Microsoft Surface Book Laptop Review
This beautiful, high-tech 2-in-1 laptop is a tough pill to swallow
Ever since the original Surface Pro with its clicky keyboard covers and snappy kickstand debuted in 2013, there were a lot of people who didn't like it. Some even wondered if Microsoft would make a traditional laptop. Thankfully, we don't have to wonder any longer, thanks to the introduction of the Microsoft Surface Book (MSRP $1,499, $2,600 as tested).
Of course, this isn't any ordinary laptop. In true Surface fashion, the screen tears off the lower body of the computer, making it into a clipboard-sized tablet. Surface Book is much more like a traditional laptop than Surface Pro, but it's still something not wholly normal compared to ultrabooks like the Dell XPS 13 or HP's Spectre X360. We loved its build quality, power, and gorgeous display. Our came fully-loaded with a powerful i7 processor and even then, battery life was pretty excellent.
But, we had a bunch of issues with Surface Book that made it rather frustrating to use. Because the bulk of the components are in the screen, the device feels more topheavy when used in the lap than a normal notebook PC. It's also kinda expensive compared to simpler ultrabooks, and even when stacked against other 2-in-1 devices. We also had issues with our review units that have yet to be solved, and though they might not plague everyone, can be dealbreakers considering the price.
Surface Book has a few important options to keep in mind when you're shopping for the model that is right for you. Though it starts at $1,499, that configuration doesn't give you a whole lot of storage space at only 128 GB. You're paying a premium for a device that doubles as a laptop and a tablet. We think you won't be getting a truly great device unless you're willing to spend some serious money.
Our $2,600 model is nearly fully-loaded with the following specs:
•6th Generation Intel Core i7-6500U dual-core processor
•16 GB RAM
•512 GB PCIe SSD
•13.5-inch 3000 x 2000 IPS Touchscreen
•Nvidia GeForce Graphics with 1 GB GDDR5 VRAM (in Keyboard Dock)
•WiFi AC/ Bluetooth 4.1
The difference between some of the normal configurations and the most expensive ones is the inclusion of an Nvidia graphics chip in the keyboard of the "dGPU" versions of Surface Book. When the top and bottom of the computer are connected, you get a boost from the extra graphics chip for games and things like Photoshop. All Surface Book models come with a Windows Hello-enabled camera for facial login, and a Surface Pen included.
What We Liked
Microsoft's best keyboard and trackpad yet
What's a laptop without a keyboard and trackpad? Plenty of laptops skimp on these super crucial user interface elements in order to get weight, thickness, or price down. Microsoft put a big, silky-smooth precision trackpad and a really excellent keyboard. Since the screen doesn't mate up directly over the keyboard, the keys aren't recessed at all, and the long throw makes for a very comfortable typing experience. Some might worry about dust and stuff getting between the screen and keyboard in a bag, but we didn't have an issue.
In fact, the downside of many other notebook designs is that, if there's enough weight put onto the display when it's closed, the keyboard can rub up against the screen. Over time, the finger grease on the keycaps can collect on the screen and leave permanent marks in some cases. Surface Book's gap means that the keys are kept far away from the screen, and we didn't once see any telltale marks left behind.
You get a high-res, contrasty, gorgeous display
We thought the screen on the Surface Pro 4 was pretty great, but boy oh boy were we blown away by the screen on Surface Book. It's bigger, at 13.5-inches diagonal; it's the same awesome density, with a resolution of 3000 x 2000; it's fully laminated; and it's touch-sensitive to boot. Colors pop without looking ridiculous, and the inky-deep blacks had us in a tizzy. After using this computer for Adobe Lightroom, it's going to be painful for me to go back to my relatively low-resolution, modest computer monitor at home.
Surface Pen comes at no extra cost
It's really nice to get Surface Pen included with every Surface Book. It's a signature accessory (pun intended) that we love to use for doodling, marking up documents, and taking notes. It's also a very nice replacement for a mouse in the right circumstances, since it is a high-precision pointing device. Unlike the prior version of Surface Pen, this new model has a flat side that's highly magnetized that latches on to the Surface Book's tablet portion. It doesn't feel quite as secure as on the regular Surface Pro 4, but it's still better than having no place to stash it at all.
Undocked, the tablet can be very nice to use
Surface Book's best trick is undoubtedly the conversion from laptop to tablet. Press the eject button, and the system takes a second to unlatch the screen from the keyboard. Then, once you get the green light, you can pull the tablet free. When docked, the tablet section feels just about as secure as a normal notebook's display, and the magnets that help keep the base stuck on make it a challenge to smoothly pull it away.
Once it's off, you get a fraction of the battery in the tablet that should be good for a few hours, assuming you're just watching a movie or browsing the internet. Because the screen is way bigger than most tablets, you're treated to an immersive experience only made better by the device's front-facing stereo speakers. It's an awesome way to watch Netflix when winding down for the day.
Good battery life when compared to its 2-in-1 peers
Surface Book's discrete GPU, amazing screen, and powerful i7 processor should all be enough to suck your battery dry post haste, but we came away impressed by the test results we saw. We just barely made it to four and a half hours with Surface Book, which is well above average for a slim, compact, powerful notebook like this.
Dell's QHD+, Core i7 version of its great XPS 13 notebook got an hour less, and that's without the extra graphics boost that Surface Book has. It's bigger than your average ultrabook or 2-in-1, but the balance of power to runtime is really quite something. But, since you can pop the screen off, temporary portability is only a button press away.
What We Didn't Like
Bugs, even some six months after the product's launch
I've had a rough go at using Surface Book thanks to some gnarly bugs that caused the device to crash during sleep, and occasionally blue screen. We've been told that most of these problems were fixed earlier on this year, but here we are having to talk about them again. I used Surface Book as my only computer for a number of weeks, and even though I'm pretty technically adept at rooting out major problems, Surface Book eluded me and continued to annoy.
We've found that the bleeding-edge version of Windows 10 Insider Preview has curbed some problems, but this is not an acceptable solution by any means. As it stands, we'd be wary of these ongoing bugs. We'll be keeping a close eye on the situation as it progresses, but since the version of Windows we have installed won't launch until later on in the summer, we'd recommend waiting for the situation to improve before buying. A notebook this nice and this expensive shouldn't come with a side of bugs.
A topheavy design makes it a little weird to use sometimes
The unorthodox hinge design that makes the screen detachment work also makes the Surface Book a less capable laptop. The maximum angle of the display is a little limited if you're used to being able to tilt your screen back far, it's a no-go. It also made the Surface Book a lot more likely to tip forward in my lap when using it in a reclining chair. Turns out that putting half the guts of a computer right behind the display makes the screen portion a lot more heavy and willing to tilt away from you if it isn't anchored by your hands on the keyboard.
No expandable storage and upgrades are pricey
Unlike the normal Surface, Surface Book doesn't have a microSD slot. That means that if you can't afford a larger capacity Book, it's a real pain to expand it. Because this is critical factor for happy long-term ownership of a computer, we'd recommend completely ignoring the base 128 GB Surface Book and skipping to the more expensive, $1,699 variant of the device. Spending $200 to go from 128 to 256 GB is obscene to be sure, especially when competing computers routinely give you similar specs for around a grand.
Tablet has less battery life, is less useful when undocked
The premise behind Surface Book's unique hinge and electronic lock is that it sticks both halves together as solidly as a normal laptop, but unlatches when you want a tablet. But, after seeing what a handy thing a kickstand can be on Surface Pro 4, Surface Book's tablet experience just isn't up to snuff. For one, getting undocked from the keyboard base is an awkward affair.
Press a button, grab the display, lift it away. Sounds easy, right? Well, not really. I found that it requires some finesse, because the only thing on my mind while trying to break the powerful grasp of the magnets in the hinge is to avoid flinging the tablet or knocking the keyboard to the ground. You wouldn't want to be left with half of a functioning Surface Book.
And when undocked, the tablet portion felt a little orphaned to me. It can't stand up on its own and there's nothing protecting the screen if you put it down on a table. At the very least, you can plug the tablet into the power adapter and charge it by itself, which is great given the weak battery life once it's taken off the keyboard dock.
Given how much I love Microsoft's Surface Pro 4, I thought I'd be a sucker for this bigger, faster, even cooler Surface laptop. It should have none of the drawbacks of the oddball Surface Pro, right? Well, as it turns out, Surface Book has its own issues. Whereas Surface Pro 4 feels like it's a lot of ideas artfully combined (we think it's not only more portable but also better for tablet stuff), Surface Book is lacking that maturity. For me, Surface Book feels like less than the sum of its gorgeously-designed parts—it's ambitious, but it's still a first-generation product.
For a lot less money, you can buy other premium 2-in-1 devices and functionally will give you a near-identical experience. An HP Spectre X360 could easily fill the role of Surface Book for significantly less money, and get a device that feels just about as premium. Lenovo's Yoga 900 is also pretty similar all things considered, and it's rather lightweight which is great if you plan on using it as a tablet often. Not interested in a transforming-type computer? HP's premium Spectre and especially the Dell XPS 13 are both cheaper, just as fast, and better in their own ways.
If Microsoft was aiming at the 13-inch MacBook Pro, we'd say that Surface Book is almost as capable. The Surface falls a little short when we look at pricing (Surface is $200 more for a comparably-specced entry-level version) and that the integrated graphics that you get (Surface Book has Intel's stock HD 520, while Apple's 13-inch Pro has more powerful Iris graphics). When we cross-shop Surface Book (dGPU) with the 15-inch MacBook Pro, the comparison fares a little better, but thanks to its quad-core chip, the Mac will trounce Surface every time. As it stands, Surface Book lives between these two legendary professional notebook lineups, but its pen, touch, and flexible tablet features make it a tempting alternative for artists.
Taken on its own, Surface Book is an experience that few other modern computers can give you. It's a sturdy-feeling (if topheavy) notebook with a wicked comfy keyboard. It looks like nothing else out there. Then there's the magic trick: hold on—it's a tablet now, and ready to take notes with a digital pen. Like Surface Pro 4, quirks will have a different impact on different people, and I recommend you at least try one in the store before inviting it into your life.
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