Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, Microsoft’s first laptop — the Surface Book. It borrows heavily from the design language of the Surface Pro line, both in functionality and appearance, and promises to extend Microsoft’s reach in new and interesting directions.
The Surface Book’s 2-in-1 mechanism is the best that I’e put hands on yet.
With an Intel Core i5-6300U, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB PCIe SSD in the $1,500 base model, the Surface Book is equipped to compete with the best ultrabooks and 2-in-1s, such as Apple’s MacBook Pro 13, and Dell’s XPS 13, and Lenovo’s new Yoga 900. The Book is also the first 2-in-1 with a detachable keyboard to feature an optional, discrete GPU.
This puts Microsoft in direct competition with manufacturers that have been building computers for decades. Unlike the Surface Pro, the Surface Book isn’t designed to encourage growth for a new form factor and market, and it isn’t a device with a limited appeal. Is it time for Microsoft to push first-party hardware as the flagship Windows experience?
Same look, new tricks
The Surface Book sets itself apart with its dynamic fulcrum hinge, which makes it possible to detach the display to use as a tablet. It folds into a rounded edge, just like the spine of a novel, using a mechanism that’s similar to a metal watch band. As it curls, it leaves a quarter inch gap between the screen and keyboard at the hinge when closed. It’s an odd look, and it means loose items can wedge between the screen and keys to pose a scratch hazard.
Related: Surface Pro 4 review
But the strange hinge has a purpose. It let Microsoft make the keyboard dock lighter, with the hinge acting as stability for the heavier tablet. It also helps the screen sit a little further away from the user in laptop mode, without having to extend the footprint. That means a smaller computer that feels larger once it’s actually in use, and improves the perceived fidelity of the display in laptop mode.
The dock mechanism holds the tablet half in place with “muscle wire,” a cable that expands and contracts when a current is applied to it. While the button was a minor annoyance at first, it became second nature quickly, and worked even when the system was turned off or asleep. It’s also not prone to failing. I was only able to cause an issue once by intentionally lifting one side and leaving the other engaged. It complained for a moment, then released the latch again – no big deal.
Ok, enough about the hinge. What about the rest of the system? It’s built from matte silver magnesium, which is durable and light. It may not be everyone’s style, but the Book’s build quality is supreme. There are no panel gaps to speak of, and no matter how the Book is handled, it feels tough and sturdy. The Book’s design can compete with the best in the business.
Ports are few and far between
Connectivity is basically nonexistent on the tablet portion of the Surface Book. The only exceptions are a 3.5mm audio output in the top right corner of the device, which isn’t a great location, as it leaves cords dangling over the keyboard when headphones are attached, and an unadvertised power port on the bottom. I also found the port a little too snug, so plugging a device in, or removing it, means playing tug-of-war with the device.
The base of the laptop serves up the connections you’d normally expect from a laptop. On the left side, there are two USB 3.0 ports next to the SD card slot. Around the right is Mini-DisplayPort and Microsoft’s new power plug.
The power plug has a few nice features, in that it’s both reversible and magnetic. However, plugging it in can be a bit awkward when the Book is lying flat on a desk. The center slot for the dock connection doubles as a power connection when in tablet form, and is placed well for holding the tablet without getting in the way, but the fact that this works isn’t included in any of the documentation.
Touch is back, baby
The stars of the Surface Book are the touchscreen and stylus, and Microsoft has clearly learned some important lessons from the earlier Surface products. The redesigned pencil feels sturdy, and begs to be used for every task.
The screen can “see” the pen’s tip from as far as half an inch off its surface, so clicking and tapping on objects is simple and responsive. The value becomes clear as soon as the pen is picked up. Writing on the screen or drawing in an app is a naturally smooth, flowing experience. While a stylus is often depicted as a tool for artists, it also makes Windows easier to use as a tablet. The operating system still includes fine-grain fonts and icons that are hard to hit with a fingertip.
When you put down the pen, and start using the touchpad, you’ll be just as pleased. It’s big and wide, with a smooth glass touch surface that reads gestures and movements while ignoring light touches deftly. Clicking the integrated buttons offers up a solid action without too much travel, and assuming tap-to-click is off, there won’t be any accidental clicks here. Taking the buttons off mobile trackpads is a common move nowadays, but it does causes a minor issue. It’s not particularly adept at sensing right clicks, and will sometimes default to a left click at inopportune moments. If that’s an issue, the ability to place two fingers on the touchpad as a right-click equivalent solves it.
The redesigned pencil feels sturdy and begs to be touched and used for any task.
The keyboard is less compelling. The keys have a distinct, rounded edge to them, with a tall, soft touch. There’s a lot of travel, which leads to them feeling a bit stiff or chalky out of the box, but after some use the feeling fades. A white backlight illuminates the symbol on each key, but depending on the angle, it doesn’t provide full coverage under each letter. Worse, in brightly lit rooms or outside, the backlight makes the keys harder to see. The light matches the chassis color, making the letters blend in. Turning the backlight off actually improves visibility.
The Book’s cover
The Surface Book’s 13.5-inch 3,000 x 2,000 PixelSense display is unusual because of its 3:2 aspect ratio, which means screen is taller than usual, relative to its width, than a typical 16:9 laptop. In a way, it’s a blast from the past, as many systems sold a decade ago used the similar 4:3 ratio. Going with 3:2 means that movies will be displayed with significant black bars across the top and bottom, but it’s also a better choice for working with documents and productivity apps, as most display data vertically. Adding width doesn’t let the user see more of a Word document, but adding height does.
And there’s more to the display than the aspect ratio. With a maximum brightness of 355 lux, it falls short of only a few of the brightest screens tested, a group that includes the Surface Pro 4. It’s able to display 91 percent of the sRGB scale, and 70 percent of the AdobeRGB scale – respectable figures – while obtaining an average color difference of 1.05 deltaE. The human eye can only detect a difference of more than one, so the Book is close to perfection.
The display also achieved an outstanding contrast level of 1440:1, the best we’ve ever recorded from a laptop. Dark scenes in movies look deep and true, even with the brightness turned up. Vivid colors pop, but stay consistent once they’re on screen. While the modest color gamut takes away from the Book’s performance, it’s an excellent display overall, and a good choice for work or play.
Loud, pleasing speakers are embedded in the outside of the tablet half. There’s a little bit of distortion at maximum volume, but luckily it’s loud enough at half that to fill a medium sized room with sound.
Under the hood our Surface Book review unit boasted the Intel Core i7-6600U, a dual-core chip with a base clock of 2.6GHz, and a Boost clock of 3.4GHz, backed by 16GB of RAM. It also had a 512GB PCIe solid state drive and the optional discrete graphics chip, courtesy of Nvidia.
The Surface Book claims an important victory the GeekBench CPU benchmark. Not only is it the fastest 2-in-1 we’ve reviewed, but it’s also a bit faster than Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 with Retina. That’s crucial because the Book is slightly more expensive in standard guise, so a loss would’ve put it behind the curve.
The speed of the chip is evident in everyday use. Apps open quickly, the interface is responsive, and even programs like Handbrake and 7-Zip run without complaint.
Separating the screen from the base means no GPU, so you’ll have to choose which feature is more important.
While the PCIe SSD found in the Surface Book easily defeats the typical SATA solid state drive, it falls behind systems with PCIe support. Even the M.2 drive in Intel’s NUC beats the score of the Surface Book handily. Still, real world performance is snappy. You won’t spend much time waiting on the drive to access or move files.
Our high-end Book review unit included a discrete GPU from Nvidia. It has no official name, but looks on par with a GTX 940M, and has 1GB of GDDR5 RAM. It gave the Book an edge in graphics-intensive tasks, especially compared to the Intel HD graphics found in other systems.
While the Surface Book is no powerhouse, it offers almost twice the visual power of the Surface Pro 4 and the non-GPU Book. That’s a significant jump. Whether it’s worth the $200 cost to upgrade from the Book with integrated graphics will depend on your use. It makes more sense to workstation users than gamers, because even the optional discrete graphics chip isn’t up for demanding games.
As Diablo 3 has fallen off in popularity, Blizzard’s new MOBA Heroes of the Storm took its place in our test suite. It has a high graphical top end, but is still easy for low-end systems to run. Not easy enough for our Surface Book, though, as it barely keeps the minimum frames per second above 60 when running at the lowest settings in 1080p.
Physically speaking, the Surface Book feels substantial with the keyboard attached, and impressively light without it. At just 3.55 pounds, it’s right in line with the 3.48 pound MacBook Pro 13, and only a half-pound heavier than the 2.9 pound Dell XPS 13 (with touch). The tablet weighs just 1.6 pounds, which isn’t as light as dedicated tablet, but much lighter than comparable standalone systems. Unfortunately, without a power connection on the tablet itself, it can’t stray too far from its keyboard base.
The battery isn’t strong enough to carry the Surface Book through a full work day.
The Surface Book doesn’t hold up to its stated battery performance of 12 hours – at least in the model with the dedicated GPU. Our browsing test flips through a few websites, a video, and leaves some idle time. The Book managed to run for six hours and 44 minutes until shutting off with just under ten-percent battery left. That’s a good score, but it’s a far cry from the MacBook Pro’s ten-hour score, or the Dell XPS 13’s nine and a half.
It’s also not enough to power the machine through an entire work day, which is frustrating considering one of the perks of the Surface is its physical portability.
One cool customer
Despite the compact nature of the Surface Book, it doesn’t grow to be too hot or noisy, even under stress. More importantly, the heat is concentrated at the back of the display, just below the Windows logo. The touch points stay cool.
Even at its hottest, the external temperatures barely broke 103 degrees on the back of the display, which is warm but not uncomfortable.
During the 3DMark test, the fan in the Surface Book kicked on. In our office, which is usually quiet, it was only audible enough to be heard when leaning in close to the device.
It’s no surprise that the battery life on the Surface Book comes up short, considering that at idle it draws about 12 watts of power. Most modern systems with similar hardware draw 7 to 9 watts at idle. The total power draw maxes out at 32 watts, but even when the GPU is stressed it’s usually around 28.
Clean Windows, happy Windows
One of the most convenient aspects of buying a computer directly from Microsoft is the fact that it, theoretically, shouldn’t come with bloatware. That’s both true and false, in that Microsoft doesn’t bundle the Surface Book with any sketchy third-party software, or trial versions of anti-virus. But it does include a number of Microsoft-branded applications pre-installed, like a painting application and some other touchscreen utilities that offer in-app purchases.
Windows 10 is a perfect fit for the Surface Book, and while the action center likely isn’t part of a desktop user’s everyday experience, it’s extremely helpful in tablet mode. Text input takes some getting used to, but there’s a variety of options, including writing with the stylus and using a small keyboard split into the lower corners. It would be nice if your default option popped up automatically when you placed your cursor in a text field, but the keyboard remains by and large the best way to navigate and type in Windows.
Protect your Book
Microsoft bundles a one year limited warranty with the Surface Book. You can upgrade to an extended warranty for $249, which also covers accidental damage for the first two years of ownership, with a $49 deductible.
The Surface Book has attracted a lot of attention in the Digital Trends office. People ask about the hinge, and the display, and then the price. They’re always shocked to learn that it starts at $1,500, and I can’t understand why.
We had the opportunity to test the base model along with this more powerful Core i7, and we found it’s also a miniature powerhouse. The Core i5 processor in that system was still faster than the chip in the MacBook Pro 13, and the SSD inside was actually quicker (the i5 came with a Toshiba drive, the i7 with a Samsung.) On the whole, the base $1,500 Surface Book is a good deal, and its detachable screen gives it a unique edge.
Unfortunately, more expensive versions aren’t as reasonable. The upgrades to the Surface Book raise the price significantly, with the top end pricing reaching $3,200. That’s a $500 jump from our already spendy $2,700, 512GB review version.
Because of its unique feature set, it’s tough to directly compare it to other options in the marketplace. Most 2-in-1s don’t sport dedicated graphics, and most computers that support dedicated graphics are much more dedicated to gaming, where the Surface Book falls way behind in terms of performance.
Microsoft was the first to compare it to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and while it’s an apt comparison, it’s also a losing battle for Redmond. While the CPU in the Book beats out the Apple in terms of raw performance, the MacBook is a clear winner in price. The similarly-priced MacBook Pro 13 with Retina only drops the dedicated GPU, but comes in a full $700 cheaper than the Surface Book. The Dell XPS 13 boasts the exact same build at the exact same price as well.
That makes the Surface Book tough to recommend, despite some areas where it’s clearly improving on the laptops that manufacturers have been pumping out for years. The Book’s two biggest features, 2-in-1 touch support and dedicated graphics, are both in laptops already, albeit not together. Separating the screen from the base means no GPU, so you’ll have to choose which feature is more important. And users really shouldn’t have to compromise at a price point this high.
- Versatile form factor
- Beautiful display
- Solid construction
- Slightly expensive
- Optional GPU isn’t that quick
- Mediocre battery life
Update 10/29/15 by Brad Bourque: Updated to reflect the fact that the docking connector can be used to charge the Surface Book in tablet mode.