Last month, Microsoft wowed many of us with their unexpected Surface Book announcement. I certainly sat ooh-ing and aah-ing at my desk, sending instant messages and tweets to everyone I thought might care. What those messages said: “Microsoft just made the laptop I crave!”
Over the past year, I’ve been using a Surface Pro 3, a Macbook Pro, and a Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (what a name!). In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve always preferred Windows to OSX. I use the MBP for Xcode and Ruby development, because it’s required by universal laws and such. I like the Surface Pro, especially for its mobility, but its small flimsy clacking keyboard doesn’t quite cut it for lengthy bouts of writing. As for the Samsung, I never liked the keyboard or the touchpad or the general feel of the device, so I rarely used it, but it had a beautiful touchscreen.
The point is that I wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Enter the Surface Book.
A recent review (I can’t remember which) said something to this effect: “If the Surface Pro is for people who want a tablet with occasional laptop uses, the Surface Book is for people who want a laptop with occasional tablet uses.” Spot on. And this is exactly what the Surface Book is, and it’s exactly what I wanted. I spend most of my time typing or coding or using Photoshop or Premiere, all using a keyboard and mouse/trackpad, but I also like to sketch mockups, create mind maps, draw, read, or plot my novel the good old fashioned way. After a day or two, Surface Book is almost proving to be my ideal device.
I haven’t had it long enough for a solid review (and I’m no reviewer), but I thought I’d jot down some experiences and observations for anyone who might be curious.
That First Boot
I had a couple issues during the setup process, but nothing major.
The screen brightness was too dim. I couldn’t see the setup screens. I moved to a different room hoping to reset any auto-brightness controls, then back into the bright room, but nothing helped. At some point, a new screen popped up with the brightness restored. Hasn’t happened since.
Also, I was forced to repeat the setup process. After the initial steps, Windows asked a question to the effect of, “Is this your personal machine or does it belong to an organization?” I answered that it was my personal machine. The computer restarted, returned to the beginning of the process, and this time the screens had a dark gray background instead of the bright blue background. Everything proceeded normally after that. Odd.
Aesthetics and Stuff
Not going to linger here. This is purely subjective. But I love the way this thing looks, especially when using it. Yes, when folded up, the fulcrum hinge is different, and when carrying the laptop the rounded edge feels unusual, but I’m enamored with the build quality, texture, and appearance. I quickly adapted to the laptop’s shape.
Yesterday I took it with me to the bookstore. Pulling it out of my bag felt like a mini product reveal, as though I was the center of attention on stage, showing off something new to the world. Sleek, unique, and badass. I may or may not have moved in slow motion and made sound effects while performing my reveal for the book store patrons, who, sadly, did not stand and applaud.
As for the weight distribution… Yes, as reviews have claimed, it’s top-heavy, but not in a problematic way. You notice the odd distribution at first, because it’s different, but an hour later you’ll think it’s normal and that traditional laptops are strangely bottom-heavy. It certainly doesn’t create issues for typing in your lap, which I’ve read on multiple comment threads. Of course, I’ve been using a Surface Pro 3 in my lap, and this is an enormous improvement, so maybe my expectations are different.
How about that keyboard?
So this is why you have a Book instead of a Pro, right? The keyboard. Yes, there are other reasons, but this is a big one. And it doesn’t disappiont. Without question, this is my favorite keyboard on a laptop in the past few years (remember, I’m not a tech writer, so I haven’t tested a hundred laptops in that period, more like ten). The key travel is fantastic. Reviews indicated a bit of slowness to the keys, but I haven’t noticed it, and I type in the 75-90 wpm range. Keys are well spaced. The trackpad is well positioned so my hands are not resting on it while typing. The little notches on the F and J keys are easily located by touch to ensure proper finger placement.
My only issue with the keyboard is a bit of backlight leakage around the keys. It’s a minor issue, and it’s only really noticeable from certain positions, but given this thing’s premium build quality and attention to detail, it seems excessive. Still, if keyboard light leakage is the reason you wouldn’t buy this machine… Never mind.
I love the size and aspect ratio. For writing (or reading blogs), the extra vertical space versus a traditional 16×9 screen is wonderful. I read and reread constantly while writing, so the ability to see a larger percentage of what I’ve previously written is helpful.
I haven’t done much coding on it yet, and I like a bit more horizontal space while coding (to limit wrapping), but I’m happy with it so far. In tablet mode, the size is perfect for drawing and notetaking. The Surface Pro 3 size was better than the Surface Pro 2, and the Surface Book size is better than the Surface Pro 3.
The biggest complaint I’ve read in other reviews is that the screen wobbles because of that fulcrum hinge. I don’t know what people are talking about. The only signficant screen wobble I see when typing is the side to side motion caused by the unevenness of my lap. On a table, no wobble at all.
Now, when you tap or swipe on the touchscreen, there’s a bit of give, but that’s true on most touchscreen laptops. I just don’t see this being much of an issue, except in the sense that it offers the opportunity for reviewers to be nitpicky where few serious complaints can be found. Does the screen wobble? Probably. Do you notice it? Only if you’re looking for it.
Ugh, a Trackpad
I’m no trackpad connoisseur. In fact, I hate trackpads. I’ll take a mouse any day, or even that little red stick thingy in the middle of Thinkpad keyboards (which at least allow you to move the pointer without taking your fingers off the keys). I hate the trackpad on my MacbookPro, and I hate the one on my Surface Pro 3, and I really hate the one on my Samsung ATIV Book 9 (boy, just typing that name makes me laugh). I don’t, however, hate the one on the Surface Book. It’s the best of the bunch. And to be fair, my hatred of the MBP trackpad has more to do with how the OS moves my pointer than with any actual flaw in the trackpad. OSX seems to think it knows better than I do where I want my cursor to land, and it frequently guesses wrong. Windows does not.
Transformer, i.e. Tablet Mode
So tablet mode is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve used any other surface tablet, only bigger. I do wish it had a kickstand. I LOVE the kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 in tablet mode, because it allows me to position the tablet properly for wherever I’m sitting and the action being performed. If I’m reading on a plane, I can prop the screen up at a comfortable reading angle. If I’m drawing at a table, I can position the screen just right based on chair and table height and where my hand aligns most comfortably for drawing. It’s a small thing, but it greatly improves the experience of using a device.
The Surface Book doesn’t have that kickstand. It doesn’t need it, really, and it might add extra weight, or even broken lines and aesthetic imperfections, but I’d love to see Microsoft try it in future iterations.
And all the rest…
What’s the biggest bonus over the Surface Pro 3 other than the keyboard and screen real-estate? The magnetic pen holder, of course. I was ALWAYS misplacing my Surface Pen, and I refused to attach that sticky little loop holder it shipped with. The magnetic holder is perfect, and the pen hasn’t yet fallen off in my bag. Huge win.
The eraser on the back of the new Surface Pen is great, too.
My first experience with the battery has not been stellar, but it’s early. I’ll update after a few more charging cycles.
So that’s what I’ve found so far. I’m a happy buyer. We’ll see how it performs over time with more use. Hope this helps you with your decision making. And if you have questions, ask and I’ll try to answer them. For the record, I’ve got the i7, 16GB RAM, 512 GB SSD model.