Laptops

Microsoft Surface Book vs. Surface Pro 4: Which 2-in-1 do you buy?

The Surface Book (left) and Surface Pro 4 make for a tough holiday decision – let our hands-on impressions lend a hand
The Surface Book (left) and Surface Pro 4 make for a tough holiday decision – let our hands-on impressions lend a hand
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The Surface Book (left) and Surface Pro 4 make for a tough holiday decision – let our hands-on impressions lend a hand
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The Surface Book (left) and Surface Pro 4 make for a tough holiday decision – let our hands-on impressions lend a hand
The Surface Book is primarily a laptop, while the Surface Pro 4 is more evenly balanced between laptop and tablet
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The Surface Book is primarily a laptop, while the Surface Pro 4 is more evenly balanced between laptop and tablet
Both Surfaces have premium, magnesium builds
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Both Surfaces have premium, magnesium builds
The Surface Book (left) makes for a bigger tablet, but it's lighter in tablet mode
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The Surface Book (left) makes for a bigger tablet, but it's lighter in tablet mode
Surface Pro 4
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Surface Pro 4
The Surface Book's battery setup dictates that it will be more laptop than tablet
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The Surface Book's battery setup dictates that it will be more laptop than tablet
Stand mode, which is great for watching video or editing photos, on the SP4
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Stand mode, which is great for watching video or editing photos, on the SP4
Before you can detach the Surface Book's "Clipboard," you'll need to either long-press a keyboard key or click on a Windows system tray icon
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Before you can detach the Surface Book's "Clipboard," you'll need to either long-press a keyboard key or click on a Windows system tray icon
The Surface Pro 4's smaller screen makes it slightly inferior sitting on a desk
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The Surface Pro 4's smaller screen makes it slightly inferior sitting on a desk
Surface Pro 4 in tablet mode, with the included Surface Pen
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Surface Pro 4 in tablet mode, with the included Surface Pen
Surface Book
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Surface Book
The Surface Pro 4 lets you stash its pen on the left or right (and one side of the pen is flat, so it's unlikely to fall off either device)
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The Surface Pro 4 lets you stash its pen on the left or right (and one side of the pen is flat, so it's unlikely to fall off either device)
The Surface Pro 4 is comfortable on lap
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The Surface Pro 4 is comfortable on lap
Removing the Surface Book's screen
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Removing the Surface Book's screen
Both devices have excellent keyboards and large, glass touchpads
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Both devices have excellent keyboards and large, glass touchpads
The smaller and lighter Surface Pro 4 is the better portable option
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The smaller and lighter Surface Pro 4 is the better portable option
Surface Book
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Surface Book
Surface Pro 4
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Surface Pro 4
Surface Book's Clipboard Mode is awesome, but short on battery life
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Surface Book's Clipboard Mode is awesome, but short on battery life
The three parts to the Surface Book
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The three parts to the Surface Book
The Surface Book's keyboard base is much bigger and heavier than the SP4's Type Cover
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The Surface Book's keyboard base is much bigger and heavier than the SP4's Type Cover
Battery life is good, and about equal, on both devices
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Battery life is good, and about equal, on both devices
Profile of the Surface Book
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Profile of the Surface Book
The Surface Book starts at $1,499
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The Surface Book starts at $1,499
Lightroom editing in stand mode (which requires removing and reattaching the screen) on the Surface Book
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Lightroom editing in stand mode (which requires removing and reattaching the screen) on the Surface Book
Surface Pro 4
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Surface Pro 4
Key advantages for each model
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Key advantages for each model

Microsoft's new Surfaces are awesome, but maybe you aren't sure which one to go with? We have both the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book in house right now; let's see if we can help you figure out which model is better for you.

The answer depends largely on how you use a 2-in-1 PC. If you think you'll spend most of your time in laptop mode, and you don't mind spending more cash upfront, then go with the Surface Book. But if you use a 2-in-1 in tablet mode for, let's say, at least a third of your time – or if you just want to keep the cost down – then you'll probably be very happy with the Surface Pro 4.

Where you use it can make a difference too. When using the two devices on a desk, we prefer the Surface Book, thanks to its 21 percent bigger screen. They're both fine on lap, but there we prefer the smaller, less bottom-heavy Surface Pro 4.

The Surface Pro 4 is comfortable on lap
The Surface Pro 4 is comfortable on lap

As a tablet, we love the Surface Book's form factor. It makes for a huge slate, but feels incredibly light in hand: it's 9 percent lighter than the Core i5 and i7 Surface Pro 4, despite being a much bigger tablet.

But there's a very good reason that the Surface Book feels so light as a tablet: there's not much battery in there. Microsoft put two batteries inside the Book and only the smaller one lives in the screen. As a laptop, it has great battery life; but as a tablet, you can only count on an hour or two of use between charges (maybe more, but we like to crank the brightness up almost all the way).

That's probably why Microsoft is avoiding the word "tablet" when describing the Surface Book, and instead calling it "Clipboard Mode." We've all been trained to expect day-long battery life from a tablet, but a "Clipboard" PC? Nobody knows what the hell that is, so it can last as long as Microsoft says it does.

Surface Book's Clipboard Mode is awesome, but short on battery life
Surface Book's Clipboard Mode is awesome, but short on battery life

Let's rewind a bit and run through the two different form factors:

Surface Pro 4
Surface Pro 4

The Surface Pro 4 is like older Surfaces, where the device itself is a tablet and its laptop mode only comes into play when you flip out its kickstand and snap on a thin, detachable keyboard accessory. This makes it a little thicker and heavier as a tablet, because that's where its battery (and everything else) lives. But it also means its battery life is going to be the same no matter how you're using it.

Surface Book
Surface Book

The Surface Book, which is more like a traditional laptop, flips that around. Its larger battery and, in the higher-end models, discrete Nvidia graphics live inside its bigger keyboard base station. When you're ready to use it as a tablet, you long-press on a key (or just click an icon in the Windows system tray) and it will then let you slide its screen off for some "Clipboard" action. Until you do that, though, that screen is staying put.

Put even more simply, the Surface Pro 4 is a tablet with a snap-on keyboard. The Surface Book is a laptop with a slide-off screen. They're each sitting on opposite ends of the 2-in-1 see-saw.

Surface Pro 4 in tablet mode, with the included Surface Pen
Surface Pro 4 in tablet mode, with the included Surface Pen

Both include Microsoft's Surface Pen in the box. The latest model has great pressure sensitivity and palm rejection, and Windows 10 lets you do more without having the keyboard attached. When you need to type a little something and you're in tablet mode, no need to reattach the keyboard: just scribble your words using Windows' excellent handwriting recognition.

You'll still want to bust out the keyboard for longer-form writing, but for a quick search or email reply (or, in our case, even some article edits), handwriting will do just fine.

Both Surfaces have premium, magnesium builds
Both Surfaces have premium, magnesium builds

Build quality is top-notch on both devices. They have similar magnesium builds, and feel just as premium as any Apple device does. Microsoft was a little slow adjusting to this new world we live in, where high-end Apple products often set the tone for the rest of the industry, but now Redmond is making lust-worthy products of its own and playing that game as well as anyone – including Apple.

Screen quality is awesome on both devices, with the same crisp (267 PPI) pixel density. Text and images look razor-sharp in both laptop mode and tablet mode.

Typing is a pleasure on both Surfaces – both have snappy-feeling keys and big glass trackpads. The Surface Book has that thicker, wider and heavier base, but I love rapping out articles on the Surface Pro 4 just about as well. Consider this, if anything, a slight advantage for the Book.

Performance will depend on which model you go with. Our Core i5 review units benchmarked about the same in Geekbench 3, despite the entry-level Book having double the RAM. If you buy one of the higher-end Surface Books with discrete GPU, you'll get an extra graphics boost for games and graphic-intensive apps like Photoshop or Lightroom (though, for what it's worth, the Core i5, integrated GPU models of both devices handle Photoshop and Lightroom just fine). No models of the SP4 give you a discrete GPU option.

For most shoppers we'd recommend skipping the entry-level (Core m3) Surface Pro 4 and going with at least the second-tier Core i5 model. That m3 model is fanless, but it's also about 25 percent slower. We think the i5's raw power boost is easily worth US$100.

Battery life is good, and about equal, on both devices
Battery life is good, and about equal, on both devices

Our review units' battery life has been good, and our tests came out a draw for both devices. When streaming video with brightness set at 75 percent, they each dropped just 9 percent per hour. Just remember that's only for laptop mode on the Surface Book.

The Surface Book (left) makes for a bigger tablet, but it's lighter in tablet mode
The Surface Book (left) makes for a bigger tablet, but it's lighter in tablet mode

If we had to pick an absolute "better" device, we'd go with the Surface Book – I personally prefer its bigger screen and lighter tablet mode sitting on my desk – but the Surface Pro 4 is an excellent product in its own right, and once you take pricing into account the SP4 looks better and better. In many ways it's the same machine, just a little smaller, a little more tablet-y and more than a little cheaper.

Your question isn't just whether the Surface Book is better, it's whether it's $370 better – that's the price difference between the nearly equivalent Core i5/128GB SSD models we handled.

Key advantages for each model
Key advantages for each model

If you're still stumped, you can check out Gizmag's features and specs comparison between the two, as well as our individual reviews of the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4.

6 comments
subdude
Invested $2,400 so far into i5, case, docking station, 2 adapters, subscription to Office 2016 and a couple software packages required for my business. I've had it for two weeks. My intent is / was to replace my laptop as I mainly use Outlook, web browsing, Word and a little xcel and Powerpoint.Crashes once a day - had to use recovery code once. Outlook crashes 2 - 3x per day (subscribed to Office 2016). I keep my company provided Dell by my desk as backup for crashes. No one has documented that the mobile version of OneNote is what you get when you "click" the stylus. The mobile version is light on features, but syncs with the full version if you have it, so you do get the full feature set, enabling you to convert hand writing to text (though with not great "recognition"). If you listen to the support people, they either don't understand or think there's a bug. Very hard to find advice on dealing with any of this as the help desk doesn't know the nuances (spent 2+ hours on phone and in store on OneNote - phone support knew nothing, store said it was a known issue and in fact, it's not an issue. I don't have time to find the sites where people are complaining to catch everyone up. I've told several people in support about this but none showed interest in documenting the solution / information for others. Once in tablet mode I couldn't type in my e-mail password - had to plug into keyboard to do it. Another time, it stopped recognizing my touch until I plugged the keyboard back in. Voice recognition is spotty, though great potential to use voice to control the machine. A 2016 problem: you can't open xcel files and most Word files sent to you by people using earlier versions (which is everyone). What all this points out is you just have to live with lack of support as a result of being an early adopter. Responded to a survey and got a note from support offering to call me - I gave them time windows over 2 days but no call. Windows 10 plus Office 2016 plus Surface Pro 4 = a very small population of users to shake this thing down.It has great promise to be "the" laptop replacement and kicks Apple clearly with the multi-app, extended screen capabilities.
CaseyScott
Thanks Will! Your article was very helpful, but I'm still really on the fence about which of these devices will be my next machine. Could Gizmag do a comparison test with these and the Microsoft Hub? I was hoping to use the Surface (Pro or Book) as the "brain" of a multi-monitor setup. Which would be the better option there? For reference, I'm a pastor, and I use Logos Bible Software daily. No major graphics need there (I don't do Photoshop or video editing), but LOTS of data. Other than that, basic web browsing and word processing are the main uses I give a computer. Thanks!
JoanYeagerBoudreau
Good article, but I, too, am still not sure which route to go, Book or Pro. I am a Realtor and for the most part, I will have it connected to a docking station and use it with my samsung display. But, I want to be able to take it with me for client presentations, signatures on contracts, etc. I think I am leaning towards the Pro because of price, battery life as a tablet, and lighter and easier to carry around with me. Any additional thoughts or input would be much appreciated. Thank you. - Joan
ATEdge
When I was shopping about to upgrade my tablet, I too was at a crossroads between the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book. For my price range, I either could go with the Surface Pro 4 i7/256GB SSD/16GB RAM model (plus the new docking hub, new type cover, and extended warranty from Micro Center) or the Surface Book i7/8GB RAM/256GB SSD (without the docking hub and extended warranty) or the Surface Book i5/256GB SSD/8GB RAM (with the docking hub and extended warranty). My line of profession is video production and photography. So the the Surface Book should have been the sure-shot. But after very hard and painful deliberation, I was honest with myself and purchased the SP4 i7/16GB RAM/256SSD with the docking hub and and Keyboard Cover. The reason for this being (a)I prefer editing on my desktop pc with 48gb of ram / over 20tb HDD space/ i7 processor and 6 monitors. (b) If I edit on the road, it's very very minor, but I can usually call in the edits to my office and have the changes uploaded online to download (c)I can't live without Micro Center's accidental warranty protection. If anything were to happen to my device, they' attempt to fix it. If they can't, I get a gift card for the full price of what I spent on the device. (d)I always multitask with my windows and I rather have 16GB of ram for multitasking between my adobe products and video editing products. Another reason I chose the SP4 over the SB is that, well, the Pro has been around for 4 generations now and the Book is just making its debut. I want to wait and see what happens down the road.
alle016905
Dear Will, I'm writing from ITALY, where SP4 is available and SB will arrive in spring, so for me is difficult to decide now if to buy SP4 or wait SB. (both i7 256gb) i will use the new device how desktop pc in office using 1 or 2 external monitor 24", keyboard wireless, and I will bring it at home every day. Of course sometimes i will use it how tablet or clipboard in offIce and at home. Could you give me your opinion for the best choose? Thanks very much
ZachMarley
I am going to comment as some of he above replies are asking a question about which device and I have had both the surface Pro 3 and the Book. For the Pastor and the realtor, I think the Surface Pro 4 is the way to go. I do not think the larger screen is going to be an advantage for you and I also do not need the much better keyboard of the surface book. I travel on Airplanes and use my unit remotely most of the time and the larger screen and the better keyboard is worth the extra money, which is only about 200 dollars. I think the realtor can probably get away with the 4 gb ram for the surface pro 4 but the pastor will need 8 GB of RAM and that is a trickier recommendation. To go to the book with *GB is only 200 dollars more than the Surface Pro 4 and that can make it easier to go to the book. The tablet use of the Surface pro3/4 is much easier than the book and I miss the kickstand on the pro 3. I have had none of the issues that the pastor described. You can now set up the Onenote desktop to open with the pen and Onenote desktop comes with Office 365 and is the one I use. I travel a lot, I use tis for engineering sizings, quotes, and I write a lot, I work remote so for me the book is the better device, if I worked more out of an office and did not fly as much as I do, I would go with the PRO 4. If you are using Photoshop, Autocad, graphic intensive programs then the book is the only way to go.