This is the machine that I’ve wanted Microsoft to build ever since it embarked on its Surface adventure in 2012.
The build quality, materials, and design of the Surface line have always impressed, but the tablet form factor continually limited its appeal. Changes to the Surface Pro 3 enabled Microsoft to carve out a niche for its “productivity tablet,” and the Surface Pro 4 is a solid upgrade and refinement, but there’s one thing those devices are not—a laptop.
The laptop form factor, with a stiff hinge that can hold the screen up, is tried, trusted, and tremendously popular. It is equally at home on a desk in the office, on your lap on a train or a plane, or even at home in bed or on the sofa. It can be used in all these places while still offering high quality keyboards and pointers, large screens, abundant ports, big batteries, and high performance. The Surface offered some of these things, but the laptop form factor always offered more.
Microsoft, however, didn’t seem to care. The entire schtick of the Surface Pro was that it was “the tablet to replace your laptop,” and if you have a tablet to replace your laptop, you hardly need a laptop, do you?
Well, yes, actually, you do. Finally, enough people wanted one that Microsoft has made one. Two years in the making, the Surface Book is a premium-priced laptop that Microsoft describes unambiguously as competing not with $499 or $599 laptops but with Apple. Just as the company endlessly compares the Surface Pro to the MacBook Air, the Surface Book is held up against the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The Surface Pro’s comparison was always a bit iffy because of the whole laptop factor. In contrast, the Surface Book’s comparison feels spot on. It’s a mighty fine hunk of metal. And yes, even the styling is totally MacBook-esque: machined metal chassis, bare metal finish, logo on the back of the screen, a bevelled lip to open it up, elegantly backlit keyboard, sleek and slim design.
Nailing the basics
My continued belief is that the most important characteristics of any laptop—any personal computer, really—are its screen, keyboard, and pointing device. Given the choice between a device with mediocre internals but top-notch human interface devices and one with the very fastest components but a crappy screen or keyboard, I’ll pick the former every time. These elements are make or break—get them right and nothing else really matters; get them wrong and your customers will curse you every single time they have to use one of your systems.
The Surface Book is about the size of a 13-inch laptop. To hold up the 13-inch MacBook Pro as an example: the Surface Book is ever so slightly narrower, at 12.30 inches to 12.35, but it’s a little deeper at 9.14 inches compared to 8.62. These dimensions are driven by the screen, which instead of the more common 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratios uses the same 3:2 ratio of the Surface Pro 3 and 4. The resolution is an even 3000×2000 with a 13.5-inch diagonal, making for 267 pixels per inch.
Microsoft is calling the screen technology “PixelSense,” which is amusing from a historical perspective because it’s the second brand name that Surface has stolen. Microsoft’s first Surface was a touchscreen table running Windows Vista. It lost its name to the tablets, with the second generation instead being called the Samsung SUR40 with PixelSense. That PixelSense name is now being used for Surface Book’s screen, with Microsoft explaining that the screen is no longer just an output device; it’s now an I/O device.
There are a few aspects to the PixelSense identity. The screens are oxide LCDs, using a metal oxide semiconductor instead of the more traditional silicon to reduce thickness and improve response times, optically bonded to the touch sensors for reduced thickness and increased rigidity. The contrast ratio is high (1700:1) and the color gamut is full sRGB, with screens calibrated at the factory. The screen is very thin, with only a little distance between the screen’s surface and the display beneath. This is particularly important when using the stylus; it means that digital ink has less separation from the pen tip, which makes it more precise and natural to use.
The screen is, of course, a touchscreen supporting 10 fingers and a stylus. Microsoft bought touch controller firm N-Trig earlier this year, and the Israeli company is now working with the rest of Microsoft’s hardware division to produce touch controllers not only for PCs and laptops but also phones.
The controller used in the Surface Book is called G5. The controller apparently uses GPU-based computation for processing its input data instead of the application-specific integrated circuit used in other touchscreen controllers. This enables both more complex algorithms to be used—better palm rejection, for example—and lower latency sensing. This is particularly important for pen applications to ensure that ink appears quickly for an authentic and accurate experience.
The battery-powered pen supports 1024 pressure levels, and it has a barrel button and an eraser tip on the cap. The cap is also a Bluetooth button that can start up OneNote with a click. In addition, you can take a screenshot with a double click and start Cortana with a long press.
What this all means is that the screen is bright, beautiful, clear, and crisp. To the extent that I can judge—I’m devoid of any meaningful artistic talent, and my handwriting would shame a six-year-old—the pen is precise and lag-free. The higher resolution makes it look better than my current generation 13-inch MacBook Pro, and even on laptops, I have come to find touch interaction indispensable. My MacBook Pro is forever picking up fingerprints from where I idly try to scroll a PDF that I’m reading or tap an on-screen button. The Surface book supports these actions. The MacBook Pro, alas, does not.
Adjacent to the screen are the inevitable cameras. Alongside the front-facing webcam (5MP, 1080p video) is an infrared camera. This is supposed to provide robust facial authentication that can’t be spoofed by photographs. Sadly, I don’t know if it actually works. In the review unit supplied, this feature was not enabled. We don’t have all the right drivers or other plumbing to make it work, and I’m not even sure if that will be in place by the time the Surface Book is available to buy.
I have used Windows Hello facial recognition with the Intel RealSense 3D camera, so I know it works at least in principle. As I understand it, the RealSense 3D camera module is too large to fit into very slim systems, so while it’s found on several systems that are for sale now, Microsoft couldn’t use it for the Surface. Instead, it’s using some Microsoft-developed module.
The keyboard and touchpad are both best in class, at least in terms of feel. The key action is consistent and crisp, and typing on it is a pleasure. My one real gripe is the layout. The cursor keys, for example, use the stacked half-height up and down keys so that the entire set of four can fit on a single row. This makes them harder to use; layouts that use full-height keys are superior, even if this means that the keyboard as a whole does not have a rectangular profile.
I also would have liked a greater number of keys on the keyboard; certain functions, such as Home, End, and Print Screen are doubled up onto the F-keys. Once again, layouts with dedicated keys might sacrifice the neat rectangular grid, but this aesthetic deficit comes with a great improvement in usability.
While the layout is certainly not the worst I have ever used, it’s not the best, either. That’s a distinction earned by the keyboard of the Lenovo X300, and every PC manufacturer should slavishly follow the wisdom of its teachings.
The touchpad appears to have been stolen from Cupertino, because it is very good: big, accurate, smooth, and consistent, equally adept at single-finger pointing and multi-finger gestures.
Ultimately, the Surface Book gets all the important characteristics right. It’s a laptop that you will enjoy using, and if it were just a laptop, it would be a fine one. But of course, it has a couple of important party tricks that elevate it above and beyond the traditional laptop.