Here’s a crazy one. In the progression of gadgets to crawl from the primordial pool, Microsoft’s ambitious Surface Book feels like a punctuation mark. It’s a turn from the expected, and for me at least, it’s a computer so enticing, and habit changing, that I’m thinking—Hey, what about Windows?
What Is It?
Microsoft’s first ever laptop. It’s got clever design, which enables its 13.5-inch, 3000 x 2000 display (267 dpi) display to detach from the rigid keyboard base so that you can wield the display as a mondo tablet. The base model ships with the latest Intel Skylake Core i5 processor for $1500—it’s basically a Surface Pro 4 with much fancier industrial design. You can upgrade it to a Core i5 with a discrete Nvidia GeForce graphics processor starting at $1700, and from there, you can climb the specification ladder to an i7 with Nvidia GPU and 1TB of storage for $3200.
The bulk of this review refers to the base $1500 configuration, however, we did some testing with a souped-up $2100 Core i7 model with Nvidia graphics as well.
Why Does It Matter?
The Surface Book’s announcement sent a tense shiver of surprise into the world of consumer electronics, but it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Microsoft has been trying to turn itself around for years. The Surface Book’s premium price and meticulous design seems to be an outright acknowledgement that great hardware is just as critical as software.
You can trace this new laptop to the introduction of the first Surface tablet-laptop hybrids three years ago. MSFT’s come a long way since that disaster and the concurrent Windows 8 flop, to making devices and software people actually want to use. Microsoft recently doubled down on its hardware push by buying Nokia, which for years made spectacular Windows Phone handsets that were hobbled by Microsoft’s exceedingly minimal mobile operating system. More importantly, Microsoft just pushed out Windows 10, a vastly improved OS designed to work across all gadget form factors. It’s a single OS for phones—new Microsoft Lumias are due in November—computers, tablets, and even for the company’s next-gen Xbox One gaming console. It’s a spectacular OS, and at the time of the Surface Book announcement, it was already installed on 110 million devices.
So where does that leave Surface Book—this weirdo thing? Man, dammit, Surface Book is gorgeous and different. It’s powerful and pricey. Its design invites you to consider what a computer could do for you—as opposed to merely settling for what you need a computer to do. Your laptop should double as a huge tablet with an industry-leading display, and you should be able to write on it with a perfect stylus. No compromises. This is what the Surface Book thinks you should demand from a device.
It’s an aspirational concept, both for users and for the company itself. Flatly, a $1500 laptop is never going to reach the bulk of Microsoft’s customers, most of whom will probably use sub-$1000 Windows 10 machines from third-party manufacturers. But it’s there as a totem, representing an idea anyone can buy into. As an expression of Microsoft’s ambitions, and future, Surface Book reveals an almost Jobsean preoccupation with details. Should the Surface Book succeed as a viable conceptual alternative to Apple’s proven, stale status quo, well, the future’s going to look a lot different.
Of course, the potential pitfalls to such an ambitious design are plentiful. There are a lot of moving parts. It only takes one failure to kill the whole campaign.
Surface Book is nothing if not an outrageously over-engineered vessel for Windows 10.
From the outset, it looks just like a shiny big magnesium clamshell, but as we know, this laptop is a convertible, and the whole thing works because of an immaculate hinge design. It’s all about the hinge, which is composed of narrow strips that dovetail together. The mechanism opens and closes without the slightest creak. It’s movingly well engineered.
Using a little release button on the top right of the keyboard, the screen detaches and becomes standalone tablet. It’s worth noting how Microsoft accomplished this convertible format. Obviously in order for the display to be detachable, it has to contain all of the guts the device needs to run, including processor, flash storage, battery, etc.
The release button is on the top right of the keyboard. Hold it for a spell, and you’ll hear the display click free.
However, the keyboard doesn’t go to waste as a place to stuff guts. In the base model, the keyboard houses additional battery. In the more expensive graphics versions, the keyboard holds the discrete Nvidia graphics processor.
The best comparison for the Surface Book as a whole is the MacBook Pro, but without its keyboard, it strongly resembles Apple’s iPad Pro. The Surface Book’s display is slightly larger and heavier than Apple’s 12.9-inch jumbo tablet. The display is a big one—13.5 inches of satisfying metal and glass, jammed with 6 million pixels. That 3000 x 2000 resolution translates to 267 pixels per inch, compared to Apple’s 265. This is probably the most beautiful display I’ve ever seen on a computer. From a technical point of view, its rated contrast ratio, which is an indication of the widest gamut of light and dark the screen can represent, blows all other competitors away.
Moving on from the strictly standalone screen, you can also reattach the display backwards on the keyboard, so that it folds up with the display facing outwards. Microsoft calls this the “clipboard” position. When you cradle in it in your arms this way, I half imagine I’m officiously taking stock in a store, or making rounds at a hospital.
And it’s here where the newly redesigned Surface Pen comes into play. The silver stylus has come a very long way on aesthetics and usability from the original. Perhaps the most important addition this time is that its magnetic so it can snap into the side of the display.
The challenge of the Surface Book’s forward-looking design is trying to be everything all at once. So how does it hold in these various possible use cases?
As a laptop for doing work…
Despite design, which is supposed to make the Surface Book a versatile powerhouse, I used the device mostly as a laptop, and in this traditional mode, it’s mostly a complete dream with only a few caveats.
For one, the 3:2 aspect ratio really affords you a lot more viewing space than what you get from the 16 x 10 display of a MacBook Pro. Also, the i5 configuration performs swimmingly for your basic internet browsing, Netflix watching, light photoshopping-type behavior. Battery life is fantastic—I regularly got through 6-7 hours of work without charging. Thanks Skylake!
The keyboard clickity clacks away with speed. No complaints here, but I’m a pretty sloppy typist, so if it was holding me back, I probably wouldn’t even know. I will say that I’m totally enamored with the crisp alto thwack the keys make as your fingers dance across them.
Then there are the downsides. The first is an inconsistent trackpad that’s jumpy, and often too sensitive or not sensitive enough. After nearly two weeks using the Surface Book, I’ve grown accustomed to the trackpad’s wonky behavior. But that’s hardly the way you want to describe a gadget, especially one that’s theoretically a be-all-end-all gadget supreme.
A few times, I ended up connecting an external mouse because I was so frustrated with it. The good news is that Microsoft has acknowledged the problem and says there is a firmware patch coming in early November. The performance was bad enough that I would suggest holding off on making any purchasing decision until you know for sure the firmware delivers on its performance promise.
The other difficulty, albeit a minor one, is that the flexible design actually makes the laptop a little tricky to handle sometimes. The laptop is a joy to use when its sitting on a desk or if you’re seated such that the computer can sit fully flat on your lap. Unfortunately, this isn’t how people actually use laptops most of the time. If you’re hunched in the corner of an airport, lying on your bed, or splayed out on your couch, you’re going to run into problems owing to the Surface Book’s screen-heavy weight distribution. Whereas a MacBook Pro carries all its weight on in the keyboard base, the Surface Book carries it up top.
As a big-honkin’ tablet…
That beautiful display looks even more striking when detached from its keyboard. Just be prepared to hold it with two mitts because a 13.5-inch tablet is a big-ass hunk of gadget. Depending what exactly you’re trying to do, it can be a little cumbersome. Whereas smaller tablets like the iPad are fine to hold up for long periods of time when you’re lying in bed, the Surface Book’s comes in at 1.6 pounds without the keyboard, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but you really start to feel it if you’re trying to read a long magazine article or watch a TV show.
To keep it short, this laptop/tablet hybrid definitely skews more lap-friendly.
On the i5 configuration you don’t lose any performance because the processor is fully included in the top half of the computer. In configurations with discrete graphics, you obviously won’t be able to reap the benefits of the processor you leave behind in the keyboard base when you disconnect the display, so don’t expect desktop-class gaming on the go.
As a note-taking device…
Admittedly, using a stylus to take notes on a display is far from my natural impulse, but the Surface Book and new Surface Pen are a pleasure to use. Microsoft has shaved the thickness of the glass so thin that to your eye, the surface is finally starting to feel like you’re actually writing or drawing pixels right on the display.
In fact, it’s very intuitive. Last weekend, an artistically inclined friend of mine grabbed the stylus and was drawing a little picture in Microsoft’s OneNote app within seconds. It feels completely natural. Perhaps the biggest hurdle Microsoft needs to overcome here is the natural aversion people like me have to dragging metal over glass. It doesn’t feel right emotionally, but the physical experience of using a stylus has caught up with reality. In other words, I could use it, but I’m not really sure I want to yet.
What about graphics?
For good measure, I tried out a discrete graphics configuration of the Surface Book to see what it could do.
Obviously, this isn’t intended to be a gaming laptop, but in the event that you wanted to play a game, can this $2100 laptop keep up? I played a few graphics intensive titles like Tomb Raider, and found that they hummed along nicely at high frame rates with the graphics set to medium quality. At high quality, however, performance got pretty choppy. So you can play games, but its not able to handle graphics maxed to 11.
The more likely use case for the discrete graphics is in a design context. We had Gawker animator Devin Clark hook up his giant Wacom Cintiq display to the Surface Book to see how it might work. The Surface Book had no trouble powering the huge touch display on its own, however, things got pretty laggy when the computer’s screen and the Cintiq were both going. So it’s got some power, but Microsoft hasn’t shoehorned a miracle into that svelte design.
Beautiful display. Incredible battery life. Innovative versatile design.
Should you buy it?
The Surface Book isn’t perfect, and from a strictly performance point of view, it’s an expensive computer. Consider that in its base configuration, the Surface Book is just a $900 Surface Pro 4 with a rigid keyboard and a souped up display. It’s got no competitor on price or design on the Windows 10 platform, to the point that it feels almost bizarrely excessive. Still, millions of people have been paying premium for ages for Macs. You want premium Windows? Microsoft now has what you’re looking for.
Of course, for its lovely display and the impressiveness of the design that allows the laptop to quickly transform into Godzilla tablet, the device’s ambitions promise more than they deliver in terms of utility. And there are drawbacks, most noticeably the bunk trackpad. However, if Microsoft fixes that as it’s promised, you’ll be left with a pricey machine you won’t regret.
As for whether to go for the base or consider springing for the $1700 (for starters!) model with discrete Nvidia graphics, the answer is... maybe? Again, that’s a lot of money for a computer that’s not going to perform at the very top of the line. You’ll be paying in part for design. Did you ever think you would say that about a Microsoft gadget? Wow, Microsoft designed this thing.
I love it.
Photos by Michael Hession. Additional reporting by Nick Stango