Microsoft Surface Book review
The Surface Book is a totally new product in Microsoft's range, representing the first laptop the company has ever made. The new but more familiar Surface Pro 4, which launched alongside the Surface Book on 6 October, is designed to be tablet first, laptop second, while the Surface Book takes a laptop-first, tablet-second approach with a 13in detachable touchscreen and a full-size, sturdy keyboard. Here's our review of the Surface Book. Is it 'the ultimate laptop'? Let's find out.
Microsoft Surface Book review: Price, models and release date
In the UK there are four Surface Book models to choose between with variations on the processor, amount of RAM and storage capacity. There's also the optional dedicated graphics card which is housed in the keyboard. Take a look at table below for specs of each Surface Book model.
Microsoft has decided not to launch the 1TB model in the UK. The official Surface Book release date in the UK is 18 February. You'll be able to buy the Surface Book from Microsoft, PC World and Currys which kindly supplied us with one to review.
Prices range from £1,299 up to £2,249 so the Surface Book is not a budget laptop by any stretch of the imagination. It's not totally outrageous either but it more expensive than a key rival, the MacBook Pro, which starts from £999 for the 13in model with 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage. You need to spend £1,999 on the 15in model to get a discrete AMD Radeon R9 graphics card; the rest have Intel Iris Pro Graphics.
Although you're paying a lot for the Surface Book, it's worth pointing out that it comes with the Surface Pen - a stylus - in the box. The Surface Book also performs a trick which the MacBook Pro cannot: the screen detaches from the keyboard to be used as a tablet. The Surface Book also hides an extra battery in the keyboard for long periods away from mains power.
If the price is looking like too much to your frowning wallet, then don't stop reading just yet. Microsoft is offering a trade-in deal where you can get up to £400 off. For that you'll need to hand in a MacBook Pro but you can get £375 off with a Surface Pro 3 and, £250 for an iPad and £175 for any Core i laptop. Check out the full list of trade-in offer and further details here.
Microsoft Surface Book review: Design and build
Like the latest Windows logo, the Surface Book is very angular. It is a slightly unusual shape for a laptop – the screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio – but we got used to it quite quickly. Like the other Surface products, it's made from a magnesium alloy which Microsoft says is magnesium alloy which is lighter and more durable than aluminium.
That said, the Surface Book is heavier than many of its rivals at a total of 1.58kg – that's our measurement of the top-spec model with the discrete graphics chip in the keyboard. Opting for a non-GPU model will only save around 60g which is - obviously - not noticeable.
As you probably already know the Surface Book comes in two parts: the tablet part which Microsoft calls the Clipboard and the keyboard dock which it calls the Laptop. They are, by our scales, 724- and 860g respectively and we're going to mostly call them by the tablet and keyboard dock terms in this review.
The most striking part of the Surface Book design its 'Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge'. It looks a bit like a watch strap crossed with an accordion and unrolls when you open the Surface Book up. As well as being slightly mesmerising, it serves an important purpose: balance.
We've seen many tablets with keyboard docks simply topple over but the Surface Book does not. The hinge is stiff enough to hold the tablet section securely and stop it wobbling too much when you use the touchscreen, although it does a little. Don't be fooled into thinking the hinge can go all the way around even though it looks like it might. Since the device is still somewhat top heavy, the hinge doesn't go back as far as others or a regular laptop, otherwise it would topple over. What you can do it take it off, spin it 180 degrees and pop it back on to achieve a similar result.
Magnets attach the tablet to the keyboard when shut and they hold nice and firm, but you can still, with a bit of practice, open the device up with one hand. There's a reasonably big recess so you can get a finger or thumb in. The shape of the hinge means that from the side, there's a gap between the keys and the glass of the screen. This might annoy some from a design perspective but it stops any marks or scratches being left on the display by the keys.
Around the edge of the tablet is a small gap for cooling, just like the Surface Pro 4 and the buttons and ports (see hardware section for what's on offer) are positioned nicely around both sections. There are no USB ports on the tablet section but this is a laptop first, tablet second design whereas the Surface Pro is the other way around.
The other major design feature of the Surface Book is completely hidden; that's because it's the mechanism which connects the two parts together. While previous two-in-one hybrids we've seen use magnets or a simple clip system, the Surface Book takes things to a new level. Microsoft has implemented a 'Muscle Wire Lock' which uses an electrically charged nickel titanium alloy wire called 'Nitonal' which can change shape and then snap back based on the electricity applied to it.
When docked the mechanism holds onto the tablet tightly and to release it you have to press a button on the keyboard. Even pulling the two apart with plenty of force resulted in only the smallest amount of movement with the system active – we tried really hard to pull them apart. It's handy that you can use the detach button without logging into Windows and the two also don't simply fall apart when the battery is flat either. It's really clever stuff.
Like the Surface Pro 4, the Surface Pen attaches magnetically to the side of the Surface Book. The stylus is included in the price. We've found typing on the backlit keyboard to be a very pleasant experience and the trackpad is large, responsive and accurate. The only complaint we have is the small return/enter key.
Microsoft Surface Book review: Hardware, specs and benchmarks
As mentioned already, the Surface Book has an unusual 3:2 aspect ratio so it's an odd thing at first when you're used to 16:9 or even 4:3. The PixelSense display is 13.5in in size and uses a 3000x2000 resolution resulting in a crispy 267ppi. It's a stunning screen with all sorts going for it including great viewing angles, colour reproduction (100 percent coverage of the sRGB color gamut) and brightness.
Microsoft says it's an IPS panel that uses a 'negative photo-aligned liquid oxide display' which essentially means that during construction, the layers are carefully aligned to increase contrast and image quality. It's a technique used in TVs and also the iPhone 6 but the downside is that the display on the Surface Book is very reflective. That brightness (more than 400nits) will be needed to combat this.
In charge of running Windows 10 Pro is a 6th-generation Intel Skylake processor. You can choose from a Core i5 or a Core i7 depending on how much horse power you think you'll need. Both the Core i5 models come with 8GB of RAM so you're paying extra gets you double the storage and the Nvidia GPU – and it's probably worth the extra £300.
On the Core i7 side of things, you'll get the discrete graphics either way so the decision to make is 8GB of RAM with 256GB or double up with 16GB and 513GB. We'll let you decide!
We benchmarked the Core i7 model with 16GB of RAM and got some tasty numbers back – you can check below along with the results vs the Surface Pro 4. However, as our colleagues at PC World point out, the Core i5 model represents better value for money. Microsoft holds the Core i7 back a bit to avoid high temperatures and noise. Also see below our graph for a comparison of the Surface Book, both processor options, against Microsoft's other devices and rivals in Cinebench.
The line-up of ports on the Surface Book is pretty normal for an Ultrabook laptop. You get two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and Mini-DisplayPort. As mentioned earlier these are all on the keyboard dock so the only port on the tablet section is the headphone jack. It's odd to see Microsoft opt against a Thunderbolt port combined into USB Type-C port as found on the Razer Blade Stealth but it's still early days for the reversible connector so it's not the end of the world.
Before we get onto the GPU (feel free to skip to that exciting section) there are some other specs to round up. The Surface Book has 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, dual-microphones, an 8Mp rear camera and a 5Mp front facing webcam. We're particularly impressed with the front facing speakers with Dolby audio which sounds great with an unexpectedly large sound stage.
Microsoft Surface Book review: GPU
The Nvidia GPU hidden within the keyboard dock is the Surface Book's secret weapon – and you get one on three out of four models meaning you don't need to pay the top amounts for this benefit. It's a custom GeForce GPU and when docked you get the full support. Take the tablet away from the keyboard and you'll be using the integrated Intel HD Graphics.
Although it’s a custom card, it's similar to a GeForce 940m with 384 CUDA cores, 945MHz clock speed, 40GBps of memory bandwidth and a 64-wide memory bus. However, the Surface Book 1GB of GDDR5, instead of the much slower DDR3. It's impressive for the size of the device.
The big question you're probably wanting answered is 'do I need a Surface Book with the GPU?' and the answer is probably yes. Partly from a price point of view as if you're going to spend more than £1,200 on a Surface Book then you may as well spend a further £300 to get the GPU. We say probably because it's only going to be worth it if you want to do gaming on the device or need to get through heavy workloads.
As you can see via the graph below from PC World, the Surface Book with the Nvidia GPU scores 50 percent better than the model running on integrated graphics in 3DMark. Compare it to the Dell XPS 13 using HD 5500 and the gap is a whopping 80 percent.
The Surface Book cannot compete with purpose built gaming laptops but you can use it to game. For example: running Tomb Raider on normal settings at 1280x1024 resolution results in a decent 71fps on the Surface Book. Dirt Rally can be run on higher settings with the same resolution compromise. Remember this is an m-class GPU.
Even if you're not going to play games on the Surface Book, you might want the GPU if you're going to do tasks like video editing or CAD. In a benchmark test the Surface Book can manage an encoding job 50 percent faster than a current generation MacBook Pro 13.
Benchmarks aside, it's impressive is that you can detach the tablet from the keyboard dock, and therefore the Nvidia GPU with the Surface Book powered on and Windows functional – no reboot or anything necessary. It's unknown how Microsoft has done this but it's likely to be down to Nvidia's Optimus technology. You might get a pop-up message asking you to close software down first, though, as we discovered.
Surface Book review: Surface Pen
The first thing you'll notice about the Surface Pen is that it finally has a place to call home. With the Surface Pro 3, the pen needed to be forced into a fabric loop stuck onto the side of the keyboard, which meant it always got left behind or misplaced. Now, you can attach the new Surface Pen to the side of the Surface Book with an instant, satisfying snap thanks to built-in magnets.
The new Surface Pen has really good pressure sensitivity, too, up from 256 levels in the previous model to 1,024 levels. That's still not as impressive as the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2's 2,048 levels of sensitivity, but will certainly be sufficient for most users.
You'll find a right click button on the side of the new Surface Pen and an eraser on the end of the pen, making it more practical and efficient to use. Pressing and holding on the top brings up Cortana, so you can get the voice-assistant to help you achieve further tasks without requiring use of the keyboard or trackpad.
Different pen tips are available for note-taking, writing, sketching, drawing and shading, but they weren't available for testing during our time with the Surface Book.
It's expensive but the Surface Book is an amazing piece of technology combining excellent (and unique) design, top-notch build quality and high-end specifications. Battery life is amazing and there's a lot you can do with the Surface Book model with the Nvidia GPU. The big question is can you afford one?