Microsoft Surface Book review

An amazing laptop that does even more as a tablet

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Our Verdict

While the Surface Book brings many technological innovations to the laptop space, its greatest strength is that it's just an all-around terrific device.

For

  • Futuristic design
  • Unrivaled display
  • Seamless tablet separation

Against

  • Battery life falls well below promises
  • Major updates are still in tow

It might seem ridiculous to think of Microsoft as amateur at anything, but Microsoft is a novice when it comes to designing and building laptops. Primarily known for its software, it’s quite possible that the only hardware you’re familiar with from the company is the Xbox and maybe notorious flops like the Zune.

So when we found out that Microsoft was to come out with the ‘ultimate laptop’, one that would come to be known as the Surface Book, we were admittedly hesitant. Sure, the company had proven its worth with the Surface Pro 3 and the Surface Pro 4 thereafter, but could it experience the same success with a ‘true’ clamshell notebook?

In short, the answer is yes. It certainly has its quirks, as you might expect from the creators of Windows: it uses a 3:2 aspect ratio and the ‘dynamic fulcrum’ hinge is a bit flimsy. But, it is a step forward because that hinge lets you detach the screen so you can use it as a tablet. And that weird aspect ratio is better for reading and getting work done than a traditional 16:9.

There’s plenty to love about the Surface Book. Then again, there’s also plenty worth questioning. And while many of our complaints may very well soon be addressed by the Surface Book 2, Microsoft’s first 2-in-1 laptop is still worth your consideration. But, before we get into it, let’s take a look at how the device has fared as of late in our updated recent developments section.

Recent developments

There is one particular caveat, one that’s only sprung up recently, that may have you rethinking your purchase of a Surface Book. That’s the fact that some users are running into issues with the newly launched Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. Now, bear in mind, this isn’t a mandatory update – at least not yet – but it is one that has apparently botched Surface Pen support.

Fortunately, it’s not without a fix. For anyone that installs the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update on their Surface Book and is experiencing stylus problems, you can go into device manager (just type “Device Manager” into the Windows search bar), disable the Intel Precise Touch Device driver under Human Interface devices and then re-enable.

In other news, if your concern was that no one else is using a Surface Book, we’re here to invalidate that suspicion. That’s because Microsoft’s fiscal results would suggest otherwise. Surface device sales are up 12% over last year, and the Surface Book 2 isn’t even out yet. Indeed, interesting times are ahead of us now that we know Surface is here to stay.

Surface Book

Design

If a tear in the space-time continuum were to suddenly rip open, two things would fall out: the Terminator and then the Surface Book quickly tumbling to the Earth behind it. From the snake-like hinge, the flat design and even down to the washed-out silver color of this laptop, everything about it just seems like it came from the future.

Milled from two solid blocks of magnesium, the Surface Book feels sturdy and has a most minimalistic style unto its own.

From keyboard deck to the palm rests, the entire interior of this laptop is one flat surface of metal, save for the large space reserved for the glass touchpad. Similarly, the screen lid is made of one uninterrupted slate of magnesium, with its only extra flourishes being a mirror-finished Windows logo in the center and a rear-facing camera.

Along the chiseled sides, you'll find two flat edges that start from the top of the display and terminate at the tip of the palm rest. That's not the only seamless transition.

Unlike most other convertible devices, the screen and base sections share nearly the same thickness and weight. Without the foreknowledge that the display can actually detach, the Surface Book looks like one continuous device, thanks to the hinge.

Surface Book

Mind the gap

At the midpoint of the Surface Book, there's a piece of connective tissue that Microsoft calls the dynamic fulcrum hinge. On top of simply gluing the screen and keyboard base together, it's this key piece that makes the whole device work.

Rather than folding flatly, the hinge basically coils into itself, leaving a noticeable gap between the screen and keyboard when the unit is closed. When opened, this same part rolls out and actually extends the base of the laptop, which in turn helps extend the support base for the tablet portion of the Surface Book (called the Clipboard).

While a traditional notebook display might weigh half a pound at most, the top section of the Surface Book weighs 1.6-pounds, because it contains all the necessary parts to act as a standalone tablet. As such, the hinge has been reinforced and contains extra mechanisms, not unlike the Lenovo Yoga 900's watchband-style hinge to keep it in place.

Surface Book is solid as a rock, and you can even pick up it by the display and shake it about without worrying about the whole thing falling apart. On a flat surface, the screen is held steady in place and even stays put when you have it in your lap.

The only times the screen wobbles are when I'm poking at it with my finger or the Surface pen, but that really comes with trying to operate a touchscreen on any laptop.

And to address the concerns of the gap left in the middle of the system. Yes, there is a substantial open space in the middle of the system when it's closed. No, dust and other bits of nasty will not slip into the interior anymore than with a standard laptop, unless you're a particularly messy person. After a week of using the Surface Book religiously, I can run my finger against the inside edge of the hinge and not find a single speck of dust.

Another plus side of having a laptop that doesn't close completely flush is you'll never find any oily outlines of the keyboard imprinted on the screen. It's a design element that also eliminates the need to seat the keyboard into a recessed area. Instead, the keys on this laptop sit flush with the keyboard deck.

The keyboard itself offers a splendid 1.6mm of key travel that caps off with a satisfying thwack when you bottom out the keys. The trackpad is equally as enjoyable, with it's glass laminated finish. For the first time ever, I found myself interested in using the three-finger multi-gestures to rotate through windows and reveal the desktop.

While this is a tiny element of the Surface Book, few – if any – other Windows notebooks on the market today offer such a tight tracking experience.

Mobilizing the desktop

The Surface Book's other signature trick is the screen can pop off the base with just the tap of a button. Technically, Microsoft is coming late to the 2-in-1 laptop game with various devices being able to do the same, including Acer's Switch family, Toshiba's Click notebooks, some HP devices and the list goes on.

However, no one has made a system as seamless as the Surface Book.

Undocking and attaching the Clipboard is nearly as seamless as the Surface Book's design. After either pressing the eject button on the keyboard or the virtual button in the taskbar, the screen will blink off for a second and then notify you it's safe to detach the screen with one quick tug.

Surface Book

It's fast and simple, however, the timing takes a little getting used to. After you get the prompt to detach the screen, you have to wait for about half a second before you can actually lift the display off its base.

Another unique feature to this notebook is it's the first to integrate a discrete graphics processor, or GPU, into a hybrid system. Tucked underneath the keyboard is a customized Nvidia GeForce GPU that makes this laptop just a bit more capable with media production and gaming.

We've seen this sort of GPU docking technology before in machines like the MSI GS30 Shadow with GamingDock and Alienware's GPU Amplifier solution. Microsoft has improved upon dockable graphics, as the Surface Book just needs a short moment to disengage the extra parts, whereas both the Alienware and MSI solutions require the laptop to reboot completely.

Surface Book

It's a neat feature that allows me to quickly show a friend something cool or when I want to read a digital comic book without having to lug the whole laptop around. But it didn't really click with me until I realized how easily it lets me bring my entire PC to another place without having to disconnect my external monitor, keyboard, mouse, Xbox controller and all my other peripherals at home

It's the coolest mechanic since the saucer separation of the Enterprise-D. What's more, it leaves open a door to expandability. Because the Clipboard is compatible with all Surface Book keyboard bases, not just the one it shipped with, Microsoft could theoretically come out with future upgrades could be done through new bases. (Or maybe even a desktop rig that interfaces with the display? We can dream.)

First reviewed: October 2015

Gabe Carey also contributed to this review