Guess what? Microsoft’s finally made a laptop.
Technically the Surface Book was 30 years in the making, but its designers must have wasted an awful long time on Solitaire if that’s how long they took to think up this supercharged hybrid. It’s a no-brainer from the boffs that brought you Windows and the Surface Pro. Or so you’d think.
Since its US launch in October last year, the Surface Book has suffered from a few, erm, teething issues. A slew of software glitches, screen issues and problems with the device’s keyboard dock beleaguered Microsoft’s initial product run. Putting it delicately, this hybrid seemed to feature more bugs than your average Bushtucker Trial.
Four months later, you might wonder what’s changed. Well, you can now buy a Surface Book in the UK and Microsoft claims to have fixed its initial woes. For a starting price of well over a grand, you’d hope so.
All about that base
If the Surface Pro 4 is a tablet with the power of your average laptop then the Surface Book pulls a flip reverse on that formula. Essentially, it’s a touchscreen ultrabook with a detachable display. Tempted? Get your mitts on this thing and you will be.
Unlike the Pro, you can’t buy a Book without a keyboard cover and it’s this magnesium alloy base that makes all the difference. While the Surface Pro 4 is perfectly OK to write on, it still isn’t on par with a dedicated laptop.
In comparison, the Book is an absolute joy to type with. Its keys are pleasingly chunky and have plenty of depth, so you never get finger cramp - even after crafting 1,000 words or so. Honestly, I prefer editing a Google Doc on the Surface Book to my MacBook Air, which is really saying something.
Typing isn’t the only thing this base is good for. If you step above the most basic Book models then it’ll feature a NVIDIA GeForce 940M graphics card. This means you should be able to run games on it, and relatively recent ones too. Minesweeper needn’t be your go-to procrastination tool, at least.
More importantly, for the kind of arty brainaics who’ll be buying a Book, a graphics card will help a lot with video editing. Whipping up the above ‘five essential features’ video using our Surface was relatively hassle-free.
Stuck in the middle with you
While the Book’s eye-catching design offers plenty in the way of utility, the Stuff office is officially split on whether it’s an attractive piece of premium kit or not. Well, I’m not that keen on it but other people have their own opinions.
‘It’s something different, isn’t it?’ said someone.
‘It looks like technology,’ claimed another staff member. Honestly.
The point they’re both flailing towards is that the Surface Book is its own beast. You wouldn’t mistake it for a MacBook or any run-of-the-mill Windows 10 laptop. That’s all thanks to its corrugated hinge, which holds onto the Book’s display when you don’t want to use it as a tablet. It’s certainly a superior hybrid solution when compared to the clipboard styling of Google’s Pixel C, but doesn’t allow you to slam this Surface flat shut.
There’s a wedge-shaped gap between the Book’s display and keyboard that’s about the size of a Bic ballpoint pen at its widest. So don’t go shoving this Surface in your bag with any loose objects.
‘You might get a pea stuck in there,’ said another colleague before turning red with embarrassment.
Assuming you avoid that unlikely turn of fate, then the Surface Book should prove no trouble to carry around. Our GPU-enabled model weighs 1,579g with its base attached (that’s 726g for just the tablet, natch). So it’s almost exactly as heavy as a 13-inch MacBook Pro, which isn’t really ‘heavy’ at all.
Even more so than with a standard Surface Pro, the Book’s M.O. is to get stuff done. That’s why it’s packed with two USB ports, a full-size SD card reader, a Mini DisplayPort and a headphone jack. Power users can even get themselves a Surface Dock, which is basically a £170 breeze block with extra ports on it. For the most part, you’re not going to struggle to tick off your to-do list with this hybrid.
Under my thumb
If you’ve ever seen the video of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer's dad dancing to the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, then you’ll know what ‘peak Microsoft’ looks like. For a company whose products have been oppressively nerdy at times, the Surface Book is largely a pleasure to use. In particular, its screen is a beauty.
A 13.5in model that features 267 pixels per inch, text is pin-sharp to read on the tablet when you’re whipping together a document. Having spent several hours staring at this Surface, I never felt I was straining my eyes when making an edit. Something that often happens when you pair cheaper tablets with a Bluetooth keyboard.
As you’d expect for a display with a 3,000 x 2,000 resolution, video also looks great on the Surface Book. You can see the furrows on Rami Malek’s opiate-fuelled brow in Mr. Robot, while b-roll from Street Fighter V was suitably saturated with visceral shades of neon. Even though this touchscreen isn’t backed by the same kickstand you’ll find on the Surface Pro, it’s still a treat to veg out with after a long day at the office spent trawling through Reddit when no one’s looking.
Holy, powers, Austin, Powers
In terms of more taxing affairs, the Surface Book isn’t lacking for processing heft. Our model came with a super-powerful i7 Intel Core i7-6600U chip and 16GB Ram. So yeah, that’s why it aced our Geekbench 3 benchmark tests with a multi-core score of 7091, which trumps even last year’s top MacBook Pro.
To misquote Kanye West: What can you do with all that power? Mainly video and design work. As I mentioned earlier, we edited a few clips on Surface Book using Adobe Première and that ran well enough to get our work done. With a 4K and 1080p clip on the timeline, we received playback at about 75% of the proper frame rate. That’s not the end of the world, but you wouldn't want to cut a feature on the Surface Book.
When it comes to gaming though. This hybrid offers less than we’d been led to believe. The official and predictably oblique line from Microsoft is that the Surface Book can handle ‘3D gaming’. While we did manage to get the isometric Invisible Inc working on it, the first-person Gone Home and MOBA Heroes of the Storm weren’t so forthcoming. Both crashed before we could get through to their title screens.
Now this could be due to a driver issue rather than the Book’s NVIDIA card not being able to run them. Either way, we couldn’t play the games and that’s all that really matters.
Windows 10, debugged?
This hiccup had me worried that the Surface Book was still full of glitches, but that hasn’t really proved to be the case. Compared to my time with the Surface Pro 4, where two models managed to brick themselves in the space of 10 minutes, the Book is almost bug free.
I say ‘almost’ because you’ll likely have a few occasions when it flips into tablet mode unprompted - either when you run a programme it doesn’t like or wakes up from Sleep mode in a state of confusion. Beyond these flaws, there’s no head-slapping frustration to be had with the Surface Book. Again, given its thoroughly high-end price, you’d expect nothing less.
Whether or not you get on with Windows 10 is a matter of preference. Certainly it’s a lot more pleasurable to use than Windows 8, where I once spent a preposterous amount of time locked in webcam mode without the knowhow to escape. Although Microsoft’s Store still isn’t blessed with a huge amount of native apps, Amazon Instant Video, Spotify and Slack are three big absentees, you can easily download the relevant software from its creator’s website.
What Microsoft’s Surface devices bring to the table is a decent tablet experience and the use of a Surface Pen. While the Book isn’t as intuitive as an iPad Pro when it’s detached from its keyboard base, that’s less of a problem than it is with the Surface Pro 4. Remember, most of the time you’ll be using it as a laptop.
Since this is the case, you’ll get less out of the Pen than you would with a Pro. I spent a lot of time with a mouse plugged into my Book, but when I did detach it the delightfully chunky stylus proved a boon for taking notes and swiping through web pages.
So-so battery life
Both the Surface Book’s tablet and base have separate batteries, so the former doesn’t take a snooze as soon as you disconnect it. The upshot of this is that the Book’s stamina is naturally superior when you use it as a laptop.
It’s been improved even further in the last day, as well. Before a new firmware update the Surface Book lasted for an acceptable six hours when grilled with a mix of email, web browsing, YouTube and Spotify. Afterwards, we managed to squeeze out five hours of video editing from the Book, while only draining its battery to the 50% marker.
That means you should now get 9/10 hours of use from this laptop, which is enough for it to withstand most long-distance train journeys. Nevertheless, Apple’s 13in MacBook Pro will survive for 12 hours when placed on lightweight duties.
Surface Book Verdict
Although the Surface Book isn’t quite the slam dunk you might assume it to be, that’s almost to be expected. There’s a good reason why Microsoft took three decades to create its own laptop, and that’s because it’s a tough job to get right. So why bother?
To show off the best of Windows 10, of course. And now that the Surface Book is pretty much bug-free, it’s good to fulfill that promise. It’s got an undeniably innovative design, plenty of processing oomph and the flexibility to act as a tablet. Plus, I really do love typing on the thing.
Is that enough quality to justify over £2,000 of your pocket money? With a variable battery life and its 3D gaming struggles, I’d say probably not. If you want a Surface Book, you’re best off sticking with the £1,300 entry-level model.
For a first-gen device, this sleek hybrid gets a lot right. With a few tweaks, the Surface Book will be able to shake it with the best of them. Well, it’ll put Bill Gates to shame anyway.