If Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface is a tablet that also functions as a laptop, then it's fair to call its new Surface Book a laptop that can also work as a tablet.
But, while it's a lovely machine that's stylish in a way that would cause strangers to stop and look if you were using it in a coffee shop, it's also not quite as good as the top-tier devices in either category. With Surface Book, Microsoft has created fantastically elegant device with impressive technical specifications that's incredibly versatile.
Using it as a laptop, however, has a bit of a learning curve. At least at first touch, it feels a bit foreign in that mode -- not bad, but different. Much in the way the original Surface tablet required some getting used to for consumers, its laptop-first sister product isn't immediately comfortable, either.
For many, this won't be a problem; the look, features, and versatility of the device will win out. In my case, spending some time playing with Surface Book left me impressed, even wowed, but questioning whether the machine, which starts at $1,499 made sense for me.
Before using Surface Book
While Surface Book has its usability issues, it's clearly a top-tier laptop that offers equal or better performance than its Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) rivals. During its introduction, Microsoft executive Panos Panay specifically compared the new device to the MacBook Pro.
While there are technical differences between the two product lines, Surface Book holds up well. It offers longer battery life and a touchscreen (which integrates well with Windows 10). CNET's review backs up my assertions, saying that "the Microsoft Surface Book packs high-end components, including new Intel processors and optional Nvidia graphics, into a smart, slim body."
I did not run any tests on either device, but on paper, Surface Book's technical credentials make it a worthy player at the top of the laptop market, with the bonus of also being a pretty good tablet.
Getting your hands dirty
When I'm not in the office, I use a 2014 MacBook Air, and in the past, I have used various MacBook Pros. Compared to those devices, and the other laptops I regularly use (various Dell models), Surface Book simply feels different when used as a laptop (as a tablet, it's a little bulky, but otherwise fine).
At first it's a little hard to figure out exactly what the issue is, but detaching the keyboard from the screen makes it clear that the device is a bit bottom-heavy. Most of the battery and some components are located in the base, which makes the stand-alone tablet lighter, but the overall device a bit awkward.
That's not noticeable when using it on a desk or other hard surface. It's pronounced however when attempting to work with it on your lap. It's not as difficult as using the original Surface, or even the Surface Pro 3, with its improved kickstand, but it's noticeably less natural than using my MacBook in that position.
A bit unrefined, but still amazing
Though it's a beautiful machine, Surface Book has its issues. A major complaint is that when closed, the laptop's unique hinge does not allow it to fold completely flat. That makes it a bit harder to stuff it in a tight laptop bag despite its thin profile. It also seems like it would be easier to damage the device by crushing it.
Surface Book is also a tad on the heavy side. Depending upon configuration, it weighs between 3.3 and 3.5 pounds, which is comparable to a regular MacBook, but its design makes it feel heavier than it is. There's something about the gap created by the hinge that makes it awkward to carry in its closed mode compared to the elegant, rounded edges of the MacBook (and next to my MacBook Air, both Surface Book and MacBook seem bulky).
Surface Book does improve on Surface when it comes to its keyboard and touchpad. Both have a natural feel -- like an actual laptop -- and are easy to use, with the only learning curve being the normal adjustment period anyone needs when switching to a new device.
Is it worth the money?
The biggest negative working against Surface Book is its price. MacBook Pro 13-inch models start at $1099, while the Microsoft laptop's cheapest model comes in at $1,499. You could argue that the because Surface Book is both a latpop and a tablet, it costs less than a MacBook and an iPad, but that would ignore the fat that, as promising as the hybrid device is, it's still inferior to each of those Apple products.
You could also argue that there are at least a few Windows 10 laptops that are cheaper than Surface Book, which could be paired with a decent Win10 tablet for well less than $1,499. Yes, you would have to carry two devices in that scenario, but you would save money while getting a better experience on each device.
Surface Book shows promise
If part of the goal with Surface Book is to show Microsoft's partners that amazing things are possible if they abandon, or at least examine, existing conventions, then its mission is accomplished. The hybrid machine has its flaws -- ones that have tempered my initial "I've got to have it" instinct -- but it's a very promising machine.
It does not quite equal the Apple laptops that currently set the standard for the industry, and it's simply priced too high, even given the fact that it's two devices in one. That said, if Surface Book evolves like Surface did, moving forward with every new release, then Microsoft is likely only a product cycle or two away from competing, or even surpassing, the top devices on the market now.