Apple’s reign as the king of machines for creatives won’t come to an end any time soon – for the most part it's too ingrained in professional design studios and the minds of illustrators and artists. But over the last year or so, Microsoft has been putting up a strong fight, and it’s incredibly exciting to watch what develops in the creative hardware space.
Sure, Apple refreshed its pro line of portables with a Touch Bar, but the Surface Book goes further…
The Surface Book is, from first pickup, an amazingly high-quality laptop. Build is stellar, the flexible, accordion-like hinge is a masterpiece of industrial design and the screen – well, the screen! We’ll come back to that in a moment.
The Surface Book is a hybrid, which means you can detach the screen and use it in Windows 10 Tablet Mode. Just hit the button next to the Delete key and the screen pops off. Apps such as Illustrator can be used in Tablet Mode as well, so the Surface Book is not only a super-powerful machine for video editing and 3D, it's also pretty much the ultimate sketchbook.
You get the Surface Pen with the laptop – and whilst it isn’t as ergonomic as the Apple Pencil, say, it’s pressure-sensitive and accurate. The display also features 10-point multi-touch.
The Surface Book has another trick up its sleeve – something that illustrators and video editors will love. Detach the screen, turn it over 180-degrees, fold the laptop down and you have a sketchpad you can use in an entirely natural way. Raise the screen up a bit and you can use it as a display for reviewing video. It’s hugely flexible... literally.
There’s also the Microsoft Inkspace workspace, which when activated enables you to quickly sketch, write notes or annotate your screen (the latter being useful for client amends and collaboration on projects).
Let’s look at the specs of the screen for a moment. The term 'Retina display' is bandied around a lot due to Apple’s excellent marketing, but for its 13.5-inch size the Surface Book packs in an incredible 3000x2000 pixels at 267ppi (Apple’s MacBook Pro is 2560x1600 at 232ppi).
The screen is absolutely stunning. Beautiful. Microsoft’s PixelSense tech means that it’s thin, bright, and hugely responsive to touch and stylus control. Putting the resolution all the way up does result in some pretty dang small icons, but when editing using the Surface Pen it’s simply a joy to use.
As someone pushing say, Adobe CC, to its limits, you’re gonna need top specs in your laptop. And again, the Surface Book delivers. Big style. Our unit is the mid-range model and whilst costing a meaty £2699 you get a 512GB SSD, an Intel Core i7 CPU running at 2.6GHz, 16GB of RAM and a discrete GPU (with 2GB RAM). Fork out £3149 and you’ll get a 1TB SSD.
All this means that the Surface Book races through simple tasks in Photoshop, Affinity Designer and doesn’t struggle one bit with more complex video projects in Premiere.
And with two batteries – one in the tablet and one in the main body – you get incredible battery life. The charge lasted up to 11 hours for us, using various creative apps and doing some browsing and writing (Microsoft quotes up to 16). There’s a healthy number of ports for expansion here with two USB 3.0, a full-size SD card reader, Mini Displayport and headphone jack.
Other specs include an ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. There’s two cameras, front and back on the display – the rear comes in at 8-megapixel and can shoot at 1080p; the front 5-megapixel (also able to shoot 1080p video). There’s even facial recognition sign-in, which works 99.9 per cent of the time in our experience. And Dolby-enhanced speakers make the Surface Book sound as good as it looks.
Moving over from Mac
Of course, you may be moving over from Mac (or at least thinking about it). The Surface Book is undeniably more powerful than the MacBook Pro 13-inch, and has a number of features – such as being able to flip it to ‘draw mode’ – that the designer or illustrator will really like. But Windows 10, although hugely refined, will feel foreign and a little unintuitive to begin with. And the number of updates that appear is frankly annoying (even if they're for added security).
There’s no real problem with files any more – Adobe’s cross-platform compatibility is excellent, although you may need to look at your font file types.
Your choice of model depends whether the Surface Book is your main machine or a creative ‘on-the-go’ device. If it’s the latter, perhaps go for the lower-end model – you still get a huge amount of power (i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) and the flexibility to use it as a sketchbook.
So should you buy a Surface Book? Well, it costs a lot. More than a Touch Bar MacBook Pro by a long way. But you get something that the MacBook Pro simply can’t offer: supreme flexibility combined with ultimate power.