Sunday, 28 February 2016

Surface Book Review: 24 Hours With Microsoft's Ultimate Laptop

Microsoft calls it the ultimate laptop. The Surface Book is striking, it stands out from the crowd, and it has seen Microsoft enter the luxury laptop market with an impressive slice of style. But can it do the job of a laptop?

I’ve received a review unit from Microsoft to help me answer that question.

Just to reiterate, this isn’t a full-blown review. Having had the laptop for just over twenty-four hours, I’ve been able to sketch out my initial impressions and can see areas that I want to explore in more detail over the next month. It takes time to work through a complicated device like the Surface Book, even though it should be simple enough to be picked up and used by almost anybody. So this is that first sketch, the details will be filled in with a long-term review later in March.

The Surface Book has been available in a number of territories since it was announced in October 2015, and in that intervening time it has picked up numerous software updates, bug-fixes, and generally picked up a bit more polish. I don’t think it’s fair to say that it was rushed out, but Microsoft’s commitment to continually evolve Windows 10 as a software platform has been reflected in the number of updates that Windows 10 and the Surface Book has received since last year.

It did mean that the first hour out of the box I left the Surface Book to download a significant batch of updates, and I was advised to install a number of driver and firmware updates as well as the over-the-air patches. The Surface Book was still usable during this time and I would assume that in the early period of sales, Surface Book buyers will have done their research and realise this is to be expected. For newcomers to the platform there’s no indication why this is all going on, and that might be a more user-friendly thing to offer.

The Surface Book is Microsoft’s first laptop, which means that Windows 10 on the device should be regarded as the definitive product. Just as the Surface and Surface Pro range shows an OS running Redmond’s tablet vision, this is the desktop view of its future. That vision includes a heavy use of the cloud to share data, which meant that during the first few minutes of use the settings from my Surface Pro were synced to the Surface Book – my themes, wallpapers, and app lists were waiting for me. It wasn’t a direct clone, but it was enough to make me feel comfortable in the Surface Book environment.

Again this just happens in the background as the default behaviour of Windows 10 is to sync data to the cloud at every opportunity, which feels more like a smartphone OS approach than a desktop OS approach. Windows 10 has a ‘tablet’ mode to help modern apps work with a touchscreen and I’ve tended to leave this on when working with the Surface Pro because it just felt right. Not so with the Surface Book. The increase in screen size, the larger trackpad, and the excellent keyboard scream laptop. I’m more than happy to stay in the desktop mode on the Surface Book.

The hardware echoes this feeling of a platform that is from ‘five minutes into the future’. The hinge has rightly picked up much of the attention. All design is a compromise, and Microsoft’s decision to have the Surface Book screen detach from the base into ‘clipboard’ mode has been turned into an aesthetic advantage with the rolling nature of the fulcrum hinge.

Any time you can turn a simple hinge into something that sells your product, you have to thank the designers. I’d say this is the stand out feature – it looks different to everything else on the market. Almost all of my worries about how well-balanced the Surface Book were unfounded – the laptop is stable while working with the screen at any angle, the hinge has enough friction to hold a position, and it’s smooth to open and close the device without requiring any excess pressure.

I still worry about how this hinge will cope while travelling. I’m worried enough to consider travelling with the unit split in two so there’s no space between the two sections when it is pushed into a tight space in a carry-on bag. Surely the jam of overhead lockers will expose the Book to more pressure than I would put on it at home? That’s something I’m going to look at in my long-term review. The mammoth SXSW festival is due to take place in Austin, and I’m going to take the Surface Book as my ‘conference computer’ to see how it copes with two transatlantic flights and eleven days of portability. That should tell me a lot about the Surface Book in the real world.

Maybe it’s me, but I was hoping the fulcrum hinge would act as a safe space to carry the Surface Pen. Unfortunately not. It’s the same pen as the Surface Pro, which is broadly circular in cross-section with a chord sliced off to provide a flat surface that can magnetically attach to the left side of the screen. That leaves it hanging on the outside of the machine and not a suitable place while travelling. Being able to tuck it in the space between the screen and keyboard while closed is an obvious answer that Microsoft has not taken. Carrying the Surface Pen has not been elegantly answered, and when so much focus has been placed on design by Microsoft, this is a curious omission at best.

The Surface Pen is behind my biggest issue with the Surface Book. Although the fulcrum hinge keeps the laptop stable on a desk (or a lap), there’s more weight in the screen than most laptops to allow it to be used as a tablet. Tapping on the screen with the Surface Pen or my finger on the top half of the screen and there’s a very slight amount of flex where the screen and base connect. It’s just enough to register as a wobble, and to feel that the screen is moving away from me rather than registering a pen or finger input.

The Surface Pro, with its full width kickstand, does not have this issue, and I can’t believe it didn’t come up in testing. Which means this is acceptable to Microsoft, and that’s a bit of a disappointment. Yes, the Surface Book is far more a laptop than a tablet with a keyboard (in the way that the Surface Pro range is) which means there’s going to be far more use of the touchpad and the keyboard, but I already find myself actively avoiding using the touchscreen in a way I never did with the Surface Pro. That’s not what I expected.

I’m already missing the lack of a kickstand on the clipboard when it’s away from the keyboard base. There’s no natural way to prop it up for a good viewing angle – your choice by design is in your hand, or flat on the table. Microsoft would likely stress that most people will use the Surface Book primarily as a laptop and in pure tablet mode for about a fifth of the time. That’s certainly how the battery usage is split over the two batteries, and is likely behind the decision to place the key peripheral ports on the base of the device. A kickstand would disrupt the graceful look of the Surface Book when closed, but should that be traded against usability? How I manage the two modes and the time spent is something I’ll address in the aforementioned long-term review in four or five weeks time here on Forbes.

The best word to describe the Surface Book so far is comfortable. After I switched it on and logged onto my existing Microsoft account, it worked away in the background to get itself up to date, it synced my preferences over to give me ‘my’ machine, and because of that everything in Windows 10 was where I expect it to be. The on-boarding process is smooth although the updates do extend the perceived time this takes.

The two headline features of the fulcrum hinge and the detachable tablet (Microsoft can brand it the clipboard as much as possible, it’s still a minimalist Windows 10 tablet) are easy to use, stand out well, and in the main do not get in the way of normal operation of the Surface Book as a laptop although I need more time to decide if the flaws above are outweighed by the positive benefits.

And I’ll touch briefly on the keyboard and mouse. They are going to be the key input devices on the Surface Book and Microsoft has spent time to get these looking and feeling right. The keys have a relatively large amount of travel, which suits my typing style of direct and hard key presses. The bounce back of the key provides me with more than enough feedback and with a similar keyboard layout to the Surface Pro devices it’s easy to switch between devices. The touchpad’s large surface area and glass construction is instantly familiar (especially to MacBook users…) and offers accurate input and multi-touch facilities for extra commands at my fingertips.

The Surface Book is a pricey machine, but the evidence of that price is obvious in my first moments with the machine. The question now is how much do these artistic flourishes impact on the day-to-day use of the device, can it be a workhorse machine and remain stylish, and has Microsoft created “the ultimate laptop” that it professes? That’s going to take me more than twenty-four hours, so check back later in March to get my definitive answer. Right now, it’s looking good.

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