In its short tenure as a hardware maker, Microsoft has become the defacto trailblazer for Windows-running devices. Now, Microsoft introduces the Surface Book as the “ultimate laptop.” Like the Surface tablets before it, this laptop takes a unique spin on the notebook format that’s been around for over 40 years. Between the 3:2 aspect ratio, 13.5-inch screen and its practically-trademarked dynamic fulcrum hinge there isn’t a machine on the planet that looks like the Surface Book – and then, with the touch of a button and a gentle tug, it becomes a tablet.
If a tear in the space-time continuum were to suddenly appear, three things would fall out: the Enterprise followed by a Borg cube and the Surface Book. It has a snake-like hinge, that actually flattens out to increase the surface area of the base so you can poke the touch screen and it won’t fall over. Milled from two solid blocks of magnesium, the Surface Book feels very sturdy and has a minimalistic style unto its own.
The entire interior of this laptop is one flat surface of metal, except for the large glass precision track pad. This is something really special so and I’ll be spending quite a bit of time on this beauty later. The screen lid or tablet is also made of one uninterrupted slate of magnesium, a mirror finish Windows logo in the middle, couple of buttons on the tap and front and rear facing cameras.
What adds to the unique design is that the tablet and base are the same thickness, since the Surface Book comes fully loaded with an Nvidia graphics card the base needed to be heavy so the tablet doesn’t tip over when you use the touch screen. The fulcrum hinge plays a big part in adding the stabilization as it opens up it actually increases the surface area of the base, I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s because I could watch it open all, day, long. The way that the tablet docks into the base it really does look like one continuous machine.
Ports are average for a 13″ Ultrabook: two USB 3.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm audio and a full size SD card slot (a card will stick half way out rather than sitting flush with the casing). Both the tablet section and the keyboard base have charging/dock connectors and batteries, so you don’t have to dock the tablet to the keyboard to charge the tablet.
Now to the one design element that isn’t’ sexy, but is very functional, the large gap when you close it. I was concerned that it would become a dirt trap, but after a week so far so good. But I have been very careful with it and using this ASUS case to schlep it around town. Though no sexy the gap actually eleminates the need to protect your display from your keyboard, no more oily outlines imprinted on the screen. This also means that Microsoft didn’t have to recess the keyboard area. The keyboard itself is pure pleasure to type on, I like it better than my desktop keyboard.
The Keyboard – A Dream to Type on
The keys offer a spacious 1.6mm of travel and the make the most satisfying sound when you hit them. The only thing that I feel like I’m missing is a CTRL key on the right hand side as well, I have really gotten into Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts, so any of the shortcut keys on the left hand side of the keyboard aren’t as easy to hit as using 2 hands to get the ones of the left hand side. I also might be one of the few people who cares about the size of the right and left shift key’s. You might not notice that you tend to use the right or left shift key more, but when you’ve got a significantly smaller shift key it makes a difference. The shift keys on the surface are perfect!
The only thing that’s missing is dedicated brightness buttons, you’ll have to head to the action center to control the display brightness or remember keyboard shortcut Fn + del and Fn + backspace to change display brightness more granularly.
The trackpad is just as good, it’s got a glass laminated finish. I’ve always been big on touchpad gestures but apart from two finger scroll I never really bothered too much since it often wouldn’t work, but two and three finger gestures are constantly in the mix when navigating. Keyboard shortcuts are also a huge thing for me now, here’s a link to an article that tipped me off to a few of my new favorites.
Taking a look at the tablet
The other interesting design element is the release and lock assembly. Sure, Surface Book uses magnets to help you align the two halves and to keep them securely together as do other 2-in1’s, but it adds a much more complex lock/unlock electro-mechanical mechanism that uses muscle wire to bind and unbind the tablet from the keyboard.
When I first tried to eject the tablet the battery was too low and it wouldn’t let me, when I knew the battery was full I tried again, but I didn’t notice that you had to wait for it to tell you it was safe. Once I figure this out it didn’t sound tragic but it’s still a signification tug when you want to detach it.
The reason you have to actively detach it is because there is a customized Nvidia GeForce GPU tucked away in the keyboard. This makes the Surface Book a machine sutable for gamers or those in media production like me. Nvidia hasn’t named the GPU inside, but you’ll see when we get to preformance that it’s similar to their 940M which is one of their lower end graphics cards. We have to tip out hats to Nvidia & Microsoft since other companies that have tried this set up require you to reboot in order to enable the graphics. So if you’re ever annoyed at the second it takes to disenage, you should be thankful someone figured out the alternative. Plus it kind of reminds me of the saucer separation in Enterprise D.
If you need the dedicated GPU in tablet mode, you can mount the tablet backwards and use it in presentation mode, or lay it flat against the keyboard for a tablet-like form factor. The wedge shape gives the display an ergonomic tilt in this position.
How sturdy is the assembly? There’s no way the tablet will come loose from the keyboard when the two are locked together. The fulcrum hinge locks down and doesn’t move when the tablet is removed, so it won’t flop around and get broken. Can you undock the tablet when the Surface Book is turned off? Yes, you can. Would the electronic release no longer function if the keyboard’s battery was down to 0%? Probably not, but the computer typically shuts down before it drops to 0%, so there’s always a bit of power left.
With a starting weight of 3.34 pounds 1.51kg the Surface Book is one of the heaviest 13-inch noetbooks out there, add in a descrete graphics card and we’re at 3.48 pounds. But consider that the 13 inch MacBook Pro is heavier with no graphics card and a smaller battery. If you’re looking for a GPU in an Apple device you have to go all the way up to the high end 15 inch edition.
Thanks to its 3:2 aspect ratio and having a 13.5-inch screen, the Surface book is quite a bit taller than your average 13-inch notebook. But I’ve been using a notebook case made for an ASUS notebook and it works just fine.
Display – I like that it’s tall
I’m a big fan of the display, the 3:2 aspect ratio makes it feel bigger than your average 13.3 inch notebook. If you’re looking at viewing angles the glossy display does get in the way a bit but if you’re able to miss the glare it’s good enough to share with a few people if you’re watching a movie. The speakers however are average, not a lot of case, I still have to give ASUS top marks on their Bang and Olufsen ICE speakers.
If you’re in content production like I am, the Book covers 99% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB, this is very high compared to any other tablet or notebook. The brightness, black levels, contrast and factory calibration put it firmly ahead of the comptetition. If you work professionally in photo or video production for the web, this display is perfect. But if you do print production or video for TV and cinema, you’ll want something that covers the full Adobe RGB spectrum like the Vaio Z Canvas or a professional external monitor.
Tip: since there are no brightness control keys on the keyboard and the Windows 10 quick setting only offers brightness changes in 25% increments, use Fn + del and Fn + backspace to change display brightness more granularly (this works on Surface Pro 4 too).
The Hinge – Living in the Future
I can’t get enough of this hinge, I love the way it flattens out when you open up the Notebook. It might interest you to know that it’s functional and not just cool looking. In order for you touch the tablet and not have it fall over the keyboard section has to be heavy. Usually in a regular laptop the battery and components weigh it down, but in this design the full computer is in the tablet. So Microsoft added in a nice big battery and the fulcrum hinge which when you open it increases the surface area of the base making the overall device more sturdy.
A 13 inch notebook with a discrete graphics is why I bought the Surface Book, if you’re not in need of media production capabilities you’ll find much cheaper solutions, because let’s be honest here, the Surface Book is not cheap.
Let’s take a look at what you’re getting here, the Surfacebook only have a dual core processor so when you’re putting it up against quad core processoers it is actually not possible for it to out perform. It has 2 core running at a lower voltage. If we take a look at last years Ultrabooks it does pull ahead significantly to machines running on similar spec Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, which is impressive since Skylake wasn’t supposed to meaningfully increase CPU performance.
PCMark 8 Home accel (integrated graphics only): 3014
Geekbench 3: 3559 / 7397
Unigine Heaven 4 (1920 x 1080) : fps: 20.7, score 523. GPU 70C
3DMark 11: P2439, X868
3DMark Cloud Gate: 7779
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited: 88,934
3DMark Fire Strike 1810
Cinebench R15: 31.05 fps OpenGL, 262 CPU score
The Non Volitile Memory Express (NVMe) SSD is forward thinking it would have been awesome had they included an M.2 connector but opting for PCI 3.0 is still well above the average mSATA or PCIe SSD you’ll find in your average thin and light Notebook. The biggest downside to the speed of this disc is that the write speeds aren’t what we hoped they would be. What is also interesting about the SSD is that Microsoft like many companies is sourcing different parts which have slightly different speeds. If this sort of thing if really important to you, head on over to Anandtech to read all about the different drives you might get stuck with. The average user shouldn’t be too put off by a few MB difference in results seeing as we can just consider it faster or as fast as any device that could be considered it’s competition. The disappoint comes from the unreached potential NVMe.
Microsoft claimed that the Surface Book is twice as fast as the 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina display, and it’s just not true. I don’t have a Macbook here to test, but let’s just take a look at the CPUs, Apple has stocked a 28 watt CPU and Intel Iris graphics and Microsoft a 15 watt CPU and HD 520 integrated graphics. Our good friend science says that computationally it can’t actually be 2x faster. But where it gets interesting is when you look at the benchmark averages we’re seeing online the two are actually neck and neck. The Mac is running on last generations Broadwell 5th generation CPUs, so if you’re getting similar performance at nearly half the power consumption that’s something to write home about. It’s just a shame that Microsoft had to do some shady marketing around something that is actually quite amazing.
If we keep comparing the Surface Book to last generations processor with the Dell XPS 13. Just in terms of processing power alone, it’s 301-point Cinebench score is significant jump compared to the Dell XPS 13, which ran with a last-generation Broadwell Intel Core I5 chip.
Thanks to the extra boost from the discrete graphics chip, the Surface Book also has more than double the performance for gaming. This is evidenced by its 1,868 point Fire Strike score compared to the Dell’s 739-point performance.
However, if we put it up against the 15 inch Macbook Pro that also packs a discrete graphics card, GeekBench which scores brute processor performance, Apple’s behemoth scored 14,258 and the Surface Book 7540 points. This is unsurprising considering the MacBook Pro is quad core and the Surface Book is a dual core.
Our review unit runs on the 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6600U with 8 gigs of RAM soldered on board. It’s also available with 16 gigs of RAM and there’s a less expensive Core i5 option (performance reduction is around 7 to 10%).
Finally 13.5 inches with Nvidia Graphics
A 13.5 inch device with discrete graphics isn’t common couple that with the fact that it’s a tablet with a docked GPU in the keyboard and it’s not really surprising that the Nvidia didn’t actually name it. What we have here is a custom GPU that doesn’t have a model number but from the clock speed, 384 CUDA cores and the benchmarks it is comparable to the NVIDIA 940M. If you’re unfamiliar it’s on the lower end of NVIDIA’s graphic card portfolio for laptops. It has 1GB of DDR5 VRAM versus the 2GB of DDR3 VRAM on the 940M. So we’ve got faster memory but less of it, we’re very surprised that Microsoft didn’t go with more considering that the display resolution is quite high and the device can drive two 4K monitors on top of it.
What about Gaming?
Even though the Surface Book carries the price tag of a high end gaming Notebook, you’re better off picking one up if that’s what you’re really after. The GPUs is powerful enough to play some serious 3D titles like Battlefield 4, Fallout 4, Tomb Raider and GTA V at 720p resolution and low settings with reasonable frame rates (with Tomb Raider you can go up to 1080p). Dota 2 pictured above on Medium settings 1080p was running a around 40-45fps consistently during all game play.
If you tried playing those games on the integrated HD 520 graphics you’d be struggling, they are barely playable. An older game like League of Legends will run no problem at 1080p and medium settings. If you wanted to compared the gaming prowess to the 940M, you’ll average about 3-5 fps faster in most cases thanks to the faster VRAM.
What will be even more frustrating is that you’re lacking full GeForce support for gaming. You get the NVIDIA control panel but not the full GeForce Experience. Since this is a proprietary graphics driver you can install the GeForce Experience to optimize game settings, but the other features won’t work.
If you’re into having a Pen then get ready to be excited, the Surface Pen is incredibly accurate, and the screen feels like it has a slight sive that almost emulates the feel of painting and drawing on real paper. Microsoft Surface uses the same updated N-Trig digitizer technology as Surface Pro 4, and the experience is identical. If you’re familiar with the Surface Pro 3 Pen we now have 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. 256 levels. This is from a change is in the display’s digitizer, not the pen in case you were thinking of just grabbing a the pen to upgrade.
The pen is included and has a softer nib or pen tip that’s quieter and feels less slippery on the glass.
One of the best things about the Surface Book is how Microsoft thought through the pen integration. It just magnetically snaps to the side, so you’re much less likely to lose it, and it performs handy shortcuts when you press the button. Click it once, and you’ll launch OneNote. Press and hold to make queries and talk to Cortana.
Surface Book has a battery in the tablet and a larger battery in the base (69 Wh total). They can be charged independently. The tablet itself lasted 2 hours and 30 min hours on a charge, and the tablet + keyboard lasts around 8:15 with the brightness set to 75%, WiFi active writing and researching this review while running a few benchmarks, watching YouTube and streaming a 40 minute video.
I do have one serious complaint about the power settings that are available to me, there aren’t any. You have two settings battery save mode and an intelligent mode which will draw more power when it’s needed. The thing is that I want to be able to decide how I use my battery life. If I want to export a video and use all my battery to do it, I should be able to. It’s my battery life and I should be able to choose.
If you’re wondering how the battery gets drained, it uses a steady even-ish combination from the keyboard and tablet. So you won’t be able to charge the tablet from the keyboard.
Pricing – It’s Expensive … But
The Surface Book starts at $1,499 and comes with NVIDIA’s discrete graphics, this is $200 more than the 13 inch MacBook Pro, which, even with its 5th generation CPU, offers slightly faster performance and has longer battery life. It’s a personal choice if you want to go Windows 10 or if you can’t leave Apple’s ecosystem, I personally like the versatility of Windows (even if there are a few early day bugs). The higher price tag is easy to justify if you’re planning on taking advantage of the unique features the Surface Book offers, like the tablet, touch screen when docked and the pen. It all depends on how you plan on using the machine. Personally, I can’t live without a touchscreen and I’ve been waiting for a wub 14 inch notebook to come with a discrete graphics card. Yes I could get a more powerful system if I went 15 inch, but I don’t want to carry around a 15 inch machine. Full Stop. Even 14 inch isn’t something I’m keen on, the only large form factor machine I’d consider is the Dell XPS 15 because it’s thin bezels give it the same footprint as a 13.3 inch device. A question that I can’t help but ask is, If the Surface Book is this compelling now, imagine if we had a cheaper version that wasn’t detachable? Price point plays a big part in purchasing, if we dropped the price below Apple’s offerings how much higher might the sales have been?
Prices range from $1500 for the base model with Core i5/8GB/128GB, all the way up to a staggering $3200 for a Core i7/16GB/1TB/GPU model. That’s a lot of money for an Ultrabook. The NVIDIA dGPU alone is a $200 upgrade on the Core i5 model.