Microsoft Surface Book review: Premium but problematic
- Great physical design
- Choice of laptop or tablet modes
- Excellent keyboard
- Decent battery life
- Integrated or discrete graphics
- Optimised for Windows 10
Could be better
- Serious instability problems
- Very thin profile
- Limited availability
Microsoft’s first laptop is super stylish, but also very unstable.
Historically Microsoft’s been a software company whose only hardware interests lay in a range of productivity peripherals and its Xbox line of gaming consoles.
The launch of the Surface line saw the operating systems giant dabble in premium laptops for the first time, but with tablet sensibilities, as the Surface and Surface Pro systems offered keyboards as an optional extra. To date, Surface PCs have always been tablets with laptop options, but the Surface Book approaches the idea from the other side as a laptop that also works in tablet modes.
Here are the core specifications for the Microsoft Surface Book alongside the new Surface Pro 4:
|Model||Surface Book||Surface Pro 4|
|Resolution||3000 x 2000||2736 x 1824|
|Pixels per inch||267ppi||267ppi|
|Processor||Intel Core i5/i7||Intel Core M3/i5/i7|
|Storage||128/256/512GB SSD||128/256/512GB SSD|
|Battery||Up to 12 hours||Up to 9 hours|
|Software||Windows 10 Pro||Windows 10 Pro|
|Price||From $2,299||From $1,349|
Upsides: Why you’d want the Microsoft Surface Book
- Great physical design: The Surface Book’s design includes a very nicely built flexible hinge, high resolution display screen and the kind of external connectivity that you’d expect out of a laptop, rather than the more limited connectivity approach of most tablets.
- Choice of laptop or tablet modes: Like the Surface Pro, the Surface Book allows for direct tablet usage when you remove the screen, giving it some considerable work flexibility, at least in theory.
- Excellent keyboard: The Surface Pro keyboard is decent, but the Surface Book keyboard is genuinely superb, with a light and quiet touch, plenty of key travel and good key spacing making it a great option for touch typists.
- Decent battery life: The Surface Book comes with two inbuilt batteries, split between the tablet display and the keyboard dock. Both charge from the laptop base for a claimed 12 hour battery life, although we did have some issues readily testing this aspect of performance.
- Integrated or discrete graphics: In its tablet form, the Surface Book relies on Intel’s HD graphics solution, but when plugged into the base dock, it can also draw on a custom NVIDIA GPU for additional processing power. This isn’t just applicable to games, but could also be useful for heavy duty image or video processing. It’s notably absent from the cheapest Surface Book in Australia at this time, however.
- Optimised for Windows 10: As you might expect for a premium laptop designed to show off what Windows 10 can do, the Surface Book supports just about every feature you'd care to name, from the Cortana virtual assistant to Windows Hello for unlocking. It also supports the newest model of Microsoft's excellent Surface Pen if you have artistic needs or just like jotting down notes rather than typing them.
Downsides: Why you might not want the Microsoft Surface Book
Serious instability problems: Microsoft has something of a history with the first version of a given product, and sadly the Surface Book suffers from this a lot. We struggled to simply get the Surface Book to install at first, and then it hit a recurring problem where the screen detach function failed to work.
Despite the presence of a physical button to start the screen removal process, the actual removal is handled by software. It’s a necessary step because of the integrated Nvidia GPU, because it has to allow any apps using it to be gracefully stopped or swap to the Intel GPU as needed, but all too often the driver misbehaves. Sometimes it decided that we weren’t connected when we were, allowing the display to charge but not to use the keyboard. Sometimes it was the reverse, where it would allow us to use the keyboard but not charge the tablet section, while simultaneously being physically unable to separate the screen from the keyboard.
Instability also stopped us being able to adequately test real world battery life, because every time we tried to set up a battery looping test, the Surface Book would crash before it could conclude the test. By way of contrast, running the Surface Pro 4 through the same tests turned up no such issues, and there are numerous online reports that mirror our experiences with the Surface Book.
- Very thin profile: Thin laptops are nothing new, but Microsoft’s shaved every possible millimetre from the Surface Book that it could while still retaining USB port compatibility. The challenge here is that when the Surface Book sits on a desk there’s very little clearance for those USB ports, which means some peripherals (especially chunkier USB drives) won’t sit neatly on the desk when plugged in.
- Limited availability: Microsoft's only supplying the Surface Book through its single retail location and via online sales in Australia. Aside from potential stock issues, the other problem here is that if you do need after-sales support, you've either got to be in Sydney or deal with online support if anything goes wrong with the Surface Book.
Who is it best suited for? What are my other options?
If you’re a professional user who needs the full power of a laptop not met by the excellent Surface Pro 4, the Surface Book could be a good purchase option, but we’d be wary of dropping significant cash on it given its early instability problems. It’s very much a "version one" type product at this stage, and while Microsoft may patch away its issues, we’d suggest buying a premium product that delivers premium performance out of the box.
That field is quite wide, and if you like Microsoft’s general Surface approach, you could buy the top-end Surface Pro 4 as a very solid, very stable alternative. The Surface Book’s premium pricing puts it at the top of the tier of available Windows laptops, so virtually any other laptop could be yours, but if you’re after a system with a hybrid feel, consider Lenovo’s Yoga Pro lines or Toshiba’s Portege offerings.
Where can I get it?
Microsoft sells the Surface Book in Australia exclusively through its single retail store in Sydney, as well as online through its Microsoft store. Unlike the Surface Pro 4, it is not currently available through other retailers.