Surface Book Retrospective

It finally happened. Apple refreshed the 13-inch MacBook Pro with new CPUs, faster memory, and (most importantly) a better keyboard. And I’ve ordered one and it will eventually show up and I’ll write something about it.

Until then, I think now is a good time to take a look back the the Surface Book 2 that I’ve been using for the last two years.

What I Won’t Miss

The Surface Book is a weird design that is full of compromises. The hinge is still a wonderful example of what Microsoft’s engineering can do. But it’s still fighting physics and not quite winning. Mainly, when used as a laptop, the whole thing is fairly top-heavy and the screen wobbles a lot. It’s not horrible but it makes it feel a bit unstable.

Then there’s the other trick of the hinge: the detaching screen trick. I still detach the screen pretty regularly. I still work with the screen flipped around with a dock attached. And I still flip the screen around before it goes in my bag. But I rarely use it as a laptop because of the feeling of instability I mentioned before. And I almost never use it as a tablet because Windows just doesn’t work well as a tablet OS.

I’ve also had issues with the screen getting stuck and not detaching, though I think an update a while back may have solved that because I don’t remember it happening anytime in the last few months at least.

The Surface Book is also kind of big. It doesn’t seem like it at first, but the bezels around the screen are pretty large. The screen itself is nice (more on that later) but actually quite big for a 13-inch class laptop. The base is also heavy, to counter-balance the screen and its internals, and even larger than the screen since the hinge unrolls to better support the screen. All of this together makes for a laptop that is actually quite big. It’s still smaller than my old 15-inch MacBook Pro, but not by as much as you would expect.

There’s also Windows. Windows 10 isn’t bad by any means, and I’ll still have to use it for work even on my soon-to-be MacBook, but I’ll be happy to not have to use it for day-to-day things like email and web browsing. It’s just too rough and inconsistent. I say this knowing full-well how buggy macOS Catalina is and yet I’m still looking forward to using macOS again.

The last thing I don’t think I’ll miss are the thermals. It still strikes me as weird that there is no fan in the top of the Surface Book to keep the CPU cool. There is a fan in the base to cool the GPU, but that is only on when that GPU is needed (and when it turns on, it’s really loud). But the lack of top-fan means the CPU gets pretty toasty and so does the screen. For a while, I had a small USB fan pointed at the back of the screen to attempt to help the passive cooler. That actually made things noticeably quicker (sometimes, but I stopped because the fan is also quite loud).

What I May Miss

I like the keyboard on the Surface Book, mostly. The feel of the keyboard is excellent and the size is perfect. The layout, on the other hand, is just a little off. The only change I would make it have the left and right arrow keys be half-sized. All MacBooks now use this inverted-T layout, and I think it is a much better choice. Also the keyboard backlight on the Surface Book is not very good, with the letters not being evenly lit and lots of light bleed around the edge of the keycaps.

I also never fell in love with the trackpad. For a non-Apple laptop, the trackpad is downright excellent. But it feels kind of small and the tracking is just the smallest bit unnatural. I think most of the tracking issues are down to Windows and it’s inconsistent handling of scrolling, but there is a lot of room around the trackpad for it to grow. The smaller size also means the various multi-touch gestures just don’t feel nice to perform (Windows’ clunky-ness certainly doesn’t help that).

What I Will Miss

The Surface Book is still a powerful machine. The i7 (8650U) is a solid processor (when cool) and 16GB of RAM is a massive upgrade from my previous Surface Pro which only had 8. My soon-to-be MacBook Pro will have a similar quad-core i7 and 32 GB of RAM which should be a solid upgrade, but not a night-and-day difference like it was coming from the dual-core Surface Pro.

I will miss this screen, too. 3:2 is a fantastic aspect ratio and having the screen flipped around let’s me get closer to it without having to hunch over. It’s also just a great looking screen with accurate colors and plenty of brightness. Plus it can run perfectly at 2x resolution which makes text super sharp and pleasant to stare at all day long.

And even though Windows is kind of crap, Windows Hello is still amazing. Face unlock is awesome and should be used everywhere.

I think I’ll miss the dock the most. I have a Surface Dock that has been in constant use since 2016. It uses the Surface Connect port, which is like the MagSafe ports on old MacBooks but fused with a USB port. It can carry power, data, and video. All from a single magnetic port. It’s easy to attach and remove, and let’s me readily swap between using the Surface Book as a desktop or laptop. I’ll be picking up a USB-C dock for the MacBook and while it should be nice to continue to use a dock at my desk, it just won’t have that awesome connector.

Even without the dock attached, I find the 2 full-sized USB ports, SD card slot, and USB-C port to be plenty. I have the receiver for my mouse in one of the USB ports at all times, and I rarely use the other ports. I also never quite understood the complaint a lot of people have about the lack of Thunderbolt 3. Thunderbolt accessories are very expensive and only really useful to a small portion of people. I get that the Surface Book, out of all of the Surface models, should have it, but I think it’s just fine without.

Overall I like the Surface Book. I may have quite a few complaints about it, but it’s still a fast and capable laptop and has served me well for the last 2 years. I’m a bit disappointed to see that the Surface Book 3 is only a spec bump and doesn’t really address any of the issues I have with the Surface Book in general. And now that the entire MacBook line has good keyboards again, I feel comfortable recommending a MacBook to anyone who is looking for a laptop (and can afford one).