If you’ve used a Surface Pro 3 or newer, you might have a good idea for how Surfaces became part of the conversation for the best computer hardware. While some may argue there are better devices out there, the Surface line invented the two-in-one space that is thriving today. After the Surface Pro 3, the subsequent devices have been relatively iterative in design, but along with the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft announced the first Surface Book. The Surface Book was supposed to be perfect for Surface fans who just found the Surface Pro to be insufficient for laptop use.
Microsoft’s VP of Devices, Panos Panay, was really excited to show off the “innovative” design of the fulcrum hinge and the electric lock mechanism that held the clipboard tablet portion to the keyboard.
Personally, I was really excited for the Surface Book, because after I left college I used my Surface Pro 3 a lot less. So a few months after the announcement, I purchased a Surface Book. Then I returned it for a Surface Pro 4. Then I got another Surface Book for work. And another for home.
All in, I think I’ve owned four Surface Books. So it is with some confidence that I can say that they are an overengineered mess.
When I was informed that I would be getting a Surface Book at my new job, I was really excited. Not only was it a much better proposition than the Dell desktop from 2008 I had at my last job, but also it enabled a very interesting use case. Having a Surface Book at home as well meant that I could just bring the two tablets between home and work without bringing the keyboards, and then I had two full computers in either location without having to lug them both back and forth. Microsoft doesn’t recommend this, and neither do I anymore. I’ll get to that later on though.
Look up Panos Panay on Google (sorry, Bing) and you will find hundreds of articles dedicated to his passion revolving around Surface products. Here in 2018, when many believe Microsoft has largely refocused away from hardware, Panos still argues that Surface products have the best design of any products out there. In my eyes, the design is impressive, but impractical. Before the Surface Book, I appreciated the Surface Pro line’s industrial design, where they used squared corners and flat edges. It was a purposeful stark contrast to Apple’s curvy hardware.
Keyboard and Trackpad
While the Surface Book keyboard is not my favorite, I have very few complaints about it. The keys have a lot of travel, they are well spaced and positioned, and have a very high quality to them that very few other keyboards have. The biggest issue that I have with typing is actually not on the keyboard at all – it’s the front edge of the device where your hands rest. Unlike the Surface Laptop or the Surface Pro, where your hands rest on fabric, the sharp edge of the Surface Book digs into your palms if you relax them for long periods of time. It is a very poor ergonomic design.
You may point out that Apple’s new MacBook Pro also has a machined aluminum edge at the front. The difference is, the weighting of the Surface Book forces you to move it closer to you, because otherwise it will tilt backwards. The MacBook is heavier at the base, so it can sit further away from your waist, and your hands can rest at a more comfortable position.
Microsoft also knew they had to make the trackpad on the Surface Book competitive with the MacBook Pro, so they designed one of the best Windows trackpads on the market. The trackpad area is much smaller than the new MacBook Pro generations, but it still works well in all situations.
Performance and Battery Life
The Surface Book was built to be a capable laptop built into the frame of a tablet, and that is clearly its biggest bottleneck. I have had both the i5 8GB model and the i7 8GB model with a dedicated GPU, and both have a tendency to run hot and thermal throttle. I understand completely, since the cooling solution is tiny vents surrounding the tablet in all directions. But it’s unacceptable for a high end laptop that a few Excel files overpower it.
I wish there was a way to easily upgrade the Surface Book. The design is just too restrictive for any user to comfortably open up the computer. I understand that this is becoming quite common across many manufacturers, but considering the premium that Microsoft charges for higher end models of this computer, it’s very frustrating.
Where it all went wrong
That dynamic fulcrum hinge and electric locking mechanism that Microsoft designed? Both are amazing from an engineering standpoint, but terrible in practice. Since I have both a Surface Book for work and a Surface Book for home, I decided that it would be easy to just leave a keyboard in each place, and just bring the two tablets back and forth between work and home. This way, I always have both computers available at either place, but I don’t have to lug around two thick laptops. This worked really well for a few months, but then I started to realize some issues. For whatever reason, there are times where the charging doesn’t pass through the keyboard into the tablet portion. And the Surface Book requires charge in the tablet portion in order to detach the keyboard. So multiple times I was stuck with the wrong tablet connected to the wrong keyboard, and I would be unable to detach them at all.
The Bottom Line
Now that the Surface Book 2 has been released, and little has changed about the design, there has been a new wave of demand for a product that I still find imperfect. The Surface Book line feels more like a solution searching for a problem; no, actually, it feels like a spotlight on the problem that is the state of Windows 10 on tablets. While it may be anecdotal, I know very few people (and very few reviewers) who have found actual use for the clipboard style design of the Surface Book. While it would have been perfect for my application (see the “My Use” section above), it ultimately was unusable.
My recommendation to the reader is: If you want a tablet, buy a tablet. If you want a laptop, buy a laptop. If you don’t want to buy two products, buy a convertible device such as a Spectre x360, Lenovo Yoga 920, or Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. I even think the Surface Pro lineup, while needing a major refresh, is better.
Microsoft is largely backing out of hardware after a decade of moonshot projects that brought them into the conversation of hardware manufacturers. I can’t help but be a little sad considering the Surface line is largely what made me a tech nerd years ago.