【TECHS】 Surface Book Hands On

Yes. This is indeed a digital TCG site, but my other hobby is tablets. I had a chance to try a Surface Book at Microsoft store today.

Introduction

I have started my original tablet experience over 10 years ago with HP TC4200.  I have purchased Android very first real tablet Motorola Xoom.  Of course I owned early real Android 2 in 1, ASUS transformer Infinity, real Android pen experience tablet, Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.  I had also gotten original Surface Pro the day of its release.  Needless to say, I had iPad 2 in the past.  I continue to seek the best tablet experience for my use.

My current use device of choices is combination of Macbook Air 13 inch (old 2011 model) and iPad Air (first version). Not really using Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition nor original Surface Pro.  I have been waiting for update and I know it is about a time.  This year has been extremely interesting as I knew Skylake chipset would be providing significant update.  It was actually hard for me to hold off the Macbook Pro 13 inch purchase when it was announced Spring this year.  Also, I had hard time holding off my urge to purchase VAIO Z and VAIO Z Canvas.

But I know it is a time.  In a tech world, we can wait forever as each iteration, we get better devices.  I was really thrilled about the announcement of iPad Pro, and I was ready to make the purchase when it comes out in November.  But I had to make certain I also follow Google and Microsoft (the Big 3) for their announcements.  Fortunately, this was easy as none of them have their devices ready for purchase yet.

In a huge surprising way, Microsoft got my attention back after their pressrelease.  It’s the brand newline of device, called Surface Book.

Surface Book

So what’s Surface Book?  It is a first laptop created by Microsoft.  In a way, this was a device that I really wanted 10 years ago. Below are its tech specs from official website.

Tech specs

Dimensions

Laptop: 9.14 x 12.30 x 0.51- 0.90 in ( 232.1 x 312.3 x 13 -22.8 mm)
Clipboard: 8.67 x 12.30 x 0.30 in (220.2 x 312.3 x 7.7 mm)

Weight

3.48 pounds (1576 grams)

Storage3

Solid state drive (SSD) options: 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB

Display

Screen: 13.5” PixelSense display • Resolution: 3000 x 2000 (267 PPI) • Aspect ratio: 3:2 • Touch: 10 point multi-touch

Battery Life

Up to 12 hours of video playback1

Processor

6th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7

Graphics

i5: Intel HD graphics (non-GPU) • i5/i7: NVIDIA GeForce graphics (GPU)

Memory

8GB or 16GB RAM

Wireless

802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless networking; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible
Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology

Ports

Two full-size USB 3.0
Full-size SD card reader
Surface Connect
Headset jack
Mini DisplayPort

Cameras, video and audio

5.0 megapixel front-facing camera
8.0 megapixel rear-facing camera with autofocus, with 1080p HD video recording
Dual Microphones, front and rear facing
Front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby audio

Why is Surface Book an innovation?

Vs. Macbook Pro 13 2015

The easiest way to approach this question is just like what Microsoft did, take a current gold standard, which is Macbook Pro.  In this case, 13 inch version.  Whether one likes OS X or Windows, it is undoubtedly known for its quality and overall design for 13 inch laptop class standard.  Some may say that has been now somewhat replaced by Dell XPS 13, but I would argue most still consider Macbook Pro a generally accepted standard.  In fact, I know some purchase Macbook Pro and through boot camp install Windows OS, and never see OS X again. So let’s compare with the gold standard.

Surface Book Macbook Pro 13inch 2015
Screen 13.5in (267 PPI) 13.3in (227 PPI)
CPU Up to Core i7-6600U (Skylake 6th gen) Up to Core I7-5557U (Broadwell 5th gen)
GPU NVIDIA 1GB GDDR5 Intel Iris Graphics 6100
Memory Up to 16 GB Up to 16GB
Battery Life Up to 12 hours video playback Up to 12 hours video playback
Storage Up to 1 TB flash storage Up to 1TB flash storage
Weight 3.48 pounds 3.48 pounds
OS Windows 10 OS X El Capitan

In theory, there are one major advantage points of Surface book here.  It is the use of dedicated GPU.  The chip used in the Surface Book is proprietary (?) one and actual performance is not yet known.  Regardless of its true performance, it is certain that having dedicated GPU will outperform previous generation integrated GPU by a good margin.  As far as I know, no 13 inch ultrabook/laptop has dedicated GPU at the moment.  A while back VAIO had a external GPU extension design, but current VAIO doesn’t.

Skylake is a newer generation but it is focusing more on the GPU power and lower power consumption; therefore, if we look at actual CPU performance itself, Broadwell is better.

CPU Mark Rating
As of 11th of October 2015 – Higher results represent better performance
Intel Core i7-5557U @ 3.10GHz
5,039
Intel Core i7-6600U @ 2.60GHz
4,747
PassMark Software © 2008-2015

Though in day to day use, CPU is less likely to be a bottleneck now a days. So in my opinion, this is not a significant enough difference.

For those of you know a bit more about Intel architecture, Skylake opened a door to use new type of memory called DDR-4 where previous generation were using DDR-3.  However, Anandtech had shown there may not be a significant difference so this can be thought of as identical factor as well.  Screen size is also not substantially different.  Though pixel per inch appears substantially superior on Surface Book, the difference in day to day use may also likely to be relatively insignificant.

Keyboard & Trackpad

One of the thing that makes Macbook a great laptop is its input interface.  Although these won’t show up on the spec sheet, Macbook is known for world leading trackpad for its smoothness.  Keyboard on it is great as well.  Original Surface and even Surface Pro 3 failed to match this and considering how often we use this (unless you are one of those who say I will always carry dedicated mouse and use it instead), they are crucial part of the device especially for ones who know how well crafted one works.  Just think as a car.  Perhaps cheap car may have wheel, engine, handle etc. but they won’t match up the experience of the more expensive luxury car or perhaps highly reputable car.

So this is where I really focused on during my today’s brief visit at Microsoft store.  The Surfacebook’s trackpad was indeed made with glass and felt as smooth as Macbook Air that I have.  Keyboard felt pretty sturdy and easy to type.  Though feeling was different from Macbook Air, it is likely simple difference in design and once I get used to, it probably won’t make much difference.

So at this point, one may ask Surface Book is nothing but Macbook Pro with Windows with only true advantage is dedicated GPU.  As far as the laptop goes, I would say yes, but it is 2 in 1 device i.e. Keyboard detaches from screen and being such device matching quality with Macbook Pro is achievement of its own; however, this only matters if detached mode (Microsoft calling clipboard) or many would call tablet mode is relevant. So now let’s look at the Clipboard mode and compare it to the Apple’s newest invention “iPad Pro.”

Vs. iPad Pro

Surface Book (Clipboard Mode) iPad Pro
Screen 13.5in (267 PPI) 12.9in (264 PPI)
CPU Up to Core i7-6600U (Skylake 6th gen) A9X
GPU Integraded GPU 520 A9X
Memory Up to 16 GB 4 GB
Battery Life Up to 3-4 hours Up to 10 hours video playback
Storage Up to 1 TB flash storage Up to 128 GB storage
Weight 1.6 pounds 1.57 pounds
OS Windows 10 iOS 9

If you compare directly to iPad Pro, bigger screen size with relatively insignificant weight difference is a major advantage but others such as use of Skylake CPU vs. A9X are probably irrelevant as underlying OS are different; hence, despite iPad Pro has far less memory, yet we know all applications are built specifically for iPad and because iPad Pro has the highest memory and other specs among the all iPad models, all the iOS application should run very smoothly without a hiccup.  In fact, this is one of the major strength of apple ecosystem.

So the major disadvantage is battery life.  Some website says up to 3 hours because internal battery of Surface book are split in 1:3 (with 75% in the keyboard) whereas others says 4 hours including a guy in Microsoft store (but I can only trust those guys so much).  Technically speaking, 4 hours argument is a possibility given keyboard has GPU, which itself will burn extra energy so taking it away may give over simply 1/3 battery life.  Regardless, it is far below that of iPad Pro and any of the current market tablet standard.

However, Surface Pro is something to replace laptop and nobody should be buying Surface Pro just for tablet experience i.e. we will have keyboard along with us all the time.  In worst case, tablet can be charged alone if necessary.

For those of you wondering if screen portion can be charged while dock with keyboard, Reddit had answer to this question and it was “yes” as well as it was stated that keyboard battery will be used before screen i.e. in theory screen will have 3-4 hours battery most of time and as long as one won’t need continuous over 3-4 hours off the keyboard, we should be able to use the clipboard over 10 hours as you just need to plug in to keyboard inbetween the use.  Though the practical use with this approach depends really on how long the keyboard to screen charge takes.

Pen/Touch

I had purposely not gave Pen/Touch as advantage of Surface Book over Macbook Pro despite Macbook Pro completely lacks such feature.  This is because such feature is most appropriate to compare against iPad Pro.  Surface Pro had improved already good stylus and Apple Pencil appears to be very promising.  So myself not being digital artist, I surmise there won’t be much difference here for day to day use.

True 2 in 1 Potential

So what’s innovative/unique here is basically Surface Book is a real first device that potentially gives the true experience of tablet and laptop in 1 device.

Yes. Surface Pro had tried this since the first version, but it was rather heavy and got pretty hot to hold comfortably in one hand.  These by themselves made impractical to provide true tablet experience for those who wants to hold a device in one hand and read articles, comic or simple web surfing.

But on the contrary, I could not have used iPad to take a real hand written note despite I tried with expensive bluetooth stylus because of the lack of accuracy.  Also, if I wanted to do some real productive work i.e. opening one file and paste on the word/power point etc. I could not do that with iPad.  iOS 9 multitasking helps somewhat but it only works on iPad Air 2, iPad mini 4, and IPad Pro i.e. devices that I don’t have.  Even with it, you won’t be able to work with two word documents simultaneously.

Hence, I currently carry both Macbook Air and iPad air.  So other than rather short battery life as clipboard mode, Surface Book seems to be able to replace iPad Pro and Macbook Pro with additional advantage of dedicated GPU i.e. allows me to perhaps play some of PC games.

Surface Book Issue/potential downside

Unfortunately, I am not quite done yet with my pre-impression about Surface Book.  It does sound great, and have a lots of potential but there are several pieces that I remain skeptical to accept as it is true magical device.  So what are the unknown factors that can potentially put this device not so great as one would hope/believe to be?

Heat

Surface Pro 4 uses liquid cooling system to help its heat but Surface Book does not specifically state use of this technology.  Knowing how important is the heat can be not only for the performance of system but also as a tablet to be comfortably held on hand, this remains a potential unknown point of Surface Book.

Price

Yes. I have intentionally avoided putting price of the device up until this point.

Price iPad Pro Surface book Macbook Pro 13 inch
32GB ($799+$99+$169)
128GB ($949+$99+$169)
128GB/i5/8GB: $1499
256GB/i5/8GB: $1699
256GB/i5/8GB/dGPU: $1899
256GB/i7/8GB/dGPU: $2099
512GB/i7/16GB/dGPU: $2699
128GB/i5/8GB: $1299
256GB/i5/8GB: $1499
256GB/i7/8GB: $1999
512GB/i7/16GB: $2199

The system is rather expensive especially when dGPU is considered.  Depending on the combination, one can technically buy TRUE table i.e. iPad even Pro version along with Macbook Pro 13 inch with the price of Surface Book.  This is an interesting approach or way to think, so I will write separate article about this.  Stay tuned.

Operating System

Windows 10 can be a strength but potential weakness.  There is no doubt as a desktop, Windows is great OS.  I have used it as long as I remember since Windows 3.1 and still use daily for my work computer. However, as a tablet i.e. touch centric device, it was far less intuitive (talking about Windows 8).  The major issue with Windows 8 really came down to the touch based applications.

Both Apple and Microsoft claims they have best application library.  I agree with both.  On desktop, Windows can essentially do anything.  However, iOS has far better touch friendly application than the Windows application store.  This is because every application built for iOS is basically specific to touch based iPad/iPhone devices. Again, this is a strength of Apple Ecosystem.

For me, example is a PDF reader.  On iOS I use PDF Expert, which is fantastic and very easy to use.  For my Surface Pro, I used to use built in PDF Reader which looked fine but crushed often and everything else on the store was just poorly implemented.  Of course desktop adobe reader is great but it wasn’t touch friendly.

Similarly, I read comics on my iPad (not during my work).  I could not find a good Windows App for touch friendly version either.  Now these may well have changed now but still not quite the level of iOS library.  So as a desktop Windows 10 allows full work in laptop mode, but despite the great form factor of tablet it provides, if there is lack of good application to support in the tablet mode, the experience as tablet will be compromised.

Conclusion

Surface Book is extremely intriguing device.  It is an innovation of its own.  I speculate a very strong sales of this device as it is essentially a true Macbook Pro equivalent for Windows users that weren’t in existence until now.  Though similar concept device had been there in the past, coming from Microsoft makes this type of device a true future in the industry.  I am certainly putting Surface Book as one of my top choice for upcoming purchase, but there are still a few facts I am waiting for confirmation to make the last push.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: