Microsoft Surface Book is the ultimate road warrior laptop

I like gadgets. I like getting new mobiles and laptops, but have never understood Apple mania. How can anyone possibly fall in love with a phone or a laptop? And then I got a Microsoft Surface Book.

Microsoft Surface Book photo

I’d wanted one since the launch, but when the time eventually arrived for me to replace my trusty old Microsoft Surface Pro 2 I wasn’t so sure. Yes, it did look beautiful (but it’s still just a computer). Yes, it had fantastic specifications. But the one I needed was £2,249. How could I possibly justify that for a computer?

So I weighed up the competition. The Lenovo Yoga 900 and HP Spectre 360 also looked tempting. But it was the Dell XPS13 that came closest as it was a lot cheaper and offered most of what I wanted (but it didn’t split into a separate slate and didn’t have a pen). It was about £850 less, or still £650 less if I went for a 1TB model which was better than the best Surface Book available in the UK. Was it really worth paying that much more for a Surface Book? Reluctantly I decided it wasn’t.

And then as I was a judge of the SABRE Awards I had a meeting with Paul Holmes, founder of The Holmes Report and for the first time saw a Surface Book in the wild. And I wanted one again. So damn you Paul, you’ve cost me £850!

Suddenly I understand just why the Apple fan boys and fan girls can fall in love with a piece of cold, hard technology.

The Surface Book is a laptop to enjoy to the ultimate.

The Microsoft Surface Book review for road warriors

I bought the best and most expensive Surface Book available in the UK. It has an Intel Core i7 processor with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid state drive for £2,249 incl VAT. Cunningly the detachable keyboard (of which more later) on this top-end model conceals a second graphics processing unit (GPU) – a NVIDIA GeForce. This means when used as a laptop this Surface Book has the same graphics processing power of a much bigger computer, while still enabling you to benefit from an amazingly light weight tablet.

To be honest it wasn’t the second GPU that drew me to this model, it was mainly the 512GB solid state drive. I rely on OneDrive as my main cloud service for files. However, the cloud is still something that’s great in theory, but sucks in reality as we don’t live in a constantly connected world and it will be years before we do. The cloud is no good when I’m on the train or flying or in much of the countryside. That’s why I also need most of my files to be local.

However, Microsoft totally destroyed OneDrive for me in an ‘improvement’ that removed two essential features. Firstly, it removed the feature that enabled you to see icons for all your files in your desktop folders, but critically left the actual files in the cloud to save you space on your limited local storage. For me with a 256GB Surface Pro 2 that was a disaster as with all the programs I had installed I didn’t have space for all my files. Microsoft’s public explanation for this was that some people were too dumb to see the subtly different icon that told you this file was in the cloud and not on your local drive! Why design a product primarily for the lowest common denominator?

The second change it made was to stop you from switching the local OneDrive folder from your main drive to an external one. Before this change my OneDrive folder was on a 128GB microSD card which worked perfectly. In one stroke it made the provision of a microSD slot on my Surface Pro pointless. What did Microsoft mean me to save on my microSD card it if not my files? There is a clunky, technical workaround by mapping drives, but sometimes Windows 10 updates break it.

So I was forced to buy the top-end model just to get the 512GB drive. In the USA there is an even more expensive 1TB model.

Unboxing and sheer gorgeousness

The first thing that struck me when I opened the huge cardboard box from John Lewis was how heavy the smaller box inside was. I began to panic slightly thinking I’d made a mistake and bought a laptop that was too heavy for me to carry around all the time. However, once I’d delved inside it revealed a beautiful and thankfully lightweight Surface Book (1578 grams for the second GPU model).

Microsoft Surface Book and box photoThe reason it was so heavy was the empty box! It’s seriously heavy with lots of wasted space. The plus side is it makes you feel like you’re buying an expensive, premium product. The downside is that it sucks for sustainability and I’m disappointed a good corporate citizen like Microsoft hasn’t addressed this. Shipping is a surprisingly large proportion of the sustainability footprint of consumer electronics. That’s why if you reduce the size and weight of the packaging you can make a substantial improvement in the sustainability of the product. Microsoft hasn’t done this. And then to add insult it injury it doesn’t provide a printed instruction manual. I’m in favour of not providing one if it’s to help the environment, but in this case Microsoft clearly doesn’t care as it gives you that box. If they want to make it feel premium then give me a nicely bound book that tells me how to use the pen and detach the keyboard and has tips for getting the most out of it. Not a useless box.

Next came some confusion as before turning it on I wanted to see what the slate part felt like, as after all that was one of the main reasons I paid so much extra. Except I couldn’t work out how to separate the slate from the keyboard. The flimsy pamphlet that came with showed a picture that indicated you press one of the keys on the keyboard. But nothing happens. Turns out you’ve got to turn it on first. Very counter-intuitive. It doesn’t come ready charged so the first thing you’ve got to do is charge it, which is when you discover that Microsoft has again provided an idiotically short power cable the same as on the Surface Pro where I had to buy a longer one to use it.

I’ve never been an Apple fan, but have always gazed longingly at just how gorgeous the MacBook laptops are. So gorgeous I even considered buying one and then running Windows on it using Parallels. But no more. I’m now the proud owner of a Surface Book that is even more gorgeous than a MacBook. In fact it’s a damned sight more gorgeous as I’ve also got a separate slate I can use while lounging on the sofa or in the garden. And it has a touch screen and pen. Why anyone would spend that sort of money on a MacBook when it doesn’t even have a touch screen, let alone a pen is beyond me.

It feels fantastic to hold and the detached screen is light enough to use as a tablet, but you benefit from a much larger 13.5 inch/34.3cm screen than a normal tablet.

Setting up

Setting up the Surface Book was quick and easy. Particularly impressive was Windows 10 Hello. I’d just got back home from a work trip to Barcelona so turned it on for the first time while I was dishevelled and tired in my pyjamas. So I was somewhat dismayed it wanted to take my photo in a dark living room thinking that there was no chance it would recognise me the following day. Surprisingly it did.

The most frustrating element in the set-up was asking me if I owned it personally or if it was a work computer with the dire warning that it was very difficult to change this later. As a self-employed person operating through a limited company I had no idea what the correct answer was. It didn’t help that there was no option to ask for help or an explanation. I use both a personal Microsoft account and a business Office 365 account on the same computer. I opted for saying I owned it. I’ve still no idea if that was the right answer or why it even wanted to know. Hopefully, this won’t cause problems in the future.

Critical updates to Windows 10 were all installed automatically, but before proceeding to do anymore set-up I manually forced it to do more updates to ensure that I was using the latest version of everything. There were quite a lot which obviously aren’t considered ‘critical’. I’d have preferred if it had done all of these automatically before allowing me to use it, rather than installing them on it’s next update cycle at the default 3:00AM (when surely most people’s laptops are actually turned off!)

With a 512GB drive I didn’t need to mess about with a workaround for OneDrive. The first software I installed was Dropbox and Google Drive. I then adjusted the power settings so it would stay on and left these three programs to synchronise all my files overnight while I slept.

The other great thing is that it doesn’t come with lots of pre-installed garbage you don’t want. It doesn’t even come with Microsoft Office pre-installed. About the only two things it did have are Candy Crush Saga (what the heck is that all about?) and an app called Drawboard PDF which is fantastic and lets you use your pen to write on PDFs. This is a paid app designed mainly for engineers and architects (which gives you an indication of how powerful it is) and I think, but can’t tell for certain, is the full paid version and not just a trial.

Getting to know my Surface Book

The first thing to know is that it has an awesome battery life. I’ve been using it constantly for the last four hours and it claims to still have another three hours of life in it. That might just be enough for me to go to London for the day, use it in meetings and use it on both two hour train journeys without needing to take the power brick. However, even if I do have to take the brick it’s quite small and light. On its own the slate part has a decent battery life, although not nearly as much as most Android tablets or iPads, but it’s actually got a proper operating system that lets you do real work. But what gives it the awesome battery life is the second battery in the keyboard. Together Microsoft claims a battery life of 12 hours, which I very much doubt, but I can easily see six to eight hours of intensive use.

The second revelation was the keyboard. Normally when I’m at my desk I plug my laptop into a big 27” monitor and use a Bluetooth keyboard and Microsoft Arc Touch Surface mouse. However, the keyboard on the Surface Book is so good I don’t see the need to pair my external keyboard. Instead I’ve rearranged my desk so the Surface Book keyboard and screen are in front of me with the 27” monitor to one side as my second screen (previously I had it set-up to use as my primary screen). It’s also backlit which in my tiny home office is great because I can have subtle lighting and still see to type.

The third revelation was the the trackpad. I hate trackpads and always use an external mouse. Except… except the trackpad on the Surface Book actually works. It’s great I can control the cursor, scroll, left click and right click easily. It’s the first trackpad I’ve ever used that actually works. And unlike the one on my old Surface Pro it doesn’t annoyingly jump my cursor about when I’m just typing on the keyboard. It’s good enough that I’ll no longer need to travel with a mouse on short trips. However, in the office I’m still going to use my Arc Touch mouse as it’s still more intuitive.

It’s also noticeable that I’m typing this on the Surface Book screen as the clarity is amazing. My big monitor sits to my right (as that’s what side the Surface Book’s Mini Display port adapter is on) and has my OneNote laptop research notes and Chrome open side by side. This is such a great set-up I’m tempted to buy the Surface Dock and add a second monitor to sit on the left with the Surface Book in between.

The good (everything), the bad (pen and dock niggles) and the ugly

Actually it’s nearly all good and definitely no ugly. However, there are a couple of niggles.

The first is the Surface Pen. It’s fantastic. The touch sensitive tip and integration with OneNote makes writing notes a joy. Press the top and OneNote opens instantly. And I mean instantly. Using the pen as a mouse is also great. The screen is so big I can use the slate with half the screen to take notes in OneNote and the other half with the documents I need open for meetings. In theory I could do the same with my old Surface Pro 2, but in reality the screen was too small to make it practical.

The button on the top of the pen also acts as an eraser which makes it so easy to write and edit notes. It’s also possible to use the Surface app to customise what it does with the defaults being a single click to open OneNote, double click for a screenshot and holding it opens Cortana.

Microsoft Surface Book pen and Surface app photo

However, I do have one niggle. The pen is magnetic so it clips to the side of the Surface Book so you don’t lose it. Except it doesn’t. At least not very well. It’s a powerful enough magnet that if you put the pen down near the keyboard it slides across the desk and clips on.  However, it’s not powerful enough to remain clipped and fell off as I carried my Surface Book across the living room. Not good when it’s a wooden floor and there are delicate electronics inside the pen. But that’s a minor niggle, although I suspect I’ll be somewhat more annoyed if I lose the pen and have to pay £50 for a new one because Microsoft hasn’t provided a sensible way to keep it with my laptop.

I discovered the second niggle as I typed the display section of this review immediately above. I probably won’t be getting a second monitor as the Surface Dock is eye-wateringly expensive at £165. My guess had been £90-£100 and I’d planned to get two – one for home and one for the office. But at £165 I’m not even sure I’ll be getting one.

My third niggle is that it can be unhappy when waking. For example, just now I came back after a 20 minute break and it didn’t immediately reconnect to the internet, the Bluetooth mouse wouldn’t work (although the Bluetooth pen) did and the icon for detaching the keyboard had a red error cross. All three problems appeared to resolve themselves after about 60 seconds. When plugged into a second monitor the actual laptop screen has gone blank for minute and a message appeared saying ‘Display adapter has failed’. Both times it recovered instantly.

It also appears to be struggling with the second monitor as sometimes moving a window from one monitor to the other means the window suddenly jumps and then disappears off the edge of the screen so you can’t actually select it. I’ve had this behaviour before on my old Surface Pro and did fix it by fiddling with settings, but can’t remember what I did.

Windows 10 Professional

Another benefit of choosing the Surface Book over the Dell XPS13 is it comes with Windows 10 Professional, rather than just the Home version. This makes it more robust for connecting to corporate networks etc. I’m a Windows fan and unlike many wasn’t one of the Windows 8 detractors. However, if you’ve not used Windows in a long while I’d urge you to give Windows 10 a go. It’s fast, easy to use, incredibly stable and powerful.

One of my few Windows 10 complaints is the new Edge browser. It’s a fantastic fast standards-compliant browser, I especially like the ability to write on web pages. However, without extension support it’s unusable. I can’t work without the numerous extensions I’m using in Chrome – LastPass, Wunderlist, Toggl, Bitly, Buffer, Sniply, Invisible Hand and TopCashback are the ones I use daily, but also various SEO related ones less frequently. The most essential one for me is Clip to OneNote. Extensions are coming to Chrome, but it’s very slow and the first three trial ones only rolled out a few weeks ago – Microsoft Translator (good), Mouse Gestures (why?) and oddly a ‘Reddit Enhancement Suite’. The problem is that Edge has now been out for so long without extensions that the motivation to switch from Chrome when Edge eventually works is going to be far less than if I’d just been able to stick with Edge as the default browser to begin with.

Putting it through its paces

I’ve not tried anything really processor or graphics intensive on it, but I have already installed Total War: Rome 2 and it runs perfectly well with fast, crystal clear graphics. The Rome 2 forest benchmark ran at an average of 34fps which is respectable, but that was with lots of other programs open – Outlook, Live Writer and Chrome with 10 tabs open.

After nearly four days

I wrote most of this review on the first full day that I used my new Surface Book. But I’ve now had chance to also do a full day of ‘normal’ work on it (and a quick play on Total War: Rome 2 just to test it!) One thing that playing Rome 2 showed me is that the speakers are surprisingly loud and clear, despite there being no visible evidence of them on the smooth silver grey case.

It still feels like the most impressive computer I’ve ever owned. Not only is it amazingly fast, it also looks even more gorgeous than a head-turning MacBook.

I think I’ll find myself using the slate part on its own far more than I expected I would. After finishing work at the desk it feels very natural to press the undock key and take just the slate with me to the sofa. This is where the dedicated Windows 10 apps really come into play as while using it as a desktop there is no real need to use apps as the website versions nearly always offer more functionality. However, when used as a slate then apps like Tweetium (for Twitter), Facebook and Wunderlist are far easier to use than the web versions. Being able to click the top of the pen and to use OneNote is very useful, although it does bring me back to my biggest gripe – the damned magnet on the pen just isn’t strong enough to keep the pen with the tablet.

It’s easily light enough to carry the full laptop around in just my shoulder bag, yet powerful enough to handle anything I throw at it.

Now I’ve been using it for four days battery life for heavy duty use looks like about seven to nine hours – well short of the quoted 12 hours, but ample for a full day of work without needing to constantly carry the power brick around.

Conclusion

Is it worth £2,249? It’s undoubtedly very expensive, but I’m trying to look at it this way – if it makes me more productive and makes work more enjoyable then it’s probably worth it.