Having been using the Microsoft Surface Pro for several years now, I was psyched to see the launch of the Surface Book, along with the Surface Pro 4. When I first heard about the Surface Book, I thought “here goes another laptop again”…until I saw the screen detach from the keyboard, revealing that it was a two-in-one hybrid machine. That was certainly unexpected. A laptop and a touchscreen tablet hybrid with a powerful 6th generation dual core Intel CPU, dedicated NVIDIA GPU, up to 1 TB of SSD memory and up to 16 GB of RAM. A true powerhouse in a very compact form factor, ideal for traveling and photo editing on the go. I knew it was something I had to test and review.
1) My Laptop Experience
For years, I used to have two devices – an iPad tablet for web browsing and email, and a much bigger and beefier laptop for doing real work. I loved my tablet for web browsing and email, but I hated it for its limitations, which forced me to switch between the tablet and the much bigger and heavier laptop. The powerful workstation-class laptops I used to own would generate enormous amounts of heat, often kicking off their loud fans (every once in a while, it felt like they would take off!). It was very painful to use them on the go, because they would all get very hot, making lap work extremely uncomfortable. I cannot tell you how many lap desks I went through as a result – I probably had a collection of at least 5-6 of those with various features at home. I even had ones with built-in fans, that you could connect to a USB port of a laptop. Ridiculous, but that’s what many of us sadly go through when using laptops!
Throughout my past IT career, I went through many different laptops from different brands like Dell (Inspiron, Latitude, Precision and XPS), HP (Pavillion), IBM / Lenovo (ThinkPad), Sony (VAIO), Toshiba (Satellite), Alienware, Acer and a number of others. I have tried everything from workstation-class laptops all the way to netbooks and ultrabooks. Basically, I have tried them all in pursuit of finding the best. Sadly, it never happened – they all had their issues and compromises. But worst of all, none of them gave me the comfort, the performance and the mobility I needed.
I finally gave up. I decided to downsize just to two devices – my laptop “wannabe” iPad tablet (with its third party case plus an integrated Bluetooth keyboard), and a full-featured, powerful desktop. When traveling, I would only take my iPad with a bunch of accessories (to backup photos, etc) and when I would get home, I would do all the Lightroom and Photoshop on my desktop. Not an ideal setup in terms of productivity when traveling, but at least I was able to travel lightly.
Then I came across the Surface Pro 2 (read my initial review), which was a dream come true. I could finally work on my lap without worrying about melting my thighs and the machine gave me a good balance of performance and mobility. On top of that, I loved the fact that the machine limited my use of an external mouse. By using my fingers on the touchscreen to navigate through web pages and write content, I was able to improve my productivity without putting too much strain on my carpal-tunnel impacted hands. Soon after, I transitioned over to a Surface Pro 3, which offered improved performance and better overall configuration for my photography needs. Although I was quite happy with it, launching both Lightroom and Photoshop at the same time would eat up RAM very fast (especially when working on high resolution images), so I patiently waited for Microsoft to finally reveal a Surface Pro 3 replacement with more RAM.
The update came in two flavors: a Surface Pro 4 and a Surface Book. Now it was time to choose which one of the two would suit my needs the best. But wait, what about Apple’s MacBook laptops?
2) Apple vs Microsoft in the Creative Field
For many years now, the photography world has been dominated by Apple’s products. I remember back in the day how Apple was only dominant among designers, who preferred the Apple ecosystem, along with Adobe’s software suite for producing content. Pretty much everyone else used PCs. Fast forward to today and we can see how Apple’s products have become essential tools among many professionals and enthusiasts in the creative field. This is especially true when it comes to laptops – you are far more likely to find a MacBook in a professional photographer’s bag, than any other platform. Apple certainly deserves the praise for making very well-designed, solid, stable and most importantly, easy to use machines. PCs on the other hand, seem to have been plagued by years of hardware and software mishaps that have negatively impacted their perception and value – Apple fans typically associate them with virus-prone, unstable and hard to use machines. And part of this negative perception has been also influenced by the PC vs Mac campaign that Apple ran for years on television networks – dorky and geeky vs classy and cool.
As a long-time PC user, I can relate to some of these issues. When you start putting third party components together into one system, you will inevitably deal with firmware and driver compatibility issues. Add a cycle of operating system updates and it gets even tougher to deal with all the potential problems, some of which can be difficult to pinpoint to a particular hardware or software component. In contrast, Apple has not had as many compatibility and driver issues, because the company carefully chooses hardware components for its systems and has engineers who write and test firmware before it is released out to the public. That’s a working solution to the problem and it has proven to be a successful model in the long run.
When Microsoft decided to release its own hardware platform, the goal was to take over both hardware and driver management via the operating system, similar to what Apple has been doing for years. Being a software company that writes the most popular desktop operating system in the world, it made sense for Microsoft to get into hardware, as it gives much better control over both hardware and software components. So far, Microsoft has been automatically delivering driver and firmware updates through Windows Update, which completely eliminates all of the associated headaches. Since my original Surface Pro purchase, I have not had to install or update any drivers or firmware, which has been great. I am happy to say that Surface products have been the most stable machines I have owned to date. So in this particular case, Microsoft and Apple are now competing head-to-head.
Microsoft knew upfront that it could not compete with other PC hardware manufacturers, which operate on very tight margins thanks to intense competition. Making yet another desktop or laptop would potentially be disastrous, because it would be hard to truly differentiate it. Why would anyone buy Microsoft’s hardware, if it is no different than everything else on the market? That’s when Microsoft’s design team set a goal – to create a unique, innovative machine that combined the versatility of a tablet and the power of a laptop into a single hybrid machine. Featuring a touchscreen, a pressure-sensitive stylus pen, a very thin, lightweight and slick construction, along with an optional keyboard to convert it into a full-featured laptop, the Surface Pro was the first “2-in-1 detachable” success story in history. Microsoft put a lot of effort into the subsequent designs of the Surface Pro, adding more storage, RAM and processing power into each iteration. Starting from the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft started “the tablet that can replace your laptop” campaign, because the machine indeed offered enough computing power to replace most laptops.
Neither the Surface Pro, nor the Surface Book are direct competitors to any of Apple’s laptops, because they offer unique design and features not found on any of the MacBooks. All MacBooks feature a classic laptop design, with a thin display and all main components sitting under the keyboard. In comparison, the Surface Pro and the Surface Book have the 2-in-1 design, with the display area hosting all of the main components, while the detachable keyboard area is either nothing but a keyboard (in the case of the Surface Pro) or hosts a larger battery, along with an optional dedicated GPU (in the case of the Surface Book). In both cases, the display is a touchscreen that can be used with the included pressure-sensitive pen.
Hence, it is crucial to note that the Surface line of products cannot be directly compared to Apple’s MacBooks. One can potentially compare such components as CPU / processing power, RAM and storage size / speed, but even then you would be looking at a completely different 2-in-1 design that incorporates a touchscreen and a pen, neither of which are offered in any MacBook. This is an important distinction to make, especially for folks in the creative field who heavily rely on the use of a pen. One would need to invest in something like the Wacom Stylus to be able to have comparable features, which adds both to the weight and the bulk of the setup. Think of the Surface Pro and Surface Book line of products as a blend of the iPad Pro and the MacBook Pro 13″. The Surface Pro is more of a tablet that can be turned into a laptop, whereas the Surface Book is more of a laptop that can be turned into a tablet. Therefore, if one must make a hardware comparison, the Surface Pro line should be compared to the iPad Pro, whereas the Surface Book should be compared to the MacBook Pro 13″.
3) Surface Book Overview
Despite the versatility and the power of the Surface Pro, it is still not a real replacement for more powerful laptops. With many modern applications starting to utilize the GPU for smoother and faster rendering, and games requiring more powerful GPU cards, the Surface Pro is too small of a machine to fit a dedicated GPU. So Microsoft set itself on a new quest to create a powerful 2-in-1 detachable with an integrated GPU. And that’s how the Surface Book was born…
As I have already pointed out above, the Surface Book is laptop first, tablet second. Its appeal is towards those, who want the features and the comfort of a real laptop, while having the convenience and the versatility of a tablet as well. Unlike the Surface Pro that does not come with a keyboard (must be purchased separately), the Surface Book is shipped like a standard laptop, combining a display and a keyboard into a single unit. Its display area houses the CPU, RAM, storage, primary battery and the control buttons like power and volume, whereas the keyboard area houses the secondary battery and the optional NVIDIA GPU. Both connect via Microsoft’s innovative dynamic fulcrum hinge, which gets locked by a muscle wire lock mechanism housed within the display area. The whole thing is beautifully crafted to work together and if you want to switch to a tablet mode, it can be easily accomplished with a single release of a button on the keyboard.
Check out Microsoft’s Surface Book video, which does a much better job at visually illustrating this amazing and innovative design:
4) Surface Book Specifications
The Microsoft Surface Book comes in six different configurations. While all configuration types share exactly the same build type and dimensions, the inner components and the pricing are drastically different between the low-end and the most beefed up configuration Microsoft wanted the Surface Book to be affordable for those who don’t need maximum processing power, storage and a dedicated GPU.
The most basic version of the Surface Book starts at $1,499. It comes with the 6th generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 128 GB of SSD storage and 8 GB of RAM. The maxed out version, on the other hand, has the more powerful 6th generation Intel Core i7 CPU, 1 TB of SSD storage and 16 GB of RAM, and it is priced much higher at $3,199. Below is the detailed table with the different configurations the Surface Book is offered in:
|Recommended configurations for photography are marked in darker blue|
|6th Gen Intel Core i5||128 GB SSD||8 GB||No||$1,499|
|6th Gen Intel Core i5||256 GB SSD||8 GB||No||$1,699|
|6th Gen Intel Core i5||256 GB SSD||8 GB||Yes||$1,899|
|6th Gen Intel Core i7||256 GB SSD||8 GB||Yes||$2,099|
|6th Gen Intel Core i7||512 GB SSD||16 GB||Yes||$2,699|
|6th Gen Intel Core i7||1 TB SSD||16 GB||Yes||$3,199|
I marked up four configurations that I would recommend for photography needs in darker blue above. As you can see, it is every configuration with a dedicated GPU. Why is that? In my opinion, the main selling point of the Surface Book is the dedicated GPU. Without it, might as well just go for the Surface Pro 4, which is lighter, smaller and cheaper.
If you are planning to use RAM-hungry applications like Photoshop and Lightroom, I would suggest the last two configurations with 16 GB of RAM. Sadly, Microsoft did not plan to have a 16 GB RAM option with 256 GB of storage and a slower i5 processor, which means that you will have to spend at least $2,700 to get 16 GB. At that price, it is a tough buy for many of us.
Still, 8 GB is quite usable if you don’t open too many apps at once. For this particular review, I chose the cheapest Surface Book with 6th Generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 256 GB SSD, 8 GB of RAM and dedicated GPU. Priced at $1,899, I figured it would be one of the most popular configurations among the Surface Book line.
One area where Apple always delivers, is their beautiful packaging and its design. While at the end of the day beautiful and well-thought packaging does not impact a product’s performance in any way, it certainly does translate to better overall experience. Apple puts a lot of effort into giving superb experience and it always starts with the packaging. Microsoft certainly put quite a bit of thought and effort into its packaging as well. Ease of unpacking, simplicity and elegance came to mind as I unboxed the Surface Book. Here is a glimpse at the packaging, once the front cover is open:
Everything is packaged neatly. The main compartment houses the Surface Book, the stylus pen and a small instruction envelope, whereas the right compartment contains the charger. The Surface Book itself is wrapped in transparent plastic.
6) Initial Setup
After I got the Surface Book out of the box, I first charged it up, then pressed the power button to turn it on. To my surprise, instead of guiding me through a setup, after about 20 seconds, it got to login screen asking for a username for “Other User”. The Surface Book was brand new, so I was not sure what was going on. I tried to use a blank password and it would not let me in. I had to use Google for rescue, to see what was going on. Apparently, I was not the first person who encountered such an issue. The solution was to power down the machine, then press and hold the shift key as the machine booted up for it to go into the setup. It did work and the setup process started. From there everything went smoothly – I was able to pair the pen and set up my account.
I am not sure what caused this initial issue, but I am guessing it had to do with the new Windows 10 OS. It was probably too new and had a few bugs to address. In fact, as you will see below, this was not the only issue I encountered with the Surface Book. There are a few other problems, some of which Microsoft has already addressed via firmware and driver updates and others that still need to be taken care of.