Review: The Microsoft Surface Book (UPDATED…again)

Jan 8, 2016

About the author: Joe reviews hardware based on how it fits into his life. Joe is a sales professional that manages a team, travels weekly, a part-time professor and gamer. He is a father and husband who also has the privilege of being GWW’s President.

The hardware used in this review was purchased by the author.

Update: January 8, 2016

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I truly had no issues with the first Surface Book I purchased. After replacing it due to a sudden crash (see my update on November 2, 2015), I’ve had nothing but problems with the Surface Book. It’s a shame, really. Other than the odd gap between the screen and the keyboard, it’s a stunning laptop. It’s versatile, solidly designed, and screaming fast. Unfortunately, none of that feels good when the laptop hardly works.

There are three core issues you’ll find when speaking with some Surface Book owners:

  1. screen flickering
  2. battery drainage
  3. keyboard/trackpad malfunctions
I’ve experienced all three, but the first is not that big of a deal to me. When detaching the screen from the base, the screen flickers for a moment and then you’re all set. The problem is the 2-in-1 nature of the device and how Windows 10 handles it. The second and third issues tie to this – windows has trouble managing the activation and maintenance of basic functions that are supposed to be available while the screen and keyboard are connected. For example, when waking the Surface Book from sleep or hibernate mode, the keyboard and trackpad do not always work. In fact, 7 times out of 10 they do not work. The battery drainage issues have to do with driver support. The default driver that ships with the Surface Book for the two batteries is from 2005. This is on a laptop that’s a hybrid with two separate batteries. There are some threads online that guide you through an unsupported process to change the drivers to one released by NEC in 2011. This works a lot better but the Surface Book will still be dead after 2 days in hibernate. For comparison, I left my Lenovo Y40 gaming laptop in hibernate for 4 days and lost only 44% of the battery life.
Like many folks out there, I spent $1900 on my Surface Book. I wanted to consolidate devices (Surface Pro + gaming laptop). My options at this point are to exchange the Surface Book for a new one and hope it doesn’t have issues, hold on and wait for unannounced patches/firmware updates, or replace it with an entirely different product. If you have any advice or want to share your Surface Book stories, please drop a comment.
Update: November 2, 2015

At 6:30am I fired up my Surface Book with a full day of work planned. To my dismay, the keyboard was non-responsive. After 30 minutes on the phone with Microsoft support, I was directed to the Microsoft Store in downtown Portland. Within 45 minutes I was out the door with a brand new Surface Book. Kevin and Brandon were absolutely amazing to work with it. With so many places to shop for laptops, tablets, phones and video game consoles, it’s all about the customer experience if you want to create loyalty. I am sold on the Microsoft Store. I’ll be back!

Original Article Below

We live in an age where there is a device for every situation. Laptops and desktops for gaming, tablets for reading, phones for Excel and Word management, and Microsoft Surface tablets that are meant to replace your computer. Since 2012, Microsoft’s Surface tablets have grown from a fun idea to a truly brilliant design that has spurred OEMs (i.e. Lenovo and Dell) to invest into a newly created marketplace. As Apple is typically credited for doing, Microsoft gave people a device they never knew they needed. Although not without its flaws, the Surface tablets are a thriving $3 billion business for Microsoft. Lenovo’s Yoga line of laptops and hybrids are also gaining momentum and giving that OEM a new life since being divested by IBM. Although this new wave of PCs are becoming standard fare, as an experienced user, I struggle to know how to use them. I frequently revert to standard functionality. Grabbing the Pen and drawing on the Surface Pro 3 is not a reflex. It’s usually a result of first looking for pen and paper and then realizing I have an app for that. It’s an awkward moment in a meeting when I have hip new product that I don’t use to even a moderate level of its capabilities. I’ve spent years pointing the finger at myself until my first week with Microsoft’s Surface Book. The combination of Windows 10 and a fantastic laptop design has allowed me to instinctually use this 2-in-1 as more than just a laptop or a tablet. Years of experience with the Surface Pro and Lenovo’s Yoga and Asus Transformer books didn’t teach me how to be efficient and stop carrying a paper notebook. And after 1 week with the Surface Book I’ve learned that what I actually need is a laptop for the activities I struggle to perform with a tablet. Even a Surface tablet. Someone has finally created a laptop to replace your tablet, and that’s where other hardware manufacturers should be investing.

The Surface Book requires a day 1 update to enable key features, such as Windows Hello, which allows the user to login to the laptop by looking at the Real Sense camera.

It’s one thing to claim that the stars have aligned for Microsoft, and it’s another to give them credit for moving those stars into place. There are 3 reasons the Surface Book is revolutionary, and 2 of them are clearly within Microsoft’s control: the Operating System (OS), and the hardware design. What they cannot control is a particularly critical hardware component: the CPU. Fortunately, Intel has stepped up.

20151029_165217Intel’s Skylake is killer, and its the first star to align. According to AnandTech, Skylake is faster and more energy efficient than its Haswell predecessor, which the last round of Surface tablets are built on, as well as all of 2015’s comparable laptops. One of the key benefits of the Surface Book is the ability to go a full business day on a single charge while in laptop mode, with minimal tablet mode usage. For a laptop, if the processor can be more efficient it gives designers more creative freedom from a chassis perspective. Underneath the keyboard of the Surface Book are batteries and a dedicated GPU in some models, such as mine. If Microsoft had a less efficient processor and this laptop were thicker and heavier, it would not be as groundbreaking.

The second star is the design of the Surface Book. The idea of combining a tablet and laptop is not new. For reasons we can outline in another article, past designs were a bottoms-up approach: tablets were getting keyboard attachments to act as laptops. Let me be clear: the Surface Book is a laptop that can act as a tablet. Unlike the Lenovo Yoga line that rotates onto itself, the Surface Book detaches using a very cool latch called “muscle wire.” By pressing the detach button located left of the delete key, Windows 10 informs you the screen is ready to be detached. This 13.5″ screen becomes a tablet with gorgeous 3,000 x 2,000 resolution and a screaming fast i5 or i7 processor. It’s faster than other tablets, at least on paper. Despite what my wife says, I don’t own enough tablets to perform a useful benchmark. As a laptop goes, this one has all the essentials: a comfortable keyboard, beautiful display, and it’s fairly light. The muscle wire hinge prevents the display from rotating as far as most laptops (10 degrees less), and the 12 hour battery life comes from 2 batteries (75% in the base, 25% in the screen/tablet). The batteries add weight making this not the lightest laptop ever built – even though that’s the trend in 2015.

20151029_165158The Surface Pen has greatly improved. Insert technical mumbo jumbo here, or, I’ll just write this: I’ve used every generation of Surface Pen and this one works better. It has a more sensitive tip and a dedicated eraser on the end. It also magnetically clips to the left side of the screen, which adds a strong sense of elegance to the device.

A common knock against the design is how the screen and keyboard do not fold flush. There is a gap that exists near the back when folded. It sucks to think the device could be thinner if Microsoft could figure out how to compress the Folcrum hinge. On the other hand, nobody likes wiping keyboard crap off their screen.

The final star to align for Microsoft is Windows 10. It’s the best version of Windows ever created, period. And just like the Surface Book, Windows 10 is flexible as a tablet and laptop. It’s default setting is to convert to tablet mode when you detach the screen. And it actually works. I suppose you could add Office 2016 to the mix here. It’s touch ready and the UI is improved.

Technical Specifications

  • Dimensions: 12.30 x 9.14 x 0.51 – 0.90 (312.3mm x 232.1mm x 13.0 – 22.8mm)
  • Weight: Starting at 3.34 pounds (1,516 grams) including keyboard
  • Storage: Solid state drive (SSD) options: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB.
  • Display: Screen: 13.5” PixelSense display
  • Resolution: 3000 x 2000 (267 PPI)
  • Touch: 10 point multi-touch
  • Battery life: Up to 12 hours of video playback
  • Processor: 6th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7
  • Graphics: Intel HD graphics 520 and an optional NVIDIA GeForce GPU with 1GB GDDR5 memory
  • Security: TPM chip for enterprise security
  • Memory: 8GB or 16GB RAM

For the traveling gamer, the critical component in the above-listed specification is the dedicated Nvidia GPU. Rumors are this custom-built GPU is effectively a 940M. While not as powerful as a moderate gaming laptop ($1199 or more) with an Nvidia GTX 960M, this is more gaming power than most ultrabooks. To test the power out, I played Heroes of the Storm at 1080p with medium settings and I was shocked to see the frames-per-second (FPS) easily above 45. Unfortunately, 3D Mark is unable to properly return values in benchmarking because they haven’t updated it with a profile for the Skylake processors. The only quantitative study I could do is play games and monitor the FPS via Fraps. Generally most games played well at 1080p and minimum graphics settings. Since the screen is a 3:2 ratio and the GPU can’t handle 3000 x 2000 resolution in games very well, I tried a few other ratios but kept going back to 1080p for benchmark purposes. I may update this post in a few weeks with a table of results.20151029_165309

Starting at $1499, the Microsoft Surface Book is expensive if you just look at the specifications. But from a user perspective, it’s worth a whole lot more. When you use the Surface Book you’ll find yourself sketching, gaming, typing, and watching movies. It’s delightfully attractive and elegant, flexible and versatile. Although other PC makers are pushing the limits of engineering with detachable devices, none come close to matching the premium feel of the Surface Book. The alignment of the stars makes this the perfect time for Surface Book to exist. Windows 10, Intel’s Skylake and impressive design have merged to produce one of the most compelling laptops ever created.