For years, Windows fans have been asking why Microsoft don’t make laptops. Why is there not a machine we can buy with vanilla Windows on it, without all the bloatware, made to amplify the strengths of the operating system? Most Windows laptops come with a slew of unwanted ‘extras,’ from intrusive antivirus trials to the impressively archaic WinZip (*side-eyes Toshiba*). That’s because with razor-thin margins on razor-thin notebooks, manufacturers have to turn to software to make their profits. Microsoft does offer the little-known ‘Signature Editions‘ – PCs made by other manufacturers without the bloatware – but since MS gets the operating system for free, they’re much better placed to make their own Windows laptops without the fluff.
Essentially, we wanted something that is to Windows what the Nexus line is to Android. And we finally have it: the Surface Book.
No one would have blamed Microsoft for playing it safe with their first ever notebook. But they went all-in. This is the super-sleek, high-performance MacBook of Windows laptops, but with an added party trick: it turns into a tablet. Here’s our Microsoft Surface Book review.
- Magnesium casing
- Colours: just silver
- As a laptop: 232 x 312 x 13-23 mm
- As a tablet: 220 x 312 x 8 mm
- Weight: 1.57kg for the GPU model (the heaviest)
We’re going to come back to the MacBook comparison a lot, because it really does look like one. From the magnetic power adapter to the shiny Windows logo on the matte silver body, it’s clear where inspiration has come from. But that’s no bad thing: most manufacturers make a MacBook-alike because it’s a design people recognise and covet.
One of the biggest differences between this and a MacBook Pro is that the screen can be detached. It becomes a massive 13.5-inch tablet, which Microsoft strangely refers to as a “clipboard” (like we needed any more reminders of Clippy). That means, of course, that the screen is a touchscreen, and it also comes with a handy Surface Pen for sketching and signing things.
The laptop casing looks like aluminium but is actually magnesium, because that’s considerably lighter. The famous hinge, though, is made of aluminium, and is one of the most exciting features on the machine. It’s certainly the standout feature everyone was talking about at the launch.
Microsoft refers to the design as a dynamic fulcrum hinge, which is a fancy way of saying that the variable width of the bendy bit means you can balance a heavy screen on a not-so-heavy base. Essentially, the hinge rolls out to provide more surface area (no pun intended) to counteract the considerable weight of the tablet screen. This gets around the problem many hybrid manufacturers have: making the base heavier to avoid the whole thing toppling over. It also looks really cool, a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated when trying to steal Apple customers.
The hinge has been compared to a lot of things, from woodlice (OK, that was probably just us) to the Alien 3 logo (ditto), but most of all, it reminds me of Heatherwick’s rolling bridge in Paddington, coincidentally mere metres from the Microsoft office where I picked up my Surface Book.
It’s worth noting that the bendy hinge means the laptop doesn’t completely close – as you can see in the photo above, there’s a gap even when it’s fully shut. I haven’t found this to be a problem, but if you’re a Rachel Green type, you might want something with a little more closure.
The tablet portion of the Surface Book slots into the top of the hinge very easily, but it’s slightly less straightforward to take it out again. That’s because a lot of the processing power is in the base, so if you’re doing something graphics-intensive, you need to let the computer know before wrenching the pieces apart. This is accomplished with a little detach button on the keyboard, which has its own tiny LED. You push the button, the LED turns red, then you hear the most intensely satisfying hardware click, the screen relaxes a little and the light turns green. All good to detach. Ahh. It’s so enjoyable that I quite frequently detach the screen just to show people. Yes, I’m cool, but when you’re spending over a grand on a laptop, it’s nice to have a little show-off feature.
Another trick the screen can do is to flip around so it’s facing backwards. I’ve never found this mode particularly useful on similar laptops like the Lenovo Yoga line, but some people like it for presentations and watching things on trains. The screen can also be folded flat in this orientation, so you can carry the full laptop around like a sketchpad with the screen on top.
The keyboard and trackpad
Again, the MacBook influence shows here, with a trackpad that uses the two-finger scrolling gesture made famous by Apple. Clicking the invisible buttons at the bottom of the trackpad is relatively painless (unlike cheaper laptops whose click noise can be heard from miles away). Tapping one finger anywhere the trackpad works like a left click and tapping it with two fingers works as a right click, which is a nice touch for people who aren’t used to pressing all the way down.
The keyboard itself is a genuine joy to type on, and I found myself preferring it over the mechanical keyboard I usually use, which is a first. The low-profile chiclet-style keys are well-engineered to have just the right mix of springiness and clickiness. Yes, those are technical terms.
The keyboard is also surprisingly spill-resistant. Don’t ask me how I know.
The function keys on the Surface Book take a little getting used to. Since the keyboard is backlit, the F1 and F2 keys control the level of brightness you’d like on the letters – which seems like something not many people would bother changing. Meanwhile, to change the screen brightness – which is something we do a lot – you have to use the function key and the unmarked Del and Backspace keys. Strange decision, but easy once you know how.
- 13.5 inches
- 3000 x 2000 resolution (267 pixels per inch)
- 10-point multitouch
Speaking of screen brightness, we’ve had some issues with ours. The adaptive brightness setting on the PC sometimes doesn’t work, so you end up with a screen as dim as if you’d wandered off and left it for five minutes. If you want to keep adaptive brightness on, the best way of getting around this is closing the laptop and opening it again to instantly bring it back to the right level – or you can use the aforementioned function keys. Turning off adaptive brightness is an option too, but may impact your battery life.
Overall, the screen is bright and sharp, and offers accurate colours without over-saturation. Blacks are true and the multi-touch screen is fast and responsive, as you’d expect. It has a gloss finish, which means it can look fingerprinty in certain lights (though we didn’t notice it most of the time), and can be distractingly reflective if you have a bright light behind you. When using the Surface Book at home with a window over my shoulder, I had to close the blind to see the screen properly.
The ‘clipboard,’ or tablet mode of the Surface Book is brilliant for taking media with you or showing something to someone (though waiting for the OK to remove the tablet is a tiny bit more frustrating than other hybrids, which just let you pull the screen off). Some users have reported occasional appearances of the famous Windows Blue Screen of Death when switching to and from clipboard mode, but I haven’t had that problem in the weeks I’ve been using this machine.
The physical power and volume keys are on the tablet portion, but there are no ports of any kind – all the USBs are on the base. However, it’s not particularly obvious that you can still charge the tablet without plugging it into the base – just put the magnetic power adapter into the middle port on the bottom edge.
In the centre of the screen (when it’s in laptop mode) is the 5MP front-facing camera, which is used for the awesome and super-quick Windows Hello face unlock feature. There’s also a rear-facing 8MP camera on the top right of the lid, which of course becomes the top left of the tablet.
The rear-facing camera can record in 1080p HD and there’s a microphone on either side. The stereo speakers pump out good-quality (for a laptop) sound from either side of the screen.
The headphone jack, however, is on the bottom right of the tablet, which means it’s on the top right of the laptop screen. This is super awkward when trying to listen to music while using the Surface Book in laptop mode. It looks stupid, the cable gets in the way, and I can’t imagine why they didn’t put it on the bottom right instead. Yes, headphones have to be plugged into the screen rather than the base so you can use it for media in tablet mode, but they didn’t have to be on the top. Annoying.
Performance and battery life
- 6th gen Intel Core i5 or i7, depending on model (we had the i7)
- 8GB or 16GB RAM (we had 16)
- 128GB, 256GB or 512GB solid-state storage (we had 512)
- Intel HD graphics (non-GPU) on the i5, or NVIDIA GeForce graphics (GPU) on the i5 or i7 depending on model (we had the NVIDIA GPU)
There’s no doubt about it: the Surface Book is a joy to use. Other than the brightness issue I mentioned, I’ve had no problems: it handles intensive programs, image and video editing and games with one hand tied behind its back. I’ve noticed the screen portion getting quite warm, and sometimes you can hear the fans, but not to any great extent. The Surface Book boots up quickly, works smoothly and makes you resent your inferior work laptop. Yes, it’s pricey, but the quality shines.
In terms of battery life, Microsoft promises up to 12 hours. There are two batteries in the Surface Book: one in the tablet for going solo, and a bigger one in the base. The software sensibly prioritises the base battery so that if you spontaneously detach the screen, you should get optimum time out of it. That said, it does drain pretty fast: unsurprising given the size of the screen. Consequently, the tablet is better suited to reading the day’s news than epic Netflix marathons. As for laptop battery life, I never reached 12 hours, but comfortably got between 6 and 8, which is a good length for most people’s working days. You could easily take this into a café and make some major progress on your novel before it gave out.
In addition to the extra battery, the base of the Surface Book offers two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and a mini DisplayPort. However, I completely missed the existence of said DisplayPort to begin with, because if you put the long magnetic charging adapter in the ‘wrong’ way round (it fits either way), the tail of it covers the port. Hmm.
There’s no ethernet port, either full size or hinged. Instead, you’ve got the option of buying the Surface Dock which adds a full-sized gigabit ethernet port, plus four more USB 3.0s, two mini DisplayPorts and audio out. However, it’s painfully expensive at £164.99, and we’ve seen a fair few reports of compatibility issues with monitors that work fine on the Surface Book itself.
The Surface Book is easily my favourite Windows laptop. We tend to measure devices by how sad we are to return them to the PR company: in this case, it’s 4.5 sad faces out of 5. It’s a compelling contender to the MacBook Pro, with the added bonus of a touchscreen, stylus and tablet mode. It’s expensive, but so are its competitors, and you can really feel where your money’s gone. This is a laptop that’s as enjoyable to use as it clearly was to design, and that’s very enjoyable indeed.
Upsides: design, performance, battery life.
Downsides: high price, awkward headphone placement, some issues with adaptive brightness.
Price and availability
The Microsoft Surface Book is available now directly from Microsoft, or from retailers like John Lewis. It starts from £1299 for the 128GB model with Core i5 processor and 8GB RAM, and goes all the way up to £2249 for the configuration we had (i7, 512GB storage, 16GB RAM and the NVIDIA GPU).