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Microsoft Surface Book review

Microsoft calls this device the ultimate laptop and I’ve been using it as my daily driver for close to a month now since it landed on my doorstep on October 26th. But is it the ultimate laptop? Should you spend your hard earned money on this device? Let’s dive in and take a look.

TL;DR

  • Good: Gorgeous design and amazing build quality
  • Good: Great battery life and performance
  • Good: So many ways to use it
  • Bad: Display wobbles
  • Bad: Aspect ratio (3:2) sucks when watching a widescreen video
  • Bad: Occasional software glitches

What is the Surface Book?

Back in early October of 2015, Microsoft unveiled the Surface Book in what was quite possibly the best technology unveiling ever. It was during the October 6th Windows 10 Devices event — an event that was hyped for months and was the culmination of Microsoft’s hard work. When Panos Panay took the stage and unveiled the Surface Book, jaws dropped. Tech reporters in attendance, as well as thousands around the world watching the live stream, were in absolute awe. Microsoft had just unveiled their own laptop — but it also turns into a tablet!

The Surface line has always been well-designed and well-built, using the best materials and having an excellent fit-and-finish. The Surface Book takes this engineering, materials, and manufacturing expertise to an entirely new level. The Surface Book weighs 1.6 pounds, and like all Surface machines is milled out of magnesium. In fact, the Surface Book maintains the general design philosophy as the rest of the Surface devices, down to the typical venting along the edges of the screen. The machine sports two full-size USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card reader, mini-DisplayPort, and a Surface Connect port.

The Surface Book features a 13.5-inch PixelSense screen with a “dynamic fulcrum hinge” that provides a smooth, solid feel to the machine (but does create a bit of an odd angle when closed and I’ll talk about that later in this review). Microsoft points out that the screen has the highest PPI of any comparable machine, at 267PPI (3000 by 2000 resolution).

The Surface Book also houses it’s processor in the display, which doubles as a tablet. Meanwhile, the keyboard houses the discrete Nvidia GPU (if the model you select has it) as well as the added battery for longer use. There’s also a facial recognition camera, providing built-in Windows Hello support, and an 8 megapixel camera on the back with autofocus and 1080P HD video support.

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Using it as a Laptop

As a laptop, the Surface Book weighs in at 3.48 pounds, which is quite heavy. But you know what? I don’t mind it. The device actually feels sturdy thanks to the proper weight distribution of the display and the keyboard base, along with the dynamic fulcrum hinge holding the two together.

The backlit keyboard is absolutely beautiful and provides best-in-class keystroke and a purposefully quiet design, and makes for an excellent typing experience. With 1.6mm of key travel, the keyboard on the Surface Book is pleasant to use and easy to become accustomed to. I wrote this review on the Surface Book and it was a comfortable experience. As you can see in the image below, the up/down arrow keys are mushed together, but you will eventually get accustomed to it.

The trackpad also received some attention and is an all-glass affair with five-point multi-touch capability. No complaints on this front, it just works like it should.

The Surface Book works quite well in your lap (or as Panos would say, it has great “lapability”), but one thing that will annoy you right away is the display wobble. But we’ll get to that later in this review.

Overall, using the Surface Book as a laptop was a pleasant experience, aside from occasional software glitches. Sometimes the trackpad refused to work after the device exited sleep mode, requiring me to detach and re-attach the display to fix the issue. Sometimes apps took longer than usual to load for no apparent reason, and other times the system seemed sluggish even though I wasn’t doing much. To give the Surface Book some credit, these were occasional incidents and didn’t happen often. The device does packs a lot of power, and I was able to get work done — that’s all that matters to me.

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Using it as a Clipboard

Most astonishingly, the Surface Book screen detaches to become the world’s thinnest tablet weighing in at 1.6 pounds. The touchscreen supports the same Surface Pen available for the Surface Pro 4 (and the Surface Pen comes included), with the same magnetic attachment. And when the screen is connected to the keyboard in its reversed position, it becomes perhaps the world’s most lapable tablet as well.

All you have to do is hold down the display detach button on the keyboard and you will be given the go-ahead to remove your display. I found that you have to be quick to remove the display or else it will lock again, causing you to have to repeat the process to detach the display. Not a huge deal and I suspect some of you may struggle with this at first but eventually become accustomed to it. I hope to see Microsoft improve this detaching/attaching mechanism for the Surface Book 2.

Once you successfully detach the display from the keyboard, you effectively have a powerful tablet in your hands. Microsoft refers to this as the Clipboard — a useful mode which allows you to use your tablet as a powerful digital note-taking clipboard.

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Wobbly display and widescreen videos

I really dislike the display wobble on the Surface Book, which occurs when you tap on the screen with your finger or if you tap on the display with your Surface Pen. This can be quite annoying during times when you are tapping on the screen to navigate through the operating system, or if you are using the Surface Pen to write while using the device as a laptop.

The 3000×2000 resolution is amazing, but watching widescreen movies or streaming widescreen videos on the device may be a bit of a bummer. As you can see, there is an ugly gap at the top and bottom of the video, due to the aspect ratio. For this reason, I wouldn’t want to watch movies or any kind of video content on it. Your opinion may differ in the matter but I personally prefer as much screen real-estate as possible so I can fully immerse myself in what I am watching.

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Five different ways to use it

There are several different ways you can use your Surface Book to meet your productivity needs. First, and the default way to use the Surface Book, is the laptop mode. Nothing exciting or revolutionary here, but definitely one of the big selling points of the Surface Book.

One big feature of the Surface Book is the ability to detach the display from the keyboard, effectively turning your Surface Book into a powerful Surface tablet. All you have to do is press the screen detach key located on the left side of the “Del” key and you can remove the display from the keyboard base. You can sit on the couch or walk around with the device in your hands, having turned your Surface Book laptop into a powerhouse tablet.

Instead of re-attaching your Surface display to the keyboard base the normal way, why not attach it backwards? In this mode, you can effectively use your keyboard base as a stand — perfect for use in the kitchen when you want to display a recipe on-screen or if you are watching a movie on Netflix.

An alternative mode to this is called the “tent mode” that other device manufacturers like Lenovo often tout. Similar to the above scenario, you can use this mode to watch movies or view presentations with ease.

And finally, you can fold back the device the opposite way (as long as the display is inserted the opposite way), effectively turning your Surface Book into a tablet with the keyboard attached to it. This is yet another interesting way to use your Surface Book, but may not feel as practical as the above listed modes. This is ideal for artists or for those who want to carry their Surface Book around like a tablet, with the keyboard attached and readily available. Find a table, and turn that tablet back into a laptop! Really cool.

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The gap

It’s a much talked about attribute called the gap, which is something noticeable when you close your Surface Book. But before we talk about the gap, let’s explore the new dynamic fulcrum hinge, a cool new component that holds up the display.

When Microsoft was conceptualizing the design of the Surface Book, they looked at how it would be possible to balance the display on the keyboard, without adding a considerable amount of weight to the device. This resulted in the birth of the dynamic fulcrum hinge, which connects the keyboard and display with watch-band like flexible aluminum segments. This allows for a proper balance of the display at the edge of the keyboard while allowing the flexibility to adjust the display to your desired angle.

But there’s one problem with the dynamic fulcrum hinge — the display does not sit flush with the keyboard causing an ugly gap. This may cause dust and other objects to be lodged in-between the display and keyboard, which some may find annoying, but having used the device for a month, I’ve yet to encounter this problem.

The dynamic fulcrum hinge is also quite strong, making it harder than normal to open your Surface Book. However, with the gap, you can easily insert your fingers and slide downwards to lift up the display from the keyboard base.

Yes, the gap is ugly, but call me crazy because it sort of grew on me over time. As you can see in the image above, you can use the Surface Book in a particular mode, which allows for the display to sit at an angle, making it comfortable to draw or lug around in your arms. The gap gives the Surface Book a distinct look and I actually have grown to like it. I didn’t at first and you probably won’t either, but give it some time.

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Surface Pen

Purchasing a new Surface Book treats you to a brand new Surface Pen which comes included the box. For those that did not know, the updated Surface Pen offers the ultimate writing experience with 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and reduced latency. So it’s already designed to offer a great experience.

You can improve your Surface Pen experience a tad bit more thanks to the Surface app that comes with your Surface Book. All you have to do is fire open the Surface app (it’s pinned to your Start menu) and tap the Pen category on the left side of the app. Under Pen Pressure Sensitivity, simply adjust the slider to change your pen’s settings. You can use the Ink Test area to test your new pen sensitivity by drawing or writing (make sure you try it with varying levels of pressure). The app will automatically save your settings.

You can click the top of the Pen to open OneNote, which is a really cool feature (and not new to the Surface Book). However, after a few times, the process of opening OneNote slows down. It’s no longer instant and takes a second. Not a big deal and I’m sure Microsoft can easily address this via a software update.

There are also different Pen “nibs” you can purchase, which is something artists will surely appreciate. The four pen nibs come in four textures: 2H, H, HB (same as the standard pen nib), and B, each designed to mimic the frictions and textures of real world writing utensils.

You can check out our hands-on demo of the Surface Pen on the Surface Pro 4 (it’s the same pen for the Surface Book). The Pen performs well, but nothing mind-blowingly well.

Having the Surface Pen is a neat little addition to the Surface Book, allowing you to digitally write on your device for whatever the reason may be (drawing, taking notes, etc). The Surface Pen compliments Windows 10 and the OneNote experience, allowing you to quickly jot down notes, no matter where you are (in the classroom, out in the field, etc).

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The Lumia 830 is actually bigger than the Surface Book’s keyboard base

Performance

The Surface Book we reviewed was the 128GB, Intel Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM. This particular model featured Intel HD graphics.

Now I can sit here and give you percentages and figures, but these numbers are highly subjective. It all depends on your particular use case. For the purposes of this review, i’ll show you the average battery life while using the device moderately (consisting primarily of internet surfing, checking emails, and writing/editing this review).

Battery life on the device is decent. I averaged between 10 to 14 hours with moderate usage and medium screen brightness with the keyboard attached. That’s a very long time without a charge! When I used resource intensive applications like Adobe Photoshop to bulk edit several photos or Premiere Pro to edit a video, I averaged between 5 to 8 hours of battery life with the keyboard attached. Not bad at all.

Now, with the keyboard detached, I averaged about 3 hours with moderate usage, and 2 hours with high usage. This makes sense since the battery is located in the keyboard. Best case scenario, just insert the display backwards and fold it back to have a nice tablet experience with the keyboard attached, providing all the juice you need to last several hours.

During my tests, the fans on the Surface Book routinely became loud — and I mean, loud. After just a few seconds of playing a simple game from the Windows Store (Asphalt 8 Airborne), the fans began to run at full speed, making me think my precious Surface Book was about to blast off into space. The same can be said when playing a resource-intensive game like Far Cry 4 or GTAV. It actually distracted me from the game at first and made me want to turn it off in fear that I may damage the internal components of my Surface Book. I wasn’t too happy to say the least.

I also recommend firing up the Settings app and installing any updates you may have available especially firmware updates. My Surface Book would slow down or lag on occasion, and the trackpad would become unresponsive after waking up from sleep. Installing the latest firmware updates helped with these issues.

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Final thoughts

When Microsoft first launched the Surface, it was branded as a device that could replace your laptop. Now, Microsoft pushes out the Surface Book, a laptop that also works as a tablet, nearly perfecting the two-in-one PC concept. Unfortunately, a few minor imperfections like the screen wobble, the viewable area when watching movies, and the software issues.  I don’t consider the keyboard/display “gap” a flaw, rather I consider it a design feature — it actually places the display at an angle so you can draw easily while having the device on a hard surface.

Can you use the Surface Book as a laptop? Yes. Can you use the Surface Book as a powerful tablet on the go? Yes. Can you fold the device in different configurations based on your use case? Yes. Is this the ultimate laptop? Yes. It’s the ultimate Surface device from Microsoft.

The Surface Book is a beast when you use it as a laptop, but there is so much more you can do with it to match your ever-changing use case. Can I fold the display and carry the device around as a tablet or clipboard? Yes. Can I fold the device and use it for a presentation? Yes. Having the ability to use the Surface Book in various productivity scenarios is one of the key selling points of this cool device, at least in my opinion.

Should you buy the Surface Book? Definitely. If you’re in the market for a new laptop or tablet that runs Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 10, then the Surface Book is an ideal choice. The best part is, you’re not just getting a laptop or a tablet, you’re getting both in one gorgeous yet somewhat pricey package. Yes, the device isn’t perfect, but then again are any devices perfect? Although there are minor flaws like the display wobble, software glitches, and a few other bugs, I still recommend buying the Surface Book. Just make sure you update the firmware via Windows Update as soon as possible to enjoy a better experience.

Microsoft really hit a homerun with the ideology behind the Surface Book and I can’t wait to see what Microsoft has up their sleeve for the next generation of the device.

The Surface Book starts at $1,499. Head over to the online Microsoft Store to buy it.

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