I’ve got bad news for Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 users: The software giant now says it will this year not solve the endemic power management issues that have dogged these two premium devices since their October launch. And it is recommending a workaround until it can figure out the “very hard computer science problem” that causes the issues.
To which I say, bullshit.
For Microsoft to ship these devices in such a state is unconscionable, and while one might argue—incorrectly, I think, but whatever—that the firm simply didn’t know these problems existed, it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t be fixed as quickly as possible. And I’d remind you that Microsoft has (re)positioned its Surface lineup as premium devices which come with the resulting heady pricetags. There is no excuse for this.
Anyway. As you may recall, Microsoft earlier this week shipped a Surface Book/Surface Pro 4 firmware update (I’m increasingly convinced that these devices are literally identical inside) to address display driver issues, one of the many issues facing users of these devices.
But many issues remain. I document some below in part of what was going to be my second Surface Book review. But the biggest problem, perhaps, is power management related. As I’ve said on the podcasts several times now, and wrote in the review excerpt below, Surface Book (and apparently Surface Pro 4) just don’t go to sleep properly.
Well, here’s the really bad news. Microsoft won’t fix this problem … until sometime next year.
“The ‘standby’ battery life is an issue we are working on and have been working on,” a Microsoft Surface Engineering Team program manager identified only as“Joe” explains in the company’s support forums. “We can put the processor into a deeper sleep state than it is currently set to. We couldn’t do it at RTM for a variety of reasons, power management is a very hard computer science problem to solve especially with new silicon. Currently it is not in the deepest ‘sleep’ that it can be so there are wake events that would not otherwise wake it. We will have an update for this issue sometime soon in the new year.”
I don’t mean to rip on an individual, as I usually save my ire for faceless corporations, but … “a very hard computer science problem to solve”? Seriously?
My advice to Microsoft is to not ship products for which you have not yet fixed “a very hard computer science problem.” Or, as Daniel Rubino pointed out on Twitter, it could have simply shipped these devices with the workaround described below enabled, and then turned on the new power management magic when it was ready.
So there is a minor bit of good news: Joe provides a workaround:
“One of the ways that you can improve the situation right away is to make sure you don’t have web sites open that are actively streaming when you close cover of go put the device to sleep. Especially if you have a website open that uses sound,” he writes.
LOL. Seriously? Oh come on.
No, that’s not the workaround. Ignore that. That is one of the dumbest bits of advice I’ve ever seen. No, instead, read this:
“[Surface] Pro 2 Pro 2 did not have Connected Standby,” he notes. “It went straight to Hibernate or [the] S4 [sleep state]. To do this on your book or Pro4 you can make that happen. To do this have the device go to Hibernate (deeper sleep and not listening) instead of ‘Sleep’ (always on or connected Standby) I hope the picture is clear enough.”
“The picture” being this picture:
My Surface Book criticisms
In my never-published Microsoft Surface Book (Core i7/16 GB/512 GB) Review, I wrote the following (with new highlighting):
After a month of daily use, Microsoft’s high-end Surface Book remains an enigma. On the one hand, it absolutely lives up to Microsoft’s “ultimate laptop” billing, with ridiculously high-end specs and dual GPUs. But on the other, Surface Book continues to be dogged by unreliability issues despite a string of firmware updates.
This is not the kind of behavior I expect from a $2500 laptop. And it makes it hard for me to recommend this new device to others, especially those who aren’t as forgiving of glitches, and in such a premium-priced machine. So take this one as you will: I intend to keep using Surface Book, both at home, where it connects to a slew of peripherals via Surface Dock, and on the road. But in its current state, I simply can’t recommend it to readers.
So let’s discuss the problems first.
Despite three major firmware updates, most of Surface Book’s reliability issues remain. It refuses to sleep correctly, and oftentimes I’ll open my laptop bag to discover the misbehaving Surface Book has warmed the interior of the bag while shedding battery life. I disabled Windows Hello in the hopes that this would cure the problem, but to no avail.
What this means is that I now turn off Surface Book before taking it on the go, much I as I would have done with my first laptop from the mid-1990s. I simply can’t trust it to sleep properly, especially if I’m going to board a plane, where the battery life really matters. But here’s the weird bit: Perhaps because the power button is accessible on the outside of the device, it seems to come on sometimes anyway, and drain some of the battery. It’s not consistent, but it’s happened a few times.
Worse—and more disconcerting—I have now on several occasions noticed that the bottom of a screen corner (usually on the right, though it has happened once to the left corner as well) has detached a bit from the keyboard base. Seeing the light shining through the gap, I’ve been able to press down on the top of the screen and correctly attach it with a satisfying click sound that indicates a full connection. But I don’t know why this happens, as I never detach the screen on purpose.
On a related note, the Surface Detach system tray icon will often come up colored red. When I mouse over it, it says “hardware failure,” and I’ve noticed that I can fix it by detaching and then reattaching the screen, or by rebooting. But what the frick.
Some of the initial issues I had with the other Surface Book have cropped up from time to time as well. For example, the keyboard and/or touchpad in the base stop working sometimes. This is almost always fixed by detaching and removing the keyboard base, but it’s annoying.
And finally, after the most recent firmware update, both web cameras disappeared (which would have put the kibosh on Windows Hello had I been using it). I rebooted a few times thinking that might do it, but nothing. A few days later they started working again. Why? Because Surface Book.
That’s a long list of problems. And while none are deal-breakers for me per se, the cumulative effect is that I’m always waiting for the next thing to go wrong. I don’t distrust it enough not to use it—indeed, this was the only PC I brought to my recent week-long trip to Europe—but come on. This level of unreliability is unacceptable for any PC, but it’s particularly troubling in such an expensive device.