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.
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 convertibles, such as Vaio’s Z Flip, Dell’s XPS 13, and Lenovo’s new X1 Yoga. 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.
But the strange hinge has a purpose. It lets 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.
Related: Surface Pro 4 review
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. We 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 Surface Book’s 2-in-1 mechanism is the best that I’ve put hands on yet.
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. That’s almost the exact set of connections the X1 Yoga and XPS 13 offer, with an important omission: Type-C.
USB Type-C, common on competitors, is not found here. The Surface Book has a similar connection layout to the X1 Yoga in that sense. While some may long for the new standard, others will find the individual connections more pertinent, at least until more Type-C accessories roll out. The XPS 13 is the best of both worlds, with the same connections as the Book, but a Type-C plug instead of a dedicated video connection.
Related: Surface Pro 4 review
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, although it’s not as bad as the Vaio’s awkwardly loose power connection. 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 of that 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.
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 the 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 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.
Of course, 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 – just five percent behind the X1 Yoga – 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 XPS 13 has a deltaE of almost 2, while both the X1 and Vaio fall below 1.5 without reaching the Book’s stellar marks in other areas.
The redesigned pencil feels sturdy and begs to be touched and used for any task.
The display also achieved an outstanding contrast level of 1440:1, the best we’ve ever recorded from a laptop — with the exception of the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro S’s OLED display — and almost twice its next best competitor, the Vaio. 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.
Both the Core i5 and Core i7 Surface Book beat Microsoft’s goal of overtaking the Apple MacBook 13, and even manage to pull ahead of newer Skylake laptops like the XPS 13 with a Core i5. The XPS 13 with a Core i7 isn’t even that far ahead of the Core i5 Surface Book.
The difference between the models with like Cores is subtler in real world tests. Our Handbrake test tasks a system with converting a 420MB 4K video. The Core i5 XPS 13 took just over three minutes longer than the Core i5 Surface Book’s almost 30-minute time. The difference between the corresponding Books and XPS 13 was less than five percent on each side.
On the other hand, the difference between the Core i5 and Core i7 models is much more pronounced. The Surface Book with the upgraded CPU is over ten percent more powerful than its lower-powered sibling, but whether that ten percent is worth $200 remains to be seen.
Drives with the best of them
PCIe drives are quickly becoming the standard for mobile systems, and that’s at least partially thanks to the Surface Book. The Core i5 was a test unit with a Toshiba drive, but the Core i7 version, along with most retail units, packs in a Samsung 950 Pro NVMe.
While the PCIe SSD found in the Surface Book easily defeats the typical SATA solid state drive, it falls behind other systems with PCIe support. Even the M.2 drive in Intel’s NUC beats the score of the Surface Book handily.
Nvidia inside, but this isn’t a gaming notebook
Our high-end Surface Book Core i7 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 Surface Book an edge in graphics-intensive tasks, but by how much?
While the Surface Book is no powerhouse, it offers almost twice the visual power of the Surface Pro 4 and the Core i5 Surface Book. That’s a significant jump, but it’s barely higher than the Vaio Z Flip’s HD 550, a staggering defeat for the dedicated graphics option.
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. That’s right in the same ballpark as the Vaio Z Flip, suggesting the dGPU in the Book is fairly similar in performance to the Intel HD 550 in the Vaio.
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, but more than a half pound heavier than the Dell XPS 13 and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which both fall right around 2.8 pounds. 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 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 Surface 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 has a two-hour lead on the X1 Yoga, however, and there’s something to be said for that.
This also isn’t 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.
The battery isn’t strong enough to carry the Surface Book through a full work day.
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. The Anniversary Update largely focuses on improving the stylus experience, with new tools, more advanced sticky notes, and better touch support across the board.
After some use, the Surface Book revealed a few inconsistencies. The main one is what users are calling the “sleep of death” or “hot bag syndrome” where the Surface Book will go into sort of a fugue state when closed. It will either go to sleep and never really wake up, requiring a hard reset, or it will simply run hotter and hotter without responding to input, heating the inside of your laptop bag until its battery runs out.
Microsoft responded to these issues first by claiming they weren’t issues, and then by issuing a series of firmware updates attempting to resolve them. So far, none of these updates has completely eradicated the issue, although it’s become less common.
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 a miniature powerhouse. Both models boasted faster CPU and SSD speeds than the $1,500 MacBook too. On the whole, the base Surface Book is a good deal, and its detachable screen gives it a unique edge.
The DT Accessory Pack
Unfortunately, more expensive versions aren’t as reasonable. The upgrades to the Surface Book raise the price significantly, with the top end reaching $3,200. That’s a $500 jump from our already spendy $2,700, 512GB review version.
Microsoft was the first to compare the Surface Book to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and that’s a winning comparison for Redmond. The similarly-priced MacBook Pro 13 with Retina only drops the dedicated GPU, and comes in a full $700 cheaper than the Surface Book. But it’s quickly becoming an ancient machine, lacking some of the more advanced functionality found in the Book.
But the Surface Book doesn’t perform as well against its Windows competitors. The Dell XPS 13 boasts the exact same build at the exact same price, and the touch-screen options are very reasonable. Even the Vaio Flip Z is cheaper, and it boasts better performance than the Book by a decent margin, with a very similar feature set.
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.
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.
Update 7/8/2016 by Brad Bourque: Updated to reflect new competitors.