The Microsoft Surface Book offers a good keyboard and trackpad.
It has a premium design with a great display and enough performance chops.
However, it is expensive from every imaginable standard.
If you want to see the direction in which the PC industry is moving then look no further than Microsoft’s Surface lineup. Since the launch of Surface Pro in 2013, Microsoft has gotten much better at the act of making PC hardware. In fact, Microsoft scaling its Surface lineup is almost akin to that of Elon Musk scaling the Tesla lineup.
The central idea behind Surface had always been a personalized computing device with a touchscreen. The core idea is similar to that of Tesla which wants to offer electric cars that will drive themselves one day. While Microsoft started building detachable machines at first in the form of the Surface Pro, the devices were so good that most mainstream customers started hoping for a machine with professional hardware. Microsoft answered that demand with the launch of Surface Book in 2015.
The Surface Book, while it packed a professional hardware like discrete graphics, did not give up on the core idea of detachable and convertible design. The launch of the Surface Book led to huge expectations for a traditional clamshell notebook and Microsoft delivered just that in the form of Surface Laptop last year. It even decided to throw in an ultra premium all-in-one system called Surface Studio.
This scaling is similar to Tesla which started with an ultra premium sedan and vertically scaled down to an entry level model. Both the Tesla Model S and Surface Pro have done one thing for their respective industry: highlighting the need for such a product.
Microsoft’s Surface lineup includes: the Surface Go, the Surface Pro, the Surface Book 2, the Surface Laptop, the Surface Studio and the Surface Hub. In India, only the Surface Pro is available. Until now. Microsoft launched the Surface Book 2 and Surface Laptop yesterday as it aims to capitalize on India’s growing PC market. Ahead of the launch, Microsoft offered a loaner 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 with 8th generation Core i7-8650U and 8GB of RAM for review. So, is this the ultra-premium laptop to beat? Let’s figure out by living life without walls.
The central element of any gadget or electronics is design and with Surface Book 2, Microsoft has combined design and engineering to a whole new level. Like the Surface Pro, the Surface Book 2 is also built using magnesium alloy and has a detachable design. The most unique element of the design is the dynamic fulcrum hinge, which flexes itself just like how a Snake would flex its muscles. This particular design is not new and was first demonstrated with original Surface Book in 2015.
The dynamic fulcrum hinge on the original Surface Book seemed less rigid and the mechanism did not seem perfect. It can be easily described as version 1.0 of Microsoft’s hinge mechanism. On the Surface Book 2, this Snake-like hinge is not only stronger but offers feedback that makes you trust that design.
While on most convertible design, the hinge does the primary function of turning the laptop into tablet mode and vice versa, the dynamic fulcrum hinge has to do things like holding the display in place and supporting internals of the Surface Book. Every time you push the display to the back, the hinge kind of rolls around itself and it is not only a satisfying thing to look at but also reassuring enough that at no point will you push the display too hard to break it.
In order to undock the display, you press a button on the keyboard base and Microsoft says the keyboard sends a command to detach the tablet from “muscle wire locks.” The tablet docks into the keyboard base via magnetic pogo pins and two pieces of enclosure at the base of the tablet. As you might have understood, the hinge must be really strong to hold the keyboard and display together and during my over a week long test, I could not see any signs of the mechanism falling apart. While it is a great feat of engineering, there are times when it comes across as being over-engineered.
For instance, when you close the laptop, the tablet does not lay flat with the keyboard and there is a visible gap that might allow dirt into the keyboard. Also, the release mechanism could have been a bit faster but that is not a major complaint. At first, this hinge looks weird, it even seems crazy but a week later, it turns into a beautiful piece of engineering.
Now you might be wondering, is the design all about that hinge. Well, the answer is no. The CNC-machined chassis has very clean lines that perfectly meet at the edges of the device. The cutout at the front side for lifting the device has curved lines that perfectly align with the straight lines of the trackpad. The tablet has a separate vent behind the display that seems as well designed as any aerodynamic wing on an F1 car. The best part is actually the sound that Surface Book 2 emits when you close the laptop. If you love the chime of a pocket watch then you will love this sound as well.
There are few ports, which seem to be perfectly drilled into the case while the buttons offer tactile feedback. I do have some gripes with the design of Surface Book 2. Firstly, it is rather hard to open the laptop one handed and second, the 3.5mm headphone jack is placed at the top edge of the tablet, which seems weird since your cables end up tangling with your work. While I could not find a cure for the first problem, there is a definite fix for the second issue and it is called USB Type-C.
When we talk about industrial design, the most common names are Yves Behar, Marc Newson, Jony Ive or Philippe Starck, but there is an unsung hero in this industry: Ralf Groene. Groene is the head of industrial design at Microsoft Devices and be it Surface Pro, Surface Book, Surface Laptop or Surface Studio, they are all the brainchildren of his vision. After using the Surface Book 2 and seeing the way engineering and design blend into one product, I am kind of surprised that we don’t talk that often about Groene.
Watch: Microsoft Surface Book 2 First Look Video
The Surface Book 2 that I have been testing for the past few weeks features a 13.5-inch PixelSense display with a resolution of 3000 x 2000 pixels. With PixelSense display, Microsoft tends to factory calibrate individual pixels, which translates to better overall accuracy with colors. It also supports 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut that makes it more accurate for those who render a lot of photographs or do color-grading on videos.
While I could not test the color accuracy of Surface Book 2’s display using equipment like Spyder, I must note that it offers vibrant colors with impeccable amount of details and sharpness. It is actually a delight to view high-resolution photos or watch videos on the move. It may not be as crisp as the 4K panel on the Dell XPS 13 but it does hold its own ground. The display is ideal for watching videos that support high dynamic range and playback bright colors like red, green and blue accurately. The display is also bright enough to take outdoors and work when under direct sunlight.
One of the peculiar aspects of the display is the 3:2 aspect ratio, which has now become standard on all Surface devices. The 3:2 aspect ratio falls in between the 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratio and is ideal for things like reading books or scrolling through a number of pages on a magazine. With the 3:2 aspect ratio, you can in fact feel like scanning through real pages, like you would do with a real book. As someone, who reads a lot and writes for a living, this aspect ratio is a boon to have and it is high time that other PC makers make it standard as well. For videos, yes it is not as wide as 16:9 but the cropping does not really hinder the experience.
Studio and View modes
Whether it is the HP Spectre or Lenovo Yoga, the tablet mode on these devices come with one native problem: the keyboard at the back. When you use a Lenovo Yoga in tablet mode, you would often find yourself pressing that keyboard in the back. While it does not result in any action, it can distract you and slightly discomfort you.
The best implementation of tablet mode yet can be found on the Surface Book 2 where the back surface is basically the same magnesium casing as it would be in the laptop mode. Microsoft calls this Studio Mode since the tablet mode is one where you detach the display altogether. The implementation where keyboard does not come right where you lay your hands is mainly achieved with the help of the dynamic fulcrum hinge and in studio mode, you can relax and work without worrying about hitting any keys behind the device. The View mode is ideal for streaming videos on Netflix, which I must add, has one of the best applications on Windows 10.
Performance and Battery Life
Our review unit came with an 8th generation Intel Core i7-8650U CPU coupled with 8GB of RAM and 256GB storage. It also comes with 2GB of GDDR5 video memory thanks to the discrete NVIDIA GTX 1050 GPU. I can right away say that the performance is smooth and it is precisely what you would expect from a laptop that costs around Rs 2,00,000.
In synthetic benchmarks, the Surface Book 2 recorded scores that were identical to that of the Dell XPS 13 that we tested few months back. Ideally, the Surface Book 2 should have scored higher than the XPS 13 since it is using a chipset clocked at higher frequency but that did not seem to be the case. It did score well in benchmark platforms like PCMark and CineBench where the higher clock frequency and discrete games come in aid.
My traditional workflow involves a bunch of tabs on Google Chrome, a podcast player in the background and some occasional switches to YouTube and other video platforms. This is probably the easiest workflow possible and Surface Book 2 handles then without breaking a sweat. Now throw in a program like Adobe Photoshop to the mix and you will see that Surface Book 2 still handles the task with ease. The real test comes when you start playing VR games via a mainstream device like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift or fire up Adobe Premiere Pro or Illustrator to render videos and graphics. In any case, the Surface Book 2 is good enough for most tasks but if you plan to do a lot of editing then you would be better off getting the 15-inch model which comes with better graphics and more video memory.
I would like to replug this quote by Eugene Jarvis, the creator of the classic arcade game Defender, “The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games.” In the case of the Surface Book 2, you can actually play games. Be it a graphics-intensive game like Forza Motorsport 7 or the newly released Asphalt 9 Legends, the gameplay is always smooth at the native resolution and most games are optimized enough to play at high settings on a GTX 1050. Since I am not a hardcore gamer, my testing here was rather limited but Microsoft tells me that this machine is optimized for modern games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Fortnite and DOTA 2.
There are a number of reasons to pick Surface Book 2 over any other laptop in the same price segment, but if one reason trumps everything else then it is battery life. For my work scenario, the Surface Book 2 not only lasted the entire workday but I often went back home with at least 30 percent charge remaining. I am talking about a scenario where the brightness is set to the ‘Suggested’ setting and the laptop is playing audio and refreshing web pages at the same time. This process would generally see laptops go out of juice within six or seven hours, the Surface Book 2 lets you take some work to home without ever needing to plugin again.
The battery life is, however, a far cry from Microsoft’s promised battery life of 17 hours based on a video loop test. I find the video test loop test not to be ideal since we are not all looping videos throughout the day at work. Most of those buying Surface Book 2 would either use it for gaming, video rendering or for professional use where the machine stays constantly uploading and downloading data over internet. Just the fast that it could last one full day and have some power left makes it an easy-to-recommend device for me.
Keyboard and Trackpad
I have said this multiple times and won’t mind repeating it: I write for a living and the keyboard is the biggest tool that I have at my disposal. So, there is no denying that I would need only the best in this segment. With the Surface Book 2, Microsoft is offering a chiclet style full-size backlit keyboard with 1.55mm travel. The last part is the most crucial element of this keyboard.
While most laptops offer 1.2mm or 1.3mm key travel, Microsoft is offering 1.55mm key travel with the Surface Book 2. This keyboard is an absolute delight to type, whether you are typing a small email or a long article like this one. With this keyboard, I have not only found myself typing a tad bit faster than usual but also making fewer errors. The keyboard also supports three stages of backlighting, which is useful especially when you type in dark environments. Since we are looking at a full-size keyboard, the cursor keys are not cramped and options like Page Up and Page Down are easily accessible.
The keyboard is the primary input device for any computing device and it is a disappointment that most PC makers have stopped sticking to the basics. In the midst of ongoing battle over the quality of the keyboard on new Apple MacBook Pro, where customers are complaining about the keyboard failing to work altogether and dirt entering the membrane of keys easily, it is nice that somebody is listening to people who type a lot and don’t want to put up with bad keyboard because some tech company believes that it’s what is best. The PC industry does not need to build keyboards that have travel like the Surface Book 2 but a keyboard with 1.2mm travel is the worst they could do.
If there is one thing I don’t like about this keyboard, then it would have to be the option to tap on the function key near the Windows button to access the function area. I always use Alt+F4 to turn off my PC and I’ve gotten annoyed at times that I need to tap on one more button to access that function. Just for the joy of that ergonomic keyboard, I won’t mind putting up with it.
The keyboard alone is not the most functional input device here, the Surface Book 2 also comes with a rather brilliant trackpad. The trackpad, which sits below the keyboard is large and made of glass with precision drivers for accurate response to gestures. It perfectly understands gestures like four-finger tap to open action center and three-finger tap to open Cortana. The two-finger tap which acts like right-click on a mouse also works accurately. While it is easy to recognize taps, the trackpad also understands when you place four fingers on the touchpad and swipe right or left for virtual desktop.
Microsoft Windows 10 is not the best operating system, but it is not bad either. When you use Windows 10 on an OEM device, you end up facing a lot of issues and experience crippled by native software enhancements but on the Surface, it is pure. It is a well-known fact that the best user experience is always available on a device where the hardware and software is developed by the same company.
Take Apple’s Mac and iPhone range for example, or even the Google Pixel and Pixel 2 smartphones. These devices offer the software experience as it was intended to be consumed by its creators. The same goes true for the Windows experience on the Surface. For starters, there is no bloatware and it runs Windows 10 Pro with TPM security chip for enhanced safety.
All the core Windows 10 features, be it Cortana that can listen to you from the farthest corner of your home or the inking feature, work really well on Surface. I also did not encounter the most commonly stated Windows problem where the device starts to update automatically. The Surface Book 2, shared with us by Microsoft, runs the April Creators Update with version 1803, and offers features such as the Timeline and People Bar.
I really like what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with timeline on Windows 10. The idea of ubiquitous computing will take shape only when your devices communicate with each other and all files stay on a cloud and be accessible for anywhere. The fact that I can open a word document on my Windows 10 notebook and resume it on my Android smartphone via Microsoft Edge seems like a game changer. The platform limitations do come into play but the experience seemed decent to me.
Since the evolution of WhatsApp, I have lost most of my Skype contacts to the Facebook-owned platform. But there are still a few family relatives who are available on Skype most of the time and the ability to talk to them via the People Bar and without the need to go to Skype and do the same is really convenient. The rest of the Windows features are pretty much standard here and with every update, Windows is getting more stable and reliable.
During the fourth quarter earnings for FY2018, Microsoft announced that revenue from the Surface business grew by 25 percent. The success of Surface as a business unit can be owed to two things: 1) Seamless integration between hardware and software and 2) Lack of competitive hardware from its main rival, Apple. With the Surface Book 2, Microsoft is seemingly delivering the raw performance that most pro-consumers would expect from a high-end device.
The Surface Book 2 offers great performance, has one of the best industry-calibrated displays and a design that will remain unique for several years to come. It also offers the best keyboard experience on any laptop right now and Windows 10 works the way it is meant to from the minute you boot the device up for the first time. Microsoft has even added a USB Type-C port to the Surface Book 2, which is basically a must have for charging mobile devices. The Microsoft Surface Book 2 also has one of the finest webcams for video conferencing and the Windows Hello facial recognition cameras work even in dark environments. One of the features that thin and lightweight laptops miss out on is a good speaker. With the Surface Book 2, you get a speaker that is loud and clear.
The review unit that I have been using as my primary computer for the past two weeks is priced at Rs 1,86,999. Let me put this straight: it is a lot of money to spend on a computer. In fact, it is a lot of money to spend on any electronic device. In the US, the same configuration retails for $1,999 (around Rs 1,37,100) and Microsoft is also offering limited-period discount of $300.
Microsoft is definitely charging a huge premium and it is not the only company to do so in the market. If you want quality and a rich PC experience, then you will not go wrong with the Surface Book 2. However, I would recommend waiting a few months to see if there is a price drop or discount before picking this one from retail store, since it’s definitely on the expensive side.