Microsoft’s Rule-Breaking Vision of a Future With Countless Devices

21 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Microsoft Surface Book is a computer to lust after.

NEW YORK—When was the last time you lusted after a product from Microsoft? Although Microsoft has tried hard to sell the Surface as a laptop replacement, its keyboard has felt flimsy — something to tolerate when a real laptop isn’t available. The Surface Pro in particular is powerful enough that it could truly keep pace with your laptop, and Microsoft hasn’t been shy about comparing it to the MacBook Air. Yet I expect lots of folks to drool over the beautiful and fast new Microsoft Surface Book, the company’s powerhouse of a notebook that aims to give Apple’s MacBook Pro a run for its money. 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.

Hybrids—slate tablets that can quickly convert into a full laptop with the addition of a removable keyboard—are clearly the future of Windows mobility, so Microsoft is probably correct to attempt to corner the market. At Microsoftstore.com, you learn that the company isn’t expected to ship the entry level $1499 Surface Book configuration (Intel Core i5, 128GB of storage, 8GB of memory) for four to five weeks. At first glance, it’s a traditional 13-inch notebook, with a premium design, long battery life and the sort of performance you’ll find in only a handful of other laptops, like the MacBook Pro.

Not everyone knows that Microsoft delivered its first-ever laptop and that it’s actually a tablet with a detachable keyboard — and even that doesn’t explain it fully. Unlike a Mac, though, you can remove the screen, turning it into a shockingly light, 1.6-pound tablet — one that happens to pack a notebook-grade Intel Core processor. Like its Surface Pro 3 cousin before it, Surface Book may sometimes look and work like a tablet, but it’s designed to live as an above-average-power laptop that also happens to have an ultra-high-res touchscreen and works with a dedicated Bluetooth pen. Surface Book shares certain traits with its highly regarded siblings, the Surface hybrid tablet computers of which there’s now a brand new Surface Pro 4. That’s a modest boost, but it’s noticeable if you’re working with very high-definition content or want to tile lots of open windows on your screen.

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 detachable screen is also comfortable to use as a tablet, thanks to both its light 1.6-pound design, accurate pen input and some well-thought-out dimensions.

The only major change is the dropping of the Pro 3’s Core i3 option for the newer Core M, an ultra low-voltage (and low-end) processor designed specifically for devices like this. 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.

The screen portion is a full-blown Intel 6th-generation Core (Skylake) touchscreen PC, while the base houses the full-size keyboard and trackpad, and is also home to most of the laptop’s battery power and, in some models, a more powerful discrete Nvidia graphics processor. If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t even know the keyboard and gorgeous 13.5-inch touch screen can be detached from one another, which transforms Surface Book into a large display clipboard or slate that I suspect will invite comparisons with Apple’s yet to be released iPad Pro. After some time with the new Pro, it became clear that it is the culmination of what Microsoft originally set out to build with the Surface RT — it just took some time. Until you hold down a button to release the display, the Surface Book looks just like any other clamshell laptop, with a spacious keyboard and an apparently fixed screen. The fusion of productivity and mobility is a hard fucking intersection. (Proof of that ranges from the iPad Pro, to Google’s Pixel C.) Finding synthesis between go, and stop is not easy.

In addition to the under-the-hood improvements, the Type Cover has seen some upgrades designed to make it easier to type on, though it’s still a bit of a rocky affair. 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. Samsung’s Note devices have built-in holes for their stylus, although in avoiding that approach, Microsoft was able to make the stylus larger and more like a regular pen.

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. As you open the laptop, the segmented hinge rolls back, extending the base by roughly a half an inch, which makes the surface area of the base larger, or deeper than that of the screen, meaning it can more easily counter-balance the tablet, also known as the Clipboard. But with improved hardware, and most importantly an improved Type Cover keyboard, the Pro 4 felt in testing that prior compromises were either fully abated, or mostly so.

Indeed, you might doodle in the OneNote note-taking program, sketch in Fresh Paint, or write on the Web inside the new Microsoft Edge browser, which comes along with Windows 10. Its magnesium casing and blunt, chiseled edges help it look the part of a $1,499 notebook, with details like a chrome Windows logo also serving to remind you just how expensive it is.

There is a somewhat unfortunate side effect to this design: when closed, the top and bottom of the laptop do not sit anywhere near flush against each other. Microsoft says you’ll get about three hours of battery life when using Surface Book as a clipboard but up to 12 hours when everything is reattached.

Both want to straddle the divide between tablets and laptops, device categories sufficiently different that you would be forgiven if you miss the varying emphasis. As always, graphical types who’ve forgotten they are supposed to be using a Mac will probably get more out of this than the typical business user, as whether you choose to use the Pen to jot down notes is probably a function of your handwriting legibility and writing speed. According to Microsoft, you’ll be able to exploit the new Windows Hello feature in Windows 10 and “unlock” the computer by having the front-facing 5-megapixel high definition camera recognize your mug. (There’s also a rear facing 8-megapixel HD camera.) But the feature was not enabled yet in time for this review.

In that sense, then, the Fulcrum was an impractical design choice: It makes the laptop appear needlessly fat when shut, so much so that the lid can’t lie totally flat. The audio on the unit is surprisingly immersive, and the screen is incredibly bright—it’s one of the most vibrant PC displays I’ve seen in years. Essentially, it kept the core design coupling features present in every Cover for Surface, but baked in chiclet keys, and improved stability for typing. I have been using Macs since 1987 and have invested a lot in software and accessories, so I don’t see myself abandoning my Mac laptop for the Surface. More frustratingly, this unit does not have what I considered the Surface Book’s marquee feature: A discrete and more powerful Nvidia GeForce GPU in the base.

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. Whereas most of those trade on a thin and light design, Microsoft’s laptop is all about horsepower: fast performance, robust graphics and unmatched battery life. 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. For comparison’s sake, the 13-inch Retina display MacBook Pro also weighs 3.48 pounds, except it doesn’t have a touchscreen, and isn’t offered with discrete graphics.

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. As I said in my review of last year’s Pro model (and the one before that), the charging connector can be awkward to insert, and doesn’t always stay put. Makes sense to me, though it was mighty confusing the first time I unboxed the Surface and couldn’t initially figure out how to turn the damn thing on. Sitting alone in a quiet room, a volume level of around 30 out of 100 was more than enough for streaming Spotify; it was rare I even broke the halfway mark.

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. I could also drag my three fingers slowly across the large trackpad to reveal the apps and scroll through them until I landed on the one I wanted open on the screen.

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. Even so, it’s hard not to feel awed by what Microsoft’s done here: cram a fully functioning Core i7 computer into a slab weighing just 1.6 pounds and measuring 7.7mm (0.3 inch). What will be interesting to watch is how the Book eats at the Pro 4’s dollar share; will the twin devices expand the Surface family’s aggregate revenue, or merely shift unit volume up the price chart?

When it comes time to reattach the display, you can put it back the way you found it, or you can flip it around with the screen facing away from the keyboard. To separate the two units, you have two choices, hold down the physical Clipboard release button on the keyboard for two seconds or use its software counterpart located in the task tray. Doing so reveals Microsoft’s usual connector system, which includes a set of three digital connectors in the center and a pair of magnetic connectors on the sides.

In between, when I wasn’t concentrating so much on the task at hand, I used the laptop as my primary machine for email, web surfing, Facebook, Twitter, Google spreadsheets, Slack and every other app I use every day. And not all of my coworkers at Engadget even agree with me: Terrence, a longtime ThinkPad user, says the buttons are actually quieter than what he’s used to. It’s already the best Windows trackpad, and it mostly works well here, with smooth two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom for things like maps and fine-print pages.

In each case, a restart did the trick, but a Microsoft rep said the company is aware of the problem and is planning to release a fix through a firmware update. 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.

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. As it happens, I’ve spent months using the Chromebook Pixel, which also has a 3:2 panel, so I tend to notice the odd screen shape less than perhaps some casual users might. There’s no way for me to actually verify the Surface pen hits all of those levels, but I practiced drawing a line lightly and then progressively pressing harder as I dragged the pen tip across the screen.

And though the glossy screen finish wasn’t immune to sun glare, I found it mostly stayed readable in different conditions, including my office, where I sit next to an east-facing window that lets in lots of light every morning. Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to test not one, but two Surface Book configurations: one with a dual-core Core i5-6300U CPU, 8GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD 520 graphics, and another with a Core i7-6600U processor, 16GB of RAM and a custom 1GB GPU based on NVIDIA’s Maxwell architecture. The two machines delivered similar scores in CPU-oriented tests like PCMark, with disk speeds matching as well: top read speeds of about 1.6GB per second, and max reads of around 600 MB/s. Startup is similar across different configurations too: between 10 and 15 seconds to the login screen, which is fast, but also fairly standard for a flagship laptop with an SSD.

Clearly, it’s unlike almost any other thin-and-light Windows flagship laptop on the market, and if you intend to use apps like Photoshop or a video editor, you’ll appreciate the added clout. I can use four fingers to instantly access the new Action Center, and swiping two fingers on the trackpad lets me scroll through content instead of moving the mouse around. That said, the Surface Book’s results in more gaming-focused tests like 3DMark’s “Sky Driver” benchmark suggest that although the machine has plenty of graphics power, it wasn’t built for gamers. For the most part, during my two weeks of testing, I enjoyed quiet performance, with a chassis that didn’t stay cool, exactly, but never burned my hands or legs either.

The picture gets a bit fuzzier when you look at Geekbench scores for my test unit and a wide variety of MacBook Pro’s running the last generation Core i5. I’d say that’s a conservative estimate: I logged nearly 14 hours on the integrated-graphics model, and that was with a 1080p video looping and the brightness fixed at a punishing 65 percent. Either way, I have no doubt that with a dimmer setting (not to mention the ambient brightness sensor enabled), you could squeeze out even more runtime.

Seven-to-eight was typical, though I saw even less when I turned up the brightness, opened a dozen or so browser windows and then launched a couple of productivity apps. But at 3.9 pounds, it’s in the same ballpark as Microsoft’s laptop, and with a compact footprint more in line with 14-inch notebooks, it’s not that much bigger than the 13.5-inch Surface Book. Battery life there is rated at up to 17 hours with a lower-res 1080p screen, but even with that top-end SKU, you’re still looking at around 11 hours, according to Dell. The trade-off seems to be that in exchange for a thinner and lighter design, you get shorter battery life (up to nine hours, says Lenovo) and no discrete graphics.

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