The Surface Book
I’m a Linux guy. More specifically I have some way to run Linux on any form of computer that I use, because I prefer it over everything else. On that note, I have used a Macbook Pro Retina for the past 5 years as my non-desktop machine. In the middle, I had a Surface Pro 2 to use as a tablet, and once I used it I never wanted to go back. But I did. A Macbook running Arch Linux has been with me at any point and time for the past 5 years. When I met the Surface line with the Pro 2, I absolutely loved it. There were quirks, but I loved it. I didn’t like the Linux experience on it though. So I kept it for Windows, and my Macbook for Linux and OS X. I’ve waited every moment for a better tablet/laptop thingy since then. I waited for 6 months following rumors of the Surface Pro 4, and I was hyped for it. I watched the entire keynote waiting to pre-order, anxiously. Then the bombshell of the Surface Book dropped, along with everyone’s jaws. Instantly pre-ordered, and stayed home and skipped out on responsibilities for the day one experience. Now with that background, we can get to the review.
The Surface Book arrived at 11 AM, not bright, but cloudy and early. The Fedex courier was polite, as always. Once I sloppily gave him my signature and got back in the door to open it, the godawful abomination that is tape took nearly two minutes to get off. (I don’t have long fingernails, I’ve bitten them since I was a child.) Once the outer shell was opened, the beautiful surface box slips out with these neat little tab-style handles to pull the box itself out. Of course, it has the wonderful fresh product smell. The surface box itself is beautiful, and opens like a book. It has a blue stripe where it opens, and a small piece of easily-removed tape holds the two together. As soon as you open it, you’re presented with the beauty itself. The beautiful mirror finish logo, and the magnesium shell. Like most products, it’s wrapped in cellophane. It has a pull tab to remove it from its tight packaging, and peels off with the, as always, greatly satisfying noise. Below it lays the pen, and a small box containing the manuals, similar to the container for manuals included with Apple products. The first couple of times opening the Surface book I found it easier to use both thumbs to hold the bottom down and my index fingers to push up the clipboard portion. The magnet holding the two together is very strong, and I found it grasping onto the band of my watch when I was taking it off. Opening it for the first time, it looks absolutely stunning. There is a material that is quite soft, almost microfiber like cloth that protects the screen. I folded it up and kept it to clean screens. The devices sides are actually tapered on the top, being thin at the edge and slowly growing at an arc towards the keyboard, and it feels wonderful, and looks wonderful as well. It’s a very small detail, but I feel it adds a lot. The front of the base, where the inlet is to use your fingers to open the Surface Book is very similar to the Macbook’s, but it is much larger, and unlike it’s counterpart, the points towards the outside of the laptop are rounded off and smooth, while on the Macbook they are sharp. The inlet itself is nearly twice the size of the Macbook’s. In hardware, the trackpad feels exactly like the Macbook’s trackpad, if not better. I’ve never used scissor switches before, but they feel very mushy and comfortable to use on a laptop. The escape and delete buttons have a different profile than the function keys, which I’ve found to like. The backlight on the keyboard goes to sleep after some time as well, which is a nice touch. The function key locks, which is wonderful, especially when trying to pass through commands through a VNC session or something similar. (In my case it was GoverLAN.) On the Macbook ports can be rough and semi-sharp when you run your finger with pressure along them, but this just simply isn’t the case with the Surface Book. The power connector can be used individually on the clipboard or the base. When open, you can’t notice the difference between the hinge on the Surface book or the hinge on any other laptop. The function keys could be better, my only true gripe with them is that you have to use Fn+Del and Fn+Backspace to change the screen brightness.
First boot was absolutely horrible. Initially started, setup went fine. Windows Update had six or seven updates, but I wanted to play with it before updating. While it was downloading, I decided i’d go ahead and remove the clipboard. I pressed the button, and nothing happened. Oh well, so I held it down and then it said it was unlocked. First time removing it, especially being as giddy as I was and not reading the manual, I couldn’t get a good grip to pull it off, and it came up a couple of millimeters and then locked back. It wasn’t registering in software, though. I closed it, and braced the hinge and the clipboard portion from the front and gave it a slight push and then it worked fine. I’d blame that on me, though.
It finished downloading updates right after I finished fumbling around getting it re-attached, and it rebooted and did updates just fine. Once back in Windows, the battery was pretty low, so I left it to charge while I showered. Once back I set up Windows Hello, and damn, it’s fast. Under one second recognition. But this is where issues come into play. Windows Hello will not recognize you when the camera is upside down, even if the screen is in that orientation. This is a critical flaw in my eyes, and just a pure stupid mistake when it came to testing the Surface Book. If you undo the clipboard, and reverse it, unless you’re holding it in what I would see as upside down (Angled away from you, towards whatever surface it’s on,) Windows Hello will not work. If I leave it like this, and lock the machine, I have to come back and put in a pin or my password because it will not recognize me upside down, or flip the image before presenting it to the engine. When in Clipboard mode, if I want headphones plugged into it, they have to go on one side, while the pen attaches to the opposite end. This is a killer flaw if I want to keep it attached and say read a book or an article, because I cannot sit and support it flat in my lap, without using only one leg, or requiring me to place the pen somewhere else or hold it in my hand. The top of the clipboard has a volume rocker, and a sleep/power button. The case is quite nice, and about 80–90% up the clipboard there are slats for what I believe are speakers. On the top though, there is a slight difference in colour from the rest of the case and the bar holding the buttons. It’s not critical, but it would be nice to see it fixed in future versions.
After the update, everything worked much better, especially because right before I did the updates, I tried to re-dock the clipboard to the base and BSOD’d. Something related to PCI, so I assume it’s related to re-registering and switching to the dedicated GPU. Fixed after the update, so that’s just a slight gripe. The pen is wonderful, and the eraser feels like a rubber eraser atop a pencil. The magnets in the pen and on the side are very strong, and you’d almost be able to lift the clipboard from it alone. The tip is just downright amazing. The Surface Pro 2 felt like plastic against a screen, this has resistance and feels like I am writing on paper with a pen. A dedicated button would be nice compared to the one that is set in with the plastic strip along the entire body, but is only clickable at the end. It also only functions as a right click. Could be better especially when it’s designed to be used with applications that normally have heavy keyboard shortcuts. The trackpad in software is a different story. It moves fine, and scrolling is fine as long as the application has good natural scrolling implemented. Right click is done at the bottom 10–20% of the right half of the trackpad, which I absolutely despise. Two-finger right click is absolutely needed. Moving to that specific region is quite annoying. Four finger scroll functions as an alt tab, but it’s finicky. And for on screen keyboards, I don’t believe you can choose a default. If you tap with your finger, you get the keyboard, if you press with the pen you get handwriting recognition. I had to go to the bank with someone while they closed their safety deposit box, so I brought it with me and browsed the web and used Discord for IM with some friends while I walked about. After about thirty minutes carrying it while walking I noticed my hand getting tired, but it was in one specific spot, so I readjusted and felt fine for the rest of the time there. Once back to the house I wanted to play some Rocket League, so I decided to test it out on the Surface Book. 1920x1080 on all low and I didn’t notice any form of drop below 60 fps, could have been higher too but I wasn’t using anything to see the FPS. I always play Rocket League at low settings because you can see what’s happening easier. I plugged in an Xbox One controller through USB and it worked as expected. I loaded Chrome, Visual Studio, Photoshop, Spotify, and everything worked fine. I didn’t notice any of the ‘pen wobble’ people were talking about. It’s extremely smooth. I wrote the below on the Surface book in Photoshop CC. You can tweak sensitivity etc individually within the Surface app.
I turned on some EEVblog and went to bed.
Overall the Surface book has a lot of minor issues, but I would still absolutely recommend it to anyone who is looking at getting one. I’ll be using mine every day in my personal and professional life. If anyone has questions, feel free to ask. It’s an evolving product, and if you want to be along for the ride, pick one up. If you want it to work, wait for the second generation.