more to advance design and ergonomics than the latter? This all comes down to personal preference, and die-hard fans on either side of the battle lines are unlikely to be swayed. Although, for those who like to keep an open mind, it’s hard not to be impressed by devices like the new Surface Studio.

While the Surface Studio, with its $2,999 starting price, is by no means a device aimed at general consumers, it is being seen as an aspirational product — what Microsoft is striving for with the future of computing. And for those that are willing to pay the price of entry — namely, the same content creators and professionals that often cling to their Macs — Microsoft makes a fairly compelling case.

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The Surface Studio is constructed of forged aluminum, with its standout feature being a gorgeous 28-inch (4500 x 3000) PixelSense touch display. Microsoft claims that this is the thinnest LCD panel in the world at 1.3mm thick. The base of the machine, which we admit could use a tad more design flare, houses Intel Core i5 or Core i7 Skylake processors, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M or GTX 980M GPUs, up to 32GB of RAM and up to 2TB of hybrid (SSD+HDD) storage.

However, what makes the Surface Studio so intriguing is how its display is able to collapse with the touch of a finger and adjust to nearly any angle to suit your creative needs. If you want to simply sit at your desk with the display front and center while pounding away at your keyboard and scrolling through websites with your mouse, no problem. Would you prefer to stand, angle the display at 20 degrees, and use it as an interactive drafting surface to draw or manipulate images? Go for it. And lets not forget about the Surface Dial, which offers a new way to interface with your PC for creative types.

Microsoft fumbled the ball multiple times in regard to touch, partly because its touch implementations in operating systems like Windows 7 and Windows 8.x weren’t exactly world class, and partly because some OEMs failed to deliver premium hardware to take advantage of touch. But with the rise of Windows 10, Microsoft has put a strong emphasis on touch. And the Anniversary Update, which was released this summer, and the Creators Update that is coming early next year, only reinforce that fact.

This in fact is where Microsoft’s ability to control hardware and software is finally allowing it to provide great experiences for content creators on devices like the Surface Book, Surface Pro 4 and Surface Studio, and it's spurring ecosystem OEMs to think more outside the box as well. 

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On the other hand, we’ve seen Apple place more of an emphasis on making its products as thin as possible at the expense of the functionality that creative types often need. Apple hasn’t embraced full touch displays on its Mac products; it relegates that tech to devices like the iPhone and iPad. In a recent interview, Apple chief design officer Jony Ive explained that his team rejected touch screen Macs “many, many years ago.” As to whether Apple will go that route in the future, Ive said, “For a bunch of practical reasons. It’s difficult to talk without going into a lot of details that puts me starting to talk about things that we are working on. I don’t really want to talk much more about it.”

With the new 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros, Apple has trimmed weight dramatically, tossed the generally likable keyboard aside for one that employs butterfly key switches, reduced battery capacity by as much as 35 percent, abandoned MagSafe (which was a big help for anyone that has tripped over a power cord), and opted not to give power users a 32GB RAM option. That last one has been a major point of contention for some Mac users. The reduced internal space also means that Apple can’t even give those spending well over $2,000 on a professional mobile workstation a mobile GPU that can outperform a $109 entry-level graphics card.

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Some will point to the Touch Bar as an innovative idea from Apple, but aside from the handy Touch ID integration, it largely amounts to 1) an enhanced version of the old function keys and 2) a dynamic shortcut bar that will keep your eyes shifting from your keyboard to the display and back. By the way, Lenovo offered a similar feature with the 2014 ThinkPad X1 Carbon and it wasn't well-received. 

As for other Macs, the once revolutionary Mac Pro has been left without any major updates for three years, while the iMac has also had a dry spell of meaningful updates. Most of us have all but forgotten about the Mac Mini, and Apple just discontinued the 11-inch MacBook Air. Apple also discontinued its Thunderbolt Display, instead pushing customers to buy new monitors from LG for their desktop needs. We were expecting updates of all of these products at Thursday’s keynote, but we were left empty-handed.

People often like to tout Apple innovation and superiority of design over its competitors — especially traditionally staid company brands like Microsoft. However, Microsoft is clawing back and it’s letting its design chops do the talking.

We’ll just leave you with this; it’s hard not to be impressed and hopeful for the future of Microsoft-branded hardware with passionate, well-visualized product positioning like this...