Microsoft Surface Book hands-on review

The Surface Book is a totally new product in Microsoft’s range, representing the first laptop the company has ever made. The new but more familiar Surface Pro 4, which launched alongside the Surface Book on 6 October, is designed to be tablet first, laptop second, while the Surface Book takes a laptop first, tablet second approach with a 13in detachable touchscreen and a full-size, sturdy keyboard. Here’s our hands-on review with the Surface Book from Adobe Max 2015 in Los Angeles.

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Surface Book review: Price and availability

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Surface Book is set to come to the UK at last, after a 26 October release for the US that left us feeling rather envious. We now know that pre-orders for the Surface Book will begin tomorrow, 5 January, although shipping dates for the laptop have yet to be confirmed.

It starts at £1,229, but we’ve not got the full price list just yet. We’ll update this article as soon as the information becomes available. You can pre-order from 12:01am on 5 January here.

We do have US prices to share, however, and that could give you a bit of an idea of what to expect. Prices start at $1499 for the low-end Surface Book with 128GB of storage, a Core i5 Skylake processor and 8GB RAM, ranging up to 512GB of storage, a Core i7 chip, 16GB of RAM and a separate graphics card situated in the keyboard portion of the laptop, which’ll cost you $2,699. And unlike with the Surface Pro, that price includes the Surface Pen and of course the keyboard.

Surface Book review: Design and build

The Surface Book has been designed around the form factor of a piece of A4 paper, which looks and feels like an ideal shape and size for a laptop. It measures 312 x 232mm and is 13mm at its thinnest point, 23mm at its thickest. If you’re considering just the tablet, you’ll find that it’s an impressive 7.7mm thick and weighs 728g. In total, the weight including the keyboard is 1.5kg.

The screen size of the Surface Book is 13.5in, but you’ll be surprised at how incredibly light and manageable it is to use as a tablet when detached from the keyboard – I could imagine using it one handed, perhaps in a presentation for example, without any problems at all.

 

It’s really easy to attach and detach the keyboard once you know how. You can’t just yank it off like you can with the magnetic keyboard on the Surface Pro 3 and 4 – you’ll need to press and hold a button on the keyboard until a notification pops up on the screen to let you know that it’s ready to detach. Then, you can simply pull it off without a struggle. I did witness less informed people trying to pull off the screen without pressing the button to no avail, but the Surface Book stood strong so we’re confident that it’s built sturdily.

The screen snaps back into place using magnets with satisfying ease, too, and the cleverly designed Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge (which we think looks awesome) feels very hard-wearing, capable of bending all the way back on itself to transform the laptop into display mode. We’re not sure why you’d want to fold it further into tablet mode rather than just detaching the keyboard from the screen, but there’s always the option should you fancy it and it does keep the keyboard from getting misplaced if you’re on the move. Where the Surface Book struggled, though, was in what’s called the ‘Tent’ mode (shown below), where the screen is facing outwards, as is the keyboard. It was possible, but didn’t feel particularly strong so we’d be concerned that it’d slip out of place during use.

The only downside to the hinge is that you’ll find there’s a small gap between the keyboard and the screen when it’s in the closed position of a traditional laptop, which could mean rogue paperclips or other potentially scratchy objects could find their way towards the screen.

The keyboard, which we found a breeze to type on, is backlit to help you get your work done even if the lighting conditions are less than ideal.

Overall, though, the Surface Book is a really good-looking device, even if it does share some visual similarities with a MacBook. It was attracting the most attention at Microsoft’s stand during Max, so I think it’s going down really well with its target market of professionals and creative so far.

Surface Book review: Hardware and specs

The screen on the Surface Book is stunning, at 3000 x 2000 pixels thanks to its 3:2 aspect ratio, at the aforementioned 13.5in size. It’s unusual, but we found that it works. And if you’re concerned about the text being too small (we definitely experienced that from time-to-time using the Surface Pro 3), you’ll be pleased to hear that Windows 10 has much better scaling than the previous version, so you’ll be able to increase the font size and scaling to your liking.

Of course, that screen is a touchscreen, not only when it’s being used as a tablet but also when the keyboard is attached. You can use your finger or opt for the Surface Pen, which we talk more about later, enabling you to draw, sketch, write or paint with ease.

The keyboard has a glass, five-point multitouch trackpad, two full-size USB 3 ports and a full side SD card slot. In some models, it also houses a dedicated nVidia graphics processor that means this thin laptop is capable of playing even the latest 3D games.

According to Microsoft, the Surface Book is capable of 50 percent faster performance than the current 13in MacBook Air. It’s available with an Core Intel i5 processor and 8GB RAM, Core Intel i7 processor and 8GB RAM or a Core Intel i7 processor with 16GB RAM.

Storage options are 128GB, 256GB or 512GB.

We’ve not had a chance to run our full benchmark tests on the Surface Book yet, but we expect that it’ll prove to be very smooth and speedy all-round. We’ll update this hands-on review with our full review as soon as we’ve got it back to our labs and spent more time with the laptop.

In terms of connectivity, you’ll find that the Surface Book lacks 4G so you’ll need to be connected to WiFi if you want to access the internet, but the WiFi is 802.11ac. There’s also Bluetooth 4, a TPM chip and an ambient light sensor that’ll automatically adjust the screen brightness if you want it to. Plus, there’s a Mini DisplayPort for hooking up an external display.

When it comes to battery life, Microsoft claims that it’ll last for 12 hours between charges, but that’s another claim we’ll need to test for ourselves before we can five a verdict.

There are also cameras built-on to the Surface Book – an 8Mp camera on the rear and 5Mp on the front. You’ll also find front- and rear-facing microphones, as well as front-facing stereo speakers.

Surface Book review: Surface Pen

The first thing you’ll notice about the Surface Pen is that it finally has a place to call home. With the Surface Pro 3, the pen needed to be forced into a fabric loop stuck onto the side of the keyboard, which meant it always got left behind or misplaced. Now, you can attach the new Surface Pen to the side of the Surface Book with an instant, satisfying snap thanks to built-in magnets.

The new Surface Pen has really good pressure sensitivity, too, up from 256 levels in the previous model to 1,024 levels. That’s still not as impressive as the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2’s 2,048 levels of sensitivity, but will certainly be sufficient for most users.

You’ll find a right click button on the side of the new Surface Pen and an eraser on the end of the pen, making it more practical and efficient to use. Pressing and holding on the top brings up Cortana, so you can get the voice-assistant to help you achieve further tasks without requiring use of the keyboard or trackpad.

Different pen tips are available for note-taking, writing, sketching, drawing and shading, but they weren’t available for testing during our time with the Surface Book.

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