I am the owner of a Surface Book; Microsoft's premier Windows Laptop/Tablet Hybrid. I've been meaning to write a review about it. As I start this, I'm downloading a new Windows ISO while attempting to apply a fix for corrupt display files and thought I'd take some time to put down my thoughts.
Here is all the good and bad about the Surface Book, according to a programmer who has used it for 4 months.
Getting a Surface Book?
I'm a small business owner and try to replace my main work machine every four years or so. My Thinkpad had started to make a sporadic horrible noise for no discernible reason, so I was in the market for a new laptop. The Surface Book was announced a couple of weeks after this fan noise started. You don't often see windows laptops with the design sense of a Mac. I decided to go all in. I pre-ordered the day after it went on sale, but had numerous pre-order problems, documented elsewhere. Eventually, I got a Surface Book on Friday October 30th. It has been my primary dev machine for about four months at the time of this writing. Here is my attempt at an unboxing video:
Who Am I?
My business cards say "Technical Entrepreneur." I'm a small business owner looking for opportunities to do cool things and share them with others. Primarily I make money building business applications. Someone else makes it pretty, but I make it functional. I've worked with many brilliant designers--but that isn't me. I'm the guy who makes things work.
For daily use; I need a computer that can run multiple development programs. In any given day, I'll use IntelliJ, Eclipse, NodeJS, ColdFusion, PHP, Apache, Java, Flash, Remote Desktop, SQL Server, MySQL and multiple browsers with dozens of active tabs.
I am a writer, and occasional screencaster. I write one technical blog post a week. I created a training course on AngularJS for Flex Developers, which includes over four hours of screencasts on AngularJS. I write game reviews for JustAdventure.com. Having a laptop that can play computer games is a nicety especially if I'm on the road for a client and need to pass the time in a hotel or while in transit.
The bulk of my work is done out of a home office, so on normal days I have my Surface Book docked, with an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The reason for having a laptop is because it is great to have my work with me when I am meeting with clients.
So, as a quick summary. I need a laptop for:
- Screen Recording
- Moderate Gaming
I was pretty sure the Surface Book would fit the bill, plus had some cool factor related due to the hybrid nature. I decided to go for it. How did it do? Read on!
There is a lot to love about the Surface Book. The construction is solid in my hand. The trackpad is responsive and easy to use. The keys are light to the touch. I have no problem typing in the keyboard, despite using an external mechanical keyboard at my desk.
The screen is the highlight of the machine. Words cannot express how beautiful this screen is. I was worried that the extra-large resolution on a relatively tiny display would make most programs unusable; but that is not the case. Many install programs, such as the ColdFusion server, were difficult to read; but once the install completed, the programs run smoothly.
The bulk of the internals are in the Clipboard section. Usually the screen is the lightest part of the laptop, but here it is the heaviest. I've heard some worries that this weight distribution will cause issues when using the unit on your lap. I adjusted to this very quickly. Microsoft created a dynamic fulcrum hinge to support the heavy Clipboard. The hinge does its job well and the unit is perfectly serviceable in your lap. The Clipboard on its own is surprising light. It surprises people when they feel it. It looks too big to be this light.
The hinge doesn't allow the clipboard part of the machine to lay flat against the keyboard, leaving a gap when the Surface Book is closed. Some have worried that items would get stuck inside the Surface Book while it was in their bag. I have not had that issue. I use a laptop backpack with a special laptop compartment, which protects the unit from interacting with other loose items.
The machine loads faster than any Windows machine I've ever used. Boot times are iPad-like. Surface Books use two different brands of hard drives, a Samsung or Toshiba. I got the Samsung, which is the slower drive. Hard drive access is just one aspect of overall speed; and I suspect you'd be hard pressed to notice slow-downs even if you were comparing two machines side by side. The Internet led me to believe that the 128GB machines will have the biggest performance differences in hard drive performance. The 512GB version is plenty fast for my purposes.
The battery life is great. I can spend a day with clients in New York City and do not have to plug the laptop in at all. The commute is three hours one way, so this is a 12-hour day minimum. I get home with battery life to spare. Like many new devices today, the battery for the Surface Book is not removable. I have some fear this may cause long term issues. With past laptops I've lengthened the life of the machine by replacing the battery.
The Surface Book's screen resolution is 3000 by 2000, which is pretty high for a 13 inch screen. The bulk of software I run is DPI aware and adjusts itself accordingly. Programs even adjust when moving between the Surface Book's High DPI screen to a 'normal DPI' external monitor. Some programs, such as Eclipse, needed to be told to run in the High DPI resolution mode. Otherwise everything looks too small. I use this approach to tell programs to ignore the high DPI. You can also set this in the compatibility settings for the program's executable.
Before we move on, here is a vid I created of detaching and re-attaching the Clipboard:
Programming on the Surface Book
My Surface Book has 16GB of RAM and it has no problem running all the software I need for programming. Right now, I have IntelliJ, Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Apache, SmartGit, and ColdFusion running in the background. Not to mention Word and Notepad. The machine handles all of this--and often more--like a champ.
When coding I use the right control key and the right and left arrow key to move between words. This is a quick navigation through lines of code, often moving forward or back to change or copy a variable name. Unfortunately, the Surface Book keyboard does not have a right control key:
After some struggling, I decided to use a keyboard remapper to remap the 'context menu' key to act as a right control. SharpKeys from CodePlex, made this very easy. I think under the hood it makes a registry change. This makes my life a bit easier and I don't have to relearn years of muscle memory training.
I come from a background as a Flex Developer. Flex is a programmer's way to make Flash movies and for a while it was a very successful way to create business applications. New Flex development is rare now, but I still handle maintenance requests from clients; both old and new. Arguably I'm one of the world's most prominent Flex developers, so I don't often turn down the work. Flash development is a problem on the Surface Book because there is limited support for the Flash Debug player. Let's look at the browsers:
- Edge comes with a built in Flash Player and there is no way to replace it with a Flash Debug Player. (Source 1 and Source 2)
- Internet Explorer 11 comes with a built in Flash Player and there is no way to replace it with a Flash Debug Player. (Same Source as Above)
- Chrome does support a Flash Debug player, but it is tough to install. To use the Flash Debug player you must launch Chrome with the -disable-bundled-ppapi-flash flag. I'm not sure if that is possible when launching from Eclipse/Flash Builder and haven't gotten around to trying it.
- Firefox does support the Flash Player debug version. However, there is an error with Flash inside Chrome on High DPI Screens. You can disable the display scaling for Firefox, as mentioned previously; but this solution only worked for Browser Flash is I had an external monitor plugged in.
So, Flash Development is tough and has prevented me from taking the old laptop off my desk.
Writing on the Surface Book
The Surface Book would be great for writers. It runs Word wonderfully. My blogging software is browser based, and there are no issues accessing it on the Surface Book.
Writing with the Pen
I'm routinely in New York City to visit clients. On the way home, I'll take out the Clipboard, Pen, and use OneNote to brainstorm song lyrics for my music-related hobby. It works astoundingly well.
One of my desired use cases for the Surface Book was to use it take notes at client meetings. Automatically digitizing the notes and syncing them to my phone would be a great time saver. Unfortunately, when in meetings with clients I often need to share my screen to load a web site or presentation or other information. During such time it is not practical to share the screen I am using to take notes on. I never use the Surface Book for this use case. Instead of carrying around a second laptop for sharing, I now stick with the paper notepad and pen for my meeting notes.
Drawing with the Pen
Since I'm on the topic, I think the Surface Book pen and touch screen would be great for artists. I find the pen very responsive both when writing and when drawing. This is something I drew with Freshpaint as an experiment:
This is about as good as I'm able to draw. I'm sure a trained designers or artists would do much better.
Gaming on the Surface Book
I've had mixed experiences with gaming on the Surface Book. I downloaded Minesweeper, Solitaire, and a Sudoku game from the Windows App store. They all work great. The Firefox Flash bug prevents me from playing my casual game addiction, Bloon Monkey City. The game screen is too small. Other browsers I've tried zoom differently than Firefox does; so that makes the game too large.
Games I review for JustAdventure are primarily point and click adventure games. Most of them are not taxing to recent computers. To date, I've only tried to install one point and click adventure game, the Book of Unwritten Tales: Critter Chronicles. It gives an error about a dll missing from the computer. I was able to find some documentation on this error, but none of the fixes worked. I eventually gave up and moved back to my main desktop for gaming.
I know based on Surface forums a lot of people are having great success gaming on the Surface Book. I think my experience is too limited to draw any long-term conclusions. This was never my prime use case.
What is wrong with the Surface Book?
I have a list of problems I've had with the Surface Book and I've kept notes. Many of the issues have gone away with updates. Some problems are brand new, thanks to those same updates. I've separated this list into current problems and sporadic / fixed problems.
Sporadic and One-Time Issues
Here are some issues that have only happened once or twice then went away never to return:
- Display Driver Crashes: Display driver crashes were common in the first few weeks of using the machine. A message showed up in the bottom right corner about it. These errors went away and I haven't seen it in months. This is the type of error I liked because the display driver would reset itself w/o a machine reboot or any other input from me. I just had to deal with a notification that went away on its own.
- No Trackpad: Sometimes the machine's track pad wouldn't work. This was sporadic and may have had something to do with waking up from sleep mode, but I'm not sure. A reboot fixed the error every time.
- Blue Screens: On my first full day using the computer as my primary dev machine; I saw two blue screen crashes. They were common in the early days, but I haven't seen one in months.
- Battery Power when plugged in: When disconnecting Clipboard and plugging it back in; the Surface uses battery power instead of the dock power. The solution is unplug the dock and plug it back in. I saw this error twice, then had an update and it went away, I hope forever.
- Master Volume Doesn't Work: The master volume stopped working for about a week during Christmas vacation. The volume up button appeared to bring up the control-alt-delete screen. I could control the volume of individual programs in the volume control panel, but nothing would make the master volume work. I contacted support via chat. They eventually called, and then hung up on me. I brought the unit into a Microsoft Store where the problem went away when I booted the machine. They had no insight; and the problem never came back.
- No Internet: In the middle of February, I lost all Internet access. No wifi and no wired connection through the dock. I could access file shares on the network, and could ping IP address but I appeared to have no DNS lookups. It was bizarre. I found a solution here. Basically, I had to deactivate IP6 in Network adapter settings; reboot the machine, then reactivate IP6. I spent a half day on this.
- A Blank Surface Book Screen: The day I was writing this article, my Surface Book screen went blank. I had left the computer for a bit and came back to find the issue. Thankfully, this is a known issue, and the fix is to press the windows key + control + shift + B at the same time. I understand this is a hotkey for resetting the display driver. I've only had this scenario happen twice; but I've seen a lot of complaints about it.
Here are some open issues with my Surface Book setup:
- Random Crashes or Reboots: Sometimes I leave my computer on when I go out to lunch. When I come back and sign in, it is as if the computer is being booted up for the first time today. None of the programs I left running are running. I have no explanation for why this happens. It is sporadic.
- No External Monitor: When I come back to my desk after lunch, nothing will display on my external monitor. The computer seems to think the monitor is there; but the monitor is blank. Trying to disable the monitor, or re-enable it in display settings gives an error. This started after the last Windows update. I found a solution, but it is tedious.
- First unplugged the external monitor from the dock.
- Then unplug the dock from the computer.
- Then plug the external monitor into the Surface Book. This resets and the secondary monitor displays properly.
- Now unplug the secondary monitor from the computer and plug it into the dock
- Finally, reconnect the dock to the computer.
Just like magic you'll have a working external monitor again. I wish the Windows Key + Control + Shift + B command worked here, but it doesn't.
- Clipboard Detached when it isn't: The Surface Book perpetually thinks the Clipboard is not attached even when it is. This error started after the last firmware update. Sometimes a reboot will help. Sometimes a reboot into the EUFI screen will help. Do this by pressing the volume up button at the Surface while the Surface Logo appears on the screen. After that simply exit the EUFI screen. Neither of these fixes are consistent. Sometimes they don't work. Sometimes the problem comes back.
One More Thing
I have no idea how this dent happened:
So, if you get one, be careful. The unit is not indestructible.
The Surface Book is an awesome, if imperfect, machine. I'm frustrated as I write this because I have more issues today than I did three weeks ago. The last two updates were not kind to me. Based on Reddit forums, people have had issues lots more serious than I. In retrospect, I could survive without the clipboard functionality; but it is a nice to have. I expect all my issues are software related and will be fixed with firmware or software updates. I bet in another six months; the Surface Book will be the perfect computer.
This whole blog post, including video and photo editing was done on the Surface Book!