The Microsoft Surface Book: a designer’s review (pt. 1)

I am a designer, photographer and printer. I’m an Apple fanboy. I have been since Apple resurrected themselves under Steve Jobs with his second stint at the helm in the 1990s. He recruited designer Jony Ive and in 1998 the iMac was born — the oddly shaped, colourful, plasticy all-in-one computer that was not only innovative in design but was also the first to lack a floppy disk drive — remember those? It was an instant hit. I remember looking through the window of a travel agents and seeing rows of these futuristic computers lined up on each salesperson’s desk. What a sight to see after the beige clunkiness of computers that came before it.

Of late though I’ve been wondering about Microsoft who themselves have gone through a resurrection, especially since the launch of their own range of tablet, laptop and most recently, “studio” all-in-ones. It’s the first time in this their 40 plus year history that they’ve made their own computers to run their near-ubiquitous operating system on. I have been intrigued as a designer how these machines look, feel, work and whether I could use one instead of a Mac. I use the Adobe suite of programs plus some other less household names like QuarkXpress (the king of page layout design before InDesign became the norm). It’s pretty standard fare really but things that are important to me are screen quality, reliability, performance and the overall experience because I think that a tool I’m using pretty much all day, most days of my working life should be a pleasure to use.

The Microsoft Surface Book with it’s characteristic Dynamic Fulcrum hinge allows the screen to be detached, turned around and folded over on itself, like a book (although I know at least one bookworm who would view the practice of folding a book like this as heresy).

So I contacted Microsoft and they kindly agreed to let me trial one of their Surface Book laptops.

Not a Mac vs PC review

What I’m looking to do here is to review the machine and my experiences with it, but not by way of a comparison with Apple laptops. I don’t see the point. Each manufacturer and machine has their pros and cons — the arguments around which is better could go on until eternity just like the Windows/MacOS debate and there is no definitive answer in my opinion. Speed comparisons and number crunching are done better by others with their scientific tests. Instead I want to establish if the hardware, software (Windows itself) and the triple input of type, touch and stylus is desirable, useful and productive for the kind of work I do — designing web pages, user interfaces, brochures, editing photography from a shoot, posting images of my work.

A surface less usual

The machine itself comes in a magnesium material that’s neither smooth or rough but is delightfully matt yet smooth and frictionless to the touch. It feels unusual but in a very satisfying way. I dubbed the manufacturing material Surfanium in a recent Twitter response to Microsoft Surface. How well will the material wear I wonder? Who’s had a Surface Book since it’s original release in 2015 and used it a lot?

What’s nice is that the keyboard, hinge and the trackpad are all made from the same material and are identical in colour. It makes for a triumph of minimalist design. After all, this product has the word surface in it’s name so it seems fitting that Microsoft came up with a material that delights.

The minimalist design of the casing, keyboard and trackpad give this machine a unique, modern look.

Nothing to report on the ports, except one

The machine comes with the usual selection of inputs like USB, SD, Mini DisplayPort etc. There’s not much for me to report here except for the charging port which I’ll come back to in a bit as it is more than worthy of a mention.

Who thought a track pad could be so nice?

The one thing I notice about the Surface Book when I’m using it is that the track pad is lovely to use and a very responsive alternative to using a mouse. I’ve never found any other non-Mac laptop to have anything that even resembles a positive track pad experience. In some cases I’ve felt as if the input was being controlled by someone else because it’s not responding properly to the movement of my fingers across the surface. This important aspect of the hardware design of a laptop device has been given thought by Microsoft and the engineering that has gone into this trackpad deserves credit. The only caveat I would mention is that in a quiet room the click on the trackpad is quite noticeable. But in an environment like a coffee shop it’s not noticeable at all. Can we have a volume setting for trackpad clicks?

The power and the volume

The power and the volume buttons are on the top edge of the screen/tablet. They are low profile enough to avoid being visually intrusive when looking at the screen. I initially wondered why these buttons aren’t on the keyboard/base part of the device but I realise that they are needed for when the screen is detached and used as a tablet device since there aren’t any physical buttons on the surface of the screen itself. That wouldn’t work out well at all when used in its role as the screen for the laptop. It’s a case of this being a multipurpose machine so there’s lots of considerations to juggle when it comes to the design and functionality. More on what I think about that in the third part of my review when I will look at the triple whammy of type, touch and stylus that this device has in it’s arsenal of input options.

Charging port

I said this review wasn’t about comparing Macs with PCs but I couldn’t resist sharing this video from a YouTube personality and social media heavyweight called Casey Neistat. Watch from 5:30 onwards where Steve Jobs (I’ve used his name twice now — I told you I was an Apple fanboy) introduces the revolutionary MagSafe to the then new range of MacBook laptops back in 2006. But keep watching as Casey tests out the current MacBook and its charger adaptor. It’s hilarious!

Well, guess what? The Surface Book also sports a magnetic charging port so that you can enjoy the same reassurance that if you trip over the cable the worst won’t happen — well I haven’t tried it out for myself in the way Casey did in his video — I don’t want to find out if it doesn’t work because I only have this machine on loan. And BTW: thank you to James Tarry who is a superb interior and architectural photographer and a good Twitter friend of mine who introduced me to Casey in the first place.

The charging port is magnetic to avoid those expensive slip ups.

Detach and draw

The Surface Book has a detachable screen which makes it a tablet device as well as a traditional laptop. This isn’t unique in the Windows laptop world and there are many designs for detaching and manoeuvring the screen in these 2-in-1 devices. Some seem ingenious, others are just ugly and are in need of a rethink. The cream will rise to the top. The Surface Book has its dynamic fulcrum hinge and this allows the screen to be folded over on itself but annoyingly you can only do this once you’ve detached the screen, spun it around and reattached.

The mechanics the hold the tablet/screen part of the device to the base/keyboard.

For detaching the screen there is the Detach key. When you press it there is a reassuring click which is the sound of the hinges moving so that the screen can be pulled out of the base. The detach key doesn’t respond to a quick tap in the way that normal keys do. You have to press and hold for a bit longer and then the Read to Detach notice appears on the screen. If you don’t proceed to physically detach the screen it reattaches itself automatically. You don’t get the same reassuring click to inform you that the screen is attached again though. The lack of that sound of physical engineering kicking into action always makes me reach for the screen to reassure myself that the screen is actually still attached to the rest of the machine and won’t fall off — so there’s certainly an argument for the clunk sound in both directions of travel.

The detach notice appears in the bottom right hand of the screen

There is a fly in the ointment though. You can’t always detach the screen as and when the mood takes you. If you have a number of programs open like Photoshop for instance you will get this notification after hitting the detach button.

A message asking you to quit some processes before you can detach the screen and go into tablet mode.

Without knowing all the technicalities involved this is because the screen doesn’t have the same level of processing and memory power as the base so you are forced to quit those processes that are using too much power for the tablet part on its own. I found this really frustrating as I may be working on an image in Photoshop and want to switch to tablet mode to make use of the stylus/touch functionality if it’s a better way of completing a particular task. Having said that I’ve not encountered any performance problems when opening up the same applications and work files, and carrying on working on the tablet part after it’s detached. So while switching from using the Surface Book in one format to another isn’t quite seamless, depending on what you’re working on at time it’s not a major problem once you get used to it.

As sharp as a pin

I’ve saved the thing I’m most impressed about to the end. As soon as I started using the Surface Book I was and still remain astonished by the sharpness of the screen. It has a resolution of 3000 x 2000 pixels @267 ppi and sports 6 million pixels. I don’t know how they stack up against other Windows or Mac laptops but I know it’s the sharpest viewing experience I have encountered to date in a laptop device. I have traditionally been against using Windows laptops because the screens always seem to be of such poor quality and as a designer and photographer this just doesn’t work for me, even if I’m just surfing the web or checking email.

I notice how logos on websites in particular, in other words vector images, can look blurry on high definition screens usually because they are not optimised for these high resolution devices. But even when they are I’ve found that some vector images can look soft when displayed at certain proportions of their original size. However, on this Surface Book everything looks pin sharp.

It’s extremely hard to convey just how sharp the screen is as even a screenshot lacks sharpness in comparison to the real thing.

However, I have found as I use the Windows 10 OS that some aspects like control panels that are legacies of older versions look less polished and because of the sharpness of the screen they are less legible than the new control panels designed with MDL2 (Microsoft Design Language v2). More on this in the next part of my review where I will look at the Windows OS and my experiences of it while using the Surface Book and as someone who hasn’t really used Windows since the days of version 7 or Vista.