Review: Surface Book, Windows 10 Has A New Flagship
On the flight back from the launch of the Surface Pro 3 last year, sitting in the cattle car section of the airplane, I began trying out the company’s new, larger Surface on my lap, and while the experience was palatable, what I really wanted, like so many others, was a proper laptop. I wanted Microsoft to take a risk and go all in on its hardware bet and build something that was truly different, much like they did in the tablet space. In the fall of 2015, Microsoft announced its first laptop, the Surface Book, and I have been using this device for about two weeks.
The Surface Book, which is technically a 2-1, is Panos Panay’s vision of the ‘ultimate laptop’. The company is using this phrase in their marketing material and everyone from the CEO down to the engineers who designed this piece of hardware truly believes that this laptop is what the market has been craving and is a machine that competes with the best of Apple’s offerings.
Defining what is the ‘ultimate laptop’ is a personal definition. For one user, it may mean editing video while sitting under a tree in a park, and for another, it may mean being able to use the device for 12 hours without needing to find an outlet. For me, the ‘ultimate laptop’ is one that doesn’t cut corners and presents no barriers in my workflow; to truly be the ultimate laptop, it also has to live up to my demanding work style of always being ready to go when I am and being able to take a beating as well. For a point of reference, up until I started using the Surface Book, the Dell XPS 13 filled this role but was far from perfect and is definitely not the ‘ultimate laptop’.
So here I am, it’s October 7th, and I am unboxing Microsoft’s premium device at the airport and everything from the box to the material of the laptop oozes that hundreds of hours of design work went into every meticulous detail and with a starting price of $1499, you should expect nothing less.
Pulling the machine out of the box, the magnesium case feels exceptional and doesn’t show fingerprints; the keys, a bit mushy for my personal preference, are precise and well-spaced and the trackpad has a satisfying click when pressed. The screen, which Microsoft doesn’t get enough credit for, is bright, clear and highly responsive to both finger and pen input with excellent color reproduction.
Shoving the box into my suitcase, I pass through security and find myself sitting in the back of a 737 on my way home using the Surface book on my lap. And it works, it actually works on your lap. I flashed a big two-year-old type smile to the person in the middle seat who was not amused at their seat selection or my sheepish grin when I tried to explain how happy this simple scenario made me. Finally, a Microsoft device that I can say honestly works in cramped quarters.
As the flight home progresses, I begin to take my initial impression notes. I notice that the keyboard is good, not the best I have every used, but it is one of the better keyboards out there. The trackpad has plenty of space for gestures, and the screen is a bit wobbly when being bounced around by turbulence. Overall, my first impressions are positive, which is important as consumers view the Surface Book in retail stores, and I expect their first impression will be much like mine. Although I expect that consumers will be initially impressed by the build quality and the unique features of the device that make it stand out from a traditional laptop, I also expect that they will question the $1500 price tag. This price point has been a harder sell with lower priced but premium products like the Dell XPS 13 or even the Surface Pro 3 and 4. This price point also takes Microsoft’s hardware vision into a new premium bracket that’s been typically dominated by Apple.
So what are the unique features of this laptop that justify the price? There are a couple that are easy to spot but starting with the basics is the fact that the screen is detachable.
The hallmark feature of the Surface Book is that if you press the key that is next to the delete button, it allows you to detach the display. By pressing and holding the button down, a mechanical latch is released and you can pull the display off into what Microsoft calls the ‘Clipboard’. And let me explain something, the mechanical latch offers an experience I have never encountered with a laptop.
When you hold down the button and the latch disengages, you get this satisfying clunk that the latch has opened and you can remove the display. It has the feeling like closing the door on a luxury car, my only wish is that when place the tablet back on the keyboard base you would feel the latch reengage but sadly, it’s stealthy and simply locks in quietly.
Once you have the 13.5 inch display removed, you have a tablet that’s a lot like the Surface Pro 4. The biggest difference, aside from the slightly larger size, is the lack of ports, but it’s a very similar experience. There is excellent inking support, fast-response time, a high-resolution display (3000 x 2000, 267 PPI), and magnets to store the pen on the side of the display.
The clipboard experience, which is what Microsoft calls detaching the display from the body, is quite good. If there is only one take away (and really there are more than one), it’s that Microsoft got this transition right. The mechanical latch, the pen sticking to the side, the easy attach/detach, it’s done exceptionally well and is a high point for this device.
What makes this transition work is the hinge that Microsoft designed. When you see the Surface Book you can’t miss it, it’s uniquely Surface and gives the laptop a bit of personality that not everyone may love but it certainly makes the device stand out.
The hinge is a Dynamic Fulcrum (DFH) design and when closed, creates a small gap at the base of the display that gives the Surface Book a tear-drop design. At first, I was a bit concerned about the device collapsing under pressure but after putting a considerably about of force on the hinge when closed, the fears are put to rest.
The display can also be attached with the screen facing opposite of the keys, meaning you can carry it around like a tablet with the base attached to get the benefits of the additional batteries in the base while still being able to use it like a tablet.
The second feature that makes the Surface Book stand out from the crowd is something you can’t see, if you opt for a higher-end model, $1899 and up, the device comes with dual graphics chips. How it works is that in the keyboard base, another graphics card chip is included, a custom NVIDIA GPU designed specifically for Surface Book and is based on the Maxwell architecture. The chip has 1GB GDDR5 memory, which should be enough for most activities but for those looking to do serious gaming on this machine, then this chip may not offer everything you need. The hinge acts as a high-speed port that allows the tablet part of the book, which contains all the traditional parts of a PC like the CPU, RAM, memory, etc., to interact with the keyboard base that contains the second GPU to boost the performance of the device along with extra batteries.
Microsoft has said that this feature was a serious undertaking by the company and took a considerable amount of time to perfect because if you undock when the GPU is in use, then Microsoft needs to make sure the task is seamlessly switched to the tablet GPU without the user noticing. The Surface Book I was sent to review does not have the second GPU, so I can’t comment on additional performance gains from that type of setup.
The third feature that separates the Surface Book from other devices is that Microsoft has finally built a trackpad that doesn’t suck. For some reason, my Dell XPS 13, the Acer S7 before it and many other Windows machines that I have tested in-between, have all had gesture recognition issues or inconsistent click experiences.
Thankfully, I can say that the Surface Book trackpad is phenomenal. All of the customizable gestures in Windows 10 work the first time, every time; it’s remarkable it took us this long to get to the point where you can trust a trackpad. But here we are, the Surface Book shows it can be done and done well.
If those were the only three features that help differentiate the Surface Book from other devices, that may be enough for some but that’s not the entire story. These three features are simply those that I’ve concluded are top reasons why you would buy a Surface Book but there is more to the story than that.
The Book comes with two USB 3.0 ports, SD card slot, display port out, a Windows Hello camera, a rear-facing camera, average battery life of a little over 8 hours under heavy use, a keyboard that works, a case that doesn’t show fingerprints, a pen that makes it feel like you are writing on the display that also has an eraser to remove your digital ink, and the list goes on and on.
The entire package works well together, and between jet-setting across the country and using the Surface Book at home, I have found it to be a good companion.
But it’s not all perfect, as there are a few areas for improvement. As noted above, the display can be a bit wobbly when bounced around and after paying at least $1499 for the device, this does make me a little bit nervous. Also, unless the screen is pushed all the way back, touching the display makes it bounce a bit; this is the biggest area of annoyance with the device that any potential buyer should be aware of.
There is also no way to check the battery life without turning the device on; many laptops have a button you can push that show a series of lights to indicate how full the battery is, and the Surface Book needs this feature.
Although the screen is good, it is not perfect. If you are jumping between dark images and light images, such as going from Spotify to Word, there is a bit of the dark image retention present in the display. This is present across nearly all high-resolution displays and my Dell XPS 13 exhibited this issue and prior to that my Acer S7 had it too, albeit to a much higher degree. It’s not all that distracting, but it is noticeable.
There have been a few oddities as well, when using Edge and watching a YouTube video, it caused the fan to kick on and the device gets unusually warm; typically during normal web browsing and using Office lightly, the fans never spun up. The keyboard is a bit mushy, I’d prefer keys that were a bit firmer and there are no forward/back music hotkeys on the top row that I prefer as I listen to quite a bit of music while working.
And if you have ever used a MacBook Pro, you will know how the edges leave a line on your wrists when typing. Sadly, the Surface Book has the same issue, but it does seem like the edges are not as sharp as the Apple laptops.
Finally, there is an issue with the audio jack that I can hear some sort of feedback from the guts of the display. It’s a low hum and almost sounds similar to the clicking you would hear on an older mechanical hard drive. I know a few others with this device have experience this phenomenon, and I have yet to figure out the root cause of the issue.
But, even with the noted issues, this a damn good laptop. I’m not sure I’d call it the ultimate laptop but what Microsoft built is a quality premium laptop that the company should be proud of as it showcases all of Windows 10 functionality wonderfully.
What Microsoft has done with the Surface Book is set the bar for what a laptop can be, much like what they did with the Surface Pro that every OEM is now copying, including Apple. While $1499 is not a cheap starting price, for everything that you get, the quality of the build, and how well the complete package works together, it’s justified.
It has been about two weeks since I got off the 737 where I first started playing with the Surface Book and since then, my enthusiasm for the Book has not waned. In fact, this will be the laptop I use going forward. It’s not a perfect machine and Microsoft still has some work to do to truly call it the ‘ultimate laptop’ but it does fit my workflow well and coming from me, I expect a lot out of a laptop so to put my Dell XPS 13 (which I adore) to the side, is a strong endorsement.
Satya Nadella has stated, repeatedly, that he wants “to move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows,” and the Surface Book is the first device that may move people from needing to loving Windows.