A year ago Microsoft launched its first laptop. Last week the Surface Book had a refresh. It remains the best take on a 2-in-1 computer, but at a high price.
All Windows computer makers offer riffs on the laptop-cum-tablet format. There are many designs to choose from at a range of prices. Yet twelve months after it first appeared, Microsoft’s Surface Book still offers the best balance of features. Hybrids and 2-in–1s are everywhere. For the last two years they have been the fastest growing PC segment. Scrub that, they are the only growing PC segment in recent times. Most 2-in–1 devices involve compromise. Often you end up with something that is not the best laptop, not the best tablet. Many hybrids feel like tablets with keyboards attached as an afterthought. Microsoft takes a different approach with Surface Book. It more than passes muster if you only use it as a laptop.
Some Surface Book users may never move beyond using it as a conventional laptop. Yet that misses something. Hit a key to unlock the screen. The Surface Book becomes a large Windows 10 tablet similar in many respects to the 12.9 inch Apple iPad Pro. While most hybrids are tablet first, laptop second, the Surface Book is laptop first. If you think the distinction between tablet first and laptop first is splitting hairs, think again. The Surface Book is a first class laptop. Feature for feature it matches, often beats many premium Windows laptops. Most people reading this would be happy with its performance, design and weight None of the rival hybrids come close in that department.
First-class Surface Book
Although the original Surface Book is a year old, it still runs fast. The review model has a sixth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of memory and a 256GB solid-state drive. It sells for NZ$2750. Well-heeled users can push the specification of the original Surface Book. Go all the way with 16GB of memory, 1TB of SSD storage, an Intel Core i7 processor and a separate Nvidia GeForce GPU. That will cost NZ$5800. Newer Surface Books are faster. They have a more powerful graphics processor and longer battery life. The new top of the line will set you back by NZ$6000.
Pleasing to typists
You get an excellent back-lit keyboard. The keys are well spaced. They have enough travel to please touch typists. As a writer I’d consider buying the Surface Book for the keyboard alone. I haven’t seen a better laptop keyboard in years. Microsoft has also chosen a great trackpad. It’s bigger than many Windows laptop trackpads and is responsive. This makes it easier to navigate the screen without taking your hands off the keyboard. It reminds me of the old-school mechanical Apple MacBook trackpads. Microsoft has packed such a full compliment of ports into the Surface Book that it feels almost retro. The power port doesn’t do double duty as anything else. There are two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a Mini-DisplayPort and 3.5 mm headset jack. The Surface Book is thick and heavy by MacBook or Ultrabook standards. It weighs 1.5kg. That’s more than we’re used to and a touch uncomfortable at times. You’re compenstated for extra heft by a better than usual combination of keyboard, touch screen and battery life.
When you use the Surface Book as a laptop, a locking system holds the screen in place. Hit the detach key or the right onscreen icon and the muscle wire system releases the tablet. You have to have power to do this, the release mechanism is both mechanical and electronic. You can turn the screen around on the keyboard base to use as a display. Fold it all the way over and it becomes a tablet with the keyboard still attached. It sounds unlikely, but you may want to do this. The bottom, keyboard part of the Surface Book has all the ports along with extra battery capacity. You can also put a graphics card in this section.
Surface Book has an excellent screen. The display is as sharp as iPad and it has the 3:2 aspect ratio. At 13.5 inches it is larger than the 12.9 inch iPad Pro in size or roughly the size of an A4 magazine. Microsoft has included great speakers which mean the tablet is ideal for watching video. Although the tablet is thin — just 7.5mm — it houses the computer electronics. This makes it bigger and heavier than most tablets, but in one sense it can do more. In another sense it can’t. That’s because it runs Windows 10. Whatever your views on Windows 10, it lacks the depth and quality of pure tablet software you can find on the iPad. There also seem to be less tablet software options than Android. You won’t get as much battery life from the tablet part of the Surface Book as from other tablets. In practice it lasts between 3.5 and 4 hours depending on your applications.
The big picture
At 13.5-inch, the display is bigger than the 12.9 inch iPad Pro or the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet. Microsoft. Uses the 3:2 screen ratio, which feels better than 16:9 when used as a tablet. Resolution is 3000 by 2000 pixels, this makes for stunning images. While it is more generous than most tablets or laptops it doesn’t match the 4K displays. Unless you’re using it to edit 4K video, you won’t notice the difference. Microsoft includes a Surface Pen with the Surface Book. In practice this works best when you use the device as a tablet. Clicking the pen fires up OneNote, just like on the Surface Pro. The Surface Book has two batteries. There is one in the base and one in the screen. When you use the device as a laptop you get close to two working days, about 15 hours. That’s enough for the longest flight. When used as a tablet you only four hours, which is lower than most tablet-only alternatives.
In use I found the Surface Book wouldn’t automatically switch to tablet mode when released from the keyboard base. And a couple of times it fired up even with a closed lid. On many occasions I’d close the lid and it would continue to chime notifications. One last positive. Because it’s from Microsoft, there’s no bloatware.
You get a beautiful screen and great performance with the ability to switch to a tablet when that helps. Microsoft managed to fit a useful new device format into a gap no-one could see. For want of a better name, it’s a premium hybrid PC, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. If you want a powerful Windows laptop that doubles as an occasional tablet and have the budget, this is by far the best option.