Surface Book Review: Microsoft’s first laptop is on to something

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Can Microsoft Put a Dent in Apple’s iPhone Business?.

Instead of maintaining separate OSes for different product categories, unifying development around Windows 10 will hopefully mean that we’ll see more apps for Windows phones and tablets.

The Surface Book is one of the most compelling products Microsoft has released in several years and for the first time in decades, the company’s first laptop. There was a bit of skepticism when Microsoft first launched their own Windows tablet, but now that we are four generations in, the has quickly situated itself as a respected and often imitated device.

While Microsoft’s line of Surface Pro tablets has proven popular among a certain crowd of productivity enthusiasts, they haven’t managed to truly replace a laptop for most users. Leading all operating systems is Alphabet’s open-source Android OS, with nearly 85% of all smartphone sales running Android as of the third-calendar quarter, according to analyst firm Gartner.

The company, which hasn’t typically been known for their efforts in the hardware markets, has suddenly stepped forward into the hardware industry, and has been doing a stellar job here. Change logs are very scarce at this moment, but they do mention that, on the Surface Book, the firmware update 1.1.421.0 improves the touchpad and keyboard experience, while on the Surface Pro 4, version 1.1.420.0 enhances the stability with the Type Cover. Acknowledging that is the case after three generations of Surface Pros, the company has taken alternate direction in the quest for the perfect hybrid. The only other operating system with a significant market-share percentage is Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, which reported 13% of all sales in the quarter. It has a detachable screen, which you can use as a tablet, or you can fold it over the keyboard and use it as a canvas for your creative pursuits using the Surface Pen.

The optional detachable keyboard helps set this device apart from other tablets, offering up a decent laptop experience as well, and the built-in kickstand goes a long way to making this possible. After an aggressive move to compete in the smartphone market, with former CEO Steve Ballmer buying Nokia’s phone business for $7.9 billion in 2014, the company took an impairment charge of $7.6 billion in June, which signified to many that the company expects its fortunes not to change going forward.

The newest generation of Microsoft’s tablet, for which prices start at €999 in France, is a little smaller than the iPad Pro, with a 12.3-inch screen. Fans of easy to use technology will enjoy the power and keyboard connectors, both of which are secured by way of magnets, simply snap the cable or keyboard to the tablet, and off you go. According to the spokesperson of the online store, they have now 50 iPad Pro devices in stock and one needs to really act fast to grab the device at such a great price. Entry-level models are equipped with an Intel ‘Skylake’ Core i5 CPU, 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of fast SSD storage, though you can configure the unit to have a Core i7 CPU, a dedicated Nvidia GPU, 16 GB of memory, and up to 1 TB of SSD space. In an attempt to compete with Apple’s high-end smartphones, Guggenheimer confirms that Microsoft’s strategy is going for luxury phones in the beginning.

The trend toward tablets that offer laptop capabilities will likely continue into 2016, with Google expected to launch its Pixel C tablet at some point. Interestingly enough, he made these comments in India, which tends to be more interested in low/mid-range models, as affordability is an issue in its developing economy. The hybrid’s 13.5-inch display is fairly standard in terms of diagonal size, but the use of a strange 3:2 aspect ratio makes the device a lot taller than competing products. As for the current high-end models, the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950XL, the units have only been out for a few weeks, and Microsoft has always been coy with its units sold.

Microsoft Surface Phone is rumored to be the most powerful Microsoft mobile device ever created, and would release with features that would make some of the modern day tablets blush. Specifically, if you hold this tablet as you would a smaller mobile device, resting it on the insides of your pinkies, the pressure points will have you fairly sore in no time. And the company will need a course correction to challenge Apple — Gartner’s 1.7% market-share figure is Microsoft’s lowest percentage since the third calendar quarter of 2011. While nothing can be confirmed as of now, current rumors have indicated that the phone will come with a large, 6 inched screen and might be running on the Intel Skylake technology. Faced with this design challenge, Microsoft came up with this multi-segment hinge that’s tough and surprisingly sturdy considering the weight of the tablet.

After appropriating huge marketing spend toward its Surface line of tablets — even inking a deal with the NFL — it seems the device is growing market share. Functionally there is nothing wrong with having a gap, and it didn’t bother me (apart from aesthetics) in my time using the Book, but it certainly would be nicer if the laptop closed properly.

Of course, there’s an opposite side of this story, as well, as Apple’s once-dominant iPad business has considerably slowed amid a slower-than-expected refresh market, a trade-down to cheaper options, and the presence of substitutes like Microsoft’s new two-in-one Surface book. It is often that I press my finger to the display to have it cover two or more on-screen buttons or links, every one of these situations so far has resulted in activating what I had wanted pressed. It’s clear during use, especially on your lap, that the display is heavier than a typical laptop, and there were some cases where I felt the device might tip over (even though it didn’t).

The entire product is also reasonably heavy for a 13-inch class laptop at 1.51 kg (3.34 pounds): the excellent XPS 13 is 250 grams lighter, although the 13-inch MacBook Pro is of a similar weight. The world’s biggest tech company forgot to show you something at its recent event, but a few Wall Street analysts and the Fool didn’t miss a beat: There’s a small company that’s powering their brand-new gadgets and the coming revolution in technology.

The tablet portion features limited connectivity: there’s only a 3.5mm audio jack on the top right edge, along with power and volume buttons on the left side of the top edge. While gameplay is smooth, the intro scenes ahead of each race suffer a little lag, but there have been no glitches and load times are as fast, if not faster than most other devices we’d tested. It’s not the fastest method of accessing the tablet I’ve seen, but the way it holds the tablet in place is far stronger and sturdier than other methods I’ve used. Using an attached mouse and keyboard, the experience was no different than that of my laptop, able to drive my two displays at once, even with HD video playing on each screen.

Putting things to the test, there ware no problem at all installing Steam, and then directly installing or streaming Fallout: New Vegas over from my gaming rig. When Windows is set to a scaling value of 200% (which is the default), the desktop is a perfect size for regular use, and thanks to the improvements in Windows 10, most apps don’t look completely terrible. The tablet feels sturdy in the hand, it’s light enough to hold for a fair amount of time, yet weighs enough it won’t be blown over on a windy day. Using an i1Display Pro colorimeter and SpectraCal’s CALMAN 5 software, I determined that the Surface Book’s display falls under a dE2000 of 2 in our greyscale, saturation and general accuracy tests.

Writing a portion of this review on the keyboard was a breeze, and it’s definitely a lot better for typing than the Type Covers you can get for the Surface tablets (let alone other lesser covers). There’s also a dedicated button for undocking the tablet from the keyboard base, which you need to hold down in order for the latches to disconnect. This may be negligible when powering a mouse or keyboard, but running a portable hard drive will make a noticeable difference in overall battery life. The base model features an Intel Core i5-6300U with two cores and four threads clocked at 2.4 GHz with a Turbo Boost up to 3.0 GHz on a single core, or 2.9 GHz on two cores.

Specific features include hover over to move the mouse cursor, tap to click, press down with pressure sensitivity to draw in a supporting app, long press on the display or press the side mounted button on the pen to right click, press the rear pen ‘clicky part’ once to open OneNote, twice to take a screenshot and long press the pen back button to open Cortana. If you are in need of a fairly stationary computer, one that will live on your desk, connected to external displays, I think I would recommend a desktop or laptop.

Considering automatic GPU selection didn’t work for 3DMark (and some other apps), it’s hard to know whether when you fire up Creative Cloud apps that the Nvidia GPU is being selected as it should be. Naturally, the tablet’s battery life is not great and you’ll only manage a couple of hours of web browsing before needing to plug it in to the base. I’ve heard reports that the Core i7 unit doesn’t deliver as good battery life as the Core i5 models, but I was still very impressed with what it delivered. This isn’t something I’ve experienced with similar laptops, and considering I can occasionally hear the fan with the lid shut, it’s clear the Book doesn’t always sleep when it should.

CPU performance is still well behind Intel’s four-core mobile chips, but if you’re coming from a Core i5 Broadwell system like the XPS 13, expect gains of around 25% in video encoding. The GPU isn’t the beefiest chip going around, so a last-generation GeForce GTX 860M is around 45% faster, but it will suffice for most productivity workloads. High-performance games like Metro: Last Light and BioShock Infinite, even though they’re not the latest titles, won’t run at maximum quality settings on 1080p or the Surface Book’s native resolution. What Microsoft has produced in 2015 isn’t perfect – in fact there are some glaring issues which might turn people away – but I’m convinced that Microsoft is on to something with the design of this product. It does, however, complement creative apps that support GPU acceleration better than the integrated graphics could, and that’s exactly what Microsoft was trying to achieve.

The 13.5-inch screen makes it a little too large to hold comfortably for extended periods, despite Microsoft trying their hardest to make it thin and light. As the tablet is so thin, the cooling solution for the CPU isn’t great, so the fans run during any moderate-intensity workloads, and their high-pitched audio profile can be annoyingly audible. The inclusion of appropriate hardware for Windows Hello is great to see, as it’s easily the fastest and most accurate facial recognition system I’ve used.

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