Design – A Tablet and a Notebook

It’s time to look at the Surface Book and the updated Surface Pro 4 from Microsoft.

For the last 30 days or so, I have been using both Microsoft's new Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 as every day computing devices. The goal was to review these items from not just a handful of days of testing and benchmarking, but with some lengthy time under my belt utilizing both products in a real-world environment. The following is my review with that premise. Enjoy!

A lot has already been said about the design and style of both the updated Surface Pro 4 and the new Surface Book. Let’s start with the Surface Pro 4 as it sees the least dramatic changes from previous product.

The Surface Pro 4 uses the same kickstand tablet design that made the Surface brand so memorable as well as functional.  Many different OEMs are starting to copy the design style because it has a lot of positive merits to it. For instance, it allows viewing angles from nearly 90 degree to flat. The Surface Pro 4 is a tablet in its purest form, though. It doesn’t have a keyboard or trackpad standard – you’ll have purchase the optional Type Cover. It’s only 8.5mm thick and weighs in at 1.73 lbs, without the added keyboard.

The kickstand works exceptionally, with unlimited positions between the starting and stop point of the hinge, and it allows smooth movement between them. It’s strong enough to stand up when being slid around on the tablet or desk. The biggest concern I have with the kickstand is that using it on your lap (or on an airplane tray table) is difficult to impossible, depending on the exact configuration or your legs / tray. Because the hinged kickstand needs a surface to make contact with, pushing the Surface Pro back on your legs where the hinged portion extends past your knees won’t work.

From a design and style perspective, I still think the Surface products are among the best that exist on the market today. The magnesium body is sleek and the angles are both professional and aggressive. Even when coupled with the magnetic Type Cover, it won’t look like a toy at the office or on the road.

The new Surface Book is a completely different beast – a unique design and a new product. I am sure that there are some people that simply won’t like the way the notebook looks, but I am not one of them. Though it is technically a tablet and a keyboard dock, the Surface Book only ships as a complete unit so calling this a notebook or a 2-in-1 convertible feels more accurate than calling it a tablet. It has a larger and more pronounced 13.5-in screen than the Pro, which makes it larger, heavier and bulkier in your bag as well. The magnesium body shares a lot of design cues with the Pro 4, but it’s the hinge on the Book that really makes it different than any notebook I have used.

The hinge has a watch band styling to it. This helps to keep the unit extended out further from the keyboard dock while maintaining balance as far back as possible with the screen extended. The latch to disconnect the screen from the keyboard is electronic, using a technology Microsoft calls Muscle Wire. Detaching is initiated with a long press of a button on the keyboard and the software is then given time to disconnect the discrete GPU (if your keyboard dock has it) in software before allowing you to remove the tablet portion. If you pull it out too early (which I did a couple of times) be prepared for an immediate blue screen.

I’ll talk more about the keyboard and trackpad below, but I do want to point out my one concern with the Surface Book, which is the maximum angle that you can bend the screen back. It is limited compared to standard notebooks (and definitely the Surface Pro 4) because most of the components and hardware are in the tablet half of the Book. Bending it any further back would cause the whole device to tip over. Most of the people that I have showed the Surface Book to believe that the range Microsoft provided with this first iteration is enough for them to use the notebook comfortably, and I agree – I just worry there will be circumstances that arise that will cause issue. It’s a systemic problem with 2-in-1 notebooks, and not limited to Microsoft, but it’s something to be aware of regardless.

Though I’m not 100% sold on it, I think the unique hinge and design on the Surface Book is a positive trait – it stands out in a crowd and is completely functional with all of the features and capabilities of the Surface Pro and a normal notebook. You are going to pay a penalty in weight and size for the Surface Book though – it is as much as 22.8mm thick (more than 2x the Surface Pro 4) and 3.34 lbs. (nearly 2x the Surface Pro 4 before adding the Type Cover).

Screen – 3:2 Ratio High DPI

The initial thought that went through my head when I first started to use the new Surface devices was the “odd” aspect ratio that both utilize. With a 3:2 ratio, more similar to that of an iPad than other notebooks on the market, the screens just feel taller than you expect. Previous Surface devices used this aspect ratio so it won’t surprise anyone that might be upgrade from older hardware; users coming from a standard notebook (like my Dell XPS 13) that uses a 16:9 screen you will definitely have to adjust. That being said, the 3:2 aspect ratio turned out to be perfect for my more business-based usage with both the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. You can get more of a vertical word document, more of a webpage or more of a text document on the screen at home time when maximized. Working on 16:9 content like PowerPoint slides or video will leave you with wasted space along the top and bottom of the screen though, so it’s a tradeoff.

Resolution on both screens is very high, with the Surface Book sporting a 3000×2000 13.5-in panel and the Surface Pro 4 2736×1824 12.3-in panel. The Surface Book will feel big with that 13.5 diagonal measurement to many buyers – it’s taller than other 13- or 14-in displays used on notebooks today. The PPI (pixels per inch) on both is very high, above 260 ppi, meaning you’ll have incredibly sharp text and images where it’s supported. Windows 10 does a great job with scaling compared to even Windows 8.1 and I had very little issue dealing with scaling issues. There are exceptions, older programs that haven’t been updated in a long time, but they are becoming less common as more devices default to 150%+ scaling out of the box.

Both the Book and Pro 4 have glossy screens and support 10-point touch interface, along with the Surface Pen I’ll discuss below. They are top quality LCD panels from our testing and use though the glossiness of the glass will result in some unwanted reflections from time to time. 

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