For years, consumer hardware has increasingly differentiated with design. And while Microsoft’s latest Surface Book hybrid features the premium materials, sleek looks, and lighter and thinner body you’d expect, it’s all about incredible engineering at its core.
This is the second version of the unique detachable device Microsoft first released a year ago, and outwardly the mechanics are largely the same. When the Surface Book’s 13.5-inch touchscreen docks in its mechanical-and-magnetic grip, it’s a powerful laptop with a comfortably spaced keyboard.
Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base
It’s a lean performance hybrid with an awesome keyboard. The sharp touchscreen has a sweet aspect ratio for hard-core doc-jockeying. Laptop mode offers the graphics performance of a decent gaming laptop. It does hybrid right.
Battery life is solid, but falls short of the 16 hours claimed. Sometimes you will forget where the power button is. It’s expensive, but you’re essentially getting two computers in one.
But then you hold down a button for a second, hear an electromechanical “thunk,” and lift the display right off. That’s the “muscle wire lock” working as designed, a special mechanism that keeps the screen on tight in laptop mode, and lets it loose when you want a big-screened tablet PC instead—complete with its own three-hour battery and mobile processor. When it comes time to re-dock, go ahead and put the screen on backwards; the system still works and sips from the main battery, giving you a gently sloped surface to write on with the included Surface Pen stylus.
All of which makes Surface Book a unique entry in the portable PC field, even a year later. And while this year’s model—the Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base—doesn’t reinvent the hinge, it does offer a dual-core Intel Core i7 CPU, up to 16 gigs of RAM, and dedicated graphics processors for more gaming and graphics oomph. Not that you can tell from the outside; the new machine looks just like last year’s Surface Book.
The new model sticks with the same a 13.5-inch, 3000 x 2000 touchscreen display, and its 3:2 aspect ratio leaves ample vertical real estate for rockin’ Word docs. It has same signature bendy-straw hinge as its predecessor, the same surprisingly good speakers, the same contoured magnesium-alloy body with chiseled details, and the same MacBook-silver coloration.
There are differences, though, all of them hidden inside. As a result, the newer Surface Book is a little bit heavier, weighing in at around 3.7 pounds versus the previous model’s 3.5-pound frame. Those extra ounces are no big deal, as it remains a fairly light load in your laptop bag.
The most notable change is an upgraded graphics processing unit, which makes the Surface Book with Performance Base more attractive for gamers, video editors, or CAD whizzes who found last year’s internals too wimpy. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M GPU tucked inside now is an upgrade from the Nvidia 940M-range GPU found in last year’s models, and there’s also double the memory devoted to it (2GB of GDDR5 RAM).
The upgrade pays off; the 2016 Surface Book is super-powerful for such a slim, light, and versatile machine. For the majority of mixed-use cases during testing—streaming a bunch of video, writing this review, surfing the web, and listening to music—the Surface Book had no trouble multitasking without a hiccup. It really zips. That’s to be expected out of the top configuration I tested, a $3,300 rig with a top-shelf Core i7 with 16GB RAM and a 1TB SSD. Still, it lives up to very lofty performance expectations.
I ran it through 3DMark’s Cloud Gate benchmark test for all-purpose laptops, and the Surface Pro with Performance Base churned out a score of 8,803, which was significantly better than most 2013 gaming laptops and any general-purpose portable PC. On the more intense Sky Diver test, it held its own as well, netting a 10,738 score that also put it above older gaming laptops and all-purpose portables. No, it’s not on par with newer gaming laptops—it won’t handle Oculus VR, for example—but it’s especially impressive when you factor in its size, weight, and versatility.
One perk that the new Surface Book didn’t live up to was its listed 16 hours of battery life in laptop mode. I tested the laptop through three complete charge and recharge cycles, with normal heavy use, and it gave me between six and seven hours of juice at a time. Microsoft suggested downloading the latest Windows update, which did improve power management quite a bit, boosting me to around nine to 10 hours per charge. Another caveat: Microsoft’s battery life spec is based on video playback, not mixed use. The upshot is that you get solid mileage, but don’t expect to make from sunup to sundown with everyday use, unless you live in the Arctic.
Outside of the fresh new engine and bulked-up battery life, the experience of using the new Surface Book is exactly the same as using last year’s model. That’s largely a long list of pluses: I am a huge fan of its keyboard, which has wider keys, better ergonomics for bigger hands, and more pleasant key travel than the 13-inch MacBook Pro I normally use. The input options are decent, with two USB 3.0 ports and an SD reader along its left edge, and a mini DisplayPort jack on the right edge.
The Surface Book’s detached-screen experience is best described as “tablet PC” rather than “tablet.” When it’s freed from its dock, the big ol’ slate runs full Windows 10 programs and is more like a desktop experience than the app-filled iPad. Microsoft calls it “Clipboard Mode,” which is apt; its size and shape really do make it feel like a clipboard in your hands. In other words, it’s bulkier than your average iPad. For most casual users, “Clipboard Mode” will primarily be a nice-to-have feature for reading and watching movies on a plane.
Casual users probably aren’t ponying up this much for a laptop, though. And while I’m certainly not the target audience for drawing on its touchscreen all that much, Microsoft nailed the feel of writing with the Surface Pen. It feels like a cross between the world’s smoothest ballpoint and jotting on a slick whiteboard. Just as importantly, stowing the Surface Pen is as simple as sticking it on the edge of the Surface Book’s display with its super-strong magnetic innards. For artists, it’s certainly worth at least a test sketch to see if it fits your needs.
There are tiny complaints with the new Surface Book here and there. The placement of the power button and the headphone jack will never feel quite right; to accommodate its standalone tablet mode, the Book’s power button is on the top of the display and the headphone jack is on the top right edge. Cords be danglin’. Due to the unique hinge design, there’s also a small loopy gap between the screen and the keyboard when the Book is closed. It didn’t bother me at all, but it bears mentioning.
Just like the first version of the machine, Surface Book with Performance Base is certainly a laptop first—a damn good laptop first, with a great keyboard, superb performance, and a sharp display that gains more than you’d think from its aspect ratio. The new graphics-boosted configurations represent steps up in performance, with the same clever engineering elements that make them such unique portables. But they’re certainly pricey, and if you can do without the tablet mode—and if you truly want a tablet, not a slate PC, you probably can—you can find a similarly powerful machine for the same price or less.
It just won’t be as cool.