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

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We plugged our Surface Book Clipboard without graphics onto the base with graphics and it worked.

We mixed peanut butter and chocolate

Microsoft’s use of a GPU in the base unit also sets up some pretty interesting ramifications for how a laptop could be upgraded down the road. If you bought a Surface Book without the GPU for instance, and somehow obtained a base unit with the GPU, marrying the Clipboard to either base would work just fine, Microsoft says.

I tried it myself —yes, I got peanut butter in my chocolate. Did it work? Yup. After a few seconds of downloading drivers it was up and running without even a need to reboot.

One important detail, should you want to try this “upgrade:” You’ll need the bigger power brick too. They may look the same, but the brick for the unit with discrete graphics puts out 60 watts, while the standard brick puts out just 31 watts. Charging with the lower-capacity brick will be slower, or you may find it discharging even when plugged in if the load is heavy enough.

Alas, the company has no plans to sell the base units with just the GPU. It’s an entire package or nothing.

Of course, that’s Microsoft’s position today, but I can see the potential to upgrade the graphics on the Surface Book by simply buying a new base unit with the latest GPU in it. 

As this is a Surface, there’s pen support of course.

With Microsoft's purchase of N-Trig over the summer, it’s no surprise the Surface Book uses the same stylus technology from the Surface Pro 3. This time around, it’s much improved, with pressure levels going from 256 in the Surface Pro 3 to 1,024 levels in the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4. There was a lot of griping from early Surface Pro users that losing the 1,024 in the original Pro was a step backward.

microsoft surface pro 4 surface pen detail Peter Ruecktenwald

The new Surface Pen has interchangeable nibs for a choice of writing or drawing feel.

Another big difference is the power source. The N-Trig pen in the Surface Pro 3 required two button cells plus a AAAA battery that only card-carrying members of the Radio Shack Battery of the Month Club (sigh) would be able to find.

Maybe that was a hassle, but the disposable nature of the new pen isn't any better of a tradeoff. You use the pen until it dies, then you buy a new one. Microsoft estimates that’ll take a year for most people, but of course your mileage will vary.

Given that this is a $45 instrument with some complexity that's also non-biodegradable, I'm surprised Microsoft isn't offering a recycling program where you'd get, say $10 off your replacement if you mailed back your dead one. Think about it, Microsoft. Oh, and you can still use a Surface Pro 3 pen with its replaceable battery, but its functionality will be limited.

The good news is the new pen feels great. It features a rubbery nib with optional tips to tailor the feel. Microsoft said it also burned engineering time on a new G5 controller to optimize touch and pen input for the Surface.

I’m admittedly not a heavy pen computing user, but I like them for those times when I need to sign or mark up a document. I compared the Surface Book’s pen input to a laptop with a Synaptics pen, and the Surface Pro 3 with its older n-Trig pen. I found the palm rejection to be fairly excellent on the Surface Book, but it couldn’t reject my knuckle-dragging ways. I like VAIO’s solution: Just switch off the touch digitizer by pushing a button.

Parallax, which is certainly better on today’s pen devices was still a millimeter or so off from the tip of the pen when tilted over. Latency also didn’t feel like a quantum leap over the Surface Pro 3 in my book but I’m basing this on “feel” rather than any real testing.

Surface Book Screen Gordon Mah Ung

The screen is a 3,000x2,000 photo aligned IPS panel that’ll hit 400 nits

Beautiful screen

The 13.5-inch screen on the Surface Book is a stunner. It’s a 3:2 aspect ratio with a resolution that’s easy to do the math on: 3,000x2,000, or about 6 megapixels.

Microsoft said it’s an IPS panel that uses a “negative photo-aligned liquid oxide display.” That’s a fancy way of saying that during construction of the panels, the layers are carefully aligned to increase contrast and image quality. Televisions have used this technique previously, and Apple recently made a point of that in its iPhone 6 rollout. However, those layers make the screen more prone to reflections than, say, the current MacBook Pro 13.

The display is rated for 100-percent coverage of the sRGB color gamut. It’s also spec’ed to hit a blazing 400 nits in brightness. Our meter agreed, putting our Surface Book sample actually a little brighter.

left Gordon Mah Ung

Here’s a stack with the Dell XPS 13 on top, followed by an Apple MacBook Pro 2015, an HP Spectre X360 and then the Surface Book.

Ports of call

The Surface Book's port array includes two USB 3.0 Type A, a miniDisplayPort and an SD card reader. For an Ultrabook, this is pretty typical. The Surface Book gets bonus points for its docking station, which gives you two more DisplayPorts, Gigabit ethernet, four USB 3.0 ports, and analog audio out. This all connects through the Surface power connector.

I'm surprised there’s no support for Intel’s new Thunderbolt 3.0 or USB 3.1 on the Surface Book for higher speed I/O devices. Sure, I’d rather have a pure miniDisplayPort over USB-C but it feels odd not having USB 3.1, at least. Read to find out what the GPU is inside the Surface Book and how it performs.

logo Gordon Mah Ung

This isn’t just a polished logo. Microsoft machines or laser cuts this channel and then bonds four shined up pieces of metal to make this logo.

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