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Did Microsoft out-Apple Apple? Surface computers take aim at MacBook domain

Is Microsoft the cool kid of computers again?

Technology analysts and fans couldn’t help but compare this week’s press events from the headquarters of both Apple and Microsoft, who — in an unusual move — unveiled major new hardware at events one day apart.

MacBook refined

Apple announced its newest line of MacBook laptops on Thursday. Other than making them a smidge thinner and lighter than previous models, the major changes could be characterized as much by what was removed as what was added.

The touch bar is a new adaptive touch screen that runs along the top of the keyboards and adds different functions based on what app you’re using, like volume controls and photo filters. But it also replaces the escape and function keys that have traditionally occupied the upper row of just about every basic keyboard in existence.

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A guest points to a new MacBook Pro during an Apple media event in Cupertino, Calif., on Oct. 27. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

And the new MacBook Pros have ditched the traditional USB ports for the newer, reversible USB-C model, which means if you’ve got any older devices that connect with the traditional version you’ll need to buy a dongle to use them.

Patrick O’Rourke, a writer for Canadian tech site MobileSyrup, tried the new MacBooks at Apple’s press event, and says he came away mostly impressed and in favour of the new touch bar.

O’Rourke says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the feature, but notes it’s unclear how many non-Apple developers will adapt their applications for the new MacBooks.

Surface Studio surprises

Just a day earlier, Microsoft showed off the latest version of its Surface Book laptop-tablet hybrid, promising more graphics power and longer battery life than the 2015 version.

The company also showed off its upcoming mixed-reality headset, Hololens, and unveiled the Surface Studio — a high-end desktop computer that appears to target the same audience as Apple’s iMac. It features a touch screen and transformable base that can slide into a position resembling an artist’s canvas or drafting table.

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Journalists use a new Surface Dial with the Surface Studio. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

But most surprising was probably the Surface Dial, a puck-like mechanism that interacts with the Surface Studio’s screen. It can be used to create a colour wheel or spin around the image you’re working on, freeing up your other hand to keep on drawing with a stylus.

Did Microsoft out-Apple Apple?

Several commentators noted that Apple might be losing its position as the king of slick product reveals and innovative tech design to Microsoft.

By comparison, Apple’s announcements, book-ended with long missives on previously seen iPhone software and Apple TV updates, seemed, well, boring.

“Admit it: Microsoft is now a braver, more innovative company than Apple,” writes Mashable’s Chris Taylor.

Taylor, a self-professed Apple fan boy, described the Surface Studio as “what the iMac [Apple’s desktop computer] should be by now,” and called the dial “another brave and risky move from Microsoft that seems, at first blush, to have paid off.”

The pro-Microsoft headlines are piling up. “Microsoft is doing a better Apple impression than Apple is,” wrote The VergeMIT Technology Review echoed that statement: “Microsoft is looking like the new Apple.”

Many tech watchers on Twitter chimed in with similar pronouncements.

O’Rourke suggests the shift we’re seeing from Microsoft comes out of necessity more than anything else.

“I think Microsoft was pushed into a corner, so they’re being forced to innovate,” he says. “The Surface started off as not that great a device, but over the course of not even three years, it’s become a viable laptop-tablet replacement. And it’s a cool, new, different category.”

But with its years-long head start in the market (the first MacBook debuted in 2006), Apple won’t have to make radical changes for a while.

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Most of Apple’s updated MacBook laptops have replaced the Escape key and Function keys for the new Touch Bar. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

“I think they [Apple] are fine to keep doing what they’re doing,” O’Rourke says of the new MacBooks. “It’s got new hardware, the design is slightly sleeker, but it’s not going to blow your mind. But that’s because the original device was fine. It’s difficult to improve on something that’s already doing very well.”

He doesn’t see the Surface line overtaking Apple any time soon, but he “could see them biting off a bigger part of the high-end market” traditionally dominated by Apple.

“Even on the plane coming here, I saw a couple Surface devices. That’s not something I’ve seen in the past,” he says. “So they’re definitely grabbing some of that high-end mindshare.”

High stakes, high price

That said, anyone hoping to hitch their wagon to either competitor should be ready to pay a premium price. The new line of MacBooks ranges from $1,899 to $3,499. The new Surface Book starts at $3,129, though you can still get last year’s version for $1,949.

Microsoft hasn’t announced when the Surface Studio will be available in Canada, but it’s currently up for pre-order in the U.S., for $2,999 US. The Surface Dial comes separately for $99 US.