Marvellous in metal: Microsoft’s Surface Book reviewed

Tablet to laptop to tablet again

Here lies the greatest trick of the Surface Book: you can turn it into a tablet very quickly.

Much like other hybrids out there, Microsoft has thrown in a mechanism to separate the tablet section from the keyboard, and like those other hybrids, that tells you most of the main technology is in the screen section. We’re talking processor, memory, storage, and so on, and that means you’re basically working on a tablet connected to big keyboard.


To separate them, however, you have to tell the Surface Book that you’re going to do this so it can disengage its lock mechanism, which is what keeps the two parts held together so well. You’re also doing this to prepare the Windows drivers in case anything goes wrong, showing that yes, something different is indeed happening in comparison to those “other hybrids” we mentioned earlier.

So to make the separation, you’ll be asked to either press a button on the keyboard, or select an icon on the Windows taskbar. They both look the same and basically consist of a box with an arrow in it facing up on top of a line, which is supposed to imply “screen being lifted from the body”.


Hold the button down and the light on it will switch on, changing from red to green when it’s finally ready, which you’ll know anyway when you hear a loud click, which is the system disengaging its kind-of-pulley mechanism inside the screen that holds the display so tight.

Your keyboard will stop working, too, and depending on which version of the Surface Book you have, this means you’ll also lose out on high-end graphics, because at least one of the variants of Surface Book arrives with an Nvidia GPU, providing graphical prowess if you need some. This graphics chip isn’t in the tablet, though, and is only there when docked, so when you unclip the tablet, you lose out.


For the most part, undocking the tablet is fairly straight forward, though we have seen some bugs, which predominantly pop up when an app is loaded that might be using the graphics chip, such as Photoshop or Steam.

Hopefully they’ll be ironed out in time, because the idea of a forced driver change is actually an intelligent solution to disconnected computer parts.

Performance and use

Regardless of if the display is connected or not, the Surface Book generally handles its own, showing just what Intel’s sixth-generation Core processors (“Skylake”) can really do.

Just like the Surface Pro 4, we found Windows Hello worked a treat, offering a depth-sensitive camera for easy login that worked super quickly almost every single time regardless of lighting conditions, and most of the regular Office and productivity usage scenarios we threw the way of the Surface Book were handled without any issues, resulting in fairly speedy app jumping, solid web browsing, and overall decent performance.

The model Microsoft let us review on was fairly well spec’d, even providing that Nvidia processor which interestingly Microsoft doesn’t let you find the chip variant of easily. Digging a bit, it seems like what we may be seeing is a deviation on a mid-range processor, something like the 940M, but modified due to how Microsoft has had to separate the components, almost like an external graphics amplifier, though not quite the same.


Even separating the display from the body didn’t do much to diminish the performance, though without a wired keyboard, you’re only going to be holding the Surface Book for some light tablet usage, and that’s kind of the point with this one.

While the tablet of the Surface Pro 4 was about integrating a tablet in your life, the Surface Book is for those casual scenarios where you’d like a tablet, but think that the majority of your computer usage will probably be done in a laptop clamshell form-factor, with a decent keyboard, more performance, and probably better battery life.

Essentially, the Surface Book is for the more power hungry PC users who isn’t sure if they’ll need a tablet, so this works as the best of a Surface Pro 4 without the stand or pin connections for the soft Type Cover keyboard.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

While the Pro 4 has been compared to the MacBook Air — it’s obvious competition on specs despite the two being totally different — the Surface Book is more likely to compete with the MacBook Pro, because the similar powerhouse specs and high-res screen make the two very easy to compare.

Microsoft Surface Book on the left, Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Retina (2015) on the right.
Microsoft Surface Book on the left, Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Retina (2015) on the right.