For years, Microsoft has been telling us that the future of PCs was actually the tablet. The Surface Pro in particular is powerful enough that it could truly keep pace with your laptop, and Microsoft hasn’t been shy about comparing it to the MacBook Air. The message seemed clear: The Surface Pro was like a notebook, only better.
And yet, immediately after unveiling the Surface Pro 4 at a keynote earlier this month, Microsoft unleashed one last surprise: the Surface Book. At first glance, it’s a traditional 13-inch notebook, with a premium design, long battery life and the sort of performance you’ll find in only a handful of other laptops, like the MacBook Pro. Unlike a Mac, though, you can remove the screen, turning it into a shockingly light, 1.6-pound tablet — one that happens to pack a notebook-grade Intel Core processor.
This, according to Microsoft, is the “ultimate laptop.”
- Distinctive, well-constructed design
- Impressively light as a tablet
- Gorgeous screen
- Pen input works well
- Comfortable keyboard
- Fast performance
- Best-in-class battery life in laptop mode
- Lots of configurations to choose from
- Short battery life for just the tablet
- High cost of entry
- “Fulcrum” hinge makes the laptop appear fatter when shut
- Feels heavy compared to some other flagship laptops
- Screen wobbles a bit it in laptop mode
Hardware and design
Until you hold down a button to release the display, the Surface Book looks just like any other clamshell laptop, with a spacious keyboard and an apparently fixed screen. That’s the whole point, really: If all you cared about were feeds and speeds, you could buy yourself a Surface Pro 4 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, and run Photoshop to your heart’s content. But after years of trying to convince consumers that the Surface Pro could replace a laptop, Microsoft seems to have realized that some people don’t want that; they just want a laptop. The Surface Book is for people who were never open to the idea of balancing a Surface tablet in their laps or typing on a thin Type Cover keyboard. The Surface Book is for people who demand a proper notebook — one that can suffice as a tablet when the occasion calls for it.
As a notebook
With the screen attached, the Surface Book feels heavy, at least compared to other flagship Windows laptops. Whereas most of those trade on a thin and light design, Microsoft’s laptop is all about horsepower: fast performance, robust graphics and unmatched battery life. You can’t get that in a sub-three-pound laptop, at least not right now. Instead, the Surface Book comes in at 3.34 pounds, or 3.48 with a dedicated GPU. For comparison’s sake, the 13-inch Retina display MacBook Pro also weighs 3.48 pounds, except it doesn’t have a touchscreen, and isn’t offered with discrete graphics. For what it is, the Surface could have been even heavier.
As you take a tour of the device, you’ll find two full-sized USB 3.0 ports on the left side, along with a full-sized SDXC card reader. On the opposite edge is a Mini Display Port, along with the same shallow charging connector found on the Surface Pro. The power button and volume rocker are both located on the top of the screen, so that you can use them in either laptop or tablet mode.
Finishing up the show-and-tell portion of this presentation, there are speakers built into either edge of the screen, and though the grilles aren’t easy to spot, the sound they produce is louder than you might expect. Sitting alone in a quiet room, a volume level of around 30 out of 100 was more than enough for streaming Spotify; it was rare I even broke the halfway mark. Additionally, the Surface Book includes dual cameras: an 8-megapixel rear-facing unit and a 5MP one up front that supports the Windows Hello facial-recognition option in Windows 10. Both cameras shoot 1080p video, and are helped by two mics, one on each side of the tablet.
As a tablet
If the Surface Book feels slightly heavy, that’s because most of what makes it great — the optional GPU, the larger of the two batteries — is squeezed inside the keyboard. Hold down the button next to the Delete key; wait till it glows green; lift the screen away from the dock; and you’ll be left with a shockingly thin and light tablet. It’s hard not to feel awed by what Microsoft’s done here: cram a fully functioning Core i7 computer into a slab weighing just 1.6 pounds and measuring 7.7mm (0.3 inch). I’d even go so far as to say that the Surface Book does a better job doubling as a tablet than the Surface Pro does as a laptop.
What’s nice about the Surface Book’s screen-detaching mechanism is that it uses software-based controls to make sure you remove the display safely. So, if you’re running a program using the GPU in the keyboard dock, the Surface Book will prompt you to close out of the app; otherwise you won’t be able to remove the screen. When it comes time to reattach the display, you can put it back the way you found it, or you can flip it around with the screen facing away from the keyboard. This is great for presentations, but I don’t recommend pushing the display all the way back into tablet mode — why settle for a three-and-a-half pound tablet when you can have a 1.6-pound one? If you’re wondering, this is also why the Surface Book lacks the sort of 360-degree hinge made popular by Lenovo’s Yoga line: It would solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist on this device.
Reattaching the screen isn’t hard, exactly: Just place the tablet over a few guides sticking up from the keyboard dock. I stumbled my first few times doing it, but it’s since become second nature. The only thing I miss is the satisfying click of snapping a Surface into its keyboard cover, but even then, the Surface Book makes a neat little sound to indicate you’ve reattached the screen correctly.
Keyboard and trackpad
I typed most of this review on the Surface Book. In between, when I wasn’t concentrating so much on the task at hand, I used the laptop as my primary machine for email, web surfing, Facebook, Twitter, Google spreadsheets, Slack and every other app I use every day. I think it’s a testament to the Surface Book that I was so willing to make it my daily driver, and the keyboard layout here is definitely a big part of that. The buttons are well-spaced and cushy, with a generous 1.6mm of travel and a sturdy panel that stands up well to vigorous typing. I worried, when I saw the device for the first time, that the keys weren’t springy enough; that they didn’t bounce back much, and might be prone to missing button presses. As it turns out, that hasn’t been an issue — I barely make typos on this thing.
If anything, I wish the keys were quieter. I type quickly, especially once I’ve found my writer’s mojo, and when that happened this week, my typing on the Surface Book got a little clacky. To be fair, it’s no louder than the MacBook, which can also get noisy when I’m on a roll.
As you’d expect of a laptop made by Microsoft, the Surface Book uses one of the company’s own “Precision” touchpads, which you can already find in notebooks made by other manufacturers, like Dell . It’s already the best Windows trackpad, and it mostly works well here, with smooth two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom for things like maps and fine-print pages. As a warning, there were a few times when I booted up the system only to find the touchpad was unresponsive. In each case, a restart did the trick, but a Microsoft rep said the company is aware of the problem and is planning to release a fix through a firmware update. Indeed, I was testing pre-production-level hardware, so there’s a good chance you won’t encounter this issue at all.
The Surface Book has an unusual screen size: 13.5 inches, with an equally odd resolution of 3,000 x 2,000. Microsoft could have easily gone with a more standard cut, like 13.3 inches, but it chose a slightly larger panel so that it could achieve the same 3:2 aspect ratio as its other Surface devices — the idea being that in tablet mode the screen would have the same shape as a pad of paper or a clipboard. In fact, that’s what Microsoft calls the detached screen: not a tablet, but a “clipboard.”
Marketing speak aside, that aspect ratio is one of the things that makes the Surface Book so comfortable to use as a standalone slate: It’s not as long in either portrait or landscape mode. If you like, you can also draw on it, using the included pen, which attaches magnetically to the side of the device. The pen now recognizes 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and has an eraser at the top, both of which should serve you well in everything from drawing apps to the markup feature in Windows Edge. In OneNote, pen input felt smooth and controlled, with just enough resistance to make it feel sort of like I was writing on paper. (Nothing can fully replicate the real deal, but this was close.) I found that the screen picked up even faint lines without me having to go back and re-trace my marks, and yet it was smart enough to ignore my fingers when I was just picking up the device in my hand.
Microsoft rates the Surface Book for up to 12 hours of battery life with the keyboard dock attached. I’d say that’s a conservative estimate: I logged nearly 14 hours on the integrated-graphics model, and that was with a 1080p video looping and the brightness fixed at a punishing 65 percent. Even the configuration with a Core i7 CPU and discrete graphics managed 11 and a half hours in the same test, and that’s on par with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which doesn’t have discrete graphics. Either way, I have no doubt that with a dimmer setting (not to mention the ambient brightness sensor enabled), you could squeeze out even more runtime.
The catch is that most of that battery capacity lives inside the keyboard dock, meaning you won’t be able to use the Surface Book for more than a few hours in tablet mode before needing a trip back to the charger. With a Core i5 processor, the tablet lasted a brief three hours and 20 minutes; with a more power-hungry i7 chip, that number dropped to three hours.
In any case, I suppose none of this is surprising: It’s a 1.6-pound tablet with a Core processor and a 3,000 x 2,000 screen. Something has to give, and that something is battery life. I won’t knock the Surface Book too much for that, but I would remind you to see this for what it is: a laptop that can be used as a tablet. If what you really want is a tablet that can replace your laptop, you’d be better served by the Surface Pro.