Update: Since my original review of the Surface Book, Microsoft has released a number of firmware updates for various issues that many users encountered. Like with the Surface Pro 4, I didn’t experience all of the problems that were listed, but among units sold to the public there appeared to be a large number of problems relating to battery drain, system stability and performance.
Recent updates include improved performance and stability when switching between laptop and tablet mode, with battery life also apparently improved when making the transition between laptop and tablet.
Various patches have been released for the onboard Intel HD Graphics 520, too, which should make a difference to stability. A big one for some users will be improved battery life while the laptop is asleep with various onboard sensors and drivers wrangled into line to prevent them from draining the battery.
There’s also been patches that improve stability on the Nvidia GPU, although it’s unclear whether this will fix the problems around games being powered by the wrong graphics chip.
The full list of changes can be found on Microsoft’s Surface Book update history page. I haven’t had a review unit in recently so I can’t verify whether the patches Microsoft has issued have actually worked, but we will be requesting a unit so we can check for ouselves. You can read my original review below.
What is the Surface Book?
Microsoft’s Surface range of tablets has steadily been growing a huge following since the US powerhouse started shipping the devices in 2012. And for reasons that go beyond monstrous amounts of marketing and product placement.
The 2015 Microsoft Surface Pro 4 offered top-end specifications within a neat portable design and is, in my opinion, the ultimate productivity tablet at the moment. However, its usability as a laptop is marred by its lack of a dedicated GPU and bundled keyboard – the Type Cover keyboard accessory still costs over £100 extra.
The Surface Book, on paper, fixes these flaws, and is being marketed by Microsoft as a laptop first and a tablet second. But with pricing for the most basic version starting at £1,300, can it justify its hefty upfront cost?
Check out our video review of the Surface Book
Related: Best laptops 2016
Surface Book – Design
Since the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft’s really come into its own on the design front, which is why I’m pleased it hasn’t rocked the boat too much with the Surface Book.
From a distance you’d be forgiven for mistaking the tablet section of the Surface Book for the Surface Pro 4. The device’s chassis is built of the same grey magnesium, with the only obvious design feature being a shiny Windows logo on its back.
Up close, however, you’ll notice a few key changes. For starters, it’s a little larger than the Pro 4, measuring in at 7.7mm thick and 312 mm wide – dimensions that place it in roughly the same size bracket as a 13-inch Macbook.
Microsoft’s also ditched the Pro 4’s kickstand to make way for the Surface Book’s biggest feature – its detachable keyboard dock. Unlike past Surface models, the Book comes bundled with a full-on physical keyboard, not relying on an optional Type Cover.
The keyboard houses the Surface Book’s most interesting feature: an optional secondary NVIDIA GeForce GPU. The GPU activates when the tablet section is docked in the keyboard, and in theory will radically improve performance. When undocked the Surface Book’s tablet section runs using the lower-power Intel HD graphics.
The dock also houses the Surface Book’s primary battery and the lion’s share of its ports – a point that further emphasises the focus on being a laptop first, tablet second. Ports-wise, the Surface Book is pretty well stocked when you consider its tiny dimensions. Along the dock’s sides you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, a Mini DisplayPort, a headphone jack and a proprietary charging socket.
The sleak dimensions and wealth of connectivity options make the Surface Book feel unashamedly premium and, in my mind, one of the nicest-looking convertibles around.
Surface Book – Keyboard and Trackpad
The physical keyboard is another neat addition. I personally didn’t have an issue with the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover, but understand many did. For starters, the Type Covers are paper thin and aren’t weighted, which meant using a Pro 4 on your lap is something of a balancing act. Many people also didn’t click with the touchpad, feeling they were too small and slightly unresponsive.
By comparison the Surface Book’s backlit keyboard is an entirely physical, metal affair, more akin to Asus Transformer Books’ docks than past Type Covers. The keyboard is a definite step up and offers a significantly improved typing experience. This is largely down to the keys’ improved travel and spacing.
The more comfortable typing experience is aided by the Surface Book keyboard’s intelligent hinge. The hinge has been designed to evenly adjust the Surface Book’s weight balance to ensure it doesn’t become top heavy, irrespective of the screen’s angle. The design works a treat and means it’s one of the most lap-friendly convertibles around.
My only issue with the keys is that they aren’t quite as tactile as I’d like, compared to, say, the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi or Dell XPS 12. With prolonged or rapid typing the keys feel a little spongy and aren’t quite as reactive as I’d like – though, being fair to Microsoft, this is an issue I have with most laptops and convertibles.
The trackpad’s also been improved. As well as being larger, the glass-finished pad feels more responsive and accurate than its Type Cover siblings. Two finger gestures work a treat and in general I have no issues using it.
Surface Book – Display
The Surface Book’s screen has also had a modest makeover. Microsoft’s increased the Surface Book’s PixelSense screen size to 13.3 inches, making it over an inch bigger than the Surface Pro 4’s.
For general consumers the screen is brilliant. The 3,000 x 2,000 resolution and 267ppi pixel density mean icons and text are constantly sharp. Brightness levels and viewing angles are stellar and I didn’t notice any backlight bleed.
Cracking out my trusty colorimeter, I found the Surface Book’s screen also to be well calibrated. The 1,750:1 contrast ratio I recorded is great and means the screen can display suitably nice deep and inky blacks alongside clear, unmuddied whites.
The 6,377K colour temperature I recorded is less than 200K away from the 6,500K ideal – meaning colours don’t look overcooked or too cool to the naked eye. The Surface Book’s 0.19 Delta E is stellar – any score floating around or below 1.0 indicates excellent colour accuracy. The screen’s 94.3% sRGB colour gamut coverage is above average, and more than wide enough to meet general users’ needs.
My only issue with the Surface Book’s screen is its average coverage of the Adobe RGB colour gamut. For non-techie folks, the Adobe RGB is a standard used by many creative professionals that dictates the range of colours a screen can accurately display. As a rule of thumb any serious art or photography display should cover 90% or above of the Adobe RGB. The Surface Book only covers 67.6% of the Adobe RGB.
Being fair, Microsoft’s never made any claims about the Surface Book’s Adobe RGB coverage, but when you consider the fact that it’s marketing the device as “ideal for creatives” I’m still a little disappointed. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this issue with its next wave of Surfaces.