Microsoft Surface Book review

Here’s a review after three weeks of light usage of the Microsoft Surface Book…

The amazing separating tablet feature turns out not to be a substitute for traveling with an iPad. An iPad is already kind of heavy to hold up and the monster tablet top half of the Surface Book is way too heavy for many of the things that you’d want to do with a tablet. I had dreams of annotating PDF files with handwritten scrawling, but it turns out not to work quite like paper. Resting one’s palm on the screen interferes with recognition of the pen sometimes.

As soon as you undock the tablet you will probably get an email that needs to be answered. At least with Gmail within the Chrome or Edge browsers, the keyboard doesn’t offer either autocorrect or voice dictation. Thus it is vastly more painful to answer an email than with an Android or iPhone or iPad. (The same software on a Lenovo Yoga 900 actually does offer suggestions for words that you’ve typed but it won’t actually autocorrect as you type along. You need to go back with your finger and highlight all of the words that you want fixed. Again, this is way more cumbersome than answering an email from a smartphone.)

Most Windows applications don’t seem to know what to do with Tablet Mode. Adobe Reader Touch, for example, doesn’t let you hand-write notes on a PDF file. That can be done only with the Drawboard PDF (included) application.

Battery life is absurdly short. Using the complete (docked) device at a conference to take notes the machine was dead by noon. All that I had been running was Chrome with Gmail in the background and Microsoft Word for building up a notes file in the foreground. Published reviews of this device indicate a pretty good battery life, but I left all of the defaults and never saw more than about 4 hours of predicted or actual life. Undock and the tablet’s life by itself is even shorter.

The keyboard has a great feel, maybe the best of all of the devices in the Microsoft Store and much better than anything from Apple (I tried out their keyboards at the store across the mall immediately after using various Windows laptops). Unfortunately it also offers a function key lock feature, which then renders the volume controls non-functional unless you happen to notice a tiny LED on the other side of the keyboard.

The device wasn’t very smart about switching between “tablet mode” and “regular mode” when you docked and undocked it. That cut down on productivity.

I took it back to the Microsoft Store in the Burlington Mall and had one of the their experts, who himself owns a Surface Book, check to see if I was doing anything obviously wrong but he couldn’t get any kind of keyboard autocorrection to work either on my Surface Book or his own. He confirmed that the battery settings were proper and said that Surface Books sometimes don’t sleep properly, which explains why the folded-closed device was sometimes warm to the touch. It was easy to have the device wipe its hard drive and easy to get a full refund from Microsoft.

I think that I will try the Lenovo X1 Yoga. One thing I learned is that a monster tablet isn’t very useful unless it can support itself, e.g., by being propped on a table with the keyboard for support. Another thing that I learned is that, at least with this current generation of Windows 10, you will want immediate access to a keyboard. It is a lot easier to adjust the fold on a Yoga than to dock/undock a Surface Book.

9 thoughts on “Microsoft Surface Book review

  1. Same experience here. And my time in the Frontal Lobe Ward/Microsoft store was similar, the Morlock there agreed everything was as it appeared, rather than offering a remedy.

    It was as though I were in a restaurant and called a waiter over after finding a roach in my tagliatelle.

    “Waiter, look here.”
    Yes, sir. That is a cockroach.”

    Then….puzzled silence….

  2. About to dump Windows10 and go full Linux (Xubuntu). I realized that 99% of what I do is Web based and the web browser works the same, without all the Win10 annoyances, constant updating, etc. When updating and downloading in the background it has driven CPU usage so high that the machine overheated and shut down as a result. “apt-get update && apt-get upgrade” has never done that.

  3. Jackie: The settings for keyboard autocorrect were all turned on for both the Surface Books and the Lenovo Yoga that we were comparing them to. The suggestions appeared on the Lenovo device (in tablet mode) but not on the Surface Books. In any case, these suggestions are not nearly as useful as the autocorrections on phone operating systems. The sales/tech guy at the Microsoft Store pointed out that Microsoft doesn’t have this consistent among their own versions. The Windows Phone software has a swype keyboard but that feature is not available in the Windows version that is on tablets.

  4. Can you speculate on whether these issues would be better or worse on a Surface Pro 4?

    My experience with a Surface Pro (One) is that the hardware itself is reasonably solid and it’s a good performer, and am somewhat okay if not pleased that I don’t have to buy a terrible keyboard but could supply a good quality finger friendly bluetooth keyboard of my own choice. But that machine is old now…

  5. It seems strange that they cant seem to figure out the tablet-that-is-also-a-laptop, but IMO with the current state of things, its still most reasonable to have a portable laptop phone and possibly a tablet (though I had an Ipad and found it useless for me and crappy to read on compared to paper).

  6. @Jerry – I’ve used a Surface Pro for a while. Overall it’s an excellent machine; light weight, good battery life, good performance. The keyboard on the “type cover” is reasonable. Switching between tablet & keyboard modes is simple and fluid. Other people where I work have found it superior to the Surface Book.

    The one place where it doesn’t work so well is if you need to actually use it on your lap as a laptop (i.e. taking notes at a conference without a desk). While the type cover works fine on a desk, it’s pretty unstable on a softer surface.

  7. Off topic but I’m a lowest-cost shopper and bought a $137 (!) Acer Cloudbook 11.6 inch laptop. It came with W10, which I explored briefly and found to be quaint in a world of iOS and OS X, er, macOS, and absolutely swamped by its own updates and huffing about. I was able to install Xubuntu 14.04, and as paddy says apt-get update apt-get install work a treat.

    I’m not curious about the Surface line. Microsoft will never “get” the hardware business.

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