Microsoft Surface Book review: The verdict on Microsoft's first notebook

To wait for the second model or has Microsoft nailed its first notebook?

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Microsoft Surface Book
  • Microsoft Surface Book
  • Microsoft Surface Book
  • Microsoft Surface Book
  • Expert Rating

    4.50 / 5

Pros

  • Well built with sturdy fulcrum hinge
  • Tablet-notebook form factor
  • High resolution 13.5-inch display and front firing speakers
  • Among the most comfortable keyboard and trackpad
  • High performing computing innards

Cons

  • Some minor software glitches
  • Screen invites fingerprints
  • Placement of power and volume buttons is not good for a notebook
  • Weight distribution could be optimised further

Would you buy this?

The Surface Book is Microsoft’s first notebook and already it is challenging what a notebook is, how it should work and what it should do. Some of these changes are welcomed. Others leave you wondering what Microsoft could have achieved had it perfected the original notebook formula.

This is not a small notebook by any measure, but it is supreme in its functionality and powerful in its performance. It is 13mm thick at its narrowest, 23mm at its thickest point and it weighs a respectable 1.5 kilograms, which is on par with Apple’s MacBook Pro.

A range of configurations are available, including Intel’s sixth-generation core i5 and i7 processors, integrated Intel HD 520 graphics, up to 16GB of RAM and solid state drives up to 512GB in capacity. A secondary NVIDIA GeForce GPU with 1GB of DDR5 memory is also present.

One button on the keyboard rouses intrigue. It has a coloured LED light which turns from orange to green in a process that signals the screen is ready to come clean off. Herein lies the charm of the Surface Book: it is a no-compromise notebook that doubles as a tablet.

A lot of clever technology goes into making this hybrid the kind of notebook you’d want to spend hours working on, but the most interesting innovation is its ‘fulcrum’ hinge. It is the single component that gives the Surface Book the rigidity of a well-built notebook, the versatility to mount the screen back-to-front and the liberty for it to be used as a standalone tablet.

Holding the Surface Book up from its screen can be done with no hesitation. No tremors trickle down to the keyboard and there’s never a sense that the two components will come undone. This is owed to the use of ‘muscle wire’, which flexes when it is charged with an electric current. Pressing the detach button cuts the current off so that the notebook can become a tablet, while also switching ongoing applications from the NVIDIA GPU in its base to the processor’s integrated graphics.

Few intensive applications will crash during this process if the NVIDIA GPU is being used in a move telling of Microsoft’s immaturity as a hardware company. Detaching the screen during a Blender 3D rendering test led to the notebook crashing on one occasion. Most times a pop-up window will ask for select applications to be shut down before the Surface Book can be used as a tablet.

Another tell-tale sign that this is Microsoft’s first notebook came in the guise of a software glitch. There were instances when the mouse and keyboard would fail to respond if we placed the Surface Book in standby by closing the lid. Detaching and docking the screen is how we dealt with the problem, while restarting worked, too. We anticipate these gripes to be tended to with ongoing software support.

As a standalone tablet, the Surface Book weighs approximately 660 grams, which is almost twice as much as the thinnest Android and iOS tablets. Only this is more than a tablet because it packs no-compromise computing hardware; it is a computer freed from the keyboard, so that it is easier to use standing up, on a train or even in bed.

Parts of the tablet experience are still waiting to be refined. The touch keyboard, for instance, isn’t smart enough to automatically capitalise the first letter of every sentence. It lacks time-saving intuition because Microsoft treats the virtual copy just like a physical keyboard.

Microsoft and Intel worked closely together during the development of its Skylake processors. The Intel-developed RealSense camera at the front, for instance, logs into Windows with a scan of your face. This is Windows Hello and it works so well that many will prefer it for logging in.
Microsoft and Intel worked closely together during the development of its Skylake processors. The Intel-developed RealSense camera at the front, for instance, logs into Windows with a scan of your face. This is Windows Hello and it works so well that many will prefer it for logging in.

On the one hand, the Surface Book is less attractive as a tablet because it is bigger. On the other, its 13.5-inch, 3000x2000 resolution display makes up for the extra heft. All of the technology praised in the Pro 4 is featured here, including Microsoft’s PixelSense innovation, and having the LCD bonded to thin Gorilla Glass 4, which bridges the gap between what you see and what you touch.

Every part of the Windows 10 experience is enriched by the Surface Book’s display. Things as seemingly insignificant as sending an email or surfing the web feel more involving. Text is sharper, colours are accurate, the backlighting is stronger. This is the kind of notebook-tablet than can be relied upon to watch a movie. The screen and its accompanying speakers are proficient enough to do so — easily.

Microsoft’s strength as a hardware maker lies in how it uses accessories to make the experience better. The Microsoft Pen is a prime example. It works like an ordinary writing tool, with a pen tip, an eraser and a ‘clicky top’ button. It is powered down when it is magnetically mounted and it switches on automatically when it is in use. Microsoft claims its inbuilt battery has a year lifespan. With its 1024 levels of gradation, it’ll spill virtual ink with the same wondrous inconsistencies as a pen. Using it is familiar, organic and easy, and although the divide between pen-and-paper remains, it is now small enough to be negligible.

The same can be said of the Surface Book’s keyboard. Other notebooks have keys that sit in a recessed body so that they don’t touch the screen when the lid is closed. The unique design of the Surface Book’s fulcrum hinge means there’s a notable gap that facilitates tall, chiclet keys, each one backlit by an individual LED bulb. The generosity of each key’s travel makes using this notebook for a nine hour work day a reassuring prospect.

Reiterating this user friendliness is the capacitive trackpad. Notebooks running Windows have long trailed Apple with jerky and finicky iterations, but the trackpad on the Surface Book is large at 5-inches, is well tuned and it takes advantage of the gestures baked into Windows 10.

The Surface Book being reviewed by PCWorld came equipped with an Intel core i7-6600U CPU running at 2.6GHz, though it could be turbocharged in spurts to 3.4GHz. It shipped with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid state storage drive. This is a top-of-the-range configuration that retails for $4200, although pricing for the Surface Book starts from $2299.

Ports include two USB 3.0 ports, and an SD card slot that does not take in the full card
Ports include two USB 3.0 ports, and an SD card slot that does not take in the full card
There's a 3.5mm audio jack up top, which can be irritating, along with a display port and a magnetic charging port.
There's a 3.5mm audio jack up top, which can be irritating, along with a display port and a magnetic charging port.

Microsoft is pitching the Surface Book at professionals, designers, artists and engineers as it is can handle intensive applications, such as PhotoShop and AutoCAD. In our Blender 3D test, the notebook rendered the ‘ring’ demo in 2 minutes and 56 seconds, while it blitzed CrystalDiskMark’s storage test with average read speeds of 1519MB/s and write speeds of 575.9MB/s.

Gaming is an ancillary function of the Surface Book, but it’s best suited to light games. It performed well in 3DMark’s benchmarking tests scoring 7295 in Cloud Gate, 6155 in Sky Diver and 1900 in Firestrike, all of which eclipse the results of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 — and that was no slouch, either.

The screen of the Surface Book is larger and richer than that of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, but it houses two batteries; one behind its display and another in its base. PCWorld measured the battery performance as both a tablet and a notebook.

Our test is brutal. We disable all battery saving modes, loop a Full HD movie with the display brightness set to max and maintain a Wi-Fi connection. The battery depleted in a fast 2 hours and 19 minutes in tablet mode, but as a computer, the Surface Book ploughed on for 6 hours and 52 minutes.

Tablet-style buttons, at the top of the screen, don't work well on a computer as they are accidentally pressed when in a bag.
Tablet-style buttons, at the top of the screen, don't work well on a computer as they are accidentally pressed when in a bag.

The Surface Book is hands down the best hybrid on the market for power users. Care has evidently been taken in its design with it being forged from magnesium. Attention has been paid to the fine details, like the finish of its lip; the way the stylus sits reassuringly using the power of magnets; and that fulcrum hinge, with its extraordinary versatility and subtle touches of chrome. Wrapped inside is an exceptional keyboard and trackpad duo, and if you delve deeper, beyond the allure of its skin, you’ll find serious computing guts.

Carrying the Surface Book under one arm is done with the Microsoft badge facing outwards; it’s done with a sense of pride. If only the review would end there, but imagine what Microsoft could do if it didn’t have to pop the computing hardware in the screen and bother with a thick hinge. Imagine if Microsoft poured the same blood, sweat and tears into a dedicated notebook.


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Read more on these topics: Windows hello, Skylake, Microsoft, Windows 10, intel, Surface Book
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