For the last few years, PC manufacturers have devoted incredible engineering resources to giving their laptops gymnastic capabilities. Dell made a laptop whose screen could spin quickly inside its frame. Toshiba’s Satellite could fold flat and slide closed, as if slipping under a limbo pole. Lenovo made a whole line of products called Yoga, which are not to be confused with the Asus Taichi lineup. (No one made the “Ommmm,” which seems like a missed opportunity.) Just about every device anyone made somehow flipped, rotated, contorted, or sawed itself in half, Penn and Teller-style.

Microsoft Surface Book



It’s a laptop. A great laptop. Finally, a Windows computer without stickers and logos everywhere. The keyboard and trackpad are excellent—and if you don’t like them pen and touch work just great. Screen is gorgeous, and there’s plenty of power behind it.


Detaching and re-attaching comes with some pain. This is a very expensive laptop.

How We Rate

  • 1/10A complete failure in every way
  • 2/10Barely functional; don’t buy it
  • 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
  • 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
  • 5/10Recommended with reservations
  • 6/10A solid product with some issues
  • 7/10Very good, but not quite great
  • 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
  • 9/10Nearly flawless, buy it now
  • 10/10Metaphysical product perfection

There’s some of that heritage in the new Microsoft Surface Book. It detaches into two pieces at the touch of a button, its screen snapping free from its keyboard base. Ta-da!

There’s just one key difference: basically every other convertible has tried too hard to be all things to all people, doing everything under the sun and none of it well. The Surface Book, on the other hand, is a laptop. A great one.

It’s not a great tablet, and it’s a bad convertible—it’s really, really hard to make a device that is equally adept as both desk-bound workhorse and bag-friendly touchscreen. Microsoft gets that, or seems to. It also seems to understand that those things don’t matter; the most important thing a $1,500 laptop needs to do is be a laptop. All the good things about the Surface Book are laptop things, and everything else is just there if you want it.

And Now, for My Next Trick…

The first thing you notice is definitely the hinge. Excuse me: the “dynamic fulcrum hinge.” There’s a cool development backstory to the “dynamic fulcrum hinge,” but essentially, it was made so the screen could have a battery and processor inside without being so heavy it would tip over backwards.

The hinge also gives the 3.34-pound laptop a really cool, unique look, like a folio or a rolled-up magazine that doesn’t quite come closed. (It’s a little less than an inch thick at the back.) Other than the worries I have about what might get in the crack where the hinge doesn’t quite let the two halves close, I love it.

There’s almost a subtly aggressive feeling to the Surface Book. The all-aluminum look, right down to the keyboard and trackpad, makes it feel like it was forged in the fiery depths of a live volcano. There’s no branding other than the reflective Windows logo behind the display. The sharp edges and clean lines are almost like a prototype a PC maker would build before mucking it up with gimmicky branding and bad ideas. It’s not quite as slick and polished as a MacBook, but it’s great looking just the same.

The story of the Surface Book is really the story of two halves. Top and bottom. Screen and keyboard. Tablet and laptop. They dock together to make a clamshell notebook. You can flip the screen over, lay it down on top of the keyboard…and make a heavier tablet. Or you can just yank it out, and use it like a really giant tablet.

The top half is a 3,000 x 2,000, 13.5-inch screen that is clear and detailed and has absolutely absurd viewing angles. The screen is touch-enabled and pen-enabled. Its slightly taller 3:2 aspect ratio is what every laptop should be—a little more vertical real estate goes a long way. Microsoft doesn’t have “Retina” branding like Apple does, but its displays are every bit as good.

The Surface Book’s Intel processors—the latest version, Skylake, starting with an i5 chip on the base model—are inside that top half, along with most of the other necessary computing tools. That means you can press the button on top of the Surface Book’s keyboard and detach it at any moment. The top half is lighter and easier to carry than a 13.5-inch tablet seems like it would be, and especially with the included Surface Pen is a nice panel to draw on. The huge screen is a battery suck, though: I only got about four hours of use in general, and a two-hour movie on 100 percent brightness (Tomorrowland, it was terrible) dropped it all the way to 16 percent.

I don’t think Microsoft cares about things like tablet-only battery life, though. These modes are for showing someone a PowerPoint, or occasionally watching a movie in your hotel room. Microsoft doesn’t even call it “tablet mode,” it calls it “Clipboard mode.” If you want a tablet to use all day, every day, Microsoft has one of those. Buy a Surface Pro 4, they’ll tell you. That’s a tablet. This is a laptop.

When you dock the screen back into the bottom half of the Surface Book, you tap into a much bigger battery—I got more like nine hours of use when both parts were attached. On the higher-end models, you get a discrete GPU too. The base is where all the ports are (two USB, a DisplayPort, and an SD slot), and where your charger goes. It’s what makes this device powerful and useful enough to be worth the high price.

A great laptop is about the specs, certainly, so the Surface Book delivers there. On the base $1,500 model, you get an i5 processor, 128GB of solid-state storage, and 8GB of RAM. It goes as high as i7, 1TB, 16GB, and a solid graphics chip—for $3,100. It’s crazy powerful, probably more so than most people need. I will say, however, for $3,100 you can get much better graphics performance in other machines. If you’re a gamer, maybe look elsewhere; everyone else is covered here.

(One thing I should note: I’ve spoken to a few other reviewers that have had serious issues with their Surface Book’s hard drives. Mine’s been fine, but I’ve heard enough stories to make me worry about the first Surface Books coming off the line.)

For most people, though, the difference between good and garbage isn’t about performance. It comes down to things like screen size and battery life, and especially the keyboard and trackpad. That’s why the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover won’t cut it, and why the Surface Book was necessary in the first place.

In both cases, Microsoft did it right. The trackpad is virtually unparalleled in the Windows world, glassy and smooth and easy to use in a way I didn’t think Windows trackpads could be. The super-clicky keyboard might turn a few people off. Not everyone will love the deep travel, or that big thunk the keys make when they hit bottom. But the keyboard is large and spacious. In neither case is there anything to really complain about.

All Together Now

Long story short, the Surface Book is a terrific laptop. That’s all it needs to be. But it tries, in spots, to be something more, too. I mean, they build a new hinge just to enable it. And Windows 10 is built for exactly this kind of device—one that can shift its shape and purpose to be exactly what you need at any given time. Even as the Surface Book represents the world we live in now, Microsoft is trying to push a little bit ahead too. Which is great! Yet every time the Surface Book tries to enable these transitions, everything kind of falls apart.

To un-dock the screen, you press a button, wait a second for the mechanical hinge to detach, and then yank the top half out quickly before the two pieces automatically reconnect. To put it back, you have to align it just so, and fight against the magnets that want to yank you off-course. Sometimes, when you connect the pieces, the cursor will just disappear—you have to separate and re-attach them just to get your mouse back. Sometimes, you’ve detached the tablet, and yet the little “Ready to Detach” notification never goes away. Oh, and if your battery’s too low, it just won’t let you take the screen off.

The easy answer here is, uh, don’t take the screen off. Which is fair enough. But the Surface Book does all the basic things so well that it’s frustrating to see it get all the funky, different stuff kind of wrong. Plus, if Microsoft had just made a laptop with a touchscreen and pen support, it wouldn’t have been forced into a few frustrating compromises. The power button on the top of the screen never stops feeling weird (or turning the thing on in my bag). Neither does the headphone jack, which dangles from the top right of the display and gets constantly in the way while I’m trying to use my computer. Those are things you have to do when you make a convertible. Why did Microsoft have to make a convertible?

Because for better or worse, convertibles are the future of Windows. And there’s been a lot of progress in the last few years, so much that I think we might soon have a device that really does play all its parts equally well. But we’re not quite there yet.

That’s why Microsoft played this one right. Rather than build a totally compromised device, a middling tablet mixed with a middling laptop, it built a kickass laptop and then sought to find ways it could add onto the experience. Even where they fall short, they don’t really matter. If you buy a Surface Book—and it’s very much worth considering—you might not ever find reasons to pull the screen off, or flip it over. You might not use the Surface Pen very much (though I bet you will), and you might not touch the screen often.

So what? You’ll still have as good a Windows laptop as there’s ever been. And for now, that’s more than enough.

Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.


Review: Microsoft Surface Book