Microsoft's recent hardware announcement had one big surprise - the new Surface Book. It is Microsoft's first laptop. But it is a laptop with an added feature - a removable screen to use as a tablet.
My own use case for this form factor? I plan to work with the Surface Book in laptop mode as my primary travel computer. Then I will detach the screen to use it as a tablet at oral argument of my appellate cases. Others will have different use cases for the detached tablet mode Microsoft calls "Clipboard." In theory, it could be a Windows alternative to Apple's upcoming iPad Pro.
My Surface Book arrived on October 26. I can report that it is a rugged and attractive design. The keyboard is top notch. I am a keyboard snob. As an appellate lawyer, I write a lot, meaning I type a lot. Most laptops have substandard keyboards compared with their desktop counterparts. Even on the desktop, I use only mechanical keyboards such as the original IBM Model M (if you can find one on Ebay, buy it) or a sleeker and more modern Corsair mechancal keyboard. I love the Lenovo ThinkPad keyboards. As a result, ThinkPads were my portable computers of choice.
The Surface Book keyboard looks nothing like a ThinkPad keyboard. But to my fingers, it works just as well. It is spacious, the keys have enough travel, and the feel is good for such a thin device. This is the first non-ThinkPad laptop keyboard I can live with.
I am not a touchpad fan. I nearly always carry a mouse with me. Of course, I can't often use a mouse on an airplane tray table (no room), so the touchpad is an unfortunate necessity. Most Windows laptops have wretched touchpads. I have read that the new HP Spectre X360 has a decent touchpad. Of course, the gold standard in laptop touchpads is the Macbook. The touchpad on the Surface Book is the first Windows touchpad I've used that comes close to the Macbook's touchpad. It is large and scrolling is smooth. However, in the Chrome browser, scrolling is always problematic. Hopefully Google will solve both that problem and Chrome's tendency to chew up battery life on portable devices.
The Surface Book screen is beautiful. The resolution is 3000 x 2000 pixels, which is way too high for my nearly 60 year old eyes. Without "scaling" everything is too small for me to read. Fortunately, Windows does a nice job of scaling up the size of text and icons. The recommended setting is 200% scaling. I set mine to 250% scaling, which makes items on screen 2.5 times larger than they would be if left at the screen's native resolution. So far, I have not seen a downside to this fairly aggressive scaling setting.
The screen ratio format is 3 to 2. In otherwords, it is taller and less wide than most computer screens. For me, this is much nicer than the typical 16 to 9 or 16 to 10 "widescreen" format common on laptops today. There is far less up and down scrolling to see documents and web pages.
The built-in Iris camera that enables the Windows Hello sign-in works great. Once you set it up (if you wear glasses, do it twice - once with and once without glasses), it works instantly and reliably. I no longer have to do anything to log into my computer. It uses the Iris camera to recognize my face and logs me in using the Windows Hello security settings. Very cool!
In order to make the Clipboard mode (the screen detached to use it as a tablet) more productive, Microsoft bundled a great app that I used on my Surface Pro 3, Drawboard PDF. The app usually costs $10, but it is free with the Surface Book. It is not only a good PDF reading app, it allows pen-based annotation of PDF documents with the included Surface Pen. This is one of the best ways a lawyer can read and annotate voluminous PDF documents received via discovery or briefs and other documents filed by opposing counsel.
I will soon have my first oppotunity to use the Surface Book in Clipboard mode at an appeal oral argument. Check back later on our blog for my impressions of that experience.
Is the Surface Book worth the premium price? Is it a better choice than the upcoming iPad Pro? Time will tell. Initial reviews have been mostly positive. To help you decide if this is the right laptop for your law practice, I will post my impressions of the Surface Book on our blog as I get a chance to use it more thoroughly over the coming weeks and months.