Editor's Note: Microsoft recently announced the release of the Surface Book 2, which comes with a new 15-inch screen and improved specs. It will start at $1,499 and be available for pre-order Nov. 9. We have not tested or reviewed the Surface Book 2 yet, but when we do we will report our findings.
Microsoft's Surface Book is an enticing work machine because it can be almost anything you want it to be. Its gorgeous 13.5-inch display and snappy, detachable keyboard are perfect for marathon work sessions. Plus, its excellent stylus support makes it ideal for note-taking, and its discrete graphics chip lets it handle even graphically intensive workloads. You won't find that much functionality in another laptop this sleek and portable.
But, starting at $1,499 (reviewed at $1,899), this Swiss Army Knife of a computer doesn't come cheap. At that price, does the Surface Book belong in your work bag?
The first thing you'll likely notice about the Surface Book is that its screen doesn't sit flush with the keyboard when the lid is closed. The rounded hinge — which looks a bit like the treads on a futuristic tank — gives the machine a sleek, aerodynamic profile.
The downside is that dirt and dust are sure to accumulate around the hinge when you pull the laptop in and out of your bag. I'd suggest keeping your Surface Book in a protective sleeve for that reason alone. The unusual design does have at least one perk, though: It provides a nice, angled writing surface for taking notes with the included Surface Pen. But more on that later.
While other laptops aim for smooth, rounded contours, the Surface Book's silvery magnesium lid and keyboard deck have all right angles and squared-off edges. The system feels extremely solid and sturdy, which is a pro for commuters and frequent travelers.
Commuters will also appreciate the Surface Book's slim, lightweight design. At 3.48 lbs., it weighs about the same as the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Of course, there are plenty of lighter laptops, including the 2.6-lb. Lenovo Yoga 900 and the 2.7-lb. Dell XPS 13. But those machines lack detachable screens, and their graphical performance doesn't match that of the Surface Book.
Given the Surface Book's generous dimensions, its display is surprisingly light as a stand-alone tablet. Without the keyboard attached, the 13.5-inch slate weighs 1.6 lbs., which is about as much as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
It wouldn't be a Surface device without a detachable display. The Surface Book's 13.5-inch screen snaps squarely onto the keyboard, instantly turning the machine into a traditional laptop computer.
It's a bit top-heavy, but it never threatened to topple over backward during my testing period, even when I was typing with the machine balanced on my knees. Many competing hybrids solve that issue by severely restricting how far their display can tip back, but the Surface Book manages to offer a fairly generous viewing angle.
There are a couple of different ways business users will benefit from the Surface Book's 2-in-1 design. First, you can detach the screen completely to use it in what Microsoft calls "clipboard" mode. Without the keyboard, the tablet is light enough to carry around like any other tablet, letting you sketch diagrams and take notes with absolute freedom.
If you're sitting down, you can attach the display to the keyboard in the reverse orientation. That will come in handy for showing a presentation or slideshow to a small group, or for using touch-screen Windows apps in cramped quarters, like on an airplane tray table. And as noted earlier in this review, closing the display with the screen facing upward provides a comfortable, angled writing surface when you're sitting at your desk or at a conference table.
The Surface Book doesn't let you simply detach the display from the keyboard at any time, as most 2-in-1s do. Instead, you need to hold a button located on the top left of the keyboard for a couple of seconds to trigger the detachment mechanism. That's because the system's discrete graphics chip is actually in the keyboard portion, and must be deactivated before you disconnect the display. Oddly, the baseline model uses the same mechanism, even though it lacks a discrete GPU.
You can rest assured that the connection between the keyboard and the screen is nice and secure; I was able to pick up the Surface Book by the top corner of the display and carry it around without worry. One potential annoyance, however, is that the Surface Book won't let you disconnect the display if the battery is nearly dead. But a few minutes of charging resolves the issue.
Working on the Surface Book feels different from working on other 13-inch laptops. I think that's because the 13.5-inch display has an unorthodox 3:2 aspect ratio, whereas most rival laptops stick to the standard wide-screen 16:9 format. In other words, the screen is taller, which means you can see more of your documents and Web pages without scrolling down, which is a nice perk.
The 3:2 aspect ratio is also useful when you're using the Surface Book in clipboard mode. Whereas other detachable displays feel too narrow when used as stand-alone tablets, the Surface Book's display has the dimensions of a typical sheet of notebook paper. That makes note-taking more comfortable because you can fit more on each line.
Size aside, the Surface Book's display is gorgeous, with a supersharp resolution of 3000 x 2000 pixels. That's great for screen-intensive tasks like editing spreadsheets and viewing large documents. It also prevents split-screen multitasking from feeling cramped.
Plenty of laptops offer active stylus support — notably, Lenovo's ThinkPad Yoga laptops. But few have found a good solution to the problem of where to stow the stylus when it's not in use. The Surface Book has a clever workaround, letting you clip the metal Surface Pen to a magnetic strip along the left edge of the display. The connection feels extremely secure, so I wouldn't worry about losing the pen.
Microsoft updated the Surface Pen for the release of the Surface Book, improving its feel and function in equal measures over previous iterations. For starters, it can now detect 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, up from 256 levels in previous models. There's also virtually zero lag between the pen tip and on-screen strokes, as far as I could tell. Those two factors combine to make writing on the Surface Book feel very smooth and very natural.
Additionally, the pen now has a rubbery eraser nub on top, so you can turn it over and start erasing your digital handwriting, just as you would with a regular pencil. It feels almost as natural as writing and erasing on real-life paper.
Keyboard and trackpad
The Surface Book's keyboard is also a winner. It has a comfortable 1.6 millimeters of travel for each key, which is better than the 1.5 mm we look for in slim laptops. Deeper keys are better because they provide a more comfortable, desktoplike typing experience. I do wish the Surface Book's keys offered slightly snappier feedback, but typing on the machine still feels very comfortable overall.
I also like the feel of the glass touchpad, which has an extra-smooth surface that lets your finger glide easily. Cursor control feels accurate, and two-finger scrolling is extremely responsive.
The Surface Book will easily last through the end of the workday, and probably through a medium-length business flight on top of that. The notebook ran for an epic 12 hours and 29 minutes on our battery test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi. That even outlasts the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which had an already impressive runtime of 12 hours and 4 minutes — and that machine lacks touch input.
Other touch-screen-equipped rivals don't approach the Surface Book's endurance, either. The Yoga 900 died after a middling 7 hours and 57 minutes, while the touch-enabled Dell XPS 13 lasted 8 hours and 8 minutes.
The key to the Surface Book's amazing longevity is that it boasts two separate batteries: one in the tablet portion, and one in the keyboard. Unfortunately, the tablet battery doesn't last very long on its own; we got only about 2 hours of battery life when using the slate by itself.
Considering its slim profile, the Surface Book offers a predictably limited array of ports. The left side includes two USB 3.0 ports, as well as an SD card reader for expanding the notebook's internal storage.
The right side has a mini DisplayPort adapter for connecting to monitors and projectors, as well as the power connector for charging and linking to the optional desktop dock.
Early reviews of the Surface Book noted numerous performance issues, including freezing and other glitchy behavior. Fortunately, software patches seem to have eliminated those issues, as far as I can tell. I didn't notice any buggy performance during my testing period.
My review unit was a high-end model that came equipped with a 6th-generation Intel Core i7 processor with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of internal storage, as well as discrete Nvidia graphics. As should be expected from such a decked-out system, the Surface Book delivered blazing-fast performance, even under heavy workloads. I didn't notice a hint of lag while I edited a larger spreadsheet while streaming HD video, even with more than a dozen tabs open in my Firefox Web browser.
On the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the Core i7 Surface Book beat all challengers, with a score of 7,279. That tops the score of the 13-inch MacBook Pro (7,113) and the Lenovo Yoga 900 (6,264), as well as the Dell XPS 13 (6,374).
Our lab also had the chance to run benchmark tests on a lower-end Surface Book model that had an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and lacked discrete graphics. That model racked up a very respectable score of 6,814 on the same performance test. I suspect that even demanding users will be satisfied with the midrange Surface Book's performance, though I didn't personally have a chance to take it for a test run.
If your job involves graphically demanding tasks like 3D modeling or editing high-res video — or you just want to play video games after work hours — you might want to consider shelling out for the Surface Book model that comes with a dedicated graphics chip. My review unit was equipped with an Nvidia GeForce GPU that handles those tasks much better than any competing thin-and-light laptop — period.
On the 3DMark Fire Strike test, which measures graphical performance, the Surface Book notched an impressive score of 854. That handily beats the Dell XPS 13 (743), as well as the Lenovo Yoga 900 (840) and the Toshiba Satellite Radius 12 (843).
Just remember that, because the GPU is housed in the keyboard, you can only take advantage of the Surface Book's accelerated graphics capabilities when the tablet is docked.
Most jobs won't demand such powerful graphical performance, though. The average worker would be better off saving their money and opting for the lower-end Surface Book, which comes with Intel's HD 520 integrated graphics. That's more than good enough for everyday work tasks and basic graphical jobs like editing photos, as well as light gaming.
Microsoft sells the Surface Book in a variety of hardware configurations. The low-end model will probably suffice for most workers. It offers a 6th-generation Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state-drive (SSD) storage and integrated graphics, all for $1,499. Most workers will probably be satisfied with this model.
The midrange model is a better pick for workers with graphically intensive workloads. The system offers the same Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, but doubles the storage to 256GB and adds a dedicated graphics card, for a system price of $1,899.
The top-end model offers a speedier Intel Core i7 chip. It also doubles the RAM to 16GB and quadruples the internal storage to 1TB, for a system price of $3,199.
The Surface Book can adapt to almost any workflow, thanks to its versatile design and powerful performance. And with its dedicated GPU in tow, the machine is powerful enough to handle even the most demanding tasks, offering the kind of graphical punch that even Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro can't match.
I also love the system's long battery life, solid keyboard and smart-pen integration, which make it the ideal device for serious note-takers. It's an impressive feat that Microsoft managed to cram so much functionality into such a sleek, attractive device.
But do you want to pay this much for a work laptop? The Surface Book starts at $1,499, which is $200 more than the MacBook Pro, which has a slightly nicer keyboard and boasts comparable performance, but lacks pen support and 2-in-1 functionality. Those features can make you more productive, but only if you're willing to pay for them.