Since the first Surface launched a little over three years ago, Microsoft has aggressively pushed the 2-in-1 concept — tablets that can replace your laptop thanks to an (optional) keyboard cover that lets you have your cake and eat it too.
The new Surface Book comes at things the other way and the fact that Microsoft calls this “the ultimate laptop” on its website is a fairly telling sign of where it’s aiming — it’s very much a notebook first and a tablet second.
And with a tough and slick-looking exterior that’s hewn from the same matte-finish magnesium-alloy as the Surface tablet line, an absolutely gorgeous 13.5-inch, super high-res (3,000 x 2,000-pixel) display, the new multi-nib Surface Pen, an optional Nvidia GPU for when the going gets tough and up to 12 hours battery life, it’s certainly kitted out with a lot of neat, cutting-edge tech.
So is this a natural extension of the Surface 2-in-1 concept, or a wrong turn into a dodgy cul-de-sac?
Priced for pros
Starting from $2,299 in Australia — around $1,000 more than the cheapest Surface Pro 4 — and reaching all the way to $4,199 for the top-end 6th-gen Core i7/512GB SSD unit we tested, the Surface Book is decidedly priced for the pro and business market.
What’s more, models with that dedicated Nvidia GPU start at $2,949, so if you want the extra horsepower — which Microsoft is pitching more at content-creation (videos, images and so on) than gaming, that base model isn’t an option.
Still, the design is fairly classy all round, with that accordion-style hinge the most obvious standout.
It’s undeniably one of the most elegant 2-in-1 docking mechanisms we’ve seen, seamlessly mating the display with the keyboard and locking it in place securely via a special ‘muscle wire’ — if you didn’t know the screen was detachable, you’d think this was just a premium laptop with a thickish display.
A magnetic edge on the lip holds the screen and keyboard base securely shut, but as pics clearly demonstrate, that rounded rear hinge does mean there’s always a gap between the keyboard and screen (which becomes increasingly wide the further back it goes).
Moreover, that premium build quality extends to basically every other area of the Surface Book.
That means first-class inputs, with a large and responsive glass trackpad and a near-perfect chiclet keyboard — the latter feels, to us, even a bit more comfortable to type on than a MacBook, which is the laptop keyboard benchmark.
That 13.5-inch IPS display uses that productivity-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio and is factory calibrated for 100% RGB coverage, meaning it’s great for colour-accurate design work.
Like the Pro 4, the Surface Pen snaps securely onto the left side of the display here, and in use, offers the same advantages of direct content-manipulation.
And the Book’s screen can be undocked, rotated 180º and snapped back on, theoretically giving you a high-powered tablet with 12 hours battery — although it’s a heavy one that needs to be used on a lap or desk, and the display doesn’t sit flat due to the Book’s curved hinge design.
The keyboard’s chassis isn’t just dead space either — there’s an additional battery (adding another nine hours to the tablet’s claimed three hours) as well as that Nvidia GeForce GPU.
Microsoft doesn’t specify which GPU this is, but based on our benchmark results, it seems to be a tweaked GTX 840M — not a chip we’d outright recommend for gaming, but something that will let you scrape by at about 720p (or the nearest 3:2 aspect ratio resolution you can find) in many games.
To be fair, the Nvidia graphics chip isn’t really here for gaming and Microsoft is quite clear on the matter. It’s intended to accelerate media-creation tasks in programs like Adobe’s Creative Suite.
Give and take
While it’s incredibly (and impressively) lightweight considering its 13.5-inch footprint — just 732g, even lighter than the Pro 4 — it’s not something you can really detach and take with you.
Part of that has to do with battery life — Microsoft admits it’s only good for three hours (we managed to get around half that in our demanding battery benchmark) and the other has to do with inputs.
There’s no USB port — they’re all on the keyboard — so you can’t easily plug in extra storage or peripherals. That means if you want the kind of flexibility that a Surface Pro offers, you’ll need to lug the whole 1.59kg package around with you.
Detaching the tablet from the keyboard isn’t quite as seamless as we’d like either — something that’s largely caused by having dual GPUs. Before you can pull off the screen, you first need to press a button on the keyboard (or click an icon in the system tray) which releases the muscle wire.
And if you have a GPU accelerated program running, you’ll get a prompt saying you need to close that app before the tablet will detach — and there’s no way around this.
Having the system components all behind the screen makes the Book top-heavy, too. That means if you’re using it in notebook form on your lap with the screen at an obtuse angle, it can have a tendency to tip backwards.
Variations on a theme
Microsoft’s really pitching the Book and the Pro 4 to different user needs — and choosing between them is really about picking whether you want a laptop-leaning-tablet or a tablet-leaning-laptop.
The Surface Book is certainly a better laptop than the Pro — you can (mostly) use it on your lap, as the Pro’s kickstand makes attempting this fiddly. And the Book certainly has the slickest docking mechanism in a 2-in-1 we’ve encountered.
In some ways, when using the Book, we did find ourselves wishing that Microsoft would just make a Surface laptop without the tablet parts — but the company has somewhat painted itself into a corner by aggressively marketing the 2-in-1 concept.
To a degree, Microsoft has actually undermined the Book by many of the improvements it’s included in the Surface Pro 4.
The latter’s chiclet keyboard, glass trackpad and improved stylus minimise or extinguish a lot of the Book’s key advantages.
Shown up by little brother
None of that makes the Surface Book a bad product — just one that’s a much harder sell. It somewhat further vindicates the original Surface design too, which has improved in leaps and bounds with each new generation.
Indeed, even Apple has got onboard with the idea. While Apple CEO Tim Cook may have poo-pooed the very concept of 2-in-1s, the Cupertino company’s new iPad Pro sails pretty close to the Surface Pro design, what with its optional keyboard cover and stylus.
For the few professional designers and business users who think they can take advantage of the Book’s unique features, this is undoubtedly a great product. But it’s also quite a niche one, and if you want tablet features, it’s strongly worth considering whether a Surface Pro 4 might suit you better.
Verdict: A premium-quality device with impressive design, but one that’s not quite an overwhelming success.
Price: From $2,299; $4,199 as tested