Laptops

Microsoft Surface Book review: Expensive, but easily one of the best

Gizmag reviews Microsoft's outstanding (first) laptop, the Surface Book
Gizmag reviews Microsoft's outstanding (first) laptop, the Surface Book
View 16 Images
The Windows 10-running Surface Book
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The Windows 10-running Surface Book
Unlike MacBooks, you can't easily open the Surface Book by lifting one finger here
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Unlike MacBooks, you can't easily open the Surface Book by lifting one finger here
Typing is a great experience on the Surface Book
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Typing is a great experience on the Surface Book
Long-pressing a hardware key (or tapping a system tray icon) will detach the screen for Clipboard Mode
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Long-pressing a hardware key (or tapping a system tray icon) will detach the screen for Clipboard Mode
Removing the screen for clipboard mode
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Removing the screen for clipboard mode
Gizmag reviews Microsoft's outstanding (first) laptop, the Surface Book
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Gizmag reviews Microsoft's outstanding (first) laptop, the Surface Book
Reversing the screen for stand mode
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Reversing the screen for stand mode
Since the bigger battery is in the keyboard, the Surface Book feels very light (for its size) in tablet mode
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Since the bigger battery is in the keyboard, the Surface Book feels very light (for its size) in tablet mode
Sharp 13.5-inch display, magnesium build
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Sharp 13.5-inch display, magnesium build
The included Surface Pen works great with Windows 10's handwriting recognition
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The included Surface Pen works great with Windows 10's handwriting recognition
No separate accessories required for this purchase: screen, keyboard and pen are all sold as one
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No separate accessories required for this purchase: screen, keyboard and pen are all sold as one
The keyboard base without the screen
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The keyboard base without the screen
Ignore this estimate: with brightness set fairly high, clipboard mode can only last an hour or two
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Ignore this estimate: with brightness set fairly high, clipboard mode can only last an hour or two
Magnesium build of the Surface Book
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Magnesium build of the Surface Book
The Surface Book is expensive, starting at $1,499
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The Surface Book is expensive, starting at $1,499
Flipping the screen around for Lightroom in stand mode
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Flipping the screen around for Lightroom in stand mode

For the first three generations, "Microsoft Surface" meant a Windows-running tablet with a snap-on keyboard that turns it into a laptop. But today that Surface definition has expanded, now including a new device where the tablet part takes a backseat. Though it costs a pretty penny, the Surface Book is one badass laptop.

Unlike the Surface Book, Microsoft's Surface Pro series walks a tightrope, trying to balance the strengths of tablets and laptops at the same time. Though Microsoft has done a great job minimizing the compromise in that approach, some tradeoffs are inevitable.

But the Surface Book? First and foremost, this is a great Windows 10 laptop. It's the first Surface that feels 100 percent uncompromised as a notebook.

Sharp 13.5-inch display, magnesium build
Sharp 13.5-inch display, magnesium build

It does requires one big compromise – you can only use it as a tablet in short bursts – but the Surface Book also makes for a surprisingly good tablet, thanks to Microsoft's battery setup.

The main (bigger) battery lives inside of the device's keyboard, so when you're in laptop mode you get the long battery life you'd expect from a modern high-end notebook. But there's also a second (smaller) battery hiding inside the screen. With the press of a button, you can detach the screen for what Microsoft calls Clipboard Mode.

Long-pressing a hardware key (or tapping a system tray icon) will detach the screen for Clipboard Mode
Long-pressing a hardware key (or tapping a system tray icon) will detach the screen for Clipboard Mode

Since the bigger battery is in the keyboard, the Surface Book feels very light (for its size) in tablet mode
Since the bigger battery is in the keyboard, the Surface Book feels very light (for its size) in tablet mode

In case you're confused, "Clipboard Mode" is the same as "tablet mode." We're guessing Microsoft changed the term here to lower expectations. Tablet batteries are supposed to last all day long, so the company needed a new word for a huge tablet you can only use in short bursts. "Clipboard" works as well as anything.

The Surface Book's 13.5-inch display is a great all-purpose size for a laptop, but it also works well for an oversized slate. It has sharp 267 PPI resolution, and (unlike past Surfaces) doesn't lose its crispness when you move in closer for tablet mode.

That smaller battery in the screen means short battery life, but it makes the Surface Book's clipboard feel incredibly light in hand. It's much larger than the Surface Pro 4, but (sans keyboard) weighs either 6 percent lighter (compared to Core m3 Surface Pro 4) or 9 percent lighter (compared to all other SP4 models).

Bigger size and lighter weight – combined with its premium magnesium build – means it feels terrific in hand.

That short tablet battery life is going to be a bigger deal for some people than others. If you use 2-in-1s in tablet mode as much as you do laptop mode, then the Surface Book isn't for you. In clipboard mode, crank its brightness up high, and you can expect no more than 90 minutes to two hours between charges (if that).

Typing is a great experience on the Surface Book
Typing is a great experience on the Surface Book

In laptop mode, it's outstanding. The keyboard and large glass trackpad are every bit as good as what you'll find on a MacBook, and it has the bonuses of touchscreen and pen input that you won't find on any Apple-made laptop.

There's also a third mode where you can remove the Surface Book's screen and reattach it backwards. The most obvious use for this is propping the screen up to watch videos, but you can also angle it more horizontally, for artistic uses like Photoshop and Lightroom. Here the device essentially become a canvas:

Flipping the screen around for Lightroom in stand mode
Flipping the screen around for Lightroom in stand mode

Performance will vary from model to model, but in our entry-level review unit (Core i5, 8 GB RAM) we have few complaints. Early in our testing we had an issue where the fan was running non-stop, but after performing a Windows 10 refresh we managed to pin that on a misbehaving third-party app (Mailbird). After uninstalling it, there haven't been any heating issues or hurricane-strength fans.

Our Geekbench 3 runthrough has the Surface Book scoring 3,105 in single core and 6,561 in multi core – even this entry-level model is a very powerful machine. You can read the full stats of our benchmark here.

There is one persistent bug, where we intermittently get a notification saying the display driver has stopped responding. It recovers immediately every time and has yet to stop our workflow, but Microsoft would be wise to squash this bug as soon as possible.

The Windows 10-running Surface Book
The Windows 10-running Surface Book

Microsoft included a special camera in the new Surfaces that lets you log into Windows using secure facial recognition technology. This is at least as big of a deal on devices like this as fingerprint sensors have been on phones: it takes just a few seconds to set up, and after that you can securely log into your Surface just by looking at it. It takes only a second or two, has worked perfectly for us and saves you from typing your PIN or password every time you sit down.

In laptop mode, battery life is great. In our video streaming test (over Wi-Fi, with brightness at 75 percent and no major background apps running) the Surface Book only dropped 9 percent per hour – that's better than most smartphones we test. When we ran the same test on the Surface Pro 3 (right after it released in mid 2014) it dropped over 15 percent per hour.

Magnesium build of the Surface Book
Magnesium build of the Surface Book

Our only hesitation in recommending the Surface Book is its pricing: starting at US$1,499 for a 128 GB SSD, it's expensive enough to make Apple's MacBook pricing look tame by comparison. It would have been nice to see the Surface Book starting in the $1,350 range, to make it a true rival to the MacBook Pro. But, on the other hand, if that would have meant compromising any of the fine details in this beast, then we can live with that.

As it stands now, Microsoft's two 2015 flagships present you with a tough decision. You can either get the smaller Surface Pro 4, which has much better tablet battery life but is also a smaller device, or you can throw down an extra $400-500 for the Surface Book, which makes for a bigger and better laptop.

We have both new Surfaces in house and will run a full comparison post before long (and stay tuned for our full Surface Pro 4 review as well).

The Surface Book is expensive, starting at $1,499
The Surface Book is expensive, starting at $1,499

We think Microsoft knocked it out of the park with the Surface Book. It isn't for everyone, but if laptop with short bursts of tablet awesomeness sounds like something that can fit into your workflow, we think you'll be very happy.

The Surface Book is available now (though back-ordered everywhere), starting at $1,499 for this Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD model.

Product page: Microsoft

This review was updated on 11/4 to mention that the display driver bug hasn't yet been fixed.

7 comments
HansOderfest
Thanks for the article! I think it was well focused and fair. Most other articles just bash the device without giving an accurate perspective on what this device is trying to be and for whom it is perfect for. Keep up the good work!
Gizzy Magpie
Intel i5 low current (mobile) MCUs remain under-powered for all but the simplest of tasks. I might be interested if this came in a high-rank i7 model, and if Microsoft has improved the keyboard. The old surface keyboard was not designed for real-world typing.
DaveWinterbotham
I got an Asus TX300CA about 18 months ago. Better specs all round - i7, tablet mode for at least four hours, and 500GB HDD in the dock. It was a huge shame they seem to have dropped it. I think the Surface docking mechanism looks better and probabbly will last longer, but apart from that I don't really see what the fuss is about...
HimanshuSingh
A very well balanced article and I don't think there could be any debate over what is written here. It is a laptop/tablet combo that most would love to have. It is only the price that would hinder the sales, but MS is clear on their objective of making the best windows laptop there is. That it also functions as a tablet (i.e. without the keyboard) is a bonus. For those wanting to use it while waiting for their flights (or in the flight itself) can still use it by attaching it the other way round. If only I had that much money to spare I would be pretty keen to get my hands on one ASAP. but cost is indeed a BIG factor
commonsense
DaveWinterBotham, There is a version of the Surface Book with the i7 chip. The keyboard is perhaps one of the best in the market. My only complaint is that I cannot afford one. I want to get one next month but now I can only drool and hope my employer will replace the Dell laptops with one of these babies. Unlike the Dell which I leave on my desk after work, preferring my Surface Pro 3 even with a cracked screen from having dropped it a month ago, I would take the Surface Book home every night.
JermaineWalker
HimanshuSingh, with such a wealth of technology available, the pragmatist will always find a more "sensible" option. Design, handling, marketing, intangibles — there are as many reasons for fawning over pretty new devices as there are tech blogs to blog about them. For better or worse, raw specs are often overlooked these days in favor of more compelling packages like this. Such is life. For what it's worth, I do think the Surface Book is brilliant, but to each his/her own.
MiraBelko
You can’t help but love the specs. But I found the Surface Book a bit awkward while converting it from laptop to desktop mode. The older Surface tablets connect to the Type Cover keyboard via fabric hinge. It works pretty well, but there’s always a tiny bit of flex. Worse still is the kickstand, which Microsoft has never quite figured out how to prevent it from digging into your thighs. The hinge solves all that, holding the monstrous tablet securely. It doesn’t wiggle. Internal, toothlike hooks help secure the tablet to the base.