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

The Surface Book is a high-end laptop and part-time tablet, with some hidden gaming chops.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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14 min read

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-surface-book-31.jpg
8.2

Microsoft Surface Book

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.

Fall '16 update

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.

Microsoft Surface Book i7 brings powerful performance to 2-in-1 design (pictures)

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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.

archiemeetssurface.jpg
Watch this: Comic book artist Dan Parent test-drives the Surface
Comic book artist Dan Parent test-drives the Surface
2:14

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.

The biggest leap for the Surface Book keyboard over the Surface Pro 4 one, is that the more traditional design means it'll sit easily on your lap, whereas the Pro's kickstand and keyboard cover combo was never quite right for balancing on your knees.

A part-time tablet

Of course, you can also choose to leave the keyboard and touchpad behind entirely (along with most of the battery) and detach the screen for use as a standalone tablet. The mechanism for doing so is one of those quirks that gives the Surface Book a first-generation feel in places. Most pull-apart hybrids right now use a strong magnetic connection that you simply have to pull apart. It's not perfect, but I've never had a hybrid screen fly off when I didn't intend to remove it, and the magnetic system is better than older hybrids that required complex latches and buttons to detach.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft has somehow managed to combine both systems into something less easy to use than one might hope for. First, you locate a screen detach button at the right end of the function key row on the keyboard. You need to press and hold that button for approximately three quarters of a second, a tiny green light comes on and you can hear the latching mechanism release. But that's not the end. You then have to hold the base down with one hand, while you pull sharply up with the other in order to pull the screen away from, you guessed it, a none-too-wimpy magnetic connection.

I found myself frequently popping the Surface Book display off to share what was on the screen with others, which is probably exactly what the designers intended, but nearly every time I either didn't hold the detach button down long enough, or didn't hold the base down strongly enough while pulling. Long story short, I rarely got the display off cleanly on the first try. But, once I did, it was fun playing with what is essentially a larger, higher-resolution version of the Surface Pro 4 screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Comic book to Surface Book

The included stylus pen is the same as on the Pro 4 (and interchangeable with this one), and similarly attaches to the side via a built-in magnet.

You'll find much more detail on the stylus pen and using it for drawing apps in my review of the Surface Pro 4 , but in short, it works great with a variety of apps, including the built-in Fresh Paint for drawing and sketching, the New York Times crossword puzzle app, which took pen input and converted it to printed characters, and Microsoft's OneNote, which automatically launches when you click on the eraser-like button on the back of the pen.

Sarah Tew/CNET
archiemeetssurface.jpg
Watch this: Comic book artist Dan Parent test-drives the Surface
Comic book artist Dan Parent test-drives the Surface
2:14

We also called in comic book writer and artist Dan Parent (best known for his work on Archie comics) to test drive both the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book.

As an illustrator who works both on paper and in programs such as Photoshop, he was impressed by the feel of the Surface Pen and especially its eraser. You can see more of his reactions (and a live drawing demo) in this video and slideshow.

'Archie' artist Dan Parent draws on the Surface (pictures)

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The resolution of the 13.5-inch Surface Book screen is 3,000x2,000 pixels, while the 12.3-inch Surface Pro is 2,736x1,824. Otherwise, the two screens are very similar, and both look great even from side angles. The higher resolution makes sure you won't see individual pixels, even when reading plain black text on a white background. Apple calls this kind of very high-resolution "retina," and has rolled it out across much of its product line. Microsoft calls it PixelSense, but it's essentially the same concept.

Ports and connections

Video mini-DisplayPort
Audio Combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0,  SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance and battery

In a hybrid like the Surface Book that's more of a laptop than anything else, you've got a decent amount of space for connections. There are two USB 3.0 ports, mini-DisplayPort for video, an SD card slot, and an audio jack. Except for the audio jack, all the ports are on the keyboard base, so they don't go with you when the screen is detached. The Surface Pro 4 has a similar collection, but drops one of the USB ports and swaps the full-size SD card slot for a microSD one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Another point of similarity between the two Surface families is that both offer Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors, all from the latest Skylake generation of chips just hitting products now (the Surface Pro 4 also offers a lower-cost Core M option). Both our Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 review units actually had the same Intel Core i5 processor, and the same 8GB of RAM. As one might guess from this, their performance in our standard tests was similar, and both were a bit faster than the previous Surface Pro 3 (which was two CPU generations behind). The Core i5 is the standard mainstream starting point, and more than fast enough for web browsing, media streaming, office productivity and other common tasks. Photoshop and other graphics-intensive apps, such as drawing and sketching programs, also presented no problem.

Like any mainstream PC with only Intel's built-in integrated graphics, this Surface Book is not a machine for more than the most casual of gaming. But, that's not where the story ends. One of the more intriguing optional features of the Surface Book is a new custom Nvidia graphics chip, packed into the keyboard base of the system. That was an enticing option, because few small laptops have any kind of graphics hardware, aside from Dell's Alienware 13 or the 14-inch Razer Blade.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Book we initially tested was one of the models without the Nvidia hardware (which starts at $1,899). But, just as this review was being written, Microsoft sent another Surface Book with both a faster Core i7 processor and the Nvidia graphics chip, and we were able to run some basic gaming benchmarks on it. Nvidia and Microsoft have both said little about this graphics hardware, which does not even have a model name, but Nvidia has made custom chips for unusual hardware before, such as the tiny Alienware Alpha gaming desktop. Looking at the chip details and performance, it looks like this GPU is roughly on the level of Nvidia's lower-end GeForce 940M chip.

In common game benchmarks, the GPU didn't run terribly fast, only turning in 23.5 frames per second in BioShock Infinite at high detail settings and 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution (it's doubtful many games would run at all at the native 3,000x2,000). But, by turning the detail settings in the game down to medium, we got a much more playable 37.2 frames per second. Anecdotal tests in a variety of games, from the new indie horror game Soma to Grand Theft Auto V, ran smoothly enough to play, as long as most detail settings were kept to medium-to-low. It works for casual on-the-go gaming, but I wouldn't want to play a hundred hours of Fallout 4 on it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life needs to measured two ways in this particular system, as the battery is split into two segments. Most of the battery is in the keyboard base, with only one quarter of the total battery capacity in the tablet half of the system. Clearly this is a device intended for long-term use in its full laptop form and only short-term use as a tablet, a situation which may or may not fit your needs. The combined Surface Book ran for 11:24 on our video playback battery drain test, while just the tablet ran for 2:51, which is just about 25 percent of the total run time of both batteries combined.

Two interesting notes about the the Surface Book batteries: Smartly, the system will drain mostly from the base battery first, leaving the tablet battery almost fully charged as long as possible, so you can still detach and use it even after hours of running the laptop. It also recharges in the opposite order -- tablet first, then base.

The second note is another of those Surface Book quirks. I had been using the tablet on its own for a few hours, and its battery was almost completely drained. I plugged it back into the base, then decided to pull it apart again to check on something. But, despite pressing the release button on the keyboard, the system would simply not allow the tablet to come off, popping up a system message telling me to wait until the tablet battery was recharged a bit.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why would anyone want to detach a dead tablet? A fair point, but the power cable can also plug into the bottom edge of the tablet to recharge it directly, if you should want to do that. It was a situation I only encountered once, but it was an odd bit of engineering inflexibility.

Conclusion

In an alternate universe, Microsoft could have started with the laptop-like Surface Book and then moved into the tablet-like Surface Pro years later, after its initial system had been nearly perfected. But the way it worked out was that the Surface tablet line came first, spurred perhaps by the idea that Windows 8, with its big, finger-friendly tiles, would be the ultimate way to bring touchscreen tablets and keyboard-centric laptops together at a time when the then-new iPad seemed like an existential threat to PC computing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Pro survived Windows 8 (and Windows RT), and even thrived, but for Windows 10, the Surface Book feels like a more natural match. Just as Windows 10 brings the laptop/desktop PC experience back to the forefront, the Surface Book is a hybrid that leans more heavily on its laptop persona, with just a side helping of tablet.

While it's not the ultimate laptop yet, the Surface Book offers features, such as a touch screen, stylus, and optional GPU, that the 13-inch MacBook Pro leaves out. It has a few quirks that take getting used to, but those are minor, especially considering this is a first-generation product. And, unlike the highly rated Surface Pro, it'll actually stay on your lap.

Multimedia Multitasking Test 3.0

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 505Microsoft Surface Pro 4 519Microsoft Surface Book 552Dell XPS 13 (2015) 722Microsoft Surface Pro 3 911
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 213Microsoft Surface Book 214Microsoft Surface Pro 3 236Dell XPS 13 (2015) 243Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 261
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 946Microsoft Surface Book 684Microsoft Surface Pro 3 448Dell XPS 13 (2015) 422Microsoft Surface Pro 4 392
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM ; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Book Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM ; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 512GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.9GHZ Intel Core i5-4300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD 4400 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2015) Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD
microsoft-surface-book-31.jpg
8.2

Microsoft Surface Book

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8Battery 8
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