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Microsoft’s Frustrating View Of The Laptop Of The Future

Microsoft’s first true laptop is a curious affair. The Surface Book is Microsoft’s view of where Windows 10 and laptop hardware will move in the future. There’s a certain maturity in this portable device that has clearly grown out of the Surface Pro range of tablets. But there’s also an air of naivety about what is needed in a very high-end laptop.

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

I’ve spent close to two months with a Surface Book (provided by Microsoft UK for review purposes) to get to grips with this new machine. That has offered me a long-term look at what the Surface Book wants to offer and  a real understanding of the ergonomics of the device.

That hinge is a good place to start. It’s not a traditional laptop hinge, and anything different is going to cause people to wonder just how well it works. In normal laptop operation, when you are using a desk for work, there’s no real difference when the device is open. There is a magnetic clasp hidden in the edge to help the Surface Book stay closed while in transport, but it means that one-handed opening is tricky (but not impossible).

 I think I’d like the hinge to open up a little bit more in the next version. Standing to work with the Surface Book I found the screen didn’t tilt back far enough for my liking – the angle on my MacBook Pro is much shallower and allows for better viewing angles.
Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

Outside of the office environment the Surface Book fares well. It does work on my lap, but only just. The hinge curve and the heavier screen assembly (to allow for tablet operation) means the centre of gravity is still over the keyboard base. It doest take much pressure for the curved hinge to roll away from me and take the device with it. Typing is fine as my wrists hold it in place but using the touchscreen with anything more than a feather touch makes the Surface Book tip over. I’ve mentally compensated for that now, but it still happens.

What else is a fine is travelling with this laptop. Being able to flip the screen around in the keyboard case makes for a great travel stand for watching films. Being able to ignore the trackpad and use the touchscreen to replicate mouse inputs with the Surface Pen means it can sit right up to the edge of an economy seat table on a transatlantic flight and still be comfortable to use.

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

One area I continue to have a problem with is the screen bouncing when you tap it. Because of the ability to remove the screen and have it acts as a tablet, the screen has far more mass than most laptops, but the connecting lugs that anchor the screen to the base are not deeply embedded into the screen assembly. The two lugs are about a quarter of an inch high, and offer little resistance to the momentum imparted by a finger or pen tap. The screen will always rock away and back to you – not by much, but enough to be frustrating.

I find myself using my other hand to support the screen, or hooking my pinkie round the back of the screen to support it while using the pen to compensate for the bounce. It’s an issue that the Surface Pro range does not have because of the wide kick stand, and I wish there was something that could offer more rigidity in the design of the Surface Book.

If you’re a heavy touch-screen user, this is going to be an issue you have to investigate before a purchase. More casual use of the touchscreen and a bias to the trackpad makes this a more cosmetic issue for some.

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

I tend to use the Surface Book more as a laptop, and it’s a pretty good Windows 10 laptop – at the price Microsoft is asking for that shouldn’t be a surprise. During the recent South by Southwest conference I committed to using the Surface Book as my ‘conference’ laptop for the duration to see how it would get on. That’s a lot of typing on my lap, and some sketching with the Surface Pen. The issues on the laptop typing are above, and the Surface Pen has a similar outcome. It’s almost there, but not quite.

Aside from the screen rocking imparted by the Surface Pen, there’s a tiny amount of lag when using the pen. I needed to mentally slow down my normal writing and drawing speed – not by much but enough to be conscious that this is ’digital’ rather than ‘paper’. The pen is also not consistent in secondary operation. Some apps see a right-clicked stroke as ‘highlight this area’, while others will ‘draw a line’. Sure a ctrl-z fixes that but not having a consistent interface on a key marketing element is awkward.

There’s also the issue of carrying the pen. It can magnetically attach to the side of the Surface Book, but that feels vulnerable to a simple knock while in transit. I’ve never been able to trust this, and have been using a pen holder loop in my bag when travelling.

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

What I wouldn’t do is leave the Surface Pen behind. It can be occasionally frustrating, but it’s a delight to use. I could rely on my finger, but Windows 10 has not yet worked out what to do about UI target areas. Some are suitably large and work with a finger, others are crazy-small and need the accuracy of the Surface Pen. More iteration on Windows 10 is needed to make everything across the platform operate in the same way, with the same paradigms, and offer the same feedback to the user.

I did leave the charger behind on my second day at South by Southwest, and that surprised me. The Surface Book comfortably managed a full day at the conference, taking notes, doing email, and watching social networks. Those aren’t battery intensive operations – I’m sure a few 3D games, video streaming, and audio editing would have leaned heavily on the power – but for note-taking and general work I simply forgot about the need for power until I got home.

With batteries in both the base and the removable screen it’s good to see that the battery in the base is used first before the screen’s battery. What I would have liked to have seen is the option to charge the screen’s battery up from the base if it docks with little power left. Nope, you can only recharge when plugged into the mains, not between the two elements of the Surface Book.

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

Windows 10 is still a work in progress. The UI elements go back to Windows 8, and arguably further back to Windows Media Centre. Broadly speaking everything is now in the right place, but UI elements needs to be brought into alignment. It’s still jarring to go from Windows 10′s modern feel into Windows Explorer to do file management and control panel work. Legacy support will continue to need ‘the old UI’ but Microsoft needs to work on all of its own features and apps to get them offering the same Windows 10 look and feel.

 I’m not here for a Windows 10 review or a look at the core Windows 10 apps, this article is on the Surface Book hardware, but Windows 10 feels right for the Surface Book. The ‘not quite finished’ nature of Windows 10 also mimics the ‘not quite finished’ feel of the Surface Book. There are some areas where it’s clear what Microsoft want to do, but there needs to be a touch more finesse.

The two USB ports on the base keyboard unit are welcome, but they are ever so slightly low down. I carry a lot of USB cables while travelling, and none of them sit flush with the USB socket – the Surface Book needs to be lifted very slightly up from a desk for a USB cable and its plastic housing to be pushed in easily – and when you place it back down there’s just enough of a gap between the base of the USB cable and the Surface Book that allows me to create a tapping noise when typing on a hard surface. It’s a very tiny tolerance, but it has an impact.

For the record I still love the third USB socket on the power brick to let you charge a device without having to plug it into the Surface Book, directly. But why no USB-C for forward compatibility?

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

The keyboard is lovely. Because the hinge does not hold the screen flush to the keyboard, there’s no need to limit the individual travel on the keys. Microsoft has given the room to breathe with a relatively huge amount of travel, far more than competing ‘luxury’ laptops. All things being equal, I’d much rather type on the Surface Pro than any other laptop I’ve used in my time.

The keyboard is not without fault – the backlighting for the keys is uneven, and while I appreciate the function keys can control the brightness of the keys, I think that screen brightness would be far more useful on dedicated keys than the keyboard backlight controls.. All is not lost because Fn-Delete and Fn-Backspace can be used to control the screen’s brightness, but it seems another area where the UI needs more thought.

I have had the occasional issue on the trackpad confusing a single finger tap and a double finger (right-click) tap while in operation. Again it’s not a huge issue, and its likely something that needs calibrated by Microsoft in software and tweaked in an over-the-air update (of which there have been many). User data and feedback is key here.

Microsoft Surface Book (image: Ewan Spence)

I have to remember this is Microsoft’s first laptop. Even with the experience of the Surface Pro devices, the Xbox range, and the Zune media players, to have the first laptop arrive and offer a highly competitive package speaks volumes of the dedication of the team. There are issues, and many of them are very slight issues that you would expect in a generation one product. But there are no showstoppers.

No doubt the Surface Book 2 will take care of many of these little niggles when it is released in late 2016 or (more likely) early 2017. Until then the Surface Book has already achieved a notable victory – it is comfortably being mentioned alongside the likes of the MacBook Pro. Irrespective of the sales figures, the Surface Book is seen by the industry and the geekerati as a rival to Apple’s mindshare domination. And rightly so.

If you’re looking for a Windows 10 laptop at the high-end, if you’re looking for something that pushes the definition of what a laptop can do, and if you are looking at standing out from the crowd, then the Surface Book has to be considered. Just be prepared for parts of the experience to be a little bit unorthodox.

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