A funny thing happened on the way to writing this review...
Actually, it was more like dozens of very annoying things kept cropping up as I was doing my testing of the Surface Book: daily, often hourly system freezes, display driver crashes, blue screens of death, etc. etc.
I returned my first Surface Book after only three days of utter frustration and thought I would have to wait until December for a replacement. However, a shipment of i7/8/256/dGPU models arrived unexpectedly at the local Microsoft Store a couple weeks later and I was back in business. Unfortunately this unit began locking up too, though far less frequently than its predecessor.
Microsoft released a UEFI update November 18 that it believes fixes the lockups once and for all. And since installing it, my Surface Book has been relatively solid. On December 2, Microsoft released a System Hardware Update that addressed persistent display driver crashes. Now the only remaining issue is a power management bug that the company says it won't fix until the new year.
We certainly hope so, because once its launch troubles are behind it, there's very little not to like about the Surface Book. This new flagship is a premium product with a premium pricetag. It's clearly not for the masses, but it is a great aspirational device that should push the state of Windows computing forward. Just like OEMs (and Apple) have begun copying the best design features of the Surface Pro 3, I suspect we'll see more devices with Surface Book DNA showing up in 2016.
Because the Surface Book's release was so well-received and reviewed extensively across the web, I won't focus on the basic details you can find elsewhere. Some of the highlights for me are the best backlit keyboard you'll find on a Surface device, the largest and most responsive trackpad, the brightest, roomiest and sharpest display.
If you're torn deciding between a Surface Book and a Surface Pro 4, the decision is not as difficult as you might imagine. Setting price considerations aside, if you need a discrete GPU for rendering or gaming, the Book is your only Microsoft Surface-branded option. If you will be working in traditional laptop mode more than 50% of the time, get a Book. But for those primarily interested in art and directly interacting with the display, the Surface Pro 4 is the better way to go.
Over the last few years I've reviewed several convertible or 2-in-1 laptops, such as the Acer Aspire R7-572, the Sony Flip 15A and the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 12 and 14. In each of those instances, the display remained attached to the keyboard base. Flipping the display into tablet mode ranged from ridiculously easy (Acer) to cumbersome (Yogas).
While detaching the Surface Book screen and going into "clipboard" mode is easy enough, flipping into "creative" mode requires two free hands to flip and guide the large screen into place. More importantly, you can't enter in and out of these configurations on a whim.
Although the detached clipboard mode is nice, you'll probably want to do the bulk of your pen-related work in creative mode because that's the only way you're able to tap into the extended battery life and discrete NVidia GPU located in the keyboard base. But if that GPU is occupied, you have to wait for that task to complete before you can detach the screen. This shouldn't be more than an inconvenience in most instances, but I ran into one scenario that could cause some serious grief.
When the display is detached or flipped into creative mode, the keyboard is inoperable. I had the Book in this configuration when I started a 3DS Max animation. The touch targets are very small in that application and the playback controls were being unresponsive to the pen. The only other way I know to exit animation playback is the Esc key. Unfortunately, the on-screen keyboard doesn't have an Esc key. (If there's an Alt equivalent that I'm unaware of, the on-screen keyboard doesn't have an Alt key either!) So I was stuck. I couldn't detach the display in order to flip it because the GPU was engaged. Ultimately I was forced to quit the program via Task Manager. Had I not saved my file prior to running into this roadblock, I might have lost a lot of work.
Windows 8.1 had an option to display a second, full-featured keyboard on screen. That selection appears ghosted in Windows 10 and I can't find any options related to this in PC settings. If you have any information on this, please leave a comment.
For future versions of the Surface Book, Microsoft should definitely add the ability to power on the keyboard separately and have it communicate wirelessly. In the meantime, you will want to keep a Bluetooth keyboard close by while you work in creative mode, just in case.
If you should shut down your Surface Book while in the Creative configuration, you'll need to turn it back on and use the on-screen eject button in order to get in back into laptop mode for transporting. If you power down your Clipboard while detached, it will reattach to the keyboard without having to power it back up. Thank heaven for small favors!
Due to its unique hinge, the Surface Book's creative configuration forms a wedge that provides a slight incline (perhaps five degrees) to the display. This is preferable to writing on an entirely flat surface, but the angle isn't large enough to make much of a difference. If you plan to work this way on a desk or tabletop, you'll probably need to prop the Surface Book up with something to find a more comfortable drawing angle.
The laptop is light enough that I had no difficulty resting it on my lap as I drew. The curved hinge comes in handy in portrait mode, where it can double as a grip for your free hand as you draw (see left).
While detached, the Surface Book display performs exactly like the equivalent i5 or i7 Surface Pro, except for the fact that it is powering a larger display at a whopping 3000 x 2000 pixels. Battery life is limited to only three hours. I haven't run it all the way down yet, but running Clip Studio Paint with a browser open in the background, I was at 50% battery after only an hour in balanced power mode with 25% brightness. The Windows power meter isn't very reliable, reporting wildly different "time remaining" each time I check.
The detached i7 tablet tends to run cooler than my i5 Surface Pro 3 tablets. On those, significant heat collects in the upper right corner of the tablet. Heat appears to be better distributed along the length of the Surface Book display, collecting close to the keyboard ports. I'm not sure how air flows through the vents located all around the perimeter of the tablet, but it concerns me that my clothes may be insulating the warmest area as I hold it in my lap. To be safe, I occasionally rotated the display so that the warm areas were located away from my clothing.
I really miss the kickstand. There are times when you want to place the clipboard on a desk or tabletop and working flat is just not as pleasant as the variable angles offered by the Surface Pro. As I use the Clipboard, I can't help but dream of a Surface Book XL with this display size and none of its compromises.
Speaking of angles, when the display is reattached, I wish the Surface Book would open up perhaps another 5-10 degrees. The maximum opening is just a little too vertical to provide optimal viewing angles.
As expected, the Surface Book did well vs. other dual core tablets in most benchmarks I ran, although the VAIO Z Canvas bested it in most tests. I think this is because most of the benchmarks are heavily weighted toward CPU results, where the dual core 6600U is outmatched by the quad core 4770HQ.
Also tests from 3DMark report that the Surface Book's NVidia display driver is unapproved, which must account for some of the poorer results, especially compared to the Thinkpad Yoga's 940M GPU.
I'm new to Bapco's TabletMark benchmarks, but the chart to the left is fairly consistent with the results of other benchmarks I ran. See full benchmark results below which I will update if and when the NVidia driver is recognized by 3DMark.
Pen response in 2D programs like Clip Studio Paint, Photoshop and Sketchable is on par with the Surface Pro and I don't have much new to add to the record in that regard. In a couple of earlier posts, we've reported and confirmed Brad Colbow's finding that there is a bug in the new Surfaces that creates an odd aberration at the end of strokes applied with a lot of pressure (see below). Microsoft is aware of the issue and has confirmed that they are looking into it. Whether or not this problem is a showstopper depends on your drawing style. I draw lightly enough that the bug rarely bothers me. (I didn't notice it at all doing my Surface Pro 4 review.)
A more common issue for my drawing style is a small nipple at the end of heavy strokes. At first I thought this was similar to the bug described above, but actually it's a result of the much softer HB and B nibs that I've been using. Because of the increased screen friction, I have to be more conscious of stopping my pen; otherwise, it continues for a short distance past my intended end point, creating an unintentional "skid mark."
The Surface Book's 3:2, 13.3-inch screen is a nearly perfect drawing area, but as I wrote above, if your main desire is to draw, you're better off sacrificing an inch for the added flexibility of the Surface Pro 4.
Unless typing is your main concern, lower cost models of the Book don't offer any other significant advantages. It's only when you add in a discrete GPU that the Book begins to distinguish itself from the rest of the Surface line.
I installed Blender and the full Autodesk suite on the Surface Book. Thanks to 3DS Max artist Adrian Wise who provided a torture test scene that allowed me to see how well the Surface Book performed.
As you can see in the video above, 3DS Max is a bit of a nightmare to use on a high resolution display. Its UI doesn't scale correctly or uniformly. Fonts in some menus can be resized but others remain nearly microscopic. Most icons do not scale. In order to make the software usable, I changed the Surface Book resolution to 1600 x 1200. Even at this reduced resolution, touch targets are very small and often unresponsive as you can see in the video.
When I was able to get the software to react to my pen or touch, viewport performance is actually fairly smooth and playback was 24 fps thanks to the dGPU. By contrast, I was only able to get the file to play at 20 fps on the VAIO Z Canvas (although that was running at 2560 x 1704 resolution).
A 1000 x 1000 MentalRay render took 41:06 on the Surface Book vs. 23:31 on the VAIO ZC. Switching over to an iRay GPU accelerated render, the Surface Book completed 500 passes in 6:08!
Maya's UI is better behaved on the Surface Book but I didn't get a chance to try to do much with it. I installed the Redshift GPU renderer in order to check out a benchmark scene, but the Surface Book doesn't have enough video RAM to process the file.
Once the NVidia drivers mature, the situation may change, but for now I have to conclude that if you're looking for a workstation class laptop, you'll be disappointed with the Surface Book.
The Surface Book is a stylish product and it will likely appeal most to executives and enthusiasts with plenty of disposable income. It's a beautiful device and a sure crowd-pleaser. But 2D artists will be better-served by a comparably equipped Surface Pro 4 for several hundred dollars less. Power users will be better-served by the VAIO Z Canvas or another workstation class laptop. And everyone else looking for a powerful yet affordable two-in-one device should look closely at the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga line.