Microsoft Surface Book review: The Surface Book may look like a conventional laptop, but it retains much of what loyal Surface fans hold dear and packs a serious punch too.
The Surface Book does not have a kickstand. Despite the name, Microsoft has in fact done away with the brand’s most iconic physical attribute in the Book, but in truth it doesn’t need a stand. As the entire body is made from the company’s own VaporMg magnesium alloy (including the keyboard portion), the Book is weighted completely differently to a traditional Surface device like the Surface Pro 4 and it’s difficult to tip over as a result. This is thanks in part to the most interesting aspect of the design, its ‘dynamic fulcrum hinge’.
Unlike a conventional laptop hinge, the Surface Book has a segmented arrangement that essentially rolls flat when you open it up. This extends the lower portion of the computer’s body and changes its centre of gravity, making it far more stable than any previous Surface and a lot of other traditional laptops for that matter.
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There are a few trade-offs with this design decision however. Despite giving the Book an unquestionably distinctive and attractive profile, the screen doesn’t lie flush against the keys when it’s closed. Instead there’s a notable gap that means you’ll constantly be brushing or blowing crud out of the hinge when you open it up, unless you keep it wrapped up in a sealed case when not in use. The curved design also means that when closed, the Surface Book is a lot thicker than most other laptops in its class, even if the body and the screen are both impeccably thin on their own.
The Surface Book is on the heavy side too, weighing in at 1515 grams for the base model and 1578 grams for the higher-specced versions. It’s not unfounded thanks to the batteries packed into the base and on the beefier models a discrete GPU courtesy of Nvidia, but nonetheless the weight might be a barrier for some, unless…
…you consider the fact that this is a Surface product and as such, you can actually undock the screen from the base, turning it into what Microsoft calls a ‘digital clipboard’. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, that such a solid and sturdy laptop connects to such tiny brackets on the hinge. The display portion is held in place by a specialist muscle wire mechanism of Microsoft’s own design and it works really well. Unlike other Surfaces, you can’t simply pull the screen from the keyboard though; instead there’s a dedicated button to release the lock before the clipboard will pull away.
Overall the fit and finish of the Surface Book is up there with the best of the bunch and the typing experience is excellent, despite the shallow angle of pitch on the lower portion of the body. The keys are backlit, responsive and perfectly spaced, with a sizeable central trackpad underneath that supports multitouch gestures to make navigating Windows that little bit faster and more fluid.
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Screen and multimedia
As with Google’s Pixel C tablet, Microsoft has given the Surface Book’s display a 3:2 aspect ratio, offering up greater breathing room when working on documents or browsing the web. Some might take issue with the letterboxing when watching videos, but this feels like a small price to pay considering the quality of the screen and the overall viewing experience it offers.
The 13.5-inch PixelSense panel packs a respectable 3000×2000 resolution (267ppi) giving apps and text a pin sharp finish, whilst colour and brightness are strong too. Viewing angles and contrast are also appealing, which is particularly useful when you’re wielding the upper portion as a standalone device in clipboard mode. The only potential problems are the screen’s reflective finish and the fact that it readily attracts fingerprints.
The display portion of the Surface Book also houses some decent stereo speakers with Dolby audio, which although small, dole out a decent amount of range and overall volume without distortion – they don’t quite match the quality of Asus’ SonicMaster tech, but they’re unquestionably competent.
You’re also given a set of dedicated keys on the base of the Surface Book, offering up control over volume and media playback.
Being the new flagship of the Surface line and the first laptop from Microsoft, the Surface Book unsurprisingly comes complete with Windows 10 Pro. The duality of mouse and keyboard input versus touch input works surprisingly well. It feels natural enough to jump between the two methods of interaction on the fly and the aforementioned trackpad gestures are on-hand to speed things up when you don’t want to swipe directly on the display glass too.
The Surface Pro 4’s Surface Pen stylus also works well with the experience on the Surface Book, with responsive feedback from integrated apps like OneNote as well as third-party offerings from the likes of Autodesk. Pen latency seems to be governed primarily by software optimisation rather than hardware limitations, with some apps proving more responsive than others. The Surface Pen also attaches to the side of the Surface Book magnetically, supports 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and comes bundled in the box.
The wider Windows 10 experience as a whole is markedly better than previous iterations of the company’s PC OS, but there are some rough edges and if you’re new to the company’s latest operating system, there’s a notable learning curve to consider before you really get the most out of it.
By default, when docked the Book runs like any other Windows 10 system. The Start menu houses your applications, quick access to settings and power controls, but also features Live Tiles, with glanceable information that also double as app shortcuts. In tablet mode, the Start menu replaces the desktop as a full-screen interface, better suited to touch input, but otherwise the Book can operate as any other Windows PC.
The digital assistant Cortana is on-hand for quick search access powered by Bing (she can be summoned using voice input alone) and Windows Hello leverages a depth camera to offer up an alternative method of authentication when unlocking the Surface Book for added security.
The Surface Book comes in four distinct configurations and all of them feature 6th-generation Intel chipsets; two with i5 processors and two with i7s. Depending on the skew you choose you also have three storage options (128GB, 256GB or 512GB) and two RAM options (8GB or 16GB). With the exception of the base model, the Surface Book also features a custom Nvidia GPU offering performance equivalent to that of a GeForce 940M.
The intelligent engineering behind the Surface Book is such that the clipboard portion contains almost all of the important electronics. Docking into the base adds an additional 75 per cent battery capacity and the option of that discrete GPU when needed. Games from the Windows Store, such as Asphalt 8 aren’t overly demanding and can run quite happily on the clipboard portion’s integrated GPU, however more intensive titles will need the crutch of the additional graphical oomph and for the most part won’t run at their highest settings, particularly if you choose to play around the display’s native resolution. In truth, Microsoft shies away from pushing the gaming performance of the Surface Book and instead suggests that the extra power is best utilised with intensive apps like Adobe Photoshop.
The base also adds greater connectivity to the Book, with two full-sized USB 3.0 connections on the side, a full-sized SD card slot and a mini DisplayPort output for a secondary screen. Microsoft has also swapped the Surface Docking Station accessory for the Surface Dock block, which adds gigabit ethernet, audio, two additional mini DisplayPort connections and two additional USB 3.0 ports. You’ll need to pay an additional £165 for the extra connectivity however.
Microsoft quotes up to 12 hours of media playback and in our mixed usage tests we exhausted the whole thing in seven hours of straight use, whilst using the clipboard portion on its own will grant you around 2.5 hours of use before needing a charge. The Book charges using the same proprietary connection as the Surface Pro 4 and you can charge the clipboard independently of the base if you wish as well. The Surface Book charge setup prioritises the clipboard too, so the batteries in the keyboard portion are exhausted first and only recharge once the clipboard reaches 100 per cent.
Alongside the depth camera used for Windows Hello, the top border of the Surface Book’s display also houses a traditional 5-megapixel snapper. Picture quality and audio quality (provided by a pair of microphones on the front and back) are wholly usable for video calling and basic imaging needs. The rear-facing snapper packs a larger 8-megapixel sensor too and produces noticeably sharper imagery as well as offering up Full HD video recording functionality.
As much as we shy away from advocating mobile photography using a tablet, particularly one as sizeable as the Surface Book, the interface is impressively rich, with a level of manual control that is only now trickling through to the flagship smartphones of the Android world.
The Surface Book is a valiant first foray into the realm of laptop computing hardware from Microsoft. It’s a decidedly unusual setup that works surprisingly well, with an emphasis on being a laptop first and a tablet second – essentially the reverse of every other Surface device thus far.
By gracing it with top-tier processors, a responsive touchscreen, pen functionality and a versatile design, Microsoft has squarely aimed the Surface Book at the same creative audiences who flock to Apple’s stores to buy the iconic MacBook Pro. For some the Surface Book will undoubtedly be the more appropriate tool for the job, but despite the competency of this device, the biggest challenge it faces is convincing consumers that it’s the better option.
Even with the appealing hardware/software experience Microsoft has struck with the Surface Book, price will be a big sticking point for many as well. The base model starts at £1299, whilst the top-tier Intel i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB storage model with the Nvidia GPU we tested has an asking price of £2249. We loved using the Surface Book, but it faces an uphill battle in order to build its reputation against more established machines in the same space.
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