Review: Microsoft Surface Book

After getting hands-on with Microsoft’s latest shiny thing, we definitely wants one, precious…

Sure, upon receiving the Surface Book to test, Tech Trends put it diligently through its paces, and below you’ll find our honest impressions of what was good as well as the niggles and shortcomings that came up. But overall the greatest downside is that we’re having to return it, and — given the fact that my MacBook Pro is currently fully functional — I can’t quite justify spending the 2K to upgrade my setup just now.

I bought my current machine — to quote the merchant in Resident Evil — “at a very high price” about four years ago. At the time it was really the only portable laptop that could keep up with the demands of Avid & Adobe video editing and heavy Lightroom use, and apart from the tendency to overheat and melt my thighs, plus the interminable niggles with OSX updates, it did the job.

But over the years I have watched with increased interest and building excitement as Microsoft brought out products like the Surface Pro 3. The signs were definitely encouraging, but it didn’t have the grunt I needed. Then out came the first version of the Surface Book, which did pack the required grunt and frankly looked the bollox. Plus — at a time when Apple was randomly removing things like USB ports from its new MacBooks — it had all the connections I needed, plus a lovely removable touchscreen. Yet the graphics were not great and the battery looked a bit underwhelming, so I stayed put.

Then in October last year Microsoft released an upgraded Surface Book with a Performance Base featuring a new, more powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M with 2GB of VRAM and a larger battery. They had not bumped the Intel i7 up from 6th generation to 7th but that was not a deal breaker and promises of a faster internal SSD and the upcoming Windows 10 Creators Update hooked me in. Unfortunately these things do take time to arrive here in the UK, but as I unpacked it last week I couldn’t help but think it had been worth the wait.

Now, this won’t be a hugely technical review, there are plenty of those out there if that’s your thing, but more of a candid test drive from someone who’s used to demanding quite a bit from their kit with a photo & video intensive workflow.

First impression was that it’s definitely fast! It is fleet of foot and start ups and shut downs are just a joy to behold. The i7 eats through day-to-day tasks and the SSD (tested with Blackmagic Disk Speed Test) reads and writes at over 1GB/s.

The first thing I tested was what I had been waiting most keenly for, the touch screen in laptop mode. I know other machines got here first but on a true power laptop this was my first experience and oh boy it is liberating; pinching, swiping and scrolling on my work laptop just as I would on my phone felt so good I found myself grinning at that lovely high-res screen. And on that beauty:

It’s a 13.5 “PixelSense display with a resolution of 3000 x 2000 (267 PPI) and an slightly unusual aspect ratio of 3:2. It is gorgeous with solid blacks, great detail and a very impressive maximum brightness of 355 lux and outstanding contrast level of 1,440:1, these are all vitally important for anyone like me who deals in imagery.

My wife always comments on how filthy my MacBook screen always looks because I’m always touching it as I point out things, etc. It’s the intuitive way in which visual and creative professionals work, so not having the touchscreen functionality always felt like something of a handicap with Macs. The surface just feels like what it has meant to be all along, allowing you to interact with the machine in whatever way makes sense for you at the time — be it keyboard, trackpad, pen, or even those filthy fingers.

Being used to the very solid aluminium hunk that is my MacBook Pro, the magnesium Surface Book felt light and I didn’t mind the unusual-looking hinge as its unique design enables the tablet mode, more on that later. A minor gripe would be the keyboard which is a bit “clicky clacky” and the keys feel a bit light for my taste, as I prefer them firmer, but the travel on them is nice.

The surface book has an SDXC reader and two fast USB 3 ports meaning I can edit video and photos stored on external SSD drives and enjoy the speeds they offer. In another win over Apple the power connection is magnetic! Why Apple removed the legendary MagSafe connection on their newest laptops is a mystery and will result in thousands more smashed laptops as people and pets trip over trailing cables (with 3 boisterous Staffies with very active whipping tails in the house, I can tell you that’s a very real problem). Admittedly the Microsoft solution is not as elegant but it is reversible and does the job well. After my minor complaint about the keyboard I have nothing but praise for the trackpad. I barely noticed the difference between my Mac and the Surface Book and that is a big compliment. The trackpad is precise, tactile and lovely to use, plus performs a host of common multi-finger functions and is a good size too.

As a laptop the Surface Book’s only oddity is that the hinge is a bit wobbly and getting the screen at the right angle and balancing it on your lap takes some getting used to. Remember that the CPU and a second battery live in the tablet section, so the screen is heavier that on most laptops and the hinge has to be stronger to account for that. The annoyance this creates, however, is soon outweighed by the possibility of taking that wonderful screen off and having a HUGE tablet on your hands! Simply push and hold the tablet release button and a second later there is a satisfying click and the screen pulls easily off. Wow it is light! Much lighter than you expect and also big, very big, but in a GOOD way.

The tablet is comfortable to hold and the screen looks even more impressive when off the base. It does get warm as you browse the web and noticeably so when watching videos but never hot, and the tablet sports a very quiet fan and ventilation holes all around the edge so it cools back down quickly.

I did run into a few software glitches in Tablet mode, while browsing the web in Chrome the screen froze for 40 seconds or so before suddenly working again and twice I tried to open Windows 10 settings and this would not work at all, a quick restart fixed it but this did happen a couple of times within an hour of use. These issues were not a huge problem though, and I am sure future Windows 10 updates will continue to improve on the software functions when using the Tablet.

You can’t try out the tablet without using the Surface Pen, a simple tube of matt silver metal with a flat magnetic side so you can secure it to the Tablet on any side surface. I have used a lot of tablets and pens and this one is functional, i.e. does exactly what it says on the tin. The Surface Pen has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and an eraser on the other end, so handwritten notes on your screen are just like pen on paper, and writing is really comfortable. Writing and drawing in Paint 3D is great fun and the ink pen is particularly satisfying to use, creating lovely elegant lines. The quality of the screen really comes across when drawing and painting, the colours are bright and rich and the six million pixels mean the lines and shapes look truly fluid.

I honestly love the Tablet and just reading the newspapers is such a pleasure as the text looks so crisp and clear. You do however notice the lower powered GPU when in Tablet mode and scrolling web pages could be a little smoother and switching apps is also a little slow but this is nothing unusual on other tablets. Fitting the Tablet back onto the base is a sinch, just line it up and it gently clicks back with a faint magnetic thunk and once it is back on the connection is so strong I had no fears about the base dropping off when picking up the whole thing by the screen, it is very secure.

OK now onto performance. As a video producer and photographer I need a light, portable machine with a great screen, good battery, lots of processing power, fast USB ports and an SDXC reader. I installed Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 14, Adobe CC and a range of apps including Premier Pro, After Effects and Lightroom, loaded up some HD and 4K video as well as 40GB of RAW photos and went to work. I won’t go into too much detail but summing up my experience I have to say I am impressed. The Surface Book performed at least as well as my MacBook Pro in HD & 4K video editing and playback and was very capable of building and rendering out video graphics and tiles in After Effects.

It did struggle when grading 4K video in DaVinci Resolve but that is no surprise, as even my workstation PC finds this a challenge. What was very pleasing was editing photos in Lightroom, although not a huge improvement, working with a large catalogue of high res photos was quicker than on my Mac. The super-fast SSD and a newer generation processor no doubt helped out here, making browsing the catalogue quick and pleasurable. Again the screen made a huge difference here, the colours really pop and the incredible contrast it offers makes manipulating images a real joy.

Sound is the next thing I looked at and the Surface Book had its work cut out here as Macs famously deliver great sound, at least through headphones. Either side of the detachable screen are two forward-facing speakers that look tiny but don’t sound it. They pump out a very loud and impressive sound, easily enough to fill a room with good bass and mids. Did I mention it was loud? Playing the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok I was blown away and had to quickly turn the audio down to 60% to avoid disturbing the neighbours, which was unexpected. You could easily sit a group of people around the laptop and share a pretty good movie experience. I next connected up my Skullcandy Crusher Bluetooth headphones and ran the same trailer. As you would expect the audio was much better through cans with a really well-balanced sound that I could listen to for quite a while without getting bored, all round a good performance!

To sum up, I think Microsoft have finally produced a contender in the power laptop category, but really they have done much more than that. The combination of the detachable and impressive tablet screen, a capable pen tool, and all the standard connections that Apple have tossed aside means they’ve built a very compelling package for creative professionals.

When you look at the direct competition from Apple the benefits of the Surface Book over the 2017 MacBook Pros become very obvious. The version I tested directly compares to the 13inch MacBook Pro with an Intel i7, 500GB and 16GB RAM and Touch Bar which retails at £2399 but has no Tablet mode or Pen support, both of which are key for the modern creative and design professionals Macs are marketed at. When you consider the Surface Book costs exactly the same (RRP: $2,799 / £2,399), I think I have just seen the future.