Microsoft’s new Surface Book marks a major departure from previous Surface devices, thanks in large part to its first-ever laptop form factor. Key among the changes is a new keyboard, which offers both a superior typing experience and a new Surface keyboard layout.
Microsoft has, of course, evolved the keyboard found on its Surface Type Covers with each rendition. But this year’s changes—to both the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover and the Surface Book’s keyboards—are the biggest yet. Here, I’ll focus on Surface Book, though many of these changes are found on the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover as well.
Indeed, the first thing I looked at was the size of the keyboard, which is identical, lengthwise and width-wise, to that of the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover. But this full-sized keyboard differs from Type Cover in two major ways.
First, the upper row of function keys contains an additional, 15th, key, for Surface Detach, so each key in that row is a bit smaller than the corresponding keys on Type Cover. And second, the overall typing experience on Surface Book is superior to that of Type Cover, thanks to the key “throw” and the fact that this keyboard is indeed a “real” hardware keyboard. This is the best Surface keyboard Microsoft has ever shipped, and it’s on par with the best portable PCs I’ve ever used from ThinkPad or HP.
That row of function keys bears some examination. If you’re familiar with how Microsoft has changed these keys on Surface Type Covers since Surface Pro 3 (e.g. on Surface 3 and Surface Pro 4), you know that the new layout(s) reflect the change from Windows 8.1—which necessitated keys for the Charms, among other now-gone features—to Windows 10.
The Surface Book keyboard’s function row is evolved still from that of Surface 3, though it is missing some keys—Screen brightness up and down—that I think would be quite useful. And it includes a few keys—Volume up and down—that I think are superfluous given the hardware Volume buttons on the device’s screen.
(Looking to control screen brightness? There are three way: First, there is a screen brightness toggle in Action Center that jumps brightness by 25 percent each time you select it. Or, you can open the Power Options control panel—try Start screen—-and control it in a more fine-grained way there. But the best way is to use two secret keyboard shortcuts: Check out Surface Book Tip: Adjust the Screen Brightness with the Keyboard for the details.)
Among the other changes are a PrtScn (“print screen”) button, which is very useful since the hardware Windows button is not available on Surface Book. (Microsoft says that’s because the Start button is always visible on-screen.) And a new Surface Detach button, which I discussed recently in Surface Book Tip: Detach and Reconfigure the Screen.
And then there are the keyboard brightness keys. Microsoft has offered these keys on various Type Covers over the years, but with Surface Book, Microsoft faces an issue we’ve seen on other silver-colored PCs, like the HP Spectre x360: In certain lighting conditions, the key caps can be hard to read when the lighting is on. Because Surface Book doesn’t provide any form of automatic keyboard lighting—the type of thing one might expect from a premium laptop, frankly—you will want to memorize the location of the screen brightness down button, at the very least.
The middle four rows of the keyboard should be familiar to most users of previous Surface devices and other PCs. But there are more changes on the bottom row.
First, Microsoft has added a Fn (“function”) to the left side of the spacebar for the first time. (On previous Surface Type Covers, Fn was to the right of the spacebar.) This is where the Fn key is found on virtually every other portable PC, so it’s more familiar. But it also makes the key more usable, which is important because it works differently now as well.
In the odd event that you’re not familiar with Fn, the purpose of this key is to let PC makers double up on the top “function” row of keys on the keyboard. That is, each key can be used as a special function (often multimedia-related, like volume up or down) and as a traditional function key. In the Windows world, we use function keys for keyboard shortcuts, e.g. ALT + F4, which is used to close the currently-selected application on window. But these traditional uses are less common, so Microsoft, like other PC makers, defaults to the special functions instead. So you need to hold down Fn, typically, to use the traditional function of a function key. In other words, you would use Fn + ALT + F4 to close a window.
On Surface Book, the Fn key acts as a toggle, and like Caps (“caps lock”) there is a light on the key to indicate when it’s on. So instead of typing a fairly complex keyboard shortcut like Fn + ALT + F4, you could instead turn on Fn and then type ALT + F4 and other keyboard shortcuts normally. Surface Book (along with the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover) is the first Surface device to offer this functionality.
With Fn gone from the right side of the space bar, Microsoft has added a key to fill the empty space, and it’s a key we commonly see on other keyboards, including Microsoft’s desktop keyboards: Menu. Indicated by three horizontal lines, this key triggers the pop-up context (or “right-click”) keyboard over whatever on-screen object the mouse cursor is on. So if you select the desktop with the mouse cursor and then press the Menu key, the context menu for the desktop will appear.
If you’re a frequent typist as I am, you will quickly find that Surface Book provides the best keyboard experience yet on any Surface. But it also provides one of the best keyboards I’ve used on any portable computer. The key—sorry—to really appreciating this is learning how they keyboard has changed compared to previous keyboards, whether you’ve used a Surface before or not. Hopefully, this will get you started towards
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