What's Hot: Stunning and high quality design, fast, optional dedicated graphics, lovely display, versatile design. Good battery life.
What's Not: Expensive! Gap between display and keyboard will bother some. Solo tablet battery life is short.
Reviewed November 1, 2015 (updated Jan. 2016) by Lisa Gade, Editor
in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)
Here's something you don't see every day--Microsoft making a laptop. Sure, they've made the OS that powers most personal computers since the beginning, but they've left hardware to their partners. Of course, this isn't so different from Microsoft making a tablet that could also be your computer--Surface Pro. But it is different. Powerful Windows tablets are wonderful products, but they're still anything but mainstream. Laptops power much of the world, and despite rumors of the post-PC era, that doesn't seem like it's changing soon. But just in case, Microsoft has you covered since the Surface Book is a laptop that acts and feels like a laptop, but can separate into two pieces, leaving you with a 13.5" tablet that weighs 1.6 pounds.
While Surface Pro 4 is a tablet first and a laptop second, the 3.34 lb. Surface Book is a laptop first and foremost. There are no compromises in keyboard, trackpad or computing power here. In fact, it's a very powerful Ultrabook, though it's not the supercomputer Microsoft would have you believe when they first showed it off in their launch event. As an undocked tablet (or clipboard as Microsoft calls it) it lacks the ports of Surface Pro 4 (we're talking only about the tablet portion). It has only a 3.5mm audio jack and charging port, so you won't be able to use USB devices or external wired displays with the tablet portion unless you buy Microsoft's $199 Surface Dock. The base of course, has a typical selection of 13" laptop ports.
Surface Book is the dream machine of Ultrabooks with a price tag to match. The base model is $1,500 and that doesn't even include the dedicated graphics that (in some graphics benchmarks and games only) make it twice as fast as the 13" Retina MacBook Pro. That was a lofty claim on Microsoft's part. The model we look at sells for $2,100 and it has a 6th generation Intel Skylake dual core i7 CPU, 8 gigs of RAM, a fast NVMe PCIe 256 gig SSD and NVIDIA dedicated graphics switchable with Intel HD 520 integrated graphics. There are even more expensive models if you opt for a bigger SSD and 16 gigs of RAM, and the most expensive model is an insane $3,000 (16 gigs RAM, 1 TB SSD). The machine has an absolutely lovely 3000 x 2000 PixelSense IPS display with multi-touch and an active digitizer that works with the included N-Trig pen. Now that Windows 10 and Adobe CC programs have ironed out many of the problems with Windows display scaling, I can say I absolutely enjoy the high resolution panel for photo and video editing. Dual band WiFi 802.11ac (Marvell Avastar), Bluetooth 4.0, a front 5MP camera that supports Windows Hello facial recognition for login and a rear 8MP camera with 1080p video recording round out the features.
Note that since the NVIDIA dedicated GPU is in the base, you can in theory turn any Surface Book into the dedicated graphics model, but the challenge would be finding the base for sale separately. The dGPU requires a higher wattage power supply, so Microsoft actually ships different chargers with the integrated and dedicated graphics models.
Design and Build
As with Surface Pro, Microsoft designed a beautiful and unique machine. It trades on its good looks and unusual design, so we'll explore that in greater depth than we usually do with laptops. The magnesium alloy casing feels rigid and premium, the fulcrum hinge is fascinating and functional, and both the keyboard and trackpad rival the Mac's. When you go to Starbucks, no one notices laptops unless they're Macs or Surface Pros. The Surface Book gets noticed because the hinge is that striking and the finish is at first blush standard stuff, but as your gaze lingers you realize you haven't seen anything quite like it. If Leica designed a laptop, it might look like this: it has their Spartan and clean industrial angles and a matte metal finish that at some angles might strike you as painted on and at others as metal. The sculpted lid open cut-out is the only thing on Surface Book that looks just like a Mac. The rest is pure Microsoft, and that's a good thing. Speaking of opening the Surface Book, it's quite hard to do with one hand thanks to a strong magnet that keeps it firmly shut.
There's a gap between display and keyboard when the Book is closed. We assume that's a byproduct of the fulcrum hinge. At the front edge, top and bottom do touch, but there's a triangle of space that widens toward the back. It's odd, and I'll leave it up to you to decide if you think it looks bad-weird or good-weird. Structurally it's extremely rigid and unlikely to collapse with normal pressure (even an accidental sit). On a positive note, it prevents the keyboard from leaving residual hand oil marks on the screen. On the downside, it does leave a small space for items to wander into when traveling in a bag. I'd keep pens and AAA batteries in a different compartment in that bag. I find the wedge design a bit easier to grip and I always use a separate compartment for my laptop in my bag, so the design doesn't bother me.
Ports and the Optional Surface Dock
Ports are average for a 13" Ultrabook: two USB 3.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm audio and a full size SD card slot (a card will stick half way out rather than sitting flush with the casing). Both the tablet section and the keyboard base have charging/dock connectors and batteries, so you don't have to dock the tablet to the keyboard to charge the tablet. Surface Book uses the same magnetic charging connector as Surface Pro 3 and Pro 4, and that port also carries data so it can work with the new $199 dock. That optional dock adds 4 USB 3.0 ports, 2 mini DisplayPorts cable of driving two 4K monitors, Ethernet and 3.5mm audio, and charging.
The dock works with the Surface Book in laptop mode and with just the tablet portion (you can connect it to the keyboard or tablet's connector). That means you can have access to several USB ports, displays and Ethernet even when the tablet isn't connected to the keyboard. That's a very useful feature-- say you want to play Xbox One games remotely using just the tablet. Those games rely on a controller rather than a keyboard, so you could use the tablet section solo, and plug in a USB Xbox One game controller to the dock. If you're using the tablet as your drawing tool in your lap and need a connected big or high resolution monitor for proofing, you can do it via the Surface Dock. Nice.
Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge
The Surface Book's hinge expands and contracts a bit as you raise and lower the display--it's something like a lobster tail. The idea behind the design is that it allows for a smaller footprint when the laptop is closed and provides better balance when open (2-in-1s tend to be top heavy and wobbly when you touch the screen). With the tablet weighing 1.6 lbs. and the base having near identical weight, it still feels a little top-heavy compared to a traditional laptop where most of the weight (and brains + battery) are in the base. And yes, the display still bounces when you firmly tap it. It does not bounce if you don't touch the screen. If you simply hate that bounce, the Surface Pro 4 and Vaio Z Canvas are close to rock solid, but they're more tablet-centric designs.
The other interesting design element is the release and lock assembly. Sure, Surface Book uses magnets to help you align the two halves and to keep them securely together as do other 2-in1's, but it adds a much more complex lock/unlock electro-mechanical mechanism that uses muscle wire to bind and unbind the tablet from the keyboard. Press the lock/release button on the keyboard and wait for its LED to turn green. You'll hear a little mechanism inside do it's thing and you can detach the tablet from the keyboard. That's easier done with two hands since the magnets still hold the two pieces together. If you need the dedicated GPU in tablet mode, you can mount the tablet backwards and use it in presentation mode, or lay it flat against the keyboard for a tablet-like form factor. The wedge shape gives the display an ergonomic tilt in this position.
How sturdy is the assembly? There's no way the tablet will come loose from the keyboard when the two are locked together. The fulcrum hinge locks down and doesn't move when the tablet is removed, so it won't flop around and get broken. Can you undock the tablet when the Surface Book is turned off? Yes, you can. Would the electronic release no longer function if the keyboard's battery was down to 0%? Probably not, but the computer typically shuts down before it drops to 0%, so there's always a bit of power left. How long will this fancy new electro-mechanical thingy last? We can't say because no one has employed anything like this before. We hope it's good for years and years of use, but we just don't know.
Microsoft put a premium and unusually sized 13.5", 3:2 aspect ratio PixelSense display on Surface Book. It's one of the nicest laptop and tablet displays on the market, and for those who find Surface Pro 4 and other 12" Windows tablets displays too small the Surface Book might be a better fit thanks to its screen that's a little bit bigger than the average 13.3 inch 16:9 Ultrabook's. That 3:2 aspect ratio is perfect for dSLR photo editing and the added height is useful for web and reading too. It also means that the tablet isn't as awkwardly tall and narrow when held in portrait mode. The display uses optically bonded Gorilla Glass 4 that reduces reflections, though it's still a glossy and reflective display. It does not use the annoying PW backlighting that some folks can actually see pulsing on and off (yay!). Resolution measures 3000 x 2000 pixels for a very good 267 PPI.
The display is extremely bright at 411 nits, as measured by our Spyder4Pro colorimeter. That's over 100 nits brighter than the 15" Retina MacBook Pro. Contrast is high at 1430:1 (Microsoft claims even higher) and black levels are excellent at 0.29. Each Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 is factory color calibrated, and that means you get accurate colors out of the box. We did slightly improve on calibration using our Spyder to correct for a slightly lower than ideal gamma and slightly high white point. The Book covers 99% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB, not unlike other high end tablets and Ultrabooks. It's the brightness, black levels, contrast and factory calibration that set it ahead of much of the competition. If you work professionally in photo or video production for the web, this display is superb. If you do print production or video for TV and cinema, you'll want something that covers the full Adobe RGB spectrum like the Vaio Z Canvas or a professional external monitor.
Tip: since there are no brightness control keys on the keyboard and the Windows 10 quick setting only offers brightness changes in 25% increments, use Fn + del and Fn + backspace to change display brightness more granularly (this works on Surface Pro 4 too).
Performance and Benchmarks
Here's where things get interesting thanks to the high price tag and Microsoft's incessant bragging at the Surface Book launch event. This is not going to outperform a quad core laptop like the Dell XPS 15, Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 or the 15" Retina MacBook Pro. How could it when it has 2 core running at a lower voltage vs. those quad core machines? It does significantly beat 5th generation Ultrabooks running on similar spec Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs however, which is impressive since Skylake wasn't supposed to meaningfully increase CPU performance (very good tuning on Microsoft's part?). Conversely, what should be a wickedly fast NVMe SSD shows good read speeds (above the average mSATA or PCIe Ultrabook SSD) but not impressive write speeds.
Microsoft claimed that the Surface Book is twice as fast as the 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display, and that's close to a lie. That Mac has a 28 watt CPU and Intel Iris graphics vs. the Surface Book's 15 watt CPU and HD 520 integrated graphics, so there's simply no way the Surface Book could be computationally 2x faster. In reality, in benchmarks tests of CPU performance, they're in a dead heat. The Mac is still running on Broadwell 5th generation CPUs, and it may pull ahead of Surface Book when Apple updates it with 6th generation Skylake. Our review unit runs on the 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6600U with 8 gigs of RAM soldered on board. It's also available with 16 gigs of RAM and there's a less expensive Core i5 option (performance reduction is around 7 to 10%). You can build to order on Surface.com, mixing and matching CPU, RAM, SSD and GPU options to suit your needs and budget.
3DMark 11: P2447, X878 (P2754/ X907 with GeForce drivers released Jan. 2016)
3DMark Cloud Gate: 7740
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited: 88,501
3DMark Fire Strike 1882
Cinebench R15: 31.91 fps OpenGL, 268 CPU score
Intel Core i5/ Intel HD 520 (base $1,499 model):
PCMark 8 Home accel: 2819
3DMark 11: P1527, X451
CrystalDiskMark SSD Speed Test (256 gig Samsung PCIe):
Heat and Noise
Like Surface Pro 4, Microsoft has employed hybrid cooling that's quite effective at spreading heat evenly across the back to avoid hotspots. The laptop is generally quiet and it's never gotten uncomfortably hot to touch, but it does get quite warm when playing a game like Tomb Raider or processing video in Adobe Premiere. Remember, the heat is in the tablet section rather than the base, so it won't toast your legs (even the dedicated GPU model's base never goes beyond a little warm). The system has two fans and you'll hear them as you would with other Ultrabooks--when working it hard playing games, compiling very long programs or when exporting 1080p video. It's not what I'd call loud by any means. Thermal throttling isn't an issue here, and the laptop is able to spend healthy amounts of time in Turbo Boost in long sessions.
Deals and Shopping:
Microsoft Surface Book Video Review
Surface Book Long Term Review: 2.5 Months Later
Microsoft Surface Book vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Comparison
Vaio Z Canvas vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book Comparison
Microsoft Surface Book vs. Dell XPS 15 (late 2015) Comparison
Microsoft Surface Book vs. HP Spectre x360 Comparison
Microsoft Surface Book vs. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Comparison
NVIDIA Dedicated Graphics
Where the Surface Book does pull ahead is in graphics if you opt for the model with custom NVIDIA dedicated graphics. Then it's anywhere from 50% faster to twice as fast in games and graphics benchmarks, depending on the graphics benchmark or game (there aren't many cross platform graphics benchmarks, alas). Now this custom NVIDIA GPU doesn't get a recognizable model number, but from the specs like clock speeds, 384 CUDA cores and benchmark results, it's similar to the NVIDIA 940M, which is at the lower end of NVIDIA dedicated graphics for laptops. It has 1 GB DDR5 VRAM vs. the usual 2 GB DDR3 VRAM for the 940M. That means Surface Book's dedicated graphics memory is faster but there's less of it. Given the high resolution of the display and the ability to also drive two 4K monitors, I'm really surprised that Microsoft went with just 1 gig of graphics memory. This isn't a gaming laptop given the GPU performance and VRAM amount, and it won't compete with the MSI Ghost Pro or the Razer Blade. It is sufficiently powerful to enjoy some current demanding 3D titles like Battlefield 4, Fallout 4, Tomb Raider and GTA V at 720p resolution and low settings with reasonable frame rates (with Tomb Raider you can go up to 1080p). It's certainly much better than the HD 520 integrated graphics, which struggle to run those games well. Older games like Skyrim, Civ V and less demanding games like Minecraft and League of Legends will run fine at 1080p and medium settings. Compared to the 940M, we averaged 3-5 fps better in some games thanks to the faster VRAM.
NVIDIA's software will auto-pick the GPU to use with a particular application, and you can override this by right-clicking on a program's icon and select the "run with GPU" option. You get the NVIDIA control panel but not the full GeForce Experience. You can install GeForce Experience to optimize game settings, but the other features won't work since this uses a proprietary graphics driver.
How about the Windows competition? You won't find a tablet with dedicated graphics, and it's rare on 13" and 14" Ultrabooks. We do occasionally see the NVIDIA 940M in convertibles like the 14" ThinkPad Yoga, but the tablet doesn't separate from the base, so it is a different design. Of course if you remove the tablet from the keyboard, it will run on integrated graphics, and Microsoft's solution is to mount the tablet the other way round, so you're using a 3.34 lb. tablet, which is just a few ounces lighter than the ThinkPad Yoga 14/ Yoga 260 (same machine with two names!). The dedicated graphics are significantly faster than integrated graphics used on competing Ultrabooks, and that's impressive for a product that can be used as a (heavy) tablet. For more upscale buyers, there's the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which is the essentially the X1 Carbon with a Yoga hinge and Wacom AES pen. It weighs just 2.8 lbs., is available with full HD and QHD IPS screens (not as good as Surface Book's, but not bad either) and there's an optoinal QHD OLED display coming in April 2016. Like the Surface Book, it's quite expensive. It's tablet doesn't separate from the keyboard and there's no dedicated graphics option, but it's a ligher machine overall.
And for the very budget conscious, there's the Acer Aspire E5 with 5th gen Intel Core i5 CPUs (we assume it will be updated to 6th gen soon) with optional 940M for a modest $649. What do you give up when going with that Acer laptop? It's "just" a laptop and it doesn't covert into a tablet. It lacks a touch screen and that screen is TN rather than IPS. It's also lower resolution. The keyboard lacks backlighting, the trackpad is so-so and the plastic casing rattles. It lacks an SSD too. OK, so that's the extreme in terms of competition. More likely competitors would be the 13" Retina MacBook Pro that lacks a dedicated graphics option and of course is a laptop rather than a convertible/tablet. Then there's the Asus ZenBook UX302 with 28 watt dual core CPUs, similar dedicated graphics and a Gorilla Glass lid. Sadly, Asus never updated it, and it still runs on the Intel Haswell 4th generation platform. It too is a premium laptop rather than a convertible.
For tablets and convertibles there's Microsoft's own Surface Pro 4, which uses the same internals except there's no dedicated graphics option. It has a smaller screen and a funkier (though still quite usable) keyboard. The Vaio Z Canvas is a pure tablet with detachable keyboard that's twice as fast as Surface Book in terms of CPU speed, and it has a higher gamut display, though it lacks dedicated graphics and makes do with the fairly capable Intel Iris Pro. The Toshiba Portege Z20t is a compelling but also expensive convertible with Wacom pen, but it runs on lower performance Core M CPUs. HP will soon release their Core M Surface Pro 4 clone, the HP Spectre x2 and Lenovo will have the Miix 700 (also a Core M Surface Pro clone). Perhaps the closest is the lovely HP Spectre x360, a premium 13.3" convertible with a 360 degree hinge, high resolution display option and support for a Synaptics pen (but no GPU and the tablet and keyboard are permanently attached like the Lenovo Yoga models). Honestly, there's really nothing quite like Surface Book on the market, and that was Microsoft's intention: to build something new rather than directly competing with their own customers, the PC manufacturers.
Keyboard and Trackpad
I own a 13" Retina MacBook Pro, so you could say that sets the bar high. I also use and review lots of Lenovo ThinkPads--again, setting a high standard. I simply love Microsoft's backlit keyboard, it feels awesome and I type like a champ on it. With 1.5mm of key travel, it's similar to other Ultrabooks on the market, but if you're used to thicker ThinkPads with really deep key travel it will feel short. The island style keyboard has good damping, is quiet and tactile. The white backlighting on silver keys can be hard to see in certain medium lighting situations, but then I simply turn backlighting off using the dedicated keyboard controls and the problem is solved.
The oversized glass trackpad is one of the few that doesn't make me thank the gods for the pen and touch. It works nearly as well as a Mac trackpad, and is accurate and works well with gestures like two-finger scrolling. Good stuff!
Pen and Inking
Microsoft Surface uses the same updated N-Trig digitizer technology as Surface Book 4, and the experience is identical (as is this section of the review). It supports 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. 256 levels in Surface Pro 3 (the change is in the display's digitizer, not the pen). The pen is included and it's updated too with a softer nib (pen tip) that's quieter and feels less slippery on the glass. Microsoft sells a 5 pack of alternative nibs for slight variations in feel, and the nib pack is included if you buy a spare $59 pen (available in a few colors). The new pen has a rubbery eraser that... erases... and a single hidden side button that by default acts as a right click. The pen attaches to the right side of the display via strong magnets--it provides a handy place to store the pen when using the laptop but the magnets aren't strong enough to ensure the pen stays in place when bouncing around in a bag.
Writing and drawing feel more fluid, though still not quite as buttery as Wacom EMR digitizers and pens. N-Trig beats Wacom for better tracking near the edges of the display and it has less parallax (pen offset). I do digital drawing and painting as a hobby, and I might be inclined to agree with the folks at N-Trig who once told me that 256 vs. 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity matters less than good pen pressure tracking and registration (aka good pressure curves). I can't say I feel the added pressure levels, but I do notice improvements in pressure curves that better mimic pen and brush on paper and canvas. This is certainly the most responsive and enjoyable N-Trig experience yet, and that's not faint praise. It's similar to the Vaio Z Canvas, which also features an updated N-Trig digitizer but uses an older DuoSense 2 style pen. Speaking of that, the pens are interchangeable. The new Surface Pen will work with any N-Trig tablet, including the Vaio and the Surface Pro 3 (Surface Pro 1 and 2 used Wacom, so it won't work with them). As with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has WinTab drivers for the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book if you're using a legacy program that requires WinTab for pressure sensitivity (pre-Adobe CC programs, older versions of Corel Painter).
Update Nov. 2, 2015:Microsoft released driver and firmware updates to fix the display bugs, and so far they seem to be working well. We'll leave this section a bit longer until we're sure the bugs are squashed.
Again, Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are in many ways the same machine, and they share many of the same bugs at launch. Hopefully in a few weeks or months, these issues will be resolved, but until then we'll note bugs here. We've seen a few display driver crashes; the new Intel HD 520 driver has been problematic on several different computers brands and models we've tested. When this happens, the screen sometimes inexplicably goes black and we had to put the Book to sleep and wake it up to get the display working again. Other times we simply saw a display driver crashed error message at the bottom right corner, with no interruption in workflow. Microsoft expects to have a driver update with a fix in November. Two 4K monitors attached to the optional $199 Surface Dock sometimes misbehave with respect to display scaling and arrangment after sleep, or the dock may only sucessfully drive these 2 monitors at 30Hz or the dock may drive only one 4K monitor when using HDMI rather than DisplayPort.
Surface Book has a battery in the tablet and a larger battery in the base (69 Wh total, which is high for an Ultrabook/tablet). They can be charged independently. The tablet itself lasts 3 hours on a charge, and the tablet + keyboard lasts 10.3 hours on a charge with brightness set to 40% and WiFi active in a mix of productivity and streaming video tests (non-dGPU Core i5 model). With a bit of additional power management like dropping brightness further, the integrated graphics model might reach Microsoft's claimed 12 hours on a full charge. As 13" laptops go, that's very good battery life and it significantly outlasts the Surface Pro 4. Our Core i7 with dGPU averaged 7.7 hours in laptop mode, which is less excitng, but not bad for a laptop with a very high resolution display and dedicated graphics.
Windows 2-in-1s are always a compromise, as we noted in our Surface Pro 4 review, you don't get the very best tablet possible or the very best laptop. As a tablet, the relatively large screen, pen, light weight and slim dimensions still make Surface Book one of the better tablets on the market. It's also one of the most powerful among tablets and 2-in-1s, but it's not nearly one of the most powerful laptops similar money could buy. As a laptop it's not the lightest (convertibles rarely are) and the compromises the fulcrum hinge introduces (thicker at the back, gap between halves when closed) are worth noting, though it's nothing we'd call heavy unless you're looking at the super-light laptops like the 2.8 pound Dell XPS 13, Samsung ATIV Book 9 Spin and Lenovo Yoga 900. Beyond that, there are few compromises in terms of laptop ergonomics beyond a slightly top heavy design. Upgradeability takes a hit since the RAM, SSD and wireless card are in the factory sealed tablet section.
With those caveats out of the way, this is assuredly one of the most luxurious, attractive and speedy 13" machines on the market. It has a rare combination of detachable tablet, dedicated graphics and an active digitizer with pen. The Surface Book ships with a clean install of Windows 10 Pro, so there's no bloatware to deal with. The keyboard is superb, the trackpad is excellent and there are enough ports to keep us reasonably happy. For those who need HDMI, VGA or Ethernet on the go, USB adapters will do the job, and Microsoft's Dock turns the tablet or entire Surface Book into a machine with a wealth of ports. The large display (closer to the real estate of a 14" laptop) is one of the better on the market in terms of brightness, resolution, factory color calibration, contrast and gamut. It's a pleasure to look at and is easy on the eyes. If you're in the market for a Windows convertible and particularly favor the detachable design, this is one of the best and also most expensive choices. If you just want a high quality laptop with no need for tablet or convertible use, you can save money with the Dell XPS 13 (though the higher end configurations of the Dell XPS 13 get quite expensive), Asus ZenBook UX303 and in the convertible world the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga 900. If you want the pen feature with a Core i5 or Core i7, the choice further narrows down to the Surface Pro 4, HP Spectre x360 and the somewhat elusive Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 14 Skylake model with Wacom AES pen for tablet hybrids. Then there's the just released (Jan. 2016) Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga with a 360 degree hinge and a pen for $1,440 to $1,800, which we haven't reviewed yet.