Microsoft Surface Book review: Microsoft's bold first laptop doubles as a part-time tablet

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16

The Good The Microsoft Surface Book packs high-end components, including new Intel processors and optional Nvidia graphics, into a smart, slim body. Some components and most of the battery are hidden in the base, so the tablet half is lighter. The high-res screen looks great, and the included stylus pen is excellent.

The Bad Configurations with the optional Nvidia GPU and more storage get very expensive. There are some first-generation quirks, including an awkward gap between the screen and base when closed.

The Bottom Line While it's not nearly as refined as the new fourth-gen Surface Pro, Microsoft's Surface Book is a powerful, feature-filled premium hybrid that doesn't forget it's a laptop first.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8

Fall '16 update

In October 2016, Microsoft revamped the Surface Book's hardware -- increasing the power and battery life (and price) of the top-tier model -- while leaving the exterior more or less unchanged. The $2,399 Surface Book i7 offers 16 hours of battery life; a GeForce GTX 965M GPU that delivers twice the performance of its predecessor; and 2GB of video memory, making the device more palatable for gaming. It comes equipped with 16GB of memory and 128GB of storage capacity. The Surface Book i7 will begin shipping by mid-November.

Microsoft also unveiled the $2,999 Surface Studio -- a desktop PC for artists and designers in need of high-end horsepower and display -- and the $100 Surface Dial accessory, a touch-friendly dial designed to sit beside your keyboard for fine contextual controls in whatever program you're using. The Surface Studio features an Intel Core i7 and a 28-inch touchscreen pixel display that rests on an adjustable hinge that allows it to tilt down against the table. The top of the line model costs $4,199. Microsoft says the Surface Studio will ship before the end of 2016.

Editor's note: The original Microsoft Surface Book review, published in October 2015, follows.

What good is a touchscreen tablet and stylus if you can't really draw? Despite a teenage comic book collection thousands of issues deep (dating roughly 1985-1991), I never had much of a knack as a visual artist, beyond idle doodling. Sure, I've got a few standby sketches I can whip up when the need arises, from the googly-eyed generic newspaper strip character to some forced perspective boxes, but does that mean I need a $1,499-and-up laptop-plus-stylus Microsoft Surface Book that practically begs to be used by someone with actual artistic talent?

Microsoft's other new system, the less expensive Surface Pro 4 , is clearly intended as a full-time tablet that can double as a part-time laptop, thanks to its clever (but sold separately) keyboard cover. And in practice, the Surface Pro is better as a tablet, and certainly great to draw on, but it doesn't do as much for the rest of us who live in the slightly more buttoned-down world of offices, meetings, word processing and all the things that work best on a traditional laptop.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Still, even after watching successive generations of Surface Pro tablet go sliding off my lap, I never thought to myself that Microsoft ought to make a more laptop-like version of its ambitious crossover PC.

And yet, Microsoft went and did just that, surprising nearly everyone (including purportedly all the PC makers who buy Windows 10 from Microsoft to install on their own laptops and tablets) with the Surface Book, a 13.5-inch premium laptop with a detachable touchscreen display and the same high-end stylus pen as the Surface Pro 4.

These two new Surface products are similar but different, like two cover versions of the same song. Both have unusual 3:2 screen aspect ratios, which matches the shape of the standard A4 paper size. If you're using the tablet half in portrait mode and working on projects designed for print, that may indeed be very useful.

Now playing: Watch this: Comic book artist Dan Parent test-drives the Surface

Both the Pro and Book versions of the Surface also share many component options, and in fact, our Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 review units had the same Intel Core i5 processor (from Intel's new sixth-generation chips, sometimes referred by the codename Skylake), and the same 8GB of RAM. In the Surface Book, the Core i5 is included in the $1,499 (AU$2,299, but UK release details have not been announced yet) base model. On the Surface Pro 4, it's an upgrade (to at least $999 from the $899 base price).

Our Surface Book review unit is closer to the $1,699 model that doubles the internal solid-state storage to 256GB (we have a 512GB SSD, which does not appear to be a currently available option with the Core i5 CPU). As this review was being written, we also received a second test unit that included one of the more intriguing Surface Book options, a custom Nvidia graphics chip built into the keyboard base (so it's only available when the two halves of the system are together), plus a faster Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM, for a total of $2,699/AU$4,199. Spoiler alert: The significant added expense doesn't turn this into the ultimate PC gaming laptop, but it's good enough for mainstream games at medium graphics settings, and helpful for HD-or-better photo and video editing. (Look for some game benchmarks further along in this review.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm enjoying the Surface Book overall, and I don't feel like I'm wasting its potential just because I'm not using it to design websites or illustrate graphic novels. It's intended to be a three-quarter-time laptop and one-quarter-time tablet, as intuited by the fact that 75 percent of its battery capacity is housed in the keyboard base, with the remaining 25 percent packed behind the display, along with the CPU, memory and most (but not all) of the other components.

So, now that I've got my lap-friendly version of the Surface, does it fulfill all my hybrid hopes and dreams? Microsoft calls the Surface Book the "ultimate laptop," which is a bold claim. Despite my positive impressions of the Surface Book, it's important right up front to say that if I were designing the ultimate laptop, it would not have the unsightly gap between the screen and base visible here when the clamshell is closed; nor would it weigh about 3.5 pounds.

Showing the Surface Book to others, those are first two things that nearly everyone mentions right away. The gap -- "Is it supposed to be like that?" -- and the weight. It doesn't help the latter issue that there's something about the slight wedge shape of the system when closed and its bulky hinge that makes it just slightly awkward to pick up and carry with one hand.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's telling that Microsoft allowed its engineers to work through several generations of Surface tablet (four Pro versions, plus a few non-Pro ones), giving the line time to grow and mature, and didn't drop it right away after the first couple of years of middling reviews. The investment paid off in the end, with the Surface Pro 3 hitting its stride, and the new Surface Pro 4 offering further refinements to an already excellent device.

If Microsoft sticks with it, the Surface Book could evolve into a best-in-class product. Right now, it offers strong performance and useful, even unique, features, but also a handful of quirks and omissions that make it feel more like the first draft of an ultimate laptop.

But, that first draft is a lot more refined than the first version of the Surface that hit 2012. If you can live with its design quirks, this is a great all-purpose high-end laptop.

Microsoft Surface Book

Price as reviewed $1,699
Display size/resolution 13.5 -inch 3,000 x 2,000 touchscreen display
PC CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U
PC Memory 8GB
Graphics 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520
Storage 512GB SSD (retail version is 256GB)
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)

Design and features

With features and specs that are so similar to the Surface Pro in so many ways, the physical design is what really stands out about the Surface Book. It's hefty to both look at and pick up, especially compared with some of the super-slim laptops we've seen this year, such as the Dell XPS 13 or the Lenovo LaVie Z .

The Surface Book, when closed, goes from 13mm thick in the front to 22mm thick in the rear, and weighs between 3.3 pounds (1.4kg) for the non-GPU version to 3.5 pounds (1.6kg) for the configuration with the Nvidia GPU. By way of comparison, a 13-inch MacBook Pro is 18mm thick and weighs 3.4 pounds (and no, there is no discrete graphics option for that particular MacBook).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Even though they're roughly the same size and weight, there's something about the MacBook's gently rounded edges and overall shape that makes it easier to pick up and carry around the house or office, while the Surface Book is just a bit more awkward, perhaps because of its sharp 90-degree angles or the thicker rear hinge. It's an especially apt comparison, as Microsoft spent a good deal of time during the Surface Book's introduction comparing it to the MacBook Pro.

When opened in its clamshell shape, the Surface Book looks and feels like a standard Windows 10 laptop, and even its slightly different screen aspect ratio doesn't especially stand out. The hinge does, however. Microsoft calls it a dynamic fulcrum hinge, and it rolls open, making the keyboard base slightly deeper as it goes, giving the display the support it needs to stay upright and not tip the entire system back, which is an occasional hazard of top-heavy hybrids.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A Surface, built to stay on your lap

The keyboard itself has the same familiar widely spaced keys as nearly every other current laptop, as well as the newly redesigned keyboard cover for the Surface Pro 4. Unlike most 13-inch laptops, however, the keys here have an especially deep click (sometimes called travel), which makes for a very satisfying level of feedback while typing. One quirk found both here and in the Surface Pro is the lack of a labeled function key command for controlling screen brightness. That's especially important, as the auto-adjusting light sensor built into the system seemed a little overzealous at times, and the on-screen brightness controls in the Windows 10 action center only jump in 25 percent increments. Fortunately, there's a workaround. If your Windows 10 laptop lacks labeled brightness controls, Fn+Del and Fn+Backspace usually work.

The large touchpad has a glass top and a friction-free matte surface, but multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, are not quite as responsive as in the very best laptops -- although, scrolling down long Web pages was much smoother in Microsoft's own Edge browser than Google's Chrome.