A Microsoft-branded premium laptop with a funky hinge and a removable display that transforms into a Windows tablet at the touch of a button? No one saw that coming.
Microsoft’s manufacturing partners are a little worried about what it means now that MSFT is competing directly for their laptop business — getting considerable attention while doing so — while Apple (AAPL) is adjusting to a world where its MacBooks are looking a little dated.
Is the Surface Book everything Microsoft claims? Is it worthy of the attention it has received in the tech press? Should it be your next laptop?
Read our Surface Book review to find out.
Surface Book Review: Innovative Design
Until recently, Microsoft has not been a PC hardware company, but it took the first steps into that arena in 2012 with the Surface and Surface Pro tablets.
Its designs have evolved since then (the Surface Pro is now in its fourth generation), and Microsoft has clearly learned a few things along the way.
The Surface Book is the company’s first laptop, but you would never know that.
From the carefully sculpted magnesium alloy case to the innovative fulcrum hinge and the beautiful display, this is a laptop that screams premium. It’s a looker and one need only consider the countless MacBook Air knock-offs to know that an iconic design is a key selling point for laptops.
With that Fulcrum hinge, Microsoft managed a trick that no one else has been able to pull off quite so well. It allows the Surface Book display to be rotated back nearly flat against the base. And with the push of a single button, the hinge releases the display altogether so it can be used as a standalone Windows tablet in “Clipboard” mode.
The display is multi-touch and Microsoft includes the pressure sensitive Surface Pen stylus.
As a laptop, the Surface Book is solid (there’s a little play in the hinge when using touch gestures) and lightweight, with a full-sized keyboard and a full complement of expansion ports.
Surface Book Review: Impressive Specs, Hefty Price
Microsoft billed the Surface Book as being twice as fast as a MacBook Pro.
PC World put that claim to the test with benchmarks and came back with mixed results. Against a 13-inch MacBook Pro (Apple’s entry-level professional series laptop), an Intel (INTC) Core i5-equipped Surface Book was edged out in CPU performance tests.
However, when it came to graphics, a Surface Book equipped with the Nvidia (NVDA) video card easily pulled away. In fact, when it came to measuring frame rate in a video game, the Surface Book tripled the MacBook Pro’s performance. Using that graphics card to aid the CPU in encoding video, the Surface Book was nearly twice the speed of the MacBook Pro.
So the Surface Book can be twice as fast as a MacBook Pro as MSFT claims, but whether you’ll see that speed difference depends on what you use you laptop for.
It also depends on whether you spring for that Nvidia graphics card.
The $1499 Surface Book this review is based upon jumps to $1899 with the graphics card and fully loaded — with a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a massive 1TB drive — that price tag swells to $3,199.
In contrast, the 12-inch MacBook Pro with a similar configuration (minus the discrete GPU) is priced at $2699.
On top of the raw performance, tablet mode and touch display, the Surface Book’s display is also considerably sharper than Apple’s Retina display at 267 PPI compared to the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s 227 PPI.
Surface Book Review: Specs
As with many laptops, the Microsoft Surface Book is available in multiple configurations. The specs as listed are for the Surface Book review model, the base 128GB/Core i5/8GB version, but it can be specced up to a 1TB/Core i7 with 16GB RAM and discrete GPU for $3,199.
- Detachable, 13.5-inch PixelSense multi-touch display at 3000 x 2000 pixels (267 PPI)
- Intel Core i5 (Skylake) CPU with Intel HD graphics
- 8GB RAM
- 128GB SSD storage
- 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- 2 x full-sized USB 3.0, SC Card reader, Surface Connect, Mini DisplayPort
- 5MP front-facing camera, 8MP rear-facing camera with autofocus
- Dual microphones, dual front-facing speakers with Dolby audio
- Full-sized, backlit keyboard
- Battery rated at up to 12 hours video playback, 3 hours as a tablet
- TPM chip for enterprise security
- Magnesium alloy case
- 9.14 x 12.3 x 0.9 (at thickest)-inches, weighs 3.48 pounds (tablet alone weighs 1.6 pounds)
- Runs Windows 10 Pro
- Includes 30-day Microsoft Office trial, Surface Pen stylus
- MSRP $1499
Surface Book Review: Conclusion
It really seems like Microsoft has something here.
While its Surface and Surface Pro tablets have evolved into a decent option for those who want a tablet with the ability to occasionally serve as a makeshift laptop, the Surface Book pretty much nails the elusive formula of a tablet that actually works as “no compromise” laptop.
Thanks to the fulcrum hinge design, the Surface Book looks and feels like a laptop in use. The Clipboard tablet is also thin, lightweight and powerful, with its only real compromise being a short battery life.
In its next generation, look for MSFT to improve that fulcrum hinge so it offers less flex when poking the display with a finger or the Surface Pen and to up the battery life for the standalone tablet.
Other than those minor issues, the Surface Book is worthy of the praise it’s been receiving. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer than anyone else has come.
Other Windows laptop makers are going to have to up their game in the face of Microsoft’s entry and the Surface Book might just have what it takes –looks, power, quality and cachet– to dethrone Apple’s MacBook/MacBook Air/MacBook Pro trio as the must-have laptop.
As of this writing, Robert Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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- MacBook Review (2015): Crazy Thin, But at a Price