Introduction, Design Features
Is Microsoft the new Apple?
If you still think of the latter as a company that makes super-slick, eyeball-drawing computing hardware with sleek, silver-metal curves—but punishes wallets with high sticker prices—that badge may indeed may be moving to Microsoft.
Apple still makes slick hardware, to be sure. But its iPhone 7 and redesigned MacBook Pros have garnered at least as many headlines for removing things (headphone jacks, USB Type-A ports, comfortable keyboards) than bringing new functionality or breakthrough design to the table. (We’re still undecided about the MacBook Pro’s OLED Touch Bar. It’s snazzy, and works well, but as touch typists we’re still not sure having to look away from the screen is a smart way to be more productive.)
Microsoft, meanwhile, continues to see success with its existing Surface devices, while adding the stunning new Surface Studio all-in-one desktop to its lineup late in 2016. Starting at $2,999, and topping out above $4,000, however, the Surface Studio makes even the Apple 5K iMac seem affordable. (And it is by comparison, starting at “just” $1,799.)
Then we come to the product we’re looking at here, Microsoft’s updated Surface Book. With a starting price of $1,499 when the original Surface Book launched in 2015, it was already one of the pricier convertibles on the market. But the company has seen fit to update the product with a Core i7 processor and more powerful Nvidia graphics, as well as making some minor cosmetic changes and adding an even bigger battery. The new “Surface Book with Performance Base” as Microsoft differentiates it on its product page, starts at $2,399 with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB Solid-state drive (SSD). Our fully upticked review model, with a 1TB SSD and 16GB of RAM, rings up at $3,299. We’re not used to seeing prices that high on mobile hardware these days outside of high-end gaming laptops. Even a similarly configured new MacBook Pro 13-Inch with Touch Bar costs $400 less ($2,899), though you don’t get dedicated graphics unless you step up to the larger, costlier MacBook Pro 15-Inch.
But pricing aside, it’s really hard to argue with what the new Surface Pro delivers in terms of design and battery life. Its keyboard is still miles better than any other detachable we’ve tested (and positively luxurious compared to the “butterfly” keyboard in the new Apple MacBook Pro (13-Inch, 2016)iPad Pro (2,732×2,048).
But battery life is arguably the updated Surface Book’s most impressive new feature. We’ve seen some recent Windows machines hit or top 14 hours in our video rundown test. The new MacBook Pro 13-inch, meanwhile, lasted just under 12 hours. The updated Surface Book? It was still going strong after the 19-hour mark.
If you’re looking for the pinnacle of modern mobile convertible computing, along with battery life that should get you through a couple days, easy, welcome to the top of Microsoft’s mountain. Just know that there are plenty of very good alternatives that don’t cost nearly this much.
Design Changes Features
For the most part, the magnesium-clad updated Surface Book is nearly identical to the 2015 version (which is still readily available, starting at $1,499 with a Core i5 processor and Intel integrated graphics). For the updated Surface Book with Performance Base models with a Core i7 processor, Microsoft raised the keyboard up very slightly. This doesn’t change how the keys feel to type on, but it does accomplish two goals. For starters, it makes more room in the base for a bigger battery and beefed-up Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M graphics. (The earlier models with dedicated graphics used an unnamed Nvidia chip, which the company claims is about half as powerful as the 965M.) And the raised keyboard eliminates some of the empty space between the screen and the base when the laptop is closed.
In the image above, you can see the 2015 Surface Book at the top and the not-insubstantial air gap created by the Surface Book’s fulcrum hinge on the right. Drop that device in a cluttered bag, and things like keys, change, and slim pens can get wedged in there. The new model, at the bottom of the photo above, minimizes that space. Also in the image above, you can see that the Surface book is substantially thicker than Apple’s new MacBook Pro 13-inch.
The addition of the bigger battery and other beefier components also means the new Surface Book model is slightly heavier, at 3.63 pounds, than the 3.34 pound original model. Now, 3.6 pounds isn’t exactly heavy for a 13.5-inch convertible. But it is heavy for a premium laptop these days. Some models with 13-inch screens (like the Samsung Notebook 9) slide in under the two-pound mark. And the Dell XPS 13, which we think delivers the best balance of performance, lightness, and battery life among recent traditional laptops, weighs about a pound less than the Surface Book, at 2.7 pounds. That said, the 13.5-inch screen on Microsoft device feels substantially bigger than what you’ll find on a 13-inch laptop, because of its much taller 3:2 aspect ratio, compared to the narrower 16:9 ratio of most laptops. In other words, aside from loads of battery life (which we’ll detail later), the Surface Book’s extra weight also brings a screen with more pixel surface area than its 13-inch competitors.
Pop off the Surface Book’s screen by pressing a button to the left of the Delete key, and you get a surprisingly light 1.6-pound big-screen tablet. Just don’t expect a whole lot in the way of longevity when away from the keyboard dock. At default settings, the screen lasted just over two hours when playing back video. That can be more than doubled, though, if you flip the Battery Saver software switch, next to the brightness toggle in Windows 10. We’ll delve more into battery life at the end of the Performance section.
The rest of the Surface Book’s design and external features are effectively (or exactly) the same as the model that debuted in 2015. The screen is still stunning; the keyboard is flat, but otherwise pretty great (and backlit, naturally). And the ports are still handier at the moment than the USB-C-only options on some recent slim Windows machines and Apple’s new MacBook Pros.
There are no USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports here, though, which is annoying given that USB-C is inarguably the port of the future, and the Surface Book in this configuration costs so much that you’ll probably want to hang onto it for several years. We do, though, like the inclusion of an SD card slot. And the magnetic charging cable really makes us miss the MagSafe connectors on earlier MacBooks.
Because nothing else has really changed from the model we tested in 2015, we’re not going to delve deep here into other aspects of the Surface Book’s design or functionality, or things like the included Surface Pen. For that, feel free to peruse our original Surface Book review. Instead, we’ll get to performance, which is really what this Surface Pro update is all about.