But then Microsoft did just that: surprised us with its first-ever in-house laptop, the Surface Book. It's powerful, has a beautifully strange new hinge design, and is impressively thin. Oh, also: the screen detaches to become a tablet. Call it the Surface Pro in reverse, but the Surface Book looks stunning, and it's easily the most interesting Windows laptop we've seen in ages.
Which is good for Microsoft, because Apple has ruled the notebook market for some time with its MacBook options. For our money, the MacBook Pro with Retina is the best laptop you can buy today – but the Surface Book will surely provide ample competition when it ships in a couple weeks. How's the battle shaping up so far? Here's how it shakes out now, based on the specs.
Design: Book's a looker
Apple makes a reliably good-looking laptop. The MacBook Pro design has evolved over nearly a full decade now, shifting to a unibody form over the years while trimming the fat wherever it could. It's a lean, mean, Mac machine, and while Apple's own MacBook and MacBook Air are slimmer, the Pro provides power without feeling heavy or bulky. But it's a familiar look.
By contrast, the Surface Book is anything but familiar. It starts with that snake-like hinge, which Microsoft calls a "dynamic fulcrum hinge," but it extends to the gap that remains when the Book is closed, along with the very visible ventilation holes. And it disconnects, of course, looking pretty fabulous in either mode.
We like our MacBook builds just fine, but we're wowed by the Surface Book. So until we find a reason not to like its tweaks on laptop design, we're impressed. (Special note: both the 13.3in MacBook Pro and Surface Book are listed at exactly 3.48lbs. Weird, right?)
Winner: Surface Book
Screen: MacBook beaten?
The MacBook Pro has consistently led the class in laptop screens since introducing Retina quality to the laptop world, and that's still true as of this writing. The entry-level model, at 13.3in with a 16:10 aspect ratio, runs at 2560x1600 – that's 227ppi. And the 15.4in model bumps that up to 2880x1800 for a ppi of 220. All very impressive.
But the Surface Book tops the latest MacBook Pro pretty handily: it runs at 3000x2000 (for a 3:2 aspect ratio, obviously) for a 13.5in display, which comes out to 267ppi. And it's a touch display, of course, with support for the Surface Pen. Unless something is horribly wrong with the screen, we have to believe it'll be the new champion of laptop displays.
Winner: Surface Book
Power: Book it!
By the time the Surface Book ships later this month, it will have been seven months since the 13.3in MacBook Pros were refreshed. As such, the Surface Book has a big advantage here, which doesn't make this the fairest comparison – but then again, when it comes to value for your money, that doesn't really matter.
Microsoft says the Surface Book is twice as powerful as the MacBook Pro, and they may well be right. The Surface Book uses Intel's latest Skylake Core i5 and i7 processors, while the MacBook Pro still has older Broadwell chips. Both have multiple configurations available, and the customised top-end MacBook Pro sells for the same price as the top Surface Book: US$2,700.
Even so, for that money, the Surface Book gets you a dedicated graphics card, while the MacBook Pro still has integrated graphics in the smaller model. While Apple's laptop is plenty powerful, and the difference in operating systems means the head-to-head matchup here is tricky, we have to believe the Surface Book can do more with its newer chips and dedicated GPU.
Winner: Surface Book
Battery life: About equal
We're always hesitant to trust official estimates on battery life, but at least these measure up pretty equally on the stat sheet. Microsoft says the Surface Book offers up to 12 hours of video playback, and Apple says the exact same for videos from iTunes, but pegs web surfing at closer to 10 hours.
We've had good luck with MacBook Pro battery life in our own testing, and hopefully the Surface Book will provide much the same. But for now, we'll call it a draw and hope that mixed use puts Microsoft's option in line with Apple's.
Let's just call this the "Surface Book gimme category," because there's really no competition here. Microsoft's laptop has incredible extras: it has a touch display. And that touch display disconnects to become a tablet. And then it can be reattached backwards to make it a proper, fully-fledged convertible, if you want it.
Add in support for the Surface Pen – included, in a nice touch – and the Surface Book simply has massive perks that the MacBook Pro can't provide a response to. And you might not personally want or need all of those bonus features, but they're impossible to ignore in the grand scheme of things here.
Winner: Surface Book
OS: Choose wisely
We're not going to get dragged too deeply into the Mac vs. PC debate here, but let's quickly look at the situation. The MacBook Pro carries Apple's excellent OS X, which just got a nice refresh with El Capitan, and it's the operating system of choice for creative types, casual users, and quite a lot of other folks. It's what most of us use for our own work and personal computing needs.
Windows wasn't all that fantastic for a while, but Windows 10 certainly is a return to form for the still-immensely-popular PC OS. And now that Microsoft is building its own laptop especially for the operating system, we're inclined to believe that Windows 10 will run really, really well on the Surface Book.
Ultimately, Mac vs. PC is a matter of personal preference: both provide strong, incredibly useful computing experiences, albeit with different interfaces and perks. You probably already know which you like better, and chances are that it'll be a big force in your decision here. But as our El Capitan review pointed out, we think it has a slight edge over Windows 10 in everyday use.
Winner: MacBook Pro
What can we say? We're hugely impressed by what we've seen and heard of the Surface Book so far. Apple has had the laptop market locked up in recent years, but the time is right for Microsoft to produce its own high-end competitor – and maybe give Apple some incentive to shake things up a bit.
Not that it needs to, certainly. We love using the MacBook Pro, and it's still the best laptop you can buy today, as of this writing. But when the Surface Book ships later this month, carrying the great Windows 10 and some serious design appeal, then that may well change. And then we'll be looking forward again to next spring, or whenever Apple decides to take the fight back to Microsoft.