Surface Book Review: The Stylish Laptop That Trumps Your MacBook Pro – Forbes
This week, I continue my look at the alternatives to the MacBook Pro with a device that packs in power, redefined what a laptop could achieve, and has a striking design ethos all of its own. Microsoft’s Surface Book.
Over the years the MacBook Pro design has become stale. With this year’s iteration Apple started to try to reclaim that design prowess with the Touch Bar – which replaces the function keys along the top of the keyboard with a long touch sensitive display. Thin screens aside, the basic nature of the MacBook Pro has not changed, it retains a similar design style, a similar weight and similar performance to historic models
Last year’s Surface Book was a fresh air in the world of laptop design. Yes, Microsoft was starting with a blank piece of paper and very little historical baggage, but that only gave them permission to go out and do something spectacular. The team still had to work out what that spectacular was, and ensure that it would be something smart and usable.
Microsoft ended up with two headline features for the Surface Book. The first is the unique fulcrum hinge. From a practical point of view it changes the weight distribution of the laptop so that the keyboard stays grounded on a flat surface when you tilt the screen back. It is surprisingly stable although I’ve still to work out an elegant way to open up the laptop one-handed.
More importantly, the Surface Book stands out in the crowd. Yes it has defaulted to the silver-grey color that is spookily close to the MacBook, and the ‘four squares’ Microsoft logo on the lid of the Surface Book might as well be cut from a sweet pomaceous fruit, but this initial familiarity is quickly superseded by the hinge and styling. The Surface Book has a simple, subtle style that stands out.
The second headline feature is the screen. Throughout the pre-production and testing phase of the Surface Book, the detachable screen was never demonstrated outside of Microsoft’s engineering team. That allowed Panos Panay a genuine ‘one more thing’ moment as he demoed the product to the world’s press on launch day. Boom… you’ve got yourself a tablet.
In this mode, Microsoft calls the screen the clipboard, but to all intents you have a 13.5 inch Windows 10 powered ‘pro’ tablet that is able to run the full range of Windows applications within the touch interface. Neither is there any awkward rebooting of the device when you remove or replace the screen – simply touch the ‘unlock’ button, listen for the click as the clamps disengage, and away you go.
When launched in October 2015, the Surface Book offered a number of configuration options, with a choice of i5 or i7 processors, 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM, and storage from 128 GB to 1 TB. That’s all pretty standard, but it was what Microsoft did with the GPU that shows what is still possible with laptop hardware. The GPU sits inside the detachable keyboard. As long as you are connected, you’ll unlock the extra power of the custom Nvidia GeoForce (which is roughly equivalent to the GT940M).
As well as keeping the screen/tablet as thin as possible, it moves two of the biggest heat sources away from each other (the CPU remains in the screen assembly) allowing for better thermal management, It also means that the keyboard base had some spare space in the design, which Microsoft stuffed full of batteries.
If you are looking for endurance, then the Surface Book has it in spades, offering a 70 Wh battery (strictly speaking 18 Wh in the clipboard and another 52 Wh in the base). That gives the clipboard between three and four hours of standalone use (the i7 variant draws a touch more power than the i5), the combined Surface Book ensemble offers over twelve hours for the i7 and over fifteen hours for the i5 variant. If you need a portable machine these numbers are what you need,
You’re not going to be able to run the latest 3D games on this set-up. My go-to gaming test of the highly demanding Doom, which ran as smooth as butter on the Razer Blade gaming laptop in last week’s review, struggles on the Surface Book, but games just one generation back pose less of a problem (American Truck Simulator? As graceful as a Peterbilt with an express delivery of pork chops to Little China). To me this is where the Surface Book has made its greatest compromise – ultimate graphical performance has been dialled back in the i5 machines and sits alongside other ultrabooks (such as the Dell XPS13), while the i7 machine is able to cope with most, but not all, of the latest titles. If you’re going to be considering gaming on the Surface Book, go for the i7. Others looking for a more enterprise focused device will be satisfied with the i5.
At least that was the case last year. While the Surface Book has strictly speaking not been updated to a newer model, Microsoft has released a Surface Book retail page with an improved base unit. The clipboard remains the same, but the keyboard base – which is called the Performance Base – retains the i7 6600u CPU, the 16 GB RAM option, and the 1 TB SSD, but it now includes the Nvidia GTX965M GPU. That increases the graphical potential of the machine and opens up far more flexibility for gamers. On a practical note the increased GPU power allows apps like Lightroom far more speed and flexibility.
If you skipped the Surface Book last year because of the weaker graphical power, now might be the time to take another look, specifically at the Performance Base version.
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