Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base Review

Nick Broughall 29 March 2017

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base review

There can be little debate that Microsoft’s decision to begin manufacturing its own lineup of computing hardware was a good one. The Surface family of smart tablets are widely regarded as some of the best on the market. Simply put, Microsoft’s ability to meld hardware with its software is as good as Apple’s.

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base from Microsoft Store

Purchase Microsoft's powerful tablet/laptop hybrid from the Microsoft Store.

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The Surface Book with Performance Base is the second generation of its MacBook Pro competitor. The big change over the 2015 version of the Surface Book is a dramatic step up in the graphical capabilities of the new base unit. Where the old unit featured a custom Nvidia card based on the GeForce 540, the Performance Base adds a Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M graphics card.

Despite the significant increase in power needs, Microsoft still manages to maintain the battery life offered. The end result somehow melds laptop and tablet into a single device, adding the versatility of an iPad Pro to the power of a MacBook Pro in a single package, which gives Microsoft the edge over Apple’s approach to premium portable computing.

Design

Looking at the Surface Book as a complete unit, you could easily be taken with the idea that you are in fact looking at a standard, old-fashioned laptop, though with a slightly strange hinge design. The only real indication that Microsoft has built a hybrid style device is the fact that the power button is located at the top of the 13.5-inch screen, just like a tablet.

The full-size keyboard and trackpad are far from unique, with the exception of one button at the top of the keyboard. A long press of this button will release the locks holding the screen attached to the keyboard and switch the Surface Book into tablet mode, so you can take the screen with you and work without the bulk of the qwerty keyboard.

Because of this hybrid nature, the Surface Book with Performance Base is a little bit bulkier than most laptops, as it needs to squeeze batteries into both the screen component and the base unit. But it otherwise doesn’t skimp on the connection ports, with two old-school USB 3.0 ports and an SD card reader on the left of the base. On the right sits a Thunderbolt as well as the proprietary charging port on the right. There’s also a headphone jack on the tablet for those who like the authenticity of cabled sound.

The other major component of the Surface Book with Performance base is the stylus, which magnetically attaches to the screen. Like the Apple Pen, it looks the part and works well, but the reality is that unless you’re a professional designer the need for such a peripheral is minimal.

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base review

Why you’d want the Surface Book with Performance Base

  • The 13.5-inch screen. Admittedly, the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface Book with Performance Base may seem a little odd in a world of 16:9, but the thing is gorgeous. At 13.5 inches, it’s quite large for a tablet, but it is lovely to behold. There’s an abundance of detail on every screen, making it a great companion to all kinds of work.
  • Versatile design. Admittedly the uniform metallic grey colour scheme does not scream “fashion icon” from the top of the street corner, but there is a premium quality in both looks and feel with the Surface Book. That’s even more evident when you factor in the versatility of the removable screen. The computer is well weighted, feels robust in either laptop or tablet mode, and offers a premium performance, which is generally something you must sacrifice to get this kind of form factor.
  • Battery life. The fact that there needs to be a battery in both the screen and the keyboard means that the battery life on the Surface Book is resolutely impressive. Even tackling some graphically intensive tasks, like gaming, the Surface Book continued to perform well.
  • The secure screen connection. Don’t let the presence of a physical button confuse you – the process of detaching the screen is software based. Because of the extra grunt, Windows needs to make sure everything will keep working without that extra graphical grunt, so the software decision makes sense. But the reality is that the screen attachment is incredibly good. You can carry the Surface book by the screen with no fear of the keyboard detaching and falling to the ground, though we probably wouldn’t recommend that.
  • Windows Hello face unlocking. This feature isn’t unique to the Surface Book, but it was definitely the best implementation of face unlocking I’ve experienced. It mostly worked, with a few misfires in awkwardly lit rooms.

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base review

Why you might want to avoid the Surface Book with Performance Base

  • Price. No matter what way you look at it, the Surface Book with Performance Base is an expensive proposition. Admittedly it is a premium machine, but given the fact that the hybrid doesn’t actually feature the latest Intel processors, the performance is somewhat dated already.
  • No USB C connections. There is a very definite trend in the market right now towards the new USB C standard. It’s slightly disappointing to see that Microsoft’s current flagship Surface product doesn’t include the new standard.
  • Easy to lose stylus. The stylus that comes with the Surface Book is remarkable for its accuracy, and conveniently sticks to the side of the device for storage, but it's still easy to lose. During the course of this review, the stylus went missing at least three times, and I spent a good five minutes each time searching for it.

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base review

Who is it best suited for? What are my other options?

If the recent upgrade to the MacBook Pro left you feeling a little underwhelmed, and you like a little more versatility from your laptop, the Surface Book is an exceptionally good offering. But it's definitely only for those looking at a premium computing solution, and one that isn't too worried about the latest components powering their workload.

The fact the Surface Book with Performance Base has a starting price of $3,799 tells you exactly the type of market the device is best suited to. If the price is a bit high, Dell's new XPS 13 2-in-1 offers a similar tablet/laptop experience at a cheaper price point.

Where can I get it?

The Surface Book with Performance Base in Australia is exclusively available through the Microsoft Store, either digitally or at its Sydney flagship location. Unlike the cheaper Surface Pro devices such as the Surface Pro 4, you can't pick it up elsewhere.

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