When was the last time you were really excited about a laptop â especially a Windows one?
For several years, hype in the tech world has largely revolved around phones, tablets and smartwatches, and there arguably hasnât been a truly revolutionary laptop since Apple pulled a MacBook Air out of a manila envelope in 2008. Some spec bumps and crazy designs, sure, butÂ nothing that really changed the way we used our devices.
But then Microsoft surprised the world with the Surface BookÂ a couple of weeks ago and something special happened: we finally had an exciting laptop again. A device with great design, ultrabook dimensions, 12-hour battery life,Â dedicated graphicsâ¦Â andÂ it could turn into a tablet?
It almost sounded too good to be true, but after a couple of weeks using the Surface Book, Iâm happy to report Microsoft not only built one of the best laptops you can buy right now, it also createdÂ one of the most forward-looking devices Iâve used in years.
Itâs gorgeously engineered
Iâve got to hand it to Microsoft; itâsÂ somehow managed to build an all-metal laptop thatÂ doesnât look like a Macbook. In the couple of weeks Iâve used it, Iâve had four completely random people approach me just to ask what laptop I was using.
Thatâs largely thanks to the Surface Bookâs zanyÂ âdynamic-fulcrumâ hinge, which kind of looks like an awesome cross between a scorpion tail and a bendy straw, but alsoÂ helps keep the relatively top-heavy design (more on this in a bit)Â from toppling over by elongating the base when folded out. It stands out, and it makes a statement.
The hinge mightÂ initally look like it canÂ to bend 360 degrees a-la Lenovo Yoga, butÂ it actually has a relatively short range (also likely to help stop it from falling over).Â The screen is a little wobblier than some laptop hinges, but it never bothered me.
The Surface Book is built from a magnesium alloy chiseled into a chassis slightly larger than a 13-inch MacBook Pro.Â ItâsÂ thickerÂ at theÂ hinge due to the gap with the keyboard, but is slightly thinner on the other end. Microsoftâs laptopÂ is actually lighter than the MBP in its base configuration,Â but with the GPU â which the Pro doesnât offer â weighs an identical 3.48 pounds.
That is, until you detach the display. In something of a minor engineering miracle, Microsoft managed to fit all the basic computing components in just the top portion of the laptop â the keyboard base houses just a larger battery, ports and optional discrete graphics.
Press the eject key on the top right of the keyboard, and suddenly you have a really big â but really thin and light â tablet. Seriously, it weighs just 1.6Â pounds (about the same as the original iPad, which had a 9.7 â inch display), andÂ itâs almost exactly as thick as an iPad mini.
Impressive engineering aside, it also just looks really nice, striking a purposeful balance between retro and futuristic. For instance, the metal is whiter and more matte than most metal laptops; itâs clearly silver most of the time, but in some lighting it looks a bit like 90âsÂ beige. Plus, the lines created by the hinge when open also remind me a bit of aÂ Commodore 64, which is pretty sweet if you ask me.
The detachable tablet display is fantastic
13.5 inchesÂ might seemÂ a little big for a tablet (though hey, Apple has a massive tablet of its own on the way), but you might feel a little different once you try out the display.
Itâs possibly the best screenÂ Iâve ever seen on a laptop, and it handily beats the Retina MacBook Pros â not to mention my old Surface Pro 3.
Most obviously, itâs a lot sharper. The 3000 x 2000 pixels display is a little under 4K, and comes in at 267 ppi (vs 227 on the MBP). Apple may dubiously claim that your eyes canât resolve that many pixels at a typical viewing distance,Â but if you ever lean in to your screen to inspect images up close, the difference is readily apparent.
Colors are also more vibrant on the Surface Book. Thatâs helped out by an impressively claimed 1800:1 contrast ratio; indeed, despite being slightly brighter overall, the Surface Book actually has deeper blacks than the 13-inch MBP at their maximum output levels.
Couple all that with a 3:2 aspect ratio, and the Surface Book becomes something of a photographerâs dream laptop. Photos on the screen can come pretty darn close to looking like a physical print with the right brightness setting â especially if youâre using the Book in clipboardÂ mode.
The most surprising thing about the display being detachable, however, is how often I actually use it. Donât get me wrong: the Surface Book stays in laptop mode 75 percent of the time, but I honestly expected it to be something Iâd largely forget about after a few days into the experience.
Instead, I find myself detaching the screen all the time. Itâs a cool party trick, and aside from note-taking and photo-viewing, being ableÂ to detach and/or flip the screen around is really useful when watching video (it keeps the display closer to your eyes) or doing some image editingÂ (the screen can beÂ propped at a drawing angle).
I also often went into tabletÂ mode whenÂ I wanted to read something, as the tablet portion is so lightweight and the display so easy on the eyes that itâs somewhatÂ reminiscent to holding up a magazine. And even if you leave it attached to the base in a flipped position, the fulcrum hinge gives you a good grip to cradle it in your arm.
Side note: The speakers are pretty fantastic too, with solid stereo imaging and more than enough volume to fill a room.
A better input experience
Iâm not the pickiest person about my keyboards â Iâve used a Surface Pro 3 for a year and a half, after all â but I can confidently tell you the Surface Book checks all the boxes. Travel is better than withÂ my MBP, the layout makes sense and the keys donât wobble.
Itâs not quite up there with the best Lenovo keyboards â the X1 Carbon comes to mind â but I canât imagine anyone being unhappy with Microsoftâs.
The touchpad is also excellent. Itâs approximately the same size as on Appleâs laptops and feels nearly as responsive to the touch. Thereâs also little more friction on Microsoftâs Touchpad,Â which you may or may not prefer.
That said, itâs a little wonky unless you disable or weaken palm rejection in the touchpad settings menu, as I found the default âlong delayâ optionÂ it a little too aggressive for my tastes. Appleâs newest touchpads with Force Touch are also still better, mainly because they allow you to click anywhere on the pad, including the very top.
Of course, it wouldnât be a Surface without the Surface Pen, and Microsoftâs made a several improvements that go a long way towards making itÂ a more useful tool.
Firstly, Microsoft got rid of the annoying pen loop â thank goodness â and instead just made the pen magnetic so that it snaps onto the left of the display. The pen is also longer and has a flat side that provides better grip, while the eraser now sits more naturallyÂ at the top of the pen instead of being a second function button.
My favorite change is actually a bit more subtle â the Penâs nib now uses a softer texture that feels more like pencil, and you can exchange it with other kinds to get the right feel. The new texture provides more friction and makes it a lot easier to select text and make fine edits.
Top-notch performance and reliableÂ battery life
The Surface Book is all about performance, being Microsoftâs first product to support a dedicated graphics card (an undisclosed Nvidia chip that appears to be a super-poweredÂ 940M) and featuring Intelâs 6th-gen Skylake processors.
I was able to try out both a Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM and integrated graphics, as well as the top-end Core i7 with 16 GB of RAM and dedicated graphics. In everyday usage, I didnât notice a significant difference between the two models. In fact, Iâd say the biggest improvement compared to my Surface Pro 3 is the inclusion of a PCIe SSD, not the processor â photo editing in Lightroom is a breeze.
The obvious difference comes in terms of gaming. While the Intel HD 520 chip on the lower-end Surface Book is surprisingly capableÂ for older titles â the relatively lightweight Portal 2 ranÂ smoothly at medium settings â youâll definitely want the Nvidia model if youÂ play games more often.
I was able to run throughÂ 2013âs âTomb Raiderâ comfortably at medium settings on the higher-end device. Portal 2 hit 60fps easily at 1080pÂ with maxed-out settings.
As you might expect, battery life is variable and wonât always hit Microsoftâs claimed 12 hours. I never went on a long enough Netflix to truly put that claim to the test, but watching a couple of Mad Max movies only depleted charge by about 30 percent, so the claim seems accurate for video.
Load it up with powerful software like Lightroom or Photoshop and high brightness, and you can expect that to drop down aroundÂ six hours, which is still very solid.
If youâre doing light Web browsing, youâll also want to stick to Firefox and Edge over Chrome (which is a well-documented battery-hog). Universal apps in general are also better optimized forÂ power-efficiency.
Fun note: because both the screen and the keyboard have their own battery, youâll actually see two percentages show up in your power settings. Itâs also worth noting that the tablet portion only lasts about 3 hours on its own, though you can attach the chargerÂ directly to the display if you want to keep reading in bed. Impressively, I didnât noticeÂ worse battery life on the GPU model.
Overall, itâs one of the longer-lasting laptops out there, with longevity comparable to my MacBook Pro. Thatâs saying a lot for Windows device â just donât expect any miracles if youâre a power user.
More than just a good laptop
The first few minutes of Microsoftâs Surface Book unveiling, I was worried the company had given up on the Surface concept by going the safe route with a traditional laptop. But then the screen detached, and I realized the company had built something more: the first trueÂ flagship Windows device.
And itâs got a price tag to match the title â prices start at $1,499 ($1,700Â if you want the graphics card), and run up to $3,199 â but Microsoft is aiming squarely for the premium market. After all, itâs priced roughly between the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros, which is basically where the Surface Book lies spec-wise, and you canât put a price on that detachable screen.
But then again, this is Windows, and you always have other options.
This is also not to say Windows hasnât had a great laptop before; the XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360 come to mind. ButÂ what makes Appleâs laptops so popular is the unity of hardware and software âÂ knowing that the next MacBook Pro will always show off the best OS X has to offer. Itâs also what Google aims for with its Nexus phones.
Microsoft hasnât been as successful. Previous Surfaces have beenÂ great devices in theirÂ own right, but theÂ hardware was too polarizing to achieve the sort of popularity Apple commands. And though the tablet-with-a-keyboard design form has gained some tractionÂ of late, for the average user, Surface tabletsÂ always seemed like a bit of a gamble on a potential future.
The Surface Book,Â on the other hand, is bothÂ Microsoftâs MacBook and Nexus. Like the MacBook, itâs the best showcase forÂ its ownÂ operating system; embodying Windows 10âs philosophy, it makes the old-school laptopÂ truly touch-friendly without compromising on the traditionalÂ experience. And like the Nexus devices,Â it sets a high standardÂ for third parties to aim for.
But for Microsoft as a company, it means something more:Â finally taking the future of Windows devices â and laptops in general â into its own hands.Â Right now, that future looks wonderful.