Microsoft Surface Book: A Tale of Love and Woe

I remember back during my college days, in a Technology Transfer class, the professor told all the students that early adopters often times pay the price for being first (in more ways than just monetarily). No statement is truer than my experience with Microsoft’s first laptop, the Surface Book. When Microsoft announced their Surface Book, I was ecstatic, I can’t remember being this excited about a piece of technology since the first iPad. Microsoft hit all the right notes, and made the machine I’ve always dreamed of. A 2-in-1 device with a large detachable display, armed with a touch screen AND DIGITIZER, with the added bonus of a dedicated GPU!. I was luckily able to snag one of the first pre-orders from the Best Buy web site at midnight October 26, release day. What follows is are my experiences and struggles with what should have been my unquestionable love affair.

The relationship started out just fine. Opening and unboxing the device was nice. Microsoft has learned from Apple how to distinguish itself from the field of standard brown cardboard boxes that are so common among PC manufacturers like HP and Dell. The Surface Book box is a clean white, with some light blue recessed stripes built into the box design on the side. The front sports a picture of the lovely device, and the back has easy to read labeling that says I bought the i7, 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSD model; no need to second guess or pull out a microscope to read the fine print. Opening the box is now part of the experience; no struggling with ugly packaging foam or static bags, nope, you flip open the box to the glory that awaits you.

The relationship is looking good at this point, I admire the lovely magnesium body, feel it’s contours, and awe at the “dynamic fulcrum” hinge. I caress the sides, look at the full size SD card slot, along with 2 USB3 ports, and I begin to play with the new keyboard, and relish in it’s feedback. It was a dreamy machine that represented the future of laptop convertibles. Now the only thing I had to do is configure it and fatten it up with all my apps, tools, and games – yes, games! Microsoft promised that this new Surface Book can not only work, but play as well; like I said, I was in love!

During the next day I spent the majority of my time cramming the 256GB SSD with all the apps I use on my Surface Pro 3. First up, all my developer tools, Visual Studio 2015 Pro, Adobe Photoshop CC 2015, Sketchbook Pro 7, ArtRage, 3DS Max 2014, Office 365, and a bunch more. I followed the main course with a desert of Steam, GOG Galaxy, and Electronic Art’s Origin for some gaming; things I could never really run on the Surface Pro 3. On the game side, I loaded in heavy hitters like Skyrim, Dragon Age Origins and The Witcher 3; along with some favorites, like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Dead Island Riptide, and Mass Effect 3.

During this lengthy loading period I decided play around with the much hyped Clipboard mode; where the screen can detach from the keyboard base. I relished in the awesomeness that was the muscle wire that released the screen from the confines of the keyboard with an audible sharp “clack”. But then something odd started to happen; once in a while, the muscle wire release mechanism would not quite release, no audible “clack”, more of a quiet “buzz”, and the screen would not detach. It sometimes took a few tries for it to release, and one time I was worried it wouldn’t release; leaving me stuck with the screen facing the back of the keyboard. A few nervous moments later I got the screen to come off. If there was any one thing that worried me about the Surface Book, it was this aspect. The muscle wire release mechanism is impressive, but it is also a moving part, inside the device. From my experience, moving parts will usual fail at some point. But for the love of this device, I put my concern aside and hope that nothing of the sorts will happen, at least not until old age set in. For now, it seems the muscle wire release mechanism works, but it is a fickle beast, so be warned.

On Day 3, once my apps were loaded, I got to work, using it for some of my day to day tasks along side my trusty 2014 15″ Retina Macbook Pro. I have the Surface Book hooked up to my Startech laptop dock, so I’m driving 2 additional displays along with with a Gigabit ethernet connection. It hummed along fine, but suddenly the screen started flickering. It was subtle at first, then as the day grew older, the flickering got steadily worse. It got bad enough to cause me to think my unit is now defective. I tried multiple things, detaching from the keyboard, to see if it was the GPU, nothing. I unplug it from the AC adapter, maybe it was faulty, causing interference, nope… Still there. A number of shutdowns and reboots didn’t help either. It wasn’t until I looked at Microsoft’s community forum that I discovered the problem. It turns out it was something I installed the other day, Visual Studio 2015 Pro. Visual Studio is a FAT install, with most of the components for development weighing in at a hefty 26GB; one little piece of software that gets put on is Hyper-V. Hyper-V is used for system visualization, such as running an accurate emulator of an Android device or Windows Phone. Apparently, I had forgotten that Hyper-V wrecked havoc with my old Surface Pro 3’s ability to wake up from it’s sleep mode, it wasn’t until I deactivated it that my Surface Pro 3 that it performed better. It turns out, Hyper-V was to blame for my display flickering. I can’t explain how or why, but once I disabled it, my system went back to being normal. Whew, my love wasn’t to blame, it was just something she ate. Oh, if anyone needs this fix, you can simply run this command in an elevated command window: dism.exe /Online /Disable-Feature:Microsoft-Hyper-V.

That evening I kicked back and played some games on the Surface Book. I spent some time loading up Skyrim with all my mods. Gaming isn’t quite as straight forward, since, unlike a console, you have to tweak settings so the game can properly accommodate the various hardware options available on the PC market. The screen on the Surface Book has a monstrous resolution, above 4K, running 3200×2000 pixels. Most games can barely handle HD resolutions of 1920×1080 pixels, unless you had a powerful enough graphics card to run at that resolution. The trick was to get the game to play at a resolution that would scale to fill the 13.5″ display. It was a tough task, since some resolution modes would leave black bars on either the top and bottom, or left and right of the screen. The best I could do in most cases was get the resolution to one that would fill the left and right, but leave a small black bar at the top and bottom. Aside from this annoyance, games ran very well on the Surface Book. I ran FRAPS to get the frame rate of my Skyrim game, and it clocked in around 40-60 frames per second at 1280 x 800 with medium to high settings. The Surface Book showed me a good time!

On Day 4, my Surface Pro hit me with another unpleasant surprise. The digitizer pen died. I was in getting ready to use the new clipboard in a meeting, and suddenly, nothing, no pointer activity. No response to the top button. It was dead. I thought to myself, it can either be one of two things, either the battery died, or the Surface Book stopped responding to the pen. Luckily my coworker brought in her Surface Pro 3, and I borrowed her pen to try on the Surface Book, and behold, it works. So, the Surface Book can still detect a pen, just not the one it came with… Next I took the battery out of the SP3 pen and put it into the new one; still nothing. I tried the new pen on my coworker’s Surface Pro 3, and it didn’t respond. As a last ditch effort I tried shutting down and rebooting the Surface Book a few times just to see maybe it was some kind of driver issue. Sadly, nothing helped. The pen looked dead.

At lunch I decided to run over to Best Buy and buy a replacement pen, just to be sure. I brought it back to the office and guess what? It’s dead too! Could it be possible that this new pen is actually defective too? I tried the same test on the Surface Pro 3, and nothing. After work I returned the pen to Best Buy and bought another one. At home I tried it, and it worked! So, in the short span of 4 days, I encountered 2 dead pens… I’ve bought over 5 Surface Pro 3’s in the past year, and I’ve never had a single pen fail, so this situation is a bit disconcerting.

Day 5, Halloween. The day started off by taking my son to his viola lesson, and while there, I sat in chair with the Surface Book and did some Javascript programming, and it was very comfortable. I’ve done the same thing with my 15″ MacBook Pro and my Surface Pro 3 in the past, but by far, the Surface Book is the most comfortable. The Surface Pro 3 is usable on the lap, but it’s not that comfortable, the type keyboard isn’t as comfortable to use and the screen is smaller. My MacBook Pro is better, but it’s a little heavier and bulkier. The Surface Book just felt right.

In the evening, how better the celebrate Halloween than to play a zombie survival game with my son. I picked up Dead Island Riptide for him, and we were playing co-op with him on my Asus gaming laptop, while I was on my Surface Book attached to a USB3 Ethernet adapter; I don’t trust wireless to be good enough for the demands of network gaming. Dead Island Riptide had to be tweaked to run at a lower resolution than 3200×2000, it tried to run that way by default, but I got around 2 frames a second… Once things were lowered to about 1200×800, the game ran very smoothly with high settings. It was a blast, playing on the Surface Book, the screen isn’t as big as my 17″ Asus, but I had no issues playing on the 13.5″ display. Once we had enough of zombie slaying, I hosted a game of Borderlands Pre-Sequel with my son and a remote friend. The evening was flawless fun. I couldn’t have been happier with how the Surface Book handled gaming.

Day 6, Today I spent my Sunday writing this article on the Surface Book, and for the most part enjoying it. So far the relationship has been a mixed bag. I want very much to love this device, and for the most part I do. But the quirks and the dead pens soured my experience. I’ve also been debating if it’s worth the extra money to move up to the 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD model, since detaching the screen from the keyboard, you lose any attached storage devices and the SD card slot. Also games are getting bigger, so the 256GB SD can potentially get filled faster between work and play. So in the coming days I’m going to need to make a determination if I want to make this a long term commitment, or break up with it. Stay tuned for more updates.