On October 26th Microsoft held its big “Image What You’ll Do” event at which they did not only announce Surface Studio but also introduced an updated version of the Surface Book called Surface Book with Performance Base (or in short form Surface Book i7). Given this fact and the fact that Microsoft (most likely) is working on a much refined Surface Book 2 the question arises as to whether or not people interested in picking up a Surface Book should spend their money on the original model or on the Performance Base version. During the last few weeks I had the chance to use one of the top models of the original Surface Book (Core i7, 16 RAM, 512 GB SSD) and in this extended review I try – along highlighting various other aspects – to answer the above question.
You might also want to check out our previous coverage of Surface devices:
Design and Build Quality
With Surface Book the Surface team once again shows that they can build incredibly well-built and good-looking devices. With its premium metal body and unique and very solid hinge the Surface Book definitely is an eye-catching device in terms of design – it just looks very impressive from every single angle. But not only does it look incredibly good, it also feels extraordinarily premium in your hands. In fact, holding the Surface Book in your hand is very comfortable thanks to the nicely rounded hinge – resembling the back of a book. While some might not like the type of hinge found on the Surface Book since it means having a gap between the display part and the keyboard base there are certainly also advantages (apart from the fact that it provides the device with its unique and distinctive look) as this example shows. But Surface Book is not only impressive in terms of housing: Also the in-built keyboard and trackpad are of excellent quality and thus just confirm the impression of having a very premium device in front of you (frankly, that’s what you’d expect when paying so much…). The overall bigger dimensions compared with the Pro 4 also allowed Microsoft to include more than just one USB port: In fact, the Surface Book incorporates two USB 3.0 ports and even has a SD card slot in standard size. Of course you can also find a Mini DisplayPort as well as the SurfaceConnect port for charging the device – though both are present on the Pro 4 as well.
With its 13.5” touchscreen display with a resolution of 3000 x 2000 pixels the Surface Book has a noticeably bigger screen than my beloved Surface Pro 4 while keeping the same 3:2 aspect ratio. Given this fact, it did not take me long to adapt to the Surface Book in terms of display. Before taking a look at the different aspect let me tell you this: The Surface Book undoubtedly sports one of the best displays you can get on a notebook – and (probably) the best one I’ve ever had the honor of looking at. Thus, if having a high-res touchscreen display which offers great color reproduction is important to you than you definitely want to take a closer look at Microsoft’s first ‘real’ laptop.
As mentioned above, the Surface Book’s display features an extremely high resolution of 3000 x 2000 pixels which results in a pixel density of 267 ppi (same as on the Pro 4). While this high resolution might mean that you get in some scaling problems with certain programs, for me this is easily compensated by the great experience with the majority of programs being presented nicely on the gorgeous-looking display.
Also in terms of brightness I am absolutely pleased by the Surface Book’s display: You can set it both extremely low or high to match the lighting conditions and of course the device also does feature an ambient light sensor in order to automatically adapt the screen’s brightness. Personally, I used the device most of the time in auto mode.
Colors look absolutely phenomenal on the Surface Book – period! I don’t have any complaints at all.
Viewing angles might not be that important when using Surface Book in notebook mode – although having good viewing angles is of course great when you want to enjoy movies together – but is quite important when using the device in all its other modes, e.g. tablet mode. And also here I think the ‘ultimate laptop’ does a very good job.
As mentioned earlier, the 2-in-1 features a screen with a diagonal of 13.5” which makes the device slightly but still quite noticeably bigger than my daily driver Surface Pro 4. While a bigger display can of course be seen as a factor which reduces the mobility of a device, I did enjoy the extra space compared with my Pro 4 – at least in notebook mode. When using the device in tablet mode (so using the screen detached from the base) though, 13.5 inches might be too large for many of you although I do have to admit that I did not use Surface Book as a tablet that often. In fact, I probably left the screen attached to the base 99% of the time. While this is probably also down to the fact, that the detaching process is more troublesome compared to the Pro 4 I would say that the screen size did play an important role in this decision as well.
Unlike with Pro 4, Microsoft does include all the input devices – including the keyboard base – needed for a complete experience in the retail box. Given the fact that Microsoft is promoting the device as the ‘ultimate laptop’ this is no surprise at all. Furthermore, the display part only offers around two to three hours of battery life.
Actually, one word would be enough to describe the Surface Book’s keyboard: Wow! It really is a pleasure to write on the Surface Book (the whole review has been written on it). While I’m already really pleased with the writing experience provided by the latest Type Cover on my Pro 4, this keyboard just is even better and in my opinion really close to perfection. For someone like me who not only writes a lot for school but also for the blog, having a quality keyboard is probably the single most important thing on a laptop. Thus, the phenomenal keyboard is most likely going to be the thing I will miss the most when sending the device back to Microsoft. But if you’re also a person who does (have to) write a lot you definitely should take a closer look at the Surface Book.
Having said that the keyboard is probably the thing I’m going to miss the most, there’s also another great input device on the Surface Book which is of vital importance to me: the touchpad. Also here the Surface Book raises standards in area where Windows devices are typically being criticized for not offering the same quality as Apple’s MacBook devices. While I’ve never owned a MacBook I did have the possibility to try out its touchpad on a colleagues’ MacBook Air. Based on this experience, I’d claim the Surface Book does offer the same quality experience with its smooth and precise touchpad which of course does support all the important gestures of Windows 10. But leaving this comparison aside for a moment, there’s no doubt that having a bad touchpad can heavily spoil a positive laptop experience and therefore it’s good to see that Microsoft’s Surface division seemed to put emphasis on offering a laptop with an outstandingly good touchpad.
Last but not least, there’s also a third input method with Surface Pen. As readers of this blog should know, I’m a huge fan of the pen and I use it on a daily basis. To me it actually is what sets Surface apart from other Windows devices most noticeably (although more and more OEMs are bringing 2-in-1 devices with good pen support to market). Just like on the Pro 4 the new and improved Surface Pen works very reliably and precisely though I do enjoy the pen experience a bit more on the Pro 4 given the better flexibility (kickstand, easy separation of Type Cover and Surface). Nevertheless, the Surface Pen is of course a great companion for the Book.
Something I really like about my Pro 4 is the speaker placement: Placed on the front of the device, they directly face the user which is great for those who like to listen to music or watch videos a lot. Luckily, Microsoft decided to use the same speaker placement on the Surface Book. Thus, also on this device the speakers directly face you. Regarding quality and loudness I think they are very good indeed – one of the better ones you can find on a notebook of this size. Given the high starting price, that’s of course something you’d expect.
Surface Book models (without Performance Base) are either powered by an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor from the Skylake generation. We did get one of the higher-end versions featuring an Intel Core i7-6600U with a base clock of 2.6 GHz. Compared with my Pro 4 with an Intel Core i5 the Book does of course nominally offer more power but I’ve got to admit that in my normal use case I did not notice that much of a difference. When it comes to graphical performance though I did notice a difference as the Surface Book is good for some (light) gaming as well with its custom Nvidia graphic chip in the base of this particular model. Furthermore, having 16 GB of RAM instead of just 4 GB is of course nice to have.
The headline of this review does include the question whether it is still worth to buy one of those Surface Book models which don’t have a Performance base. And as the name of the new Surface Book version already implies, this question is best answered in the Performance section of this review. But before answering that question, let’s have look at what exactly is new in the updated models: The newer models are actually still running the same Intel Core i7 processor – so if you were looking for some updated Kaby Lake processors you’ll be disappointed. But where the Surface Book with Performance Base does indeed offer more power is in terms of GPU. Instead of using its custom Nvida chip (which ranks somewhere around the GTX 940M) with just 1 GB of video memory, Microsoft decided to go for the more standard but also more powerful GTX 965M with 2 GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory. So, if you’re planning to use the Surface Book for some gaming as well you might want to go for the Performance base version as the new GPU “is a significant increase from the previous Surface Book’s dedicated GPU” as Windows Central states in their review. But if you’re not that much into gaming you might just want to save some money and go with one of the ‘old’ Surface Book models. Unless you want to have a longer battery life… Which frankly everyone wants, right? But more on that in the subsequent section.
Battery life is another aspect where the Performance base has been improved: With up to 16 hours of video playback the newer models offer 4 hours longer battery life according to Microsoft. While you should always take those numbers with a grain of salt as they represent running times under ideal conditions, but as Windows Central states in their review they saw real improvements here. While improved battery life is of course something which is very appealing I can assure you that also the ‘standard’ Surface Book offers incredibly good battery life which for most use case scenarios will offer you enough juice for one work day. And if that’s not the case for you, you might just think about taking the power plug with you. While that might not be ideal, it might be better than spending more money….
Just like any newer Surface device, the Book is running Windows 10 Pro (during our review period build 14393.xxx). While I did have major problems with the Anniversary Update on my Pro 4 (which have been fixed by recent updates), I did not encounter any major flaws with Windows 10 on the Surface Book. Apart from the pre-installed Windows store apps there are no other third-party programs installed which means you get a completely bloatware-free Windows 10 copy.
Surface Book is just an incredible device and it shines in almost every aspect: It features a beautiful and unique design, feels absolutely comfortable and premium in the hand, sports one of the best (if not the best) display I’ve ever seen on a laptop, impresses with a phenomenale keyboard and an unmatched (on Windows devices) touchpad and offers great performance while still offering enough battery for one day. Regarding the question asked in the headline I think it really comes down to how much you are willing to spend for such a type of device: If you really don’t have to worry about money at all and if you really need that extra graphics power and more battery life (and if you can wait depending on the region you live in) then you should definitely go with the more powerful Surface Book with Performance Base. If those things are not that important for you and you don’t want to spend so much money (although also the ‘standard’ Surface Book isn’t the cheapest device out there 😉 ) I think it’s safe to say that you’ll be absolutely satisfied with the original Surface Book. At least I would be totally happy with it – if only I could justify buying one… Though, my Surface Pro 4 is still absolutely fine for me and then again I’m already dreaming about a Pro 5 as you can read here.
Thanks to Microsoft Switzerland for providing us with the review unit.
Image credit: Image Gallery (Microsoft)