Hands on with the Surface Book: Gorgeous, unique -- but maybe not for me

Eight months on from the original release, how does this diehard Windows 8.1 fan feel about Microsoft's new OS and signature PC?


Microsoft's Surface Book

Image: Microsoft

When Windows 10 first came out, as a Windows 8.1 and Surface fan, I was disappointed with the touch features, the OneDrive regressions and the rough edges in Windows 10 -- and I still haven't upgraded my Surface Pro 3.

Instead, I've dipped in and out of Windows 10 on an HP Spectre 360, and for the last couple of weeks, I've been using a Core i7 Surface Book as my main PC to see the state of the art in Microsoft hardware and software.

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We've waited a long time to get the Surface Book in the UK and that's not such a bad thing, because it means that Microsoft and Intel have had time to hammer out the early issues with the Skylake processors and the drivers that support their ultra-deep sleep mode. Flaws in those drivers had some US systems waking up when they weren't supposed to and running down the battery. I didn't have that problem at all with this UK model (and recent updates have solved the problem on a US model I've also been testing).

That doesn't mean there haven't been any problems. The first time I detach the screen from the keyboard, the screen goes black and stays black even after the detach button turns green: instead of detaching, the whole PC has turned off. That doesn't happen again, but on two occasions the keyboard just stops working, then starts again, then stops again; the detach button still works and after I detach and reconnect the screen, the keyboard comes back as normal. A Windows update seems to fix the problem; it hasn't recurred since on this machine since, or on the US model I saw the same issue on previously.

Detaching the keyboard usually switches the screen into portrait mode but there's a bug where it sometimes gets stuck in landscape, even if the rotation lock is off, and even if you manually change the screen setting. There's bound to be an update that solves this soon, and turning off fast-start seems to fix that, for now, and doesn't seem to slow down the Surface Book at all.

Speaking of updates, one of my favourite Windows 10 features is that you need never again be forced to do an update at an inconvenient moment. Of course you only get that if you remember to go in and change the default of automatic restarts (and turn off sharing your bandwidth with everyone to download updates at the same time). That's probably why the Surface Book had also turned itself off the first night I used it, after I shut the lid. I don't know why, having scheduled an update for 3am on Tuesday, it decided instead to apply it at 7pm the previous Friday, when I'd left the PC idle for about fifteen minutes; other Windows 10 PCs I've used have always respected those schedules.

It continues to frustrate me that unlike Windows 8.1 -- where a restart is relatively painless because applications like Explorer, IE, Outlook, and OneNote automatically re-open their windows if they were open when the update restart happened -- Windows 10 leaves me with an empty desktop. (The Windows team tell me the APIs that control this haven't changed, but the behaviour certainly has.) I'll put those down to setup quirks, and most users won't change PCs as often as I do, so again: annoying but not a showstopper.

Windows 10 PCs often come with power settings that make no sense to me. Waiting two hours after I stop using it to hibernate? Leaving your PC in Connected Standby for two hours is supposed to take only as much power as coming out of hibernation but that means if you're leaving your PC for four hours, you're going to use twice as much power if you leave that default set. And it also means the Surface Book might well get hot in your bag if it's in there in CS for two hours, although I don't have any problems when I take it out and about.

Unless I'm using an ARM PC like Surface 2, I do still switch from Connected Standby and sleep to hibernation to be sure I get the best battery life, although I'm sure that infuriates the Windows team. It's a trade-off I'm happy to make for the extra couple of seconds it takes to resume from hibernation, but the settings to change it are still squirreled away in a maze of twisty dialog boxes.

Setup picks up many of my account settings and preferences but also reminds me of all the things that don't sync between PCs -- not just update settings but start screen layout, outlook signatures, Word autocorrects, pinned icons on the taskbar... yes, I still miss placeholders in OneDrive on a daily basis.

I compensate by mapping the top level of my OneDrive as a WebDAV network drive in Explorer, and using Office 2016's ability to navigate OneDrive online even when it's not synced, and I manually select one folder in every tree of the OneDrive folder structure where I need to create files offline (Windows occasionally forgets that and demands that I pick them all over again, which is as infuriating as it sounds). The 512MB SSD in the Surface Book I'm testing makes this less painful than on most PCs, but also takes a significant chunk of bandwidth for syncing the day I set it up. Of all the changes in Windows 10, losing placeholders continues to be the most annoying and painful one.

On the other hand, touch in Windows 10 has improved significantly since it first came out, although it's still not quite as fluid and powerful as I'd like.

The Surface Book is a perfect illustration of these changes in touch technology.

Windows 8 pushed you to touch, something I find natural and delightful. Windows 10 has improved out of all measure from the early releases that dumbed touch back down to phone levels. I can move and resize apps pretty much as easily with touch now as with a mouse, even sizing two applications side by side at the same time.

But it still doesn't invite as much touch as it could: swiping over the left and right edges of the screen doesn't feel useful to me anymore, as I completely ignore the action centre and use the task bar or Alt Tab to switch windows. If I ever do use the action centre, I find myself turning the Wi-Fi off completely by tapping it when all I wanted to do was switch to another access point; press and hold brings up the settings, but it's a strange and annoying priority to choose.

The aspect ratio of the Surface Book means there is a very large wrist rest, and a big trackpad in the middle of it. Both are very comfortable and for keyboard users, they're ideal. The key sizes, positioning, travel, and responsiveness of the Surface Book keyboard are excellent, and it has one of the best trackpads on a PC notebook.

But the screen does feel quite a long way away across that lovely keyboard (especially as I had a shoulder problem when I first started using the Surface Book, and my arms are on the short side) and that means when I get my hands in the right place to type on the keyboard, it feels slightly too far to reach across to touch the screen comfortably. I find I'm still reaching out to scroll documents and web pages and touching spelling mistakes to fix them, but I also find I'm more likely to use the trackpad to drag windows around when I'd usually use my finger.

The Surface Book is a great fit for the level of touch that's in Windows 10, but there's a rather more disruptive transition between keyboard-plus-touch and touch alone, because you're not flipping the keyboard back behind the screen the way you would with a Surface Pro or many 2-in-1s. You go through what feels like a tiny ceremony to detach the screen; you hold it differently, you might sit differently -- or stand up and walk around with it.

You're likely to turn it round and use it in portrait mode like a paper notebook or a sketching pad -- and it's lovely to use like that. Even Fresh Paint now works in portrait, so when I want to paint a cover for one of my short stories, I can do it on something that feels like a real canvas.

A note about Fresh Paint: It will use the GPU in the keyboard if it can, because simulating oil paint is a very GPU-intensive process. So instead of getting everything ready and then detaching the screen, I have to remember to detach and then open Fresh Paint, because otherwise I have to close it again to detach, but the Core i7's integrated graphics makes painting with oils a superbly responsive experience.

The pen is a pleasure to use, and the way you can click once to get OneNote and twice to get a screenshot is extremely useful. If you want to click to bring up the desktop version of OneNote, you can change that in the Surface app, although it would be nice if the app scanned your list of installed software for desktop apps rather than leaving you to trawl through Explorer to find the executable file. The magnet in the pen is so strong it sticks to other notebooks (and car doors), so unless you grab it wrong and knock the pen off, you're not likely to lose it around the office.

The battery life of the screen alone is disappointingly low, at just two or three hours -- although part of that is the Core i7, as the Core i5 model lasts a little longer. You can plug the power cord directly into the screen, so you don't have to attach or dock to get power. But there are no ports on the screen itself -- not even USB (and only two USB 3 ports on the keyboard).

Apart from the occasional rotation issue, Surface Book handles the technically challenging transition from letting the system have both a high power GPU and a more basic integrated GPU to only using the integrated GPU very elegantly -- but it's definitely a transition that you notice.

The other thing you notice is which software understands high DPI settings in Windows 10 and which don't. The screen and the ultra high resolution look beautiful, but some older software shows up with tiny, hard-to-read menus and toolbars.


Some older software doesn't look great with the high DPI settings.

Image: Mary Branscombe

Because of the second Nvidia GPU, there's a touch more software installed than I expect with a Surface. The first time I reboot Windows pops up a note to warn me that the Surface app might slow down boot (the OneDrive client always gets that warning, so it's not unheard of for Microsoft to criticise its own software). This isn't the Surface settings app -- it has the logo of the Detach key and it's the utility that manages the clever way Surface Book lets you pull the keyboard off. That's probably inevitable for something this low level and complex, and I'm not sure I ever notice the impact.


The Surface detach app.

Image: Mary Branscombe

Nvidia on the desktop.

Image: Mary Branscombe

But I do notice that there's an Nvidia shortcut for a 3D Vision Photo Viewer which is pinned to the desktop and does absolutely nothing -- and the Top Sites in Edge aren't just waiting to pick up the pages I visit most. They start out advertising the Microsoft Store and apps for eBay, Facebook, Trip Advisor, Tesco, and Amazon. It's not really crapware, but it's not the beautifully clean Windows installation I've come to expect with Surface either, and it's to be hoped Microsoft doesn't go any further down this road.


Edge tabs easily mistaken for adverts.

Image: Mary Branscombe

Personally, the Surface Book doesn't feel like quite the right mix of features for me, much as I love using it to paint with and excellent as the screen and pen and keyboard are. Why? Because I want the option of using it as a tablet for more than just a couple of hours at a time. The real test will be how much I miss it as I go back to my HP and Surface Pro.

For the majority of users, the Surface Book is going to be a fantastic, if premium PC. It's crammed with fantastic little touches and details, like the way the Caps Lock key beeps when you hit it, and has different beeps for when you're turning it on and off. It's both charming and so useful that I'd like to have the beep working even if I've muted sound because of the number of websites that autoplay videos these days. Tiny things like that might not sound important, but they add up to a premium experience, day in day out.

Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it's gorgeous -- and yes, it's unique. There are plenty of detachable and convertible tablets, and more on the way, but nothing has the hinge that makes the Surface Book stable even though the screen is heavier than the keyboard, and nothing has the second GPU for when you need power.

If it's right for you, now the power bugs are ironed out, you'll love it.

Read more about Microsoft's Surface Book