Microsoft Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 Review: New Hope for Windows Hardware

Joanna Stern

I want to tell you about a very exciting, cutting-edge piece of technology. It’s a computer with a screen and a keyboard that fits in your lap. It’s called a… laptop!

No, this isn’t a reprint of a column from the ’80s. It just turns out that the 30-year-old form factor is still the future of our computers. Here’s my proof: Tablets, which were supposed to mercilessly kill our old computers, are now sprouting keyboards and turning back into laptops.

Apple’s doing it with its iPad Pro. Google’s doing it with the Pixel C. And

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pioneer of the tablet-laptop hybrid, continues to laptopify its Surface line.

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This year, Microsoft didn’t just improve the Surface Pro 4 tablet, it went whole hog, building its first-ever laptop. Microsoft should have just admitted years ago that Apple’s decision to control both hardware and software was right all along. If you’re a Windows user who’s long been jealous of Apple’s best-in-class laptops, the $1,500-and-up Surface Book is the answer to your prayers—well, it could be. Eventually.

During my testing, I experienced software and hardware issues on multiple units. The worst one is related to a known hardware malfunction that Microsoft says won’t be in the devices shipping to consumers next week. I hope that’s true, because when I wasn’t dealing with these technical glitches, the Surface Book was the best Windows laptop I’ve ever used.

It’s not that simple, though. The Surface Book is a laptop, but it moonlights as a tablet with its detachable 13.5-inch touchscreen. And then there’s the new Surface Pro 4, a tablet that can pretend to be a laptop—if you buy its much-improved keyboard dock.

That may sound like a riddle, but at least it’s one that will eventually solve itself. Both new Surface PCs point to a future where we have fewer gadgets that do more. For now, there are a couple of distinct (and sometimes painful) sacrifices you must make for combining the tablet and the laptop.

Surface Book: A Laptop Turned Tablet

“Were they going for a Battleship board look?” “Ooof, is that a futuristic Trapper Keeper?” People either love or hate the Surface Book’s magnesium design, especially the polarizing bendy-straw-like hinge.

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The Surface Book has a unique hinge.

Me, I love the unique, three-ring binder look. It’s about time coffee shop tables were bedecked with something other than MacBook clones (and MacBooks). And no, random objects didn’t get lodged in that gap between screen and keyboard when the Book was in my bag.

No one will debate the sturdiness of the machine. The all-metal body matches the build quality of Apple’s MacBooks and surpasses that of any recent HP, Lenovo, Toshiba or Dell that I’ve tested.

The design has some real flaws, though. The 3.3-pound, 0.9-inch-thick computer is chunkier than I’d like. And getting into it is like trying to crack a safe. The magnets that keep the system closed require you to throw too much back into it. Once you’re in, there’s a slight but unfortunate wobble in the display. This is related to that high-tech hinge that releases the screen when you press an eject key.

But oh my, that 13.5-inch, 3000×2000-pixel screen! It is bright, crisp and just downright stunning. Going back to my MacBook Air’s lower-resolution display was like going from DVDs back to VHS tapes. I even prefer this screen to the Retina display on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. I can see more lines of text in my inbox, and side-by-side apps have more room to breathe.

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The Surface Book’s has a full-size, backlit keyboard

The backlit keyboard is comfortable and well spaced, and the raised keys have just the right amount of spring. I just wish the lettering on them were easier to make out under bright light—and where are my screen-brightness control keys?

Now for the moment of truth: the trackpad. Like the new Dell XPS 15, the Surface Book’s glass pad is righting all the wrongs of past plasticky, finger-bruising Windows trackpads. Two-finger scrolling is very smooth—though not in Google’s Chrome browser—and other gestures work on the first try. But it doesn’t quite reach Apple’s trackpad perfection. Sometimes my cursor would jump, stick or just disappear. Microsoft says this too will soon be fixed.

Unlike those other Surfaces past and present, the Book gets the laptop hardware essentials right. But its future-facing tricks—a glimpse of genuine laptop-tablet convergence—aren’t as polished.

Holding a 1.6-pound laptop screen in your hands is awkward, though cradling it like a clipboard—while jotting notes with the included pen—is surprisingly natural.

The new pen doesn’t make distracting clacking sounds as you tap the screen, the way its predecessor did. It responds better to pressure and quick strokes. However, in meetings, the slight, unnatural writing delay made me yearn for a dead tree and a cheap Bic. And though the pen magnetically attaches to the screen, it can easily fall off. (Mine is now in JFK airport’s lost and found. It costs $60 to replace.)

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The Surface Pen is now quieter and smoother to write with.

Here’s the craziest thing about the Book’s screen: It holds all the brains of the high-powered laptop. My $1,500 entry-level model had an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state drive storage. (For another $400, you get more powerful graphics.) It’s everything I need to juggle loads of applications and my basic video editing. Well, everything except for a big battery.

The tablet alone didn’t last more than 2.5 hours in my battery test, which loops a series of websites with brightness set around 65%. When the battery-packed keyboard is attached, it got an impressive 9.5 hours—just 30 minutes shy of Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro.

For the most part, Microsoft’s new hardware succeeds at its main goal: It makes Windows 10 great, whether I’m leaping from app to app with a three-finger swipe, or smiling for the camera to log in without a password. The Windows Hello system recognizes my face, even right when I wake up, with glasses and a rat’s-nest hairdo. Take that, MacBook Air and your stupid long passwords!

But then came the times where I wanted to take off my shoe and throw it at the Surface Book. A display driver crash alert repeatedly interrupted my work, and twice the thing rebooted on its own, causing me to lose unsaved notes. (Other reviewers told me they had similar issues.) Worst of all, a Surface Pro 4 and a Surface Book I tested failed to boot up fully because of faulty solid state drives. They simply would not allow me back into Windows.

“We discovered some of the units had solid state drives that were failing,” Panos Panay, corporate vice president of Microsoft Devices, told me. “This is an issue we’ve already addressed at the factory and something customers will not experience at launch.”

The Evolution of the Laptop

Everything old is new again.

Surface Pro 4: A Tablet Turned Laptop

The smaller $900-and-up device is a better tablet than laptop—but it’s still not as good a tablet as an iPad. With a 12.3-inch screen, the 1.7-pound Pro 4 is a little easier to hold, and its battery lasted just shy of six hours in tablet mode. But that’s still the Surface predicament: Tablets like the iPad Air 2 and laptops like the Dell XPS 13 last twice as long.

Though I’d never choose the Pro 4 as a laptop—chiefly for that poor battery—the new $130 Type Cover was a pleasant surprise. It’s the new gold standard of tablet keyboards. The raised keys now have more space between them, making them easier to strike. Even its trackpad deserves a most-improved award. It is bigger and far more responsive than all the previous versions. If you have a Surface Pro 3, go buy the new cover. Now.

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Yet I can’t recommend you get the new Surfaces, no matter how much I really loved using the Book when it was working correctly. While Microsoft assures me that the issues are being addressed, I’ll need to test the fixed versions myself before I give it a thumbs-up.

In the sub-$1,000 range, the Dell XPS 13 is a better bet than the Surface Pro 4 anyway, if you’re looking for a laptop. But if money’s no object, join me in keeping an eye on the Surface Book. Unlike the legions of Windows laptops before it, the Surface Book combines speed, precision and a killer display without sacrificing battery life. If Microsoft fixes the glitches, it would be the Windows world’s leading laptop.

No, it probably won’t ever be the best tablet, but if you ask me, “tablets” will soon just be the top halves of those things called…laptops.

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The Microsoft Surface Book weighs 3.5 pounds.