Both the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book stepped out from behind the NDA curtain yesterday, with reviews going live at a number of publications. We’ve rounded up the salient points and features of each system, as well as data on how they performed and which is the better choice (and under what circumstances). For comparisons against Apple’s hardware stack, see our Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book stat shoot-outs.
The Surface Pro 4 is the more straightforward update, so we’ll start there. if you’ve seen Microsoft’s previous Surface Pro 3, you’re already familiar with the Surface Pro 4 as well. The screen is slightly larger (12.3 inches, up from 12) and the display resolution has stepped up to 2736×1834, up from 2160×1440. That’s a bump to 267 PPI, up from 216 PPI. There are more SKUs available this time around, including Core i5 and Core i7 options, new biometric authentication capabilities, and quieter overall operation.
Reports on the Type Cover’s track pad have been varied. Ars praises it as a huge improvementover the old version and The Verge thought it worked better, but was still inadequate compared to a real keyboard. Gizmodo, however, notes: “Every time I place my fingers and scroll, there is a significant lag that hampers that initial gesture. If your fingers remain on the trackpad, subsequent scrolling is fine, but if you lift your fingers and put them back down, that first scroll is always on a delay. It makes the Surface feel sluggish.” Peter Bright of Ars confirmed to us that he never encountered these issues when using the system, and PCMag’s review doesn’t mention them either.
The general consensus about the Surface Pro 4 is that it’s a refined, polished version of the Surface concept, with some of the same basic compromises inherent to the form factor. If you need to actually use the device on your lap while typing on the Type Cover, it’s not that great. If that’s not an issue, the Surface Pro 4 is the best iteration of the Surface concept yet. CPU and GPU performance are both up, while battery life is heavily test dependent. PCMag recorded the Surface Pro 4 as offering an additional 84 minutes of battery life. Ars recorded the Pro 4 as down slightly in their WiFi test but up by 25 minutes in their WebGL benchmark.
Microsoft’s Surface Book
The Surface Book, unlike Surface Pro 4, is an entirely different animal. Like the Surface Pro 4, the new Surface Book uses metal-oxide technology (probably Sharp’s IGZO) as a replacement for amorphous silicon used in other displays. This should improve power consumption, though Microsoft also used a 3:2 display and goosed the resolution higher, up to 3000×2000. One of the Surface Book’s biggest selling points is the way you can detach the device and carry it around in what Microsoft calls Clipboard mode. While it’s far from the first system to offer this option, the majority of 2-in-1s that allow a split screen / base do so by turning the base into dumb keyboard with a USB port attached. Microsoft opted to include additional battery storage and a discrete GPU from Nvidia in the base of the Surface Book (while detached, the system relies on its integrated Intel graphics).
Nvidia’s Optimus technology is nothing new, but this is the first time we’ve seen a laptop that swaps between GPUs based on whether or not it’s plugged into the base. The base and tablet halves clamp together electronically, which means the system won’t allow you to detach the tablet if the battery is low, or if an application is currently using the discrete GPU. Yanking the tablet out mid-game would crash any title or app — so you’ll need to quit dGPU applications before you pull the tablet and its keyboard apart.
Ars again notes that there are some bugs in this design: If you use the laptop in so-called “tent” mode and the tablet battery dies, it’s impossible to detach the tablet and flip the screen back around the normal way until you’ve charged the battery again. Peter B also encountered one scenario where the system insisted the tablet wasn’t docked — even when it was. These kinds of corner cases seem rare, but MS will need to resolve them, presumably via driver updates.
Multiple reviewers praised the hinge, but noted that the system doesn’t close all the way when you shut the lid, since the hinge design (Microsoft calls it a Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge) rolls up at the back of the laptop rather than closing in the traditional manner. This doesn’t add much to the device’s thickness, but the hinge is an obvious weak point. If you’re prone to abusing your equipment, the Surface Book may not be a great purchase.
What about the GPU?
When the Surface Book was announced, Microsoft told reviewer’s that the higher-end models would come with a Maxwell-class GPU with 1GB of GDDR5. Microsoft has been extremely guarded on what kind of chip this is; Anandtech shows a GPU-Z screenshot that lists the chip as a 384-core model with 32 ROPS, 16 TMUs, and a 64-bit memory interface. This most-closely matches Nvidia’s GM108, but that chip has previously been reported as having 384 cores, 24 TMUs, and 8 ROPs. Either earlier databases were incorrect about the part’s capabilities, or the chip had a bit more oomph under the hood. The 64-bit memory interface is backed by 1253MHz GDDR5, which will partly compensate for the limited bus width, but the inclusion of just 1GB of RAM is rather odd for a 2015 laptop.
This laptop isn’t going to drive Crysis 4 or any AAA titles at maximum resolution and graphics, but the unnamed GeForce GPU shows its capabilities in games like DOTA 2. In 1920×1080 it’s not far off the 60 FPS mark, while the other devices barely clear 30 FPS.
Overall, the Surface Book is winning more accolades than the Surface Pro 4, which makes sense — this is Microsoft’s first take on a full-fledged laptop design, and it’s the more interesting of the two parts. Overall battery life is listed as excellent: PCMag recorded a 15-hour life for the tablet and base. That beats the Apple MacBook Pro, and battery life on Windows devices hasn’t always been top-drawer when compared with their desktop counterparts. Ars’s figures aren’t that strong, but they show the Core i7 and Core i5 versions of Surface Book at 753 and 749 minutes, compared to 793 minutes for the MacBook Pro. The Dell XPS 13, meanwhile, tested at just 593 minutes.
Battery life tests are always extremely workload-dependent, so we recommend taking the general conclusion that Surface Book’s battery life is very, very good. The only downside is the price: The cheapest dGPU version is $1,699, which only nets you a Core i5, 128GB of storage, and 8GB of RAM. For $1,700, there are much, much better boutique gaming laptops on the market. Obviously this system is aimed at a different audience than your typical gaming laptop is, but it means that gaming customers will have to decide which they favor — best-in-class mobile performance, or the flexibility and high-resolution capabilities of a device like the Surface Book?
The good news, for Microsoft, is that the Surface Book covers a hole that the Surface Pro and Surface lineup could never plug for every use-case. If you like Microsoft’s approach to hardware, but needed an actual robust keyboard and lap-top capability, Surface Book can fit that need. Performance and capability are a match for what Apple offers, and while plenty of MacBook users won’t be planning any switches, this is an excellent piece of hardware.