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

Did you know the Surface Book isn’t Microsoft’s latest flagship 2-in-1 laptop? No, that honor goes to the new, and now more affordable, Microsoft Surface Book 2 – now, read our Surface Book 2 review!

When the Surface Book, well, surfaced back in October 2015, it made massive waves in the computing world. Now, three years later, it’s not hard to see the massive influence the original Surface Book had on the best 2-in-1 laptops.

And, because the Surface Book 2 is such a premium laptop, the original Surface Book will be holding a dedicated fan base well into the future. It’s an enduring device that, with a constant flow of updates – like the Windows 10 October 2018 Update – has been growing and evolving since day one.

When you look at the Surface Book, you’ll know that it’s an expensive device, but it’s worth it. It justifies the high price, thanks to the fact that it’s basically two devices in one, with an incredibly sharp 3,000 x 2,000 display, competent 6th-generation Intel processor and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 940M graphics card. We’d even go so far as to praise the controversial dynamic fulcrum hinge – even if it’s not of the same quality as the Surface Book 2.

Price and availability

The Surface Book 2 may have a lower starting price than it did upon release, now at $1,199 (£1,149, AU$2,199), but these days you can get the original Surface Book for even less – especially with Black Friday and Cyber Monday lurking around the corner. Of course, you’re not going to find it brand new on store shelves these days, but a refurbished Surface Book is still a Surface Book – and, really, that’s enough for us.

If you look on Amazon, you can expect to save hundreds of dollars when compared to similarly specced Surface Book 2 devices, while sacrificing little to no performance – and retaining the fantastic form factor.

Still, the original Surface Book is notable for more than just a spec sheet, It’s the 2-in-1 convertible design that is extremely attractive. While the Huawei MateBook X Pro may just seduce you with its bezel-less design, the Surface Book is much more versatile with the detachable screen and native stylus support necessary to make it such an undeniable catch. And, it’s more affordable, even if it doesn’t have a nifty webcam beneath its F6 key.

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 the Surface Book is one flat surface of metal, except for the large space reserved for the glass touchpad. Likewise, the screen 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. Rather than simply bonding the screen and keyboard base together, it's this key piece that makes the whole device work.

Rather than folding flatly, like a normal laptop, the dynamic fulcrum hinge coils into itself, leaving a noticeable gap between the screen and keyboard when its closed. When opened, this same hinge 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 we got the screen to move were when we tried poking the Surface Book with the Surface Pen, but that really comes from trying to operate a touchscreen on a laptop. Fortunately, the hinge on the Surface Book 2 is a lot sturdier – but it’s much more expensive. Other than that, the strikingly similar design carries on to the Surface Book’s sequel.

To alleviate some of the worries about the gap in the middle of the system – yes, there’s a large open space right in the middle when it’s closed. No, dust and other bits of nasty gunk won’t slip into the interior anymore than with a standard laptop, unless you’re an especially messy person. After a week of using the Surface Book day-in and day-out, we were able to run our finger against the inside hinge and not find a single speck of dust.

Another plus side of having a laptop that doesn’t close completely flush is that you don’t need to worry about oily outlines of the keyboard appearing on the screen. It’s a design element that also eliminates the need to seat the keyboard into a recessed area. Rather, the keys stand at attention above 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 just as pleasing, with its glass-laminated surface. For the first time ever, we found ourselves using 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 trademark feature is the screen, which can pop off the base with the tap of a button. Now, Microsoft was technically late to the 2-in-1 laptop game with other devices able to perform similar actions, including the Acer Switch family, Toshiba’s Click notebooks, some HP devices – the list goes on.

However, Microsoft was the first to make 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 us to quickly show a friend something cool or when we want to read a digital comic book without having to lug the whole laptop around. But it didn't really click with us until we realized how easily it allows us to bring our entire PC to another place without having to disconnect our external monitor, keyboard, mouse, Xbox controller and all our 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

Bill Thomas and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this review