Marvellous in metal: Microsoft’s Surface Book reviewed
4.4Overall Score
Price (RRP): $2299 (starting price); Review model was $4199 Manufacturer: Microsoft

Microsoft’s Surface series of computers have always been something a little different, representing the next generation of tablet computing. But it has never really had a proper computer, until now, that is.

A little different from the ordinary Surface, Microsoft’s Surface Book takes one part Surface with all the computer parts in the tablet section and pairs it with a keyboard of a different sort. Specifically, this keyboard is one of the proper metal kinds, and that’s not all that lurks underneath here.

No, more than just a physical keyboard for your Surface tablet, the Surface Book aims to be a fully fledged computer, with a fast processor, a decent amount of storage, and more ports than the one USB a standard Surface Pro 4 tablet offers.

Is this the ultimate modern Windows PC?

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Specs and features

While it might be the first time Microsoft has made an actual laptop, this isn’t the big M’s first rodeo when it comes to building computer. We’ve already seen quite a few models with the Surface name thus far, and so it’s probably safe to say Microsoft kind of knows what it should be throwing into a computer at this point in time.

So what is inside this one? Mostly what you’d expect, with a similar set of specs and innards to Microsoft’s other Surface for this year, the Surface Pro 4.

Inside that display section — because that’s where everything is — Microsoft has featured pretty much a “best of” show for modern laptop design, bringing in an Intel Core i5 or i7 from the sixth-generation of Core technology, also known as “Skylake”.

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Depending on the configuration you opt for, this will be paired with 8GB or 16GB RAM, and a solid-state drive of either 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB storage.

Video will generally be provided by the Intel chipset, but you can splurge, if you want, and go for a discrete video card option, which will include an unspecified Nvidia GeForce chipset in the keyboard section.

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Connection options are pretty much par for the course when it comes to a flagship computer, so expect an 802.11ac WiFi connection that is backwards compatible with existing 802.11a/b/g/n technologies, Bluetooth 4.0, and a few wired options, too, such as Mini DisplayPort, two USB 3.0, and a full size SD card slot. Strangely, there is no Type C USB or Thunderbolt 3.

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Two cameras can also be found here, with an 8 megapixel rear camera on the tablet section while the front relies on a 5 megapixel module, both of which can grab Full HD video.

The screen covering most of this technology is one of Microsoft’s “PixelSense” displays, just like it relied on with the Surface Pro 4, which is a stack of technologies including a high resolution screen, the screen controller, the way the pen will talk to the screen, and one of the thinnest sheets of Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass.

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From a spec point of view, however, the actual screen is set to a 3000×2000 display size with an aspect ratio of 3:2 and supporting of 10-point multi-touch, not to mention the specialised pen it arrives with that can apply up to 1024 levels of pressure.

Speakers sit on either side of the screen, providing front-facing stereo sound.

Two batteries are technically found in the Surface Book, with a small up to three hour battery in the tablet section, while up to nine hours are theoretically possible from the battery in the keyboard section. Together, this suggests up to 12 hours are possible from the entire Microsoft Surface Book package.

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Design

Microsoft’s design of the Surface Book is a little different from its Surface Pro, and that’s because the form factor isn’t about the tablet in this model, but about the machine.

Remember that whole laptop concept Microsoft was seemingly trying to escape from in the Surface design? Well, it’s back, and part of the reason seems to stem from the keyboard, as Microsoft’s user base has been asking for a firmer and better keyboard, and more ports.

With a laptop base, Microsoft can take its Surface design and throw them together, which is exactly what it has done.

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On the Surface Book, you’ll find Microsoft’s signature “VaporMg” magnesium case making an appearance on both the top and bottom — the keyboard base and the screen section — with slightly more firmed up monotone aesthetics across the board.

The bottom section has a slight curve to the framing around the keyboard, something you can feel when you touch the sides, but for the most part it’s just a metal gray slab revealing your two USB 3.0 ports on the left alongside a full-size SD card slot and then the Mini DisplayPort and Surface proprietary charge port on the right. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

At the keyboard level, it’s your typical full-size keyboard set out in island-key style, with individual backlit keys offering three stages of lighting and then off. Oh, and there’s a gesture-capable touchpad, too.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Screen and display

Like the MacBook Pro, there is a lovely high-resolution screen here, and boy is it impressive. It’s the first thing you notice when you start really getting to use the computer, aside for that excellent keyboard, and the display is quite lovely.

Sharp and clear, this is without doubt one of the best screens we’ve seen on any laptop. It’s bright, it’s beautiful, and it’s hard to imagine why we put up with such mediocre screen quality for as long as we did when you see this one.

Interestingly, it’s also a little sharper than Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, though the difference in pixel sizes are more of a pointless fight than anything that’ll matter to anyone’s eyes, especially when you factor viewing distance of laptops into the fray.

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To make this even sharper, Microsoft has provided a rather unusual resolution of 3000×2000, something you won’t find anywhere else, even on its Surface Pro 4, and this is why the machine is so sharp.

That size gives it away that you’re viewing this at a 3:2 aspect ratio, different from the 16:9 and 16:10 we so commonly see on laptops, and even a little different from the 4:3 used on the iPad.

As such, this is a screen that offers a very interesting size difference from many of its PC counterparts, with the whole display ratio feeling more balanced, offering a good width and height overall.

Helping this is the 267 pixels per inch count, telling you just how sharp this is, especially when Apple’s Retina technology on its comparable MacBook Pro 13 is set to 227 pixels per inch allowing Microsoft to basically fire a fantastically precise warning shot off the bow of Apple’s “Retina” screen technology, because this is pretty much as good as it gets on the PC side of things.

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Battery life

The screen is even useful when you detach, offering a 13.5 tablet that doesn’t feel much heavier than an iPad Air 2, with a battery life of its own.

You’ve already read that the Surface Book arrives with a keyboard section, and that area isn’t just to offer one of the nicest PC keyboards we’ve seen in years. No, it’s also here to hide a battery. A very big battery.

When you end up using the Surface Book, Windows 10 pops up with information that you’re charging two batteries, with a note for “Battery 1” and another for “Battery 2”.

Battery 1 is the one inside the laptop, and this is rated for up to 9 hours, a result we’ll debunk shortly. In the screen and spec area, you’ll find Battery 2.

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With the two areas connected, you’ll see the two batteries charging together when they’re plugged in to charge, and when disconnected, they’ll discharge together gradually.

But when you take the screen off from the body, the display switches to Battery 2, offering as much as three hours, though we found it’s closer to two in our tests.

In theory, the two batteries should together offer as much as 12 hours of life in laptop mode, but none of our tests proved this was remotely possible, at least with current firmware.

In fact, our tests revealed closer to six or seven hours in general use, which isn’t far off what the Surface Pro 4 can do, albeit with a little less power.

We might be seeing a massive difference, mind you, from the regular Intel Core-based Surface Book and the one with an Nvidia GPU inside. It’s not hard to imagine the discrete graphics chip working a little harder due to that massive amount of performance is probably pushes out, but even when it’s not in use, it still feels like it might be there, working away and causing the battery to reduce.

And we can’t get away from that niggling feeling because when you hold a working Surface Book, it’s impossible not to notice the heat.

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The heat is on

While the heat isn’t super noticeable at the bottom (it’s there, but the magnesium casing doesn’t seem to throw it back against your skin like some other case materials do), the design of the Microsoft Surface Book and the throwing of all of its major components in the tablet section still produces a ton of heat at the back of the screen.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the machine ran cool, but it doesn’t do that. Rather, this is one hot sucker, with the back and middle of the tablet — one of the areas you’ll probably hold the laptop — feeling a little like a hot coal in your hands.

Pick up the laptop while it’s on and the machine is likely hot to the touch, with the metallic and reflective Windows logo on the back of the display one of the hottest sections temperature-wise, and it pretty much always stays that way.

Often, when we had collapsed the Surface Book, we found it was still firing its fan up and not just releasing sound, but trying to cool the hot processor, even though the machine had been collapsed and should have been on standby.

Standby should mean no sound, and no processing. Maybe for something light, but not a system hog, and yet this wasn’t doing what we expected.

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We’d fold the Surface Book up and expect it to go on standby, packing it in our bag, only to find when we pulled it out an hour later, it had been turning the inside of our backpack to a sauna thanks to the hot rocks soaring temperatures it had been pushing out.

Why is this particular issue happening?

We couldn’t tell you, but we suspect that many of the bug fixes for the Surface Book have been rushed to complete a first-generation product, because while Microsoft has nailed aspects of its design, the stability in system heat and battery usage leaves something to be desired.

One example of this comes in the form of the connection from the keyboard to the tablet, which as we’ve previously noted is a rather interesting blend of a pulley and lock mechanic on top of a set of magnets. It’s quite intelligent, but it comes with the downside of needing Windows to switch over to a different driver, a great solution, though one that software can get wrong.

Earlier, we mentioned some of the driver issues, and in action, what this can lead to is some incompatibility. Basically, if you have an application like Photoshop open, you see some glitching, with this sometimes leading to crashing.

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Going beyond these issues, we’ve even found sometimes that the lock mechanism for the tablet doesn’t always engage on the software level, disconnecting virtually but still remaining connected, which tends to be fine after a computer restart, but still cements that realisation that this whole thing feels a little rushed.

Mind you, in the days since we started writing this review, there have been quite a few updates on a regular basis. We’d even say there has been an update once a day, if not once every two days, and some of these glitches appear to be stable at least for now.

There is occasionally a loss of a mouse, because even if you start the machine up from cold, it can still load without the mouse attached to the computer. Consider it a good thing you get a touchscreen and a pen when that happens.

At least the lock mechanism appears to be good at the moment, and when we weren’t using WiFi, we even saw the suggested battery life reach nine hours one day, faring better than the six we were previously seeing.

But that whole standby heat issue, that is still there, and when you collapse the Surface Book, make sure it’s either cooling down when you do or shut down, because this appears to be one of those bugs Microsoft is having trouble fixing, at least at this point in the review.

The tablet separates at this section, but if you want to, you can charge it at this port, too.

The tablet separates at this section, but if you want to, you can charge it at this port, too.

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Conclusion

Despite some of the problems the Surface Book offers, it’s clear that it has a lot going for it, with a solid build quality, excellent specs, and a sense of integrity few machines have imparted onto them.

It does need work, and we suspect the system updates will address these concerns, and Microsoft will likely be on them quickly.

But when it does all get ironed out, Microsoft may have a fantastic MacBook Pro competitor Windows users will be itching to buy. Recommended.

Marvellous in metal: Microsoft’s Surface Book reviewed
Price (RRP): $2299 (starting price); Review model was $4199 Manufacturer: Microsoft
Excellent screen; Enough ports to satisfy a computer owner; Hybrid connectivity is very interesting; Solid performance (generally) with an option for a discrete graphics chip and a large amount of memory; Great keyboard with a soft and lovely click to it; Lovely little trackpad mouse;
Thick in comparison to some of the computers it competes against; Hinge is a little odd, and thick enough to elicit a feeling that the Surface Book comes from 2010; No USB Type C or Thunderbolt 3 port; Battery life is all over shop; Can be very buggy; Casing is still easy to scratch;
Overall
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4.4Overall Score
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