Microsoft Surface Book review: It’s expensive, very expensive
Latest news: The Surface Book has been out for a year now and it’s time for an update. Microsoft hasn’t made any physical changes to the design of its tablet-cum-laptop in 2016, though. The screen, keyboard, chassis design and touchpad are all the same as ever. The processor line-up remains the same, too, so what has Microsoft changed about the Surface Book?
Two key things: first, the graphics capabilities of the top-end models get a significant boost, moving to a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M with 2GB of GDDR5 RAM. Second, there’s a bigger battery, with the new models getting a 61Wh power pack in the base compared with a 52Wh battery in last year’s performance model.
There are a couple of catches, though. First, there’s no upgrade path. Existing users can’t simply swap out the new performance base for the new one (annoying, since all the changes are in the keyboard module, not the tablet bit). And, as yet, there’s no confirmed UK release date for the upgrade.
Rest assured, though, I’ll be updating this review when we have a UK release date and when I’ve had the opportunity to retest with the new performance base. In the meantime, you can read the full review of the original Surface Book below, which remains on sale.
Microsoft Surface Book review
Around the world, the UK has something of a reputation for queuing – so you could say it’s only fitting that it’s been left waiting in line for the Microsoft Surface Book. While US customers got their hands on it way back in October last year, the UK has had to wait almost four months for the privilege.
Thankfully, though, it does look as if the wait has been worthwhile. In Microsoft’s own words, the Surface Book is both “the ultimate laptop” and “the future of laptop computing” – but what’s truly surprising is that, in many ways, it’s not far wrong.
That said, the Surface Book didn’t make a particularly spectacular entrance. After all the bombast of the launch and those many megapixels of sneak peeks strewn across the web, I was eager to see the Surface Book with my own two eyes. However, despite my expectations, or maybe because of the sheer weight of them, I wasn’t blown away.
Although Microsoft’s literature indicates it’s cast from a painstakingly-crafted slab of pale silver magnesium, it initially looked to me as if it were made from fashionably grey plastic. Very, very nice-looking plastic – the premium kind – but plastic nonetheless. Oddly, there’s something about the Surface Book that doesn’t look like a premium-priced slab of metal.
Pick it up, and the cool-to-the-touch metal has a lovely silky texture, and while it weighs in at a fairly chunky 1.5kg, it largely feels like I’d expect a £2,249, 13.5in laptop to feel. I say largely because even here there are negatives to be found. The slight fore and aft wobble in the display adds to the feeling of something being not quite as it should be. It isn’t worryingly unstable, but at this price, I was expecting something rock-solid and engineered to within a micron-thin whisker of perfection – not something with a slightly wobbly hinge.
There are other little, but equally perplexing quibbles, too. Put it on a desk, and it’s mightily tough to open the Surface Book one-handed without it sliding around. It’s not even that easy to do when you employ both hands. Given the lofty expectation set by Microsoft’s own marketing materials, this doesn’t strike me as the pinnacle of design brilliance. Potentially, a set of rubber feet on the underside would spoil the look, but it’d be a darn sight more practical.
Microsoft Surface Book: The ultimate hybrid design?
Rewind to October last year, and Microsoft’s launch for the Surface Book hid one thing brilliantly: very few people clocked that it was actually a 2-in-1 hybrid before the on-stage reveal. Even now, if you didn’t already know, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a premium laptop rather than a cutting-edge 2-in-1 from the Surface camp. The only major giveaway to the Surface Book’s talents? A Surface Pen is included in the box.
The novel “fulcrum” hinge is what allows the Surface Book to work its magic. The width of the hinge means that the display doesn’t fold flat against the keyboard – something that irked a handful of Alphr’s (admittedly mildly OCD) editorial staff – but on the flipside, it allows the Surface Book’s tablet half to dock seamlessly with the keyboard section, and also makes the Surface Book much easier to grab, hold and carry about.
It’s an impressive piece of engineering, too. The long strips of metal concertina together to pivot the display back and forth, and while you can’t push the display all the way back flat, this does at least mean that there’s no danger of the Surface Book toppling backwards. Oh, and it looks great, too – just check out the photographs.
Dab the undocking button on the top-right of the keyboard, or the onscreen icon in the Windows 10 taskbar, and the undocking procedure is accompanied by a tiny LED flitting from red to green, and the quiet whirr of the “muscle wire” mechanism releasing the tablet section. No, that’s not a typo: it really does use “muscle wire”. The Surface Book’s ingenious locking mechanism is actually made possible with strands of thin nitinol wire that contract when an electric current is applied. Once those strands release their grip, magnets still hold the tablet firmly in place, meaning it doesn’t fall backwards – you still have to make an effort to separate the two.
That done, you can either grab the tablet and wander off as you please, or you can spin it around 180 degrees and re-dock it to use the Surface Book in what Microsoft rather confusingly calls “tablet” mode. This latter scenario has two benefits: the first is you get the benefit of the discrete Nvidia GPU, secondary battery and connectivity in the keyboard; the second is you can choose whether to use the Surface Book as an on-desk graphics tablet or just a super-powerful Windows tablet that you can carry around. It’s worth mentioning, too, that in this mode, the Surface Book’s wide, rounded hinge is actually a good thing because it makes it easy to hold in one hand and simultaneously scribble with the other.
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Microsoft Surface Book specifications
|Processor||Dual-core 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U|
|Memory slots (free)||2 (0)|
|Sound||Realtek HD Audio (3.5mm headset port)|
|Pointing device||Touchscreen, trackpad|
|Graphics adaptor||Nvidia GeForce|
|Graphics outputs||Mini DisplayPort|
|Total storage||512GB SSD|
|Optical drive type||None|
Ports and expansion
|USB ports||2x USB3|
|Memory card reader||SD|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Pro|
|Operating system restore option||Restore partition|
|Parts and labour warranty||One year RTB|
|Price inc VAT||£2,249|
|Part number||Surface Book|