Surface Book Review: Microsoft reimagines the laptop, and it's glorious

Powerful, fast and beautiful: The Surface Book is unlike any other laptop you’ve ever seen

At a Glance
  • Microsoft Surface Book

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    $1,700.00 MSRP $1,700.00
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hera tablet 02 Microsoft

The Surface Book has a large foot print, but it’s not the biggest.

Discrete graphics performance

Now we see if it was worth Microsoft’s trouble to get that chip into an Ultrabook. First up is the obligatory benchmark chart with the Surface Book and discrete graphics chip added into the mix. Bam. Yes, the discrete chip in the Surface Book pile drives the entire room of integrated graphics laptops it’s compared to. Against the Surface Book without discrete graphics, it’s about a 50 percent performance advantage. Against the Dell XPS 13 with its HD 5500, the gap opens up to 80 percent.

surface book surface pro 4 3dmark skydiver overall

You can easily see the performance of the GPU in the Surface Book over Intel’s Skylake, Broadwell and Haswell graphics.

But let’s face reality: The GPU in the Surface Book does not put it in contention with an 8-pound, 17-inch gaming laptop or even a mid-range, five-pound laptop.

That doesn’t mean you can’t game on the Surface Book. Counter-Strike: Global Operations, DOTA, League of Legends and StarCraft II are not a problem. They’re barely a problem for the latest integrated graphics, also, but the Surface Book will give you twice the performance of integrated graphics in those games and more.

For example, Tomb Raider at normal is fully playable and quite smooth at 71 fps on the Surface Book at 1,280x1,024. DiRT Rally can be run at ever-high settings with the same resolution compromise. It’s honestly acceptable gaming if you have tempered expectations and accept that this is a GeForce 940m-class GPU, not a GeForce GTX 980. Why don’t I have scores for the other Ultrabooks in these games? I frankly don’t try to run them on integrated graphics.

All that said, Intel still has a card to play with its upcoming Iris and Iris Pro graphics cores. They may really change the equation of this battle.

Discrete graphics are more for pros

The discrete graphics gambit for the Surface Book is not just about gaming. It’s really to cater to the person who needs CAD/CAM or other apps. In an encode job I threw at both the Surface Book with the Nvidia GPU and a current-generation MacBook Pro 13, I saw a better than 50 percent performance advantage for the Surface Book.

Surface Book GeForce Experience

Yes, GeForce Experience does indeed work on the Surface Book. It just isn’t installed from the factory.

Drivers and GeForce Experience

PC gamers cherish their drivers as much as their GPU. In most gaming laptops, you download drivers directly from Nvidia or AMD. For the Surface Book, Microsoft says it will vet and push out drivers directly but you can probably run reference drivers as well.

I installed GeForce Experience on my Surface Book with GeForce graphics, and it appears to work fine for optimizing games at this point.

surface book surface pro 4 mobilemark 14 1.5 office productivity battery life

The Surface Book’s massive battery capacity puts it well ahead of the pack.

Stupid-long battery life? Yes

Besides Microsoft’s audacious performance claims, the company also promises outstanding battery life and up to 12 hours of video run time. Your mileage will vary, of course. What you’re testing and screen brightness has a huge effect on battery life.

As Microsoft didn’t provide details on it tested video run-down tests, I used our old standby MobileMark 2014 to measure battery life. It uses industry-standard applications such as Word, PowerPoint, Chrome and Acrobat to measure realistic run times. Some have accused Mobile Mark of being too much of a “best case scenario” for battery life, but it’s hard to argue with the methodology. No one actually sits at his or her laptop for 8 hours straight and works on a plane. You take breaks, flip through the free Skymall magazine (may it rest in peace), and then you get back to work. MobileMark 2014 simulates this scenario, including blanking out the screen for minutes at a time.

It’s like a gas tank

With a laptop, the battery size is similar to the gas tank in your car. The typical Ultrabook will feature a 42-Watt-hour or maybe 52-Watt-hour battery pack.

In the Surface Books, the base unit has a 51-Watt-hour capacity, with another 18 Watt hours of cell in the Clipboard. In our test of the Core i5 unit without discrete graphics (the same configuration Microsoft uses for its 12-hour promise), we actually saw longer run times. Why? Video uses more power as it’s usually run with a brighter screen, constant sound and it doesn’t ever blank the screen. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole on battery life, read this

Our Core i5 Surface Book gave us a stupendous 821 minutes, or almost 13.6 hours of runtime. That’s the longest I’ve ever seen out of a Ultrabook with a 13-inch screen.

I also tested the Surface Book in Clipboard mode to see how long it would run away from its base. As the Clipboard has roughly 25 percent of the battery capacity, I saw roughly 25 percent of the battery life, or 209 minutes.

Again, increasing the brightness of the screen or doing a CPU- or GPU-intensive chore will drain the battery faster, but overall, the Surface Book will give you stupendous battery life.

How does that apply to the Surface Book with discrete GPU? That depends. Assuming the graphics chip powers down when not in use (how else could you disconnect it?), you should see minimal impact. Once you spool up that GPU with its 25 watts of power draw, expect the battery to head toward empty really fast. If you’re working on your company’s TPS reports on that trans-pacific flight, you should be fine on battery life the whole time. But if you decide to play a graphically-intense game or edit video, you better bring a Kindle paperwhite with you for entertainment after the battery runs dry, because it definitely won’t last for 12 hours. Once I run MobileMark on the Surface Book with GeForce graphics, I’ll update my numbers here.

TrackPad and Keyboard

The trackpad is a spacious Precision model that’s quite luxurious. The entire trackpad is physically clickable. It feels like a standard hinge design that takes more pressure to click the trackpad near the top than near the bottom where you have more leverage. I’m not a total fan because the texture seemed to let my finger drag, but this is personal preference and enough Doritos grease will fix it.

The keyboard, I have no complaints about. The keys feature a standard 19mm pitch with a full 1.6mm of travel. If I had to nitpick, it would be the cursor keys which stack the up and down buttons.

There’s one issue I’ve had occur a couple of times on both units: The trackpad in the Base loses sync with the Clipboard, requiring a detach cycle to re-enable. Microsoft officials said they’re aware of the problem, and expect to fix it soon.

footprint Gordon Mah Ung

This gives an idea of the foot print of the Surface Book. The top left is HP’s Spectre X360. On the top right Surface Book. The bottom left is Dell’s XPS 13, and on the right is an Apple MacBook Pro 13 2015

Size and weight

Take the Surface Book and plop Dell’s XPS 13 next to it, and you’ll understand just how big of a footprint the Book has. Let’s just say it isn’t tiny with its 13.5-inch screen. There are bigger laptops in its class, though. HP’s Spectre X360 is wider than the Surface Book and Lenovo’s Yoga 2 Pro takes up even more space.

It’s no featherweight Lenovo LaVie Z, either. I weighed both iterations of the Surface Book I had on our calibrated Pitney Bowes postal scale, and both are definitely in the heavier range.

surface book weight

The loaded Surface Book won’t win any weight contests but it’s within reach of the competition.

Price and value

The Surface Book is a premium device, and it’s priced accordingly. For comparison, you can get a Dell XPS 13 with a Skylake Core i5, 256GB SSD, touch screen and SSD, Core i5 processor, QHD+ screen and touch for $1,450. If you spent $1,500 on an HP Spectre X360, you get a Core i7 chip, touch screen, QHD display, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.

The base Surface Book gives you 8GB of RAM, a Core i5 and a 128GB SSD, and that’s without the GeForce graphics. The cheapest Core i5 Surface Book with the GeForce chip is $1,900, but at least it bumps storage to 256GB.

Fully kitted out with a Core i7, 16GB of RAM GeForce graphics and 1TB SSD, and you’re pushing $3,200.

Determining value gets murky because you have to consider all the extra little features that the Surface Book offers. None of those other laptops offer a detachable screen, nor discrete graphics options. So if those are truly features you need, then yes, the value is there. But there’s no way around it: The Surface Book is expensive.

overall Gordon Mah Ung

The Surface Book isn’t the “ultimate laptop” because it’s more than a laptop.

Bottom line

During Microsoft’s unveil of the Surface Book, two things caught my attention: The first was calling it the “ultimate laptop.” The second was saying no laptop in its class would be faster.

Both are incredibly bold statements that would normally be dismissed as marketing hyperbole.

On the second point—that no other 13-inch Ultrabook laptop is faster—I can confirm that, with qualifications. 

Yes, the Surface Book with discrete graphics just can’t be touched by any other modern 13-inch Ultrabook in graphically intense chores. In CPU chores it gives as much as it gets from competing designs. It is truly the fastest laptop in its class.

But is it really the “ultimate” laptop? There I’d disagree, because the Surface Book is actually more than one of the best laptops out today. You effortlessly detach that gorgeous display for a large tablet experience that no other laptop can give you. That truly is something.

Correction: Our original story incorrectly stated the Surface pen was disposable. You can indeed change the AAAA battery in it.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating
    $1,700.00 MSRP $1,700.00
    View
    on Microsoft

    Microsoft's Surface Book reboots what you'll think a laptop should be.

    Pros

    • Tremendous battery life
    • Beautiful screen
    • Doesn't compromise on laptop use and adds wonderful Clipboard mode

    Cons

    • Rather large and heavy
    • Very expensive as you add options on
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