[highlight color=#336699 ]Introduction[/highlight]
Microsoft’s Surface line goes full laptop with the Surface Book, but is it anything more than just a glorified tablet?
Here it is, the toils of Microsoft’s Surface team in sleek, finished form. Nobody expected it coming¦ But is it actually necessary? A fully-fledged laptop complete with a discrete GPU that also doubles as a tablet with a detachable screen. It’s everything great about the Surface Pro 4 and more, though it has an astronomical price-tag to boot. Will all of that money justify such a niche, premium-level product?
OS: Windows 10
Processor: Intel Skylake core i3 / i5/ i7 (reviewed)
Screen: 13.5 inches
Resolution: 3000 x 2000 pixels (267 ppi)
Memory: 4 / 8/ 16GB (reviewed)
Storage: 128GB/ 256GB/ 512GB (reviewed)/ 1TB
Micro SD compatible? Yes
Rear camera: 8MP
Front camera: 5MP
Video: 1080p 30FPS
Connectivity: Bluetooth, WIFI
Dimensions: 232 x 312 x 13 mm
[highlight color=#336699 ]Design[/highlight]
The Surface Book is pretty incredible to look at, coming in at a cross between the now conventional MacBook design that so many others try to emulate… And something more authoritarian and monolithic. It’s hard to get more minimal than Apple’s offerings and yet here, somehow, they’ve pulled it off with a device that has even less to see on the front panel. Everything on this laptop is brushed silver in appearance and aside from the chrome Microsoft logo on the rear, branding is nowhere to be seen. It’s an insanely clean appearance that lets the engineering do the talking and boy, does the engineering talk.
Possibly coolest thing about the Surface Book is its fulcrum hinge, a patent pending innovation created by the Surface team in-house to solve the problem of uneven weight distribution. When you initially hold the Surface Book in an open position, it’s obvious that the screen carries more weight than the base. This could create some very troublesome issues were it not for the hinge implementation. Folding out like a snake, it elongates the bottom of the device, giving more surface area that let’s prone to being knocked over. While it won’t always work if the device is being used on your lap, it appears to solve the issue quite nicely on a desk, making the Surface Book feel altogether a little bit sturdier on its feet.
Connectivity has moved onto the base for the Book, a logical move considering that you’ll spend most of the time using said ports when it’s docked and on your desk. As standard, you get 2 USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and a Mini Display Port for connecting to a second screen, though this can all be expanded with the optional Surface Dock connector. Plug this into the charging port and your USB and Mini Display Port connections will double, plus you’ll get a very handy Ethernet port. That said, at £164.99 for the dock, we can hardly call it a cheap investment.
Move onto the keyboard and you have quite possibly the best typing experience on a Windows laptop to date, backed up by that glass trackpad found on the Surface Pro 4. It’s every bit as smooth and responsive as you’ll remember, with plenty of space for multi-touch gestures.
[highlight color=#336699 ]Camera[/highlight]
The cameras on the Surface Book are actually the same as what can be found on the new Surface Pro 4, meaning you get the same perks as its little brother. At 8 megapixels, the rear sensor ships with autofocus, something that last generation Surface devices did not. Pictures produced are near enough identical to the Pro 4, with usable daytime images on the whole. Low-light is still a write off, with the laptop completely failing in our darkest test. This is hardly surprising however considering most others do the same.
The 5 megapixel front camera is more interesting, incorporating Windows Hello for some very cool instant login capability. Next to the physical camera sensor itself is a second infrared imaging sensor that is used for scanning the room. During the initial setup of Hello, Windows will ask to take a profile of your face and from there it’s all pretty straightforward. Simply look into the camera when you see the login screen and if all goes well, it should recognise you.
[highlight color=#336699 ]Screen[/highlight]
The Surface Book takes the already excellent screen found on the Pro 4 and pushes it to new heights, with a whopping resolution of 3000 x 2000 pixels. It’s a little bigger at 13.5-inches diagonally across but with the increased resolution, pixel density still comes out the same as the Pro 4; a huge 267 pixels per inch. This blazes the comparatively sized MacBook Pro, which achieves an impressive but nonetheless inferior 232ppi.
Resolution is only a small part of what makes a panel excellent however and Microsoft didn’t just stop at sheer pixel count. Panos Panay proudly touted this as the best laptop panel on the market during the announcement back in October last year and there’s plenty of home truths behind that claim. A claimed 100% Adobe sRGB coverage means it should be good for professional design work within the digital domain, though we recorded closer to 95% in real-world tests. A score of roughly 75% for Adobe RGB coverage isn’t exactly stellar for print-based work but still way above most of the competition. We recorded an excellent 1750:1 contrast ratio, meaning that the panel was capable of displaying some of the deepest blacks we’d ever seen, while the white colours didn’t have that dull grey hue about them. Colour accuracy ratings are practically off the chart, with an average Delta E rating of 0.59. To put this into perspective, anything around 1.0 is pretty spectacular. Anything below this rating and you’re getting into impeccable levels of accuracy.
This, when combined with the other innovations found on the Pro 4 such as reducing the optical stack to just 0.4mm, mean that it actually manages to eclipse that product even further. You probably won’t notice the differences that much in the real world but trust us when we say, this is a fabulous panel.
[highlight color=#336699 ]Performance[/highlight]
Much like the Surface Pro 4, this is a fully-fledged desktop with regards to performance. We received the top-end i7-6600U model, a brand new Skylake dual core processor with hyperthreading support for an additional two virtual cores. Pair this with 16GB RAM (which Aida tells us is actually closer to 19GB) and you’ve got a ridiculously strong package. One of the trump cards up the sleeve of the Surface Book is a dedicated graphics card residing in the base which can be dynamically used when the tablet is docked. Trying to remove the tablet portion while the GPU is in use will issue a warning on-screen; this only really occurs during more intensive software utilisation. While Microsoft has been unusually coy about what GPU they chose to use, it doesn’t take much effort to find out. Aida lists it as a GM108 chip though doesn’t clarify the model, while 3DMark identified it as a lowly Nvidia GTX 940M. This is classified as a mid-range card, though you could argue it barely slots into the line-up and is definitely more of a budget card.
Doing a round of PCMark 8 tests and gaming benchmarks showed a strong result, with the Surface Book comfortably leapfrogging the Pro 4 with regards to performance. It scored significantly higher across all tests; 3848 in the work benchmark, 3735 in the creative test and 2894 in the home trial. 3DMark 8 scores are understandably much higher thanks to that dedicated GPU, an addition that made a big difference while gaming. We managed to run all of our test titles at 1080p on low settings and get playable frame-rates, while a bit of tweaking to resolution would allow medium settings at a slightly reduced 1680 x 1050 on some games. My flatmate comfortably played Counter Strike: Global Offensive well into the night on high settings at the latter resolution with smooth 60FPS for the most part.
After the Surface Pro 4 shipped with Windows 10, it only makes sense that the Surface Book should follow suit. As the OS drifts ever closer to maturity, there’s less and less niggles to detract from the overall experience. Yes, the start screen still isn’t what you’ll remember from Windows 7 but the navigation is close enough that long-time users shouldn’t struggle too much with the transition. The opinion dividing Metro Start screen from Windows 8 is still there, now residing in the start menu itself, though you’re never forced to use it should you want the old-fashioned desktop experience.
Virtual assistant and Siri competitor Cortana has been carried across from Windows 10 Mobile in largely the same form as before. You’ll get everything the mobile version has and it’s all neatly crammed into the little search bar on the bottom left. You’ll able to use her for quick searches and speech communication, while also managing your calendar, making appointments and getting a daily overview of your schedule. Continuum is also on full show and acts as Microsoft’s answer to a one-size-fits-all operating system. With the ability to dynamically change the interface depending on what device you’re using, it’s an impressive accomplishment that mostly works effortlessly.
We never encountered many issues with the docking station while in use. Removing the tablet will incur a small delay as the device adjusts, though it’s only a matter of milliseconds. There were no catastrophic driver crashes during our extended time with the Surface Book, which is reassuring considering the dynamic hot-swapping between dedicated and integrated GPU’s that happens on the fly.
The battery in the Surface Book is an interesting idea from Microsoft, since it’s actually divided into two spate partitions. The larger of the two cells resides in the base and will power the device when the tablet portion is docked. When you’re using the top part on its lonesome, you’ll actually only have 2,387mAh of a possible 9,187mAh. Microsoft claims it should be good for 4 hours of tablet-only use and we found that to be mostly true, so long as you’re not sapping it with lots of power-hungry HD content.
With the full power of both batteries, you can expect a very large 12 hours of use from the Surface Book. While it doesn’t always live up to this claim, especially when under strenuous use, you can make it to that number with some level of frugality. Microsoft has openly struggled with issues surrounding the battery life since launch, with earlier models suffering driver and sleep mode issues that would severely impact the overall life. Thankfully, our model didn’t seem to be one of those units. In a nice bonus, a full charge only takes around 2 hours from dead, meaning you can juice it up pretty quickly and be on the move with minimal fuss.
[highlight color=#336699 ]Conclusion[/highlight]
An even better screen than what can be found on the Surface Pro 4, the most incredible, over-engineered hinge we’ve ever seen and the addition of that all-important dedicated GPU make this more than just a fancy premium edition. If you’re serious about creative work but need the portability, the Surface Book should be able to handle moderate tasks with little difficulty. That said, it is only a low-end graphics card so don’t expect the performance of a gaming notebook, despite it costing a small fortune.