Marvellous in metal: Microsoft’s Surface Book reviewed

Then there’s the display, and this connects to the Surface Book by way of a rather interesting hinge. Forget the basic connected hinge all laptops have used, because Microsoft’s is a little different.

Similar to a watch strap, Microsoft is relying on a series of interconnected elements — three of them — connecting the display mount to the laptop.

These little elements fold over in much the same way as a metal watch strap, piece by piece, and give the Surface Book a little more balance than your ordinary tablet-mount would have on another laptop.


In testing, this hinge really appears to make the machine stay balanced, and while lap typing normally reveals machines would topple over, the Surface Book stays, cementing the reason why Microsoft went this route.

Further to that, Microsoft isn’t just relying on magnets for its physical keyboard mechanism, which has been a great way for the Surface Pro’s flexible keyboard to work, but it probably wouldn’t be strong enough.

Instead, the Surface Book also relies on a muscle wire locking mechanism, so when you lock the screen into place, a wire inside the display on either side literally locks the tablet section into place.


When you want to unlock the tablet from the body, you need to press a button either in software or on the keyboard, and this will disengage the muscle wire lock, disconnecting the two parts from each other so you can pull them apart. Try to do it normally and you’ll just lift the laptop as one, or worse, if you do it too hard, damaging the laptop.

Keep in mind that despite there being a keyboard section, the majority of the parts needed to make the Surface Book a computer you’ll use are in the screen section, because that not only houses the display but also the Intel processor, the solid-state storage, the memory, and so on.

Aesthetically, that display section is more of your typical magnesium grey slate, and like its Surface Pro 4 cousin, even sports a magnetic strip on the left side.


Connected as one, the machine looks like a slightly more muted equivalent of what the Apple MacBook Pro is, but disconnected, you get a fairly balanced clipboard style tablet with a few hours of battery life by itself.

One point worth knowing is what the hinge does when you collapse the laptop.

When the screen is folded down and collapsed the way most of us do when we store it, you’ll find it curls over the keyboard, allowing the screen to sit above the keys and not make those annoying key marks so many computers now include as a feature, because a cloth doesn’t always do this justice.

Unfortunately, it also has the tendency to blow out the thickness of the laptop, and in an age where thickness tends to denote modern design, the hinge element of the Surface Book can make this otherwise perfectly modern machine feel more like it belongs out of 2010.


Keyboard, mouse, and pen

Let’s talk about the keyboard, because this has been a complicated area for Microsoft.

Over the years, Microsoft is one of the few companies that has gone out of its way to make keyboards. Even before this writer was a journalist, Microsoft was producing keyboards, and he recalls one of the first lovely keyboards that he ever owned was a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard.

It was well spaced, solid as, and a lovely little thing to type on, and that expertise going back all those years has, in theory, landed Microsoft the ability to create some truly excellent keyboards.

In fact, over the few years we’ve been reviewing Surface computers, it’s been easy to see that experience pushing itself to the unusual flat yet comfortable and highly adaptable fabric keyboards of the Surface Pro computers.

Except durability hasn’t been on Microsoft’s side, and some users — this writer included — have been churning through keyboards, usually at a rate of a good 200,000 to 300,000 words.

To put that into perspective, we do that word count in three to four months without fail, and this has a dramatic tendency to kill the Surface Pro keyboards, or it has in the past. We haven’t spent enough time throttling the Surface Pro 4 keyboard — it hasn’t been out long enough for us to do so — but previously, both the Pro 2 and Pro 3 Type Cover keyboards have not been able to stand up to the sort of punishment our fingers unleash.


In comparison, however, Microsoft’s Surface Book feels like it has been engineered to promote a solid typing experience over the portability, and aside for an extra battery and the possibility of a discrete graphics chip (of which our review unit featured), the magnesium keyboard section really does feel like the extension Microsoft’s Surface needed.

Typing most of our stories and reviews on it for the better part of a week, not to mention our own personal writing, the Surface Book keyboard shines, and proves that, yes, Microsoft still knows how to engineer a keyboard.


The trackpad isn’t bad either, offering a spacious touchpad beneath that space bar, complete with gestures, though Windows 10 doesn’t always know what to do with them. In fact, throughout our review, we found Chrome would occasionally throw back the two finger scrolling we were used to doing, and yet work properly when we did this on screen.

That’s a rather interesting little bug, and could be one specific to Chrome and the Surface Book mouse, so consider it a good thing you have three methods of input with the Surface Book: that touchpad, that touchscreen, and that pen sitting on the side of the computer, magnetised to the left edge.


Ah yes. That pen.

That pen is the same style that the Surface Pro 4 is equipped with, and that means it’s actually one of the better parts of the package.

Like the model that arrives with the Pro 4, this one is wireless, offers up 1024 levels of pressure, and a back button that also acts as a rubber, complete with its own level of resistance as you press against it. Microsoft even keeps the magnetic edge the same, so you can keep the pen docked with the screen thanks to a left edge strong magnet, which manages to feel even stronger than the one found on the Pro 4.

But because this is a laptop, you’re less likely to use the pen, meaning it’ll probably sit on the side of that screen for a while… except when the Surface Book isn’t working as a laptop.