Review: Surface Book, Microsoft's 1st laptop, a powerful machine at a premium price
Pricey laptop retails from $1,949 to $3,499 in Canada
At a press event earlier this month, Microsoft had two major surprises, and they were both about the same product. The first surprise was that Microsoft was making a laptop. The second was that it was also a tablet.
Indeed, the Surface Book is a natural evolution of the Surface Pro series of tablets. However good a tablet might be, it would always be a compromise of sorts if you wanted a full-featured laptop.
So, Microsoft went ahead and made one.
With its silvery, magnesium body and black bezel surrounding a crystal-clear screen, it's no secret that the Surface Book takes design cues from Apple's MacBook. That's no surprise; since Apple started the trend, nearly every other high-end, non-business laptop has followed in its footsteps.
Microsoft has a few tricks to differentiate itself from the most obvious competition. Unsurprisingly, most of these come from the Book's hybrid nature.
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Instead of conspicuous hinges or mechanical latches, the Surface Book uses an articulated hinge called the Fulcrum to hold its two halves together. It's a fancy-looking bit of machinery, with seamless parts folding in on each other when you close the laptop.
Pressing an eject button on the keyboard deactivates a powerful magnet holding the parts together, allowing you to remove the screen and use it like a tablet much like the Surface Pro 4.
However, the Fulcrum also presents the Book's greatest problems: while the magnet is surprisingly strong — you can hold it open from either end and it will remain intact — the screen tends to wobble a lot if you want to use its touch functions.
It doesn't close flush, either: a small but noticeable gap appears near the hinge and could let in dust or dirt if you don't carry it in a protective sleeve.
The amount of time given to remove the screen once you've pressed the eject button is also surprisingly short; if you don't yank it out immediately, it will lock back in place and you'll have to try again.
Obsessive laptop perfectionists might want to wait for the inevitable future versions of the Surface Book in the hopes that Microsoft irons out these niggling issues.
Tablet mode and keyboard
In tablet mode, the Surface Book works just like the Pro 4. They both come with the Pen, a stylus with a pressure-sensitive point that gives you slightly more natural-feeling resistance when using it on the touch screen.
You can also place the tablet onto the keyboard in reverse, folding them together for an awkward clipboard, or in a tent-like kiosk mode if you want to leave it on the kitchen table for easy access to recipes and grocery lists.
The Book's keyboard feels like a sturdier version of the Pro 4's keyboard attachment. The flat keys have short travel and make very little noise. They feel a bit softer than a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air's keys.
In short, it's the complete opposite of this reviewer's favoured keys — giant, loud, mechanical Cherry MX switches found on some full-sized desktop keyboards. But this review and last week's Assassin's Creed: Syndicate review were both written on the Surface Book without trouble.
The Surface Book runs Windows 10 and is powered by Intel's latest i5 and i7 processors. You can expect it to handle any daily tasks with ease.
Google Chrome runs with 36 tabs opening and loading concurrently without noticeably chugging, and switching between programs like Adobe Illustrator and Microsoft Word 2016 felt seamless.
Video tests consisted mainly of watching the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens at YouTube's max settings on repeat. The Book's 3000 x 2000 pixel resolution is stunning, with vibrant colours and deep blacks. Finn's blue lightsaber in the forest at the end of the trailer never looked better.
Pricier models include a custom Nvidia GeForce graphics processor (GPU) for modest gaming. Nvidia didn't specify a model number, but it's comparable to the 940M, on the lower end of its notebook gaming line.
Bioshock Infinite's benchmark tool averaged 38 frames per second at 1920 x 1080 resolution on medium settings. Metro: Last Light put up more of a fight: we ran that game's benchmark at 1920 x 1080 on medium settings, without bells and whistles like tessellation or motion blur, and averaged 32 frames per second.
Gamers interested in running the latest games at the highest settings would be better served building a gaming desktop PC at a fraction of the cost. But for a laptop that isn't promoted as a gaming machine, the Surface Book is moderately impressive.
Surface Book vs. Surface Pro 4
Whether you should buy a Surface Book or a Surface Pro 4 really depends on what kind of device you're looking for.
If you want a full-featured PC, the Surface Book is the clear choice. It's a stellar laptop with added tablet functionality, not the other way around.
If you value a tablet's portability and around-the-house versatility, the Surface Pro 4 will better fit your needs.
That said, you'll have to pay a high price for either of Microsoft's flagship devices. Depending on the model, the Surface Book ranges from $1,949 to $3,499.
The Surface Pro 4 is more affordable, but still starts at $1,179 and goes up to $2,099. The keyboard attachment costs an extra $169.99, though arguably that seems less mandatory — with the Book's introduction, the Pro 4 may not be as pressured to fill the laptop-and-tablet space any more.