The first reviews are out for Microsoft’s first laptop — and it looks like the Surface Book may be a hit.
From an excellent keyboard to an inventive hinge, Microsoft finally made a hybrid Windows device that’s a laptop first, but still has tablet roots. Those roots show mainly through the detachable screen, which pops right off the snake-like hinge. Below, we’ve rounded up highlights from some major reviews that were published today.
Surface Book as a laptop
As a laptop, the Surface Book shows off everything a Windows 10 device can be. Microsoft built a great keyboard and excellent trackpad for a powerful computer, which all fit together smoothly for a top-notch Windows 10 experience.
“[The] Surface Book is gorgeous and different,” wrote Mario Aguilar at Gizmodo. “It’s powerful and pricey. Its design invites you to consider what a computer could do for you—as opposed to merely settling for what you need a computer to do.”
“The Surface Book was the best Windows laptop I’ve ever used,” Joanna Stern wrote in her Wall Street Journal review. “Unlike those other Surfaces past and present, the Book gets the laptop hardware essentials right.”
David Pierce at Wired noted the long heritage of laptops that double as tablets. and how Microsoft has succeeded where others have failed.
“Every other convertible has tried too hard to be all things to all people, doing everything under the sun and none of it well,” he said. “The Surface Book, on the other hand, is a laptop. A great one.”
“I really like the keyboard. The keys are well-spaced and it’s comfortable and fast for those of us who live to type and type to live,” Mary Jo Foley said in her review at ZDNet. “The track pad is actually usable, especially if you are using Microsoft’s Edge browser in Windows 10, where scrolling is incredibly fluid.”
However, Microsoft had to make some sacrifices for its hybrid ambitions. For most laptops, disconnecting the screen from the keyboard also disconnects the screen from power, storage and everything that makes a computer a computer. That means that Microsoft had to pack a portion of the battery and the computing power into the screen.
“Because it has batteries in both the top and the base, it’s tippy, especially when open on my lap,” Foley said. “In my opinion, Microsoft could have done without the detachable ‘clipboard’ tablet on this machine.”
The fulcrum hinge was supposed to solve some of these problems, but the Verge’s Tom Warren said it doesn’t help much.
“The hinge isn’t resistive enough like a regular laptop, so it bounces and wobbles a little if you’re typing in your lap or you touch the display while you’re using it as a laptop,” he said. “A lot of 2-in-1 Windows laptops have the same problem, and even though Microsoft has probably done the best job yet, it’s not perfect.”
The hinge is also keeping the Surface Book from looking like a regular laptop. Because it’s doesn’t fold neatly in half, the Surface Book doesn’t close completely when folded up, adding bulk.
“Dust, hair, and all sorts of other nastiness from my bag now gets regularly deposited onto the Surface Book keyboard because of this gap,” Warren said. “It’s ugly, but it’s a compromise that allows Microsoft’s laptop to also convert into a tablet.”
But the hinge also enables the Surface Book’s craziest feature: the detachable screen.
As a tablet
Where previous Surface devices were tablets first with laptop-like features enabled by accessories, the Surface Book’s tablet mode is definitely not the main function.
“Depending what exactly you’re trying to do, it can be a little cumbersome,” Aguilar said. “Whereas smaller tablets like the iPad are fine to hold up for long periods of time when you’re lying in bed, the Surface Book’s comes in at 1.9 pounds without the keyboard, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but you really start to feel it if you’re trying to read a long magazine article or watch a TV show.”
But Stern found the tablet mode pretty compelling in certain use cases.
“Holding a [1.9]-pound laptop screen in your hands is awkward, though cradling it like a clipboard—while jotting notes with the included pen—is surprisingly natural,” she wrote. “It’s everything I need to juggle loads of applications and my basic video editing. Well, everything except for a big battery.”
When you detach the keyboard, you’re also jettisoning a big chunk of the battery, and also the GPU if you bought a higher end model. So don’t expect quite the same all-day performance in what Microsoft calls “clipboard” mode.
The tablet also holds another impressive piece of Microsoft’s engineering: the screen. Unlike many laptops, Microsoft opted for a 3:2 display (like those found on the Surface Pro 3 and 4), which makes for a great web browsing experience.
“Whether you use it as a laptop or tablet, the display is as gorgeous as you’d expect on something billed as the ultimate laptop,” Engadget’s Dana Wollman wrote. “Aside from the resolution, you’re looking at some rich, but not overbearing colors, with a wide palette that covers 100 percent of the sRGB spectrum.”
And the killer screen helps with pen input as well.
“Microsoft has shaved the thickness of the glass so thin that to your eye, the surface is finally starting to feel like you’re actually writing or drawing pixels right on the display,” Aguilar wrote.
Many reviewers got pre-production devices that had some problems. While Microsoft has likely figured out the manufacturing bugs for their main run, there are a few things to look out for. Peter Bright at Ars Technica ran into a bug that wouldn’t let him disconnect his screen, which is held on via a software switch that allows the hardware to detach.
“The Surface Book believed that the screen was detached when it wasn’t,” he wrote. “The keyboard button did nothing at all (because the keyboard wasn’t being recognized), and the taskbar button to unlatch the screen didn’t offer to unlatch, because in its opinion it was already detached from the base, and there’s no reason to unlatch the base if it’s not attached.”
Others had issues with display drivers and faulty hard drives. Again, it’s safe to assume that Microsoft has already fixed these problems for the devices shipping to consumers, but it’s something to look out for if you’re getting a device on launch day.
Another curiosity with much less reason for consternation is the new pen. While Microsoft ditched the silly pen loop, the Surface Pen now attaches to the side of the Surface Book via a magnet.
“That’s better than a pen loop, but it still always falls off in my bag,” Warren said.
Wollman had a better experience though: “Don’t worry, I keep the pen there regularly and haven’t lost it yet.”
The battery life is also in flux. While the Verge got 13 hours of battery life in laptop mode (more than Microsoft even claims), ZDNet’s Foley was averaging about eight or nine hours. The tablet mode also gets variable battery life, ranging from 2.5 hours for Stern while almost reaching 4 hours for Bright.
The Surface Book shows that Microsoft is a real contender in the hardware game. It’s now built a great tablet that can function as a laptop as well as a good laptop that converts to a tablet when needed. It’s a 1.0 product with a few glitches, but it really showcases to power of Windows 10.
However, the Surface Book is also a premium product. It starts out at $1,500 and can top out at more than $3,000. While the Surface Book does have some killer features like a smooth trackpad and a beautiful screen, people may still gravitate toward cheaper Windows devices.
But overall, the Surface Book is a true contender in the world of premium laptops. With great build quality, a few stand-out features and minimal quirks, it’s probably worth considering.
“If you buy a Surface Book—and it’s very much worth considering—you might not ever find reasons to pull the screen off, or flip it over,” Pierce wrote. “So what? You’ll still have as good a Windows laptop as there’s ever been. And for now, that’s more than enough.”
The Surface Book is available for pre-order now and will hit store shelves on Oct. 26.