The Microsoft Surface Book was released to the world on October 26, 2015 according to Wikipedia. It featured a two-in-one tablet design that people who liked the Surface tabled line but wanted a traditional laptop could get behind.
I purchased my Surface Book sometime in 2016 at the suggestion of a friend who was in love with his. There was a lot to like about it, it was sleek, felt well made, had a funky bendy hinge that people on the net were either loving or hating, and once a special came up on the Microsoft store, I decided to take the plunge.
Now there are tons of reviews out there that tech fetish spew out the specs, I am not going to do that. Let’s face it, this is an older laptop and this review is really meant for the people looking for a laptop on the cheap. So I will be focusing on what I like and don’t like about this laptop after living with it for 2+ years.
General Impressions / Internet Woes
As I mentioned earlier, the build quality on this laptop is really pretty fantastic. Every edge has a finished feel, there is no flex or pieces that are pulling apart even after 2 years. The hinge which at the time I bought it was being depicted as something of a joke hasn’t shown any signs of failure.
A large number of people at the time made it out to be wobbly, and if you were to having it on your lap and type it would slightly jiggle. I’ve used this a number of times on my lap and that has never been an issue. If it was I didn’t notice.
As I recall there were also some people that were running into issues with heat from the base of the units that included the build in GPU (which I bought) causing damage to the screen near the vents. This is something that I could see happening if one were to play a GPU intensive game for long periods, it does get pretty warm and I can imagine people sitting in a Starbucks doing just that, closing it up and putting it into a backpack where the screen would have a nice chance to bake.
I never decided to test that theory, at times when I was playing GPU intensive games I would always just shut it down and leave it open, letting it cool down before closing.
Let me just say that gaming on this Surface Book with the weak sauce GPU it has (I do not have the performance based) is sub-par at best. I’ve played some Borderlands on it, some Elder Scrolls Online, even a bit of Fortnite and it has just been ok (with significant toning down of effects). In a pinch it works, but if you can stick to less intensive games you will be better off. But really, seriously if playing games is a primary focus for you, do not buy this.
I’ve been dual booting this Surface Book pretty much since I bought it. I am using Ubuntu Mate at the moment but most distros should work just fine provided that you get the Jakeday kernel. It doesn’t support the GPU and the built in cameras are not working yet, but touch seems to work fairly well. His repo is here.
What Annoys Me
I have to say that the HDPI 3000x2000 screen turned out to be something I have not been the biggest fan of. What I didn’t realize, or maybe I just convinced myself that it wouldn’t be an issue, is that many applications do not play nicely with HDPI screens. Applications will open with tiny interfaces, or the interface will scale incorrectly, or the menus will be all bonkers.
Using a Linux distro that supports HDPI is key, and for the most part it does a better job than Windows but just marginally. Some apps are fine and maybe its just applications I am playing with where the developer didn’t stop to build in support for HDPI that are the issue. On the Windows side the occasional application runs into the same issue. The Windows application override for scaling can sometimes do the trick, but more often than not it just makes things absolutely tiny.
Running at a lower resolution is an option, but the Surface Book really looks its best in its native 3000x2000 resolution. In both Windows and Linux I have had to either put it in HDPI mode to have the system scale the UI or in Windows increase the text scaling. This is likely because I am old, young whipper snappers might be just fine.
For games the oddball resolutions that this supports for the game to be in the proper aspect ratio are often not supported by the game and one needs to add them into config files, etc. This is something else to keep in mind.
Moving My Face Close to the Screen
Way too often I find myself taking my glasses off and putting my nose 3-5 inches away from the screen. This always happens when my wife is in close proximity so she can say “That can’t be good for your eyes”. And I agree, there is just something about this HDPI screen that my eyes don’t like.
I can safely say that my next laptop will not have a HDPI screen.
What Drives Me Insane
Ok, here is the part of the review you should really take note and pay attention to because this issue drives me bonkers. Much has been said about how much the touchpad is like the holy grail touchpad found on Apple laptops, and as a touchpad, I have no complaints.
But what this touchpad does that the Apple touchpads does not do it decide to go rogue and move your cursor around the screen when you type. I can’t tell you how many times I have been typing on the built in keyboard in Word or another application only to find my cursor jumping up or down or over to another position while I am typing and royally messing things up.
The only solution I have found for this is to either a) use an external keyboard (lol it just skipped around as I was writing this using the built in keyboard - Arrggh!) which isn’t a bad idea when you are at the home office, but the point is to be mobile. Or b) when using Windows, there is an option to disable the touchpad when an external mouse is plugged in, using a Bluetooth mouse, no luck, you need a wired mouse, which is janky as hell.
Microsoft has had a number of updated for the Surface Book to fix a number of major issues but this issue continues to persist which makes me think that there is no solution for it an it is likely a physical issue.
Surprisingly I have not found myself using it in tablet mode. It gives you a full page landscape or portrait viewing experience which is pretty nice. And the way that the tablet detaches from the base will delight Star Trek fans who got giddy whenever the Enterprise would detach the saucer section, but the batter life isn’t as good as what a dedicated Surface or Ipad would give. You can always turn it around and use it with the base in tablet mode but it is a bit bulky.
Both of these are not deal killers to me, and maybe I just need to spend more time using it as a tablet to see if it makes me forget about the touchpad and keyboard. But probably not, that really fucking annoys me when it jumps around).
So there you have it, this monkey’s honest review of the original Surface Book. I am going to give it three bananas because of the annoyance the keyboard and trackpad gives me on a daily basis.