Surface book

Consumer Reports has pulled its recommendations for Microsoft’s Surface products, citing an industry-worst failure rate.

Source: Consumer Reports: Microsoft Surface is Dead Last for Reliability – Thurrott.com

Reliability is one of the hardest things to cover off when reviewing hardware.

It’s no accident that Apple, which sits at the top of the reliability league table lends hardware to journalists for extended review periods. That makes for better reviews on two counts.

First, you can dive a lot deeper into the product and use it more like a buyer would. I often wait  until a month or more before writing about Apple kit. I write about my experiences using the product in real, everyday work.

There’s no need to run through artificial tests which is what happens when you only have something for a few days. A longer test means a better understanding of quirks and nuances, and what they mean in practice.

Testing for reliability

Second, you get a better feel for reliability. If you use a computer for a couple of months without a glitch, there’s a good chance it will last for 12 months or longer without a problem.

A third benefit of extended review periods, is that a reviewer can find something they are so comfortable with, that they are happy to spend their own money on. It’s because I spent quality time with Apple hardware I chose to buy that brand later.

Something similar happened when I borrowed the HP Spectre. I loved it so much that I’m writing this post on mine.

 

I didn’t see anything wrong with the review Surface Book. But I only had it for a little over a week. I did notice a minor hiccup with the Surface Pro 3, but didn’t write about it at the time because it happened once and just may have been user error. A longer review might have shown me it was a device problem.

 

macbook-pro-2 hands onMacBook Pro and Surface Book are flagship laptops. They show the best hardware Apple and Microsoft have to offer.

They are also showcases for MacOS and Windows 10.

Each makes a powerful statement about what laptops are today and where they are going.

The two share underlying technology. Both use the same Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processor families.

Both have high-resolution displays. While the Surface Book packs more pixels per inch, most everyday users won’t notice.

Both come in a slim clamshell case. They have decent battery life. They are powerful and mobile.

Different paths

Yet despite similarities they couldn’t be more different.

Surface Book is a touch-screen hybrid. The MacBook Pro is a more traditional non-touch screen laptop. More traditional not traditional: most 2016 MacBook Pro models have a Touch Bar.

You could see these differences as a fork in portable computing’s evolutionary path.

Real choice

Most people considering one of these two laptops will have already made up their mind. A number will weigh the two up and choose the computer that most suits their needs.

There are matters to consider. You may prefer Windows 10 or MacOS. Perhaps you invested a fortune in apps. You could have a lifetime of habits, skills and muscle memory tied up in one or other operating system.

You may have a deep-seated philosophical or ideological objection to Apple or Microsoft. This may, or may not, be rational.

You may want a device with a detachable screen that acts as a tablet. It possible you need plenty of ports or you have an aversion to dongles. You may want to punish Apple for not keeping faith with whatever was on your personal MacBook Pro wish list.

Or you might like the look of the Touch Bar.

All these considerations are valid. Only a fool would spend a few thousand dollars without thinking them through. The important thing is you have a real choice between two quite different machines.

What you do with your hands

Switching from one line to the other is more than just a one-off investment in a new laptop.

Yet the most important choice between the two ranges is simple and fundamental question:

Do you prefer to work where your hands stay on the keyboard plane or are you happier reaching up from the keyboard to hunt and peck screen buttons?

Productivity

Apple thinks you’ll be more productive and comfortable keeping your hands on one plane. Microsoft begs to differ.

Getting this decision right is vital. It depends on what you do with your computer.

People who touch type, who write vast numbers of words each day might do better going with Apple’s keyboard-centric approach. 1

If you use your laptop more as a consumption device, then Microsoft’s touch-screen way of working may better suit your needs.

Again there’s a qualification: may. Some readers who want a touch screen computer could be better served with something else. That could be an iPad Pro or it could be another brand of tablet.

There are qualifications here because you don’t need me to tell you what to buy2. Once you’ve figured out how the physical user interface relates to the way you work, you’ll know yourself which is right for you.

The question may be simple, the answer is not.

Clash of ideas

Both computers appeal to the same class of demanding, well-heeled user. They both look and feel good. Both deliver enough power. They both cost a lot compared with alternatives.

Apple is sticking with the clamshell-keyboard-screen laptop format that has been around in one form or another since the early 1980s.

While it uses an old format, the MacBook Pro is not conservative. You only have to listen to the critics who decry the lack of ports or sneer at the Touch Bar to realise just how different it is to what went before.

Computer makers don’t alienate customers with incremental design changes.

Surface Book a break with tradition

Microsoft’s Surface Book is a departure. It is a hybrid device that works as both a conventional laptop and a tablet.

Sure hybrids are no longer new.

Yet the Surface Book feels like a fresh take on the format. At the time of writing it represents the state-of-the-art for hybrid devices. It is the most advanced, the most polished and the most powerful hybrid you can buy.

The Surface Book has an elegant approach to docking and undocking the two parts. Most hybrids involve compromise. They sacrifice something of their laptop personality and part of their tablet identity.

Microsoft avoids this.

Philosophy

It can sound pompous to talk of philosophy in this context, but there is a clear divide in the thinking behind Microsoft and Apple’s designs. It goes beyond the hands flat or hands moving between screen and keyboard choice.

Microsoft built its device for people who want both a laptop and a tablet in a single package. Most likely, people who buy a Surface Book will use it as a laptop most of the time with occasional tablet forays.

The Surface Book has a touch screen. This isn’t because it can function as a tablet, it’s because Microsoft sees touch screens as the future.

Touching

Microsoft bet the farm on touch technology when it released Windows 8. That was a mess of an operating system. It belongs among the great technology missteps of modern times. The mistake could have killed a less robust business than Microsoft.

Consumers are less keen on touch screen laptops than Microsoft anticipated. There are good reasons for this. Touch interfaces are still clumsy. The jarring step between Windows tablet mode and desktop Windows is still not resolved.

This makes for cognitive dissonance. The effect is not as pronounced in Windows 10 as in Windows 8, but it has not gone away. If you’re a Windows user and you don’t like or need the touch interface, it is easier to ignore in Windows 10.

Expensive

The Surface Book is the most expensive Windows laptop choice. You’ll be hard pressed to find an everyday computer that costs more. Although if it meets your needs, the Surface Book is worth every penny.

You can buy a Surface Book for NZ$2750. That money gets you a model with only 128GB of storage and an i5 processor. Going all the way to a i7 power plant and 1TB of storage will lighten your bank account by NZ$5800.

That’s a big investment. Yes, if you work all the time with your computer and it lasts more than a couple of years it only amounts to $50 a week.

Apple prices

Apple’s prices are at the same nosebleed altitude. A bare bones 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar but with 256GB of storage and an Intel i5 processor costs NZ$2500.

If you crank the spec up all the way to a 2.9GHz i7 chip and 2TB of SSD storage, a graphics card and extra graphics memory then you can spend a whopping NZ$7250.

As with the Surface Book, you’re only going to go for the full monty if you run applications that need all the power. If you do, then the price of the hardware is among the least of your problems.

Apple touch screen

Apple doesn’t offer touch screen laptops. At least it doesn’t offer touch screen laptops running MacOS.

You could argue the iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard or with a decent third-party keyboard gives you what amounts to a laptop.

Whatever that is and whatever its merits, it does not compete with the Surface Book or the MacBook Pro.

It’s possible Apple may one day build an iPad with the power and versatility of a Surface Book or MacBook Pro. It won’t be soon, the chips needed to build such a device don’t exist today.


  1. Might because my experience is touch screen computers are painful after hours of typing. They may not trouble you. ↩︎
  2. Often when I write about comparisons readers think I’m telling them what to do. That’s not my aim. ↩︎

Surface Book

Microsoft’s Surface Book is as good as it gets for hybrid devices. You can’t buy a better one, even if it still has a few irritating bugs.

Hybrids are popular. They are the only growing PC segment. There is no doubt they are what many people want from a computing device.

And yet there is something wrong with the hybrid format. Wrong could be the wrong word here. Perhaps unsatisfactory better fits the bill.

The problem is that all hybrids involve some form of compromise. In most cases you don’t get the best laptop experience, nor do you get the best tablet experience.

Many users are happy to tradeoff these experiences in return for having two devices in one package.

This tradeoff plays out in a different way with the Surface Book. As my earlier post says, it is an excellent Windows 10 laptop. In practice I found once the review was over, I only ever used the Surface Book as a laptop.

Sure detaching the screen is clever. But I never need to do this apart from testing to see how it works. [1]

And there’s the problem. The Surface Book is a great Windows laptop, the extras that turn it into an OK tablet add a lot to the cost. Prices start at NZ$2750. That’s $1000 more than you’d pay for something with the same specification that doesn’t double as a tablet.


  1. I also found I almost never use the touchscreen. It helps that the Surface Book has a great touchpad that means you don’t need to make uncomfortable reaching movements.  ↩

 

surface book
Microsoft Surface Book

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.

Laptop first

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.

Detachable screen

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.

Windows tablet

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.

Niggles

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.

Verdict

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.