With its new Surface Book, the Surface team is back to defining new product categories with a unique 2-in-1 PC that really delivers on both performance and good looks. But Surface Book is also a first-generation and untested product, and it comes with a heady price tag. So you’ve got some serious thinking to do.
I travel a lot for both work and pleasure, and I’ve always struggled with my conflicting needs to travel as lightly as possible but also to use a portable PC with the largest possible screen. With its most recent devices, Microsoft neatly encapsulates this dilemma. On the one hand we have Surface Pro 4–please read my exhaustive review for more information—which is thin, light and powerful, but has a smallish screen (for me). On the other, we have Surface Book, which may just live up to Microsoft’s tagline—“the ultimate laptop”–thanks to its large screen, full-sized keyboard, and powerful, dual-GPU options. But again, it’s also new and untested.
Surface Book is so new, I’m reviewing two of them. This review will focus on the lower-end of the two, a mid-level Core i5-based model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of fast SSD storage that maps very closely to the Surface Pro 4 I’ve also reviewed. But the second is a beast: This version supports a Core i7 processor, but more important it also ships with the second NVIDIA GPU in its keyboard base. I’ve had that Surface Book for less time, so my separate review for it will be available in the next few days.
So let’s jump in.
First, and most obviously, Surface Book is a Surface, yes, but it’s also a laptop. The Surface bit suggests fit and finish, a design style, and level of quality that I feel this device absolutely delivers. And “laptop” is an important word. It suggests form factor and purpose, also accurately. But on the negative side, it also suggests—again, accurately—size, weight and bulk. That is, Surface Book is not an Ultrabook, which is what people were perhaps really asking for. It’s a laptop.
Surface Book is also a Pro device, despite the lack of the word in the device’s name, which I assume was both to simplify matters and to not suggest there was a non-Pro version on the way. You can see this in its specifications, which are high-end, and in its price tag, which is Apple-esque, or, as Microsoft says, premium.
The design is … controversial. When Panos Panay first introduced Surface Book at this month’s devices event, I was thrown by the bizarre, teardrop-shaped “hole” that sits near the hinge when the device is closed. In person, it’s not as big as weird looking as it seemed that first day—familiarity helps, obviously—but it’s still weird. More to the point, I’m not sure it’s even necessary.
According to Microsoft, that weird gap is necessitated by Surface Book’s unique hinge, which is sturdy enough but only lets the screen part go back a minimal way because otherwise it would topple over. This issue also explains why the screen part—the “tablet” or what Microsoft calls the “clipboard” because it is so big compared to other tablets—only gets about 3 hours of battery life on its own. If there were more batteries in there, it would be even more top heavy.
That hinge is interesting, but I’m worried about the reliability of a part—which includes an intricate new motor—that can only be controlled via software. That is, there is no hardware switch you can use to detach the keyboard base. When you press a special key on the keyboard or the onscreen button, software runs. And hopefully it detaches.
I write that because I have had some issues. Granted, they were with a pre-production model (the i5), and I’ve not seen the same problems with the i7/NVIDIA version, which is apparently a shipping product. But it needs to be mentioned, and I will monitor this situation going forward. (Microsoft tells me a software fix should solve the problem, but I’ve found that a hard reset works too.)
One last thing about the hinge: If I didn’t know any better, I’m not sure I’d even figure out that the screen was removable, as Surface Book looks very natural when the screen is open, like a laptop. But it can be a bit wobbly when open, as I’ve noticed on the Amtrak. I’m sure this, too, is weight related.
Moving past the hinge—finally, I know—the Surface Book is quite nice and provides an excellent laptop computing experience. The keyboard is full-sized and excellent, and even better than the improved keyboard on the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover. The trackpad, too, is larger and offers a first-rate pointing experience that is on part with the best from Lenovo and HP. (Apple still has little to worry about in this category, but it’s fair to say that Windows PCs are finally starting to catch up to MacBook Air, if belatedly.)
The keyboard base provides all of the expansion for this device, and the only things you’ll see on the sides of the screen/clipboard top are the power and volume buttons, plus the headphone port, which is way to far up the right side of the device, leading to dangling wires that just get in the way. There are two USB 3.0 ports and a full-sized SD card slot on the left, and the power connector—sorry, Surface Connect port—and Mini DisplayPort on the right.
The display is exactly what I was looking for, and even though it’s “only” a 13.5-incher—I’ve been talking up 14- and 15-inch Ultrabook screens for years—and it feels bigger because of its 3:2 aspect ratio, a rarity in personal computers. Like the screen on Surface Pro 4, this is a PixelSense unit, and it pumps up the resolution to 3000 x 2000 to deliver the same 267 PPI. It is gorgeous and, to me, right-sized.
Because the display part doesn’t contain any USB ports, it is in effect the thinnest Surface Microsoft has ever made—assuming you pretend the keyboard base doesn’t exist, of course—though its large size makes it a bit awkward to use like a tablet.
Battery life is rated at 12 hours, compared to the 9 hours Microsoft claims for Surface Pro 4. I’ve begun my own testing, and will report back soon on what I find, but I can tell you that over several trips now, Surface Book has delivered seriously impressive real-world battery life.
Surface Book is, alas, expensive. It starts at $1499 for what a luxury car maker would call a “well appointed” model with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB SSD, and this is the version I would buy if I were spending my own money. But you can spend over $3000 on a Surface Book if you want copious amounts of RAM and storage, not to mention a Core i7 processor and/or the discrete NVIDIA graphics. I’ll be looking at those options in my next review.
For now, Surface Book is hard to recommend given the newness and the unproven hinge design, and the expensive pricing. The screen is absolutely perfect, as is the typing experience, and the battery life looks amazing. But I will need more time—and much more real-world use—before I can be sure. For now, I am cautiously optimistic, and excited to travel more with Surface Book and use it around my home.
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