Surface Book Review

February 12, 2016


Things seems to be going pretty well, huh?

As many of you guys know, I recently got a new computer, though it did show up a bit later than when I was expecting it, due to issues with the seller and the payment method used.

Having used it for roughly a week, I thought that I would talk about the new computer.

Today, I will be do a review on that computer, which is the Microsoft Surface Book.

Back around July and August, when I was still pretty much a Mac user, though I have had a lot of experience with Windows and various Linux distributions, I was hearing good things about Windows 10 from people in tech community, who, like me, hated what Windows 8 gave users, and I decided to give it a spin.

After using Windows 10 for roughly a week or so after its release in a virtual machine, I wrote up a review of it that was mostly positive, though there were some things that I could not get a good feel for.

Now that I am using using a hybrid laptop, which is officially known as a 2-in-1 computer, I can say that I enjoy this computer, and by extension Windows 10.

One of the first things that I noticed was that the Surface Book’s display, which Microsoft calls a clipboard, was very actually very easy to detach.

When I first saw the Surface Book, I was worried that it would give me grief because I have only one hand to work with in my life, and plenty of things not relating to technology give me quite a bit of trouble as well, seeing as my other arm is pretty much only good for a paperweight, so I was originally planning to get the Surface Pro 4 to avoid that possible issue, in addition to having to make sure that I got the display off in a good enough amount of time.

However, I have not really had much issue with that at all during my usage of the product. I just press and hold the proper button long enough and just pull it out with my good hand, which is even possible while the computer itself is off, though there are some issues that crop up when one detaches the display while powered off, as opposed to turning it on, logging in, and then detaching the display.

I also liked how playable my games were while the display was detached.

In fact, one of them, which is The Sims 3, worked better than it did on my old Macbook Pro5,3, which is one of the last macbooks that could be upgraded, unlike popular belief, after its operating system was upgraded to OS X Mountain Lion or newer.

Of course, that could just be because my Surface Book has a newer graphics card and double the RAM that I could have installed in my old macbook, since states that the Macbook Pro5,3 can have a maximum of 8 GB RAM and my Surface Book was customized to have 16 GB of RAM, though I could have gotten a Linux computer with 32 GB of RAM, if I so chose to do so.

Unfortunately, I cannot really recommend playing games like the PC/Mac version of The Sims 3 without the keyboard being attached, so touchscreen-friendly games and visual novels, like Clannad, are better suited for tablet mode.

I also liked how the surface pen worked out-of-the-box with my software.

Having used a Mac computer for nearly ten years, I had accumulated quite a bit of software that was essentially packaged as Mac only, though Windows versions did exist, and I had already decided on what software I was going to replace such programs with, but was not too sure if I could design things in GIMP or Inkscape.

Fortunately, no matter whether I opened the paint program included with Windows or my newly installed copy of GIMP, which was going to replace Photoshop, since I have no intention of ever getting subscriptions for software, I could draw whatever came to my mind and it would look as good as if I had actually drawn it on paper.

As a result, I no longer need to scan in images to make truly original works of art or even greeting or birthday cards, especially since I could just use Scribus to lay everything out.

The thing that I liked the most though, even if it has more to do with Windows than the computer itself, was that the apps I purchased on my Windows 10 virtual machine, such as the Plex app, installed on my new Surface Book already unlocked, instead of the trialware that it has recently become in the mobilesphere, which means that whatever I purchase really can be used on all of my devices without any emulators or buying the thing again, which is something I cannot do with either Android or iOS apps.

The fact that it is easy to detach the display with one hand and that I can actually draw things by hand, as well as the fact that Microsoft’s idea of universal apps works like I thought they would, made this an excellent purchase.

Although I like the Surface Book, there are some issues, though most of them are more software-based than hardware-based.

First, it is almost impossible to log in to the Surface Book when the display is detached while powered off.

While Microsoft is marketing this as a laptop, they clearly showed in their demo and I have seen in Microsoft stores that the display could be detached from the keyboard, which makes the machine a hybrid computer.

However, when I detach the display before powering the device on, and go to log in, there is no virtual keyboard that normally pops up when I would wake up the device after detaching the display, nor is there anyway to bring up the virtual keyboard manually, like there is when the device is awake and logged in.

Really, Microsoft? If I am allowed to detach the display without powering the computer on, I should also be able to perform an initial login without the keyboard, not be forced to reattach the keyboard, or even pull it out from where I previously left it.

Until I find a fix, or Microsoft resolves this, I guess I should power on and log into the device before detaching the display, as annoying as that is.

I also do not really like how the battery information is displayed.

Since the touchscreen capabilities and gestures are fairly similar to how things are with iOS and Android, I was expecting to be able to get percentage values quickly, so that I can decide when to charge my computer, but the lock screen only gives me an icon and the Windows 10 interface does not really tell me which battery is which.

For the convenience of everyone out there though, I will just tell everyone right now that what Windows 10 labels as Battery 2 is the battery found in the display, while Battery 1 is the battery found in the keyboard, which I found out under normal usage.

Still, I wish that these batteries were better labeled and that I was able to see percentage values of the batteries in the lock screen like I could with Android and iOS.

Another thing that is not so nice is that the Surface Book cannot really be upgraded.

Now, some of you guys are probably wondering what the big deal is, since I have been a Mac user for nearly a decade and I chose to get a computer that many places say is difficult to upgrade yourself, but there are many people out there that keep on screaming that one should get a PC so that they can tinker with it and that Mac cannot be upgraded.

I am sorry to bust your guys bubbles, but many computers are heading in a direction in which we will not be able to upgrade our computers ourselves anymore, and I mainly have upgrades performed when needed, such as when RAM and hard drive space is insufficient, much like I had the 500 GB hard drive of my Macbook Pro5,3 upgraded to a 1 TB drive, not to mention that after a while the screws that hold computer components in place can get in a condition that it is next to impossible to get out using only the force that can be exerted with one arm.

In fact, the only thing that I can upgrade, which is something that is pretty much impossible to do with the retina macbooks, is the storage capacity, since the Surface Book keyboard comes with an SD card slot, though I would love to be able to put in a 2 TB SSD myself, if one is ever released for the size needed for machines like this.

Still, I pretty much knew all of this going in on purchasing this computer, so it does not bother me too much, as I finally get a chance to get the to try out the capabilities of Windows 10 that are hard to grasp when using a virtual machine.

Another annoying thing was the functionality of the Surface Pen.

While it works pretty decently, I have used it two weeks in a row for screenshots and, despite going through the right steps, OneNote keeps opening when I do not want it to do so.

Every time I double tap the eraser tip, it takes the screenshot, but I am often dumped out of my current view and OneNote starts up.

If I were trying to get screenshots for app demos, how can I get anything done, if I need to keep quitting OneNote and getting things back to their proper settings?

In fact, with a copy of MoinMoin and Mediawiki, I have no need for OneNote in my daily usage, so the pen should not ever summon OneNote.

Come on, Microsoft? Are you dissatisfied with people using something other than your products? If so, I should have gotten the Linux computer instead, since some things, like running Apache, MySQL, and Python, which is necessary for MoinMoin and Hyde, are easier to set up in a Debian-based Linux distribution, such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint, than they were here.

I also did not like how difficult it was to write HTML when the display was detached from the keyboard.

During my usage of the Surface Book, I tried doing some simple markup, and while using the virtual keyboard, no matter whether it was in handwriting mode or the normal mode found in the Android and iOS environments, I could not even get it to put in the proper brackets that enclose HTML tags, so that they would register perfectly with the browsers.

Even though many of you guys may be laughing about the fact that I use HTML directly for some of the things I do, it is important to be able to use it because one can only get valid EPUB files, which is the most widely used format next to the formats recognized by Amazon’s Kindle, by having valid HTML, which can only be ensured by writing the markup yourself, instead of relying on a CMS or WYSIWYG editor to do the work for you, not to mention that there are things that are easier to do using HTML directly anyway.

Really, Microsoft? People are using the tools shipping with Windows to create webpages and I have to use the keyboard to create HTML pages with the way that I am comfortable with? That is not acceptable if I am using a hybrid computer like this machine.

The thing that I hated the most though was how things are displayed on the screen.

While the interface was not that difficult to navigate, since I have used many different version of Windows, and even used Windows 10 in a virtual machine, things are not always that legible.

For example, when I initially opened my RSS reader and added some feeds, I could not really read the text of any of the entries, but when I was using Windows 10 in a virtual machine, the text was fairly legible.

As much as some of you guys may be laughing that I still use an RSS reader in this day and age, RSS and ATOM feeds are still very much alive, because the apps you guys use today to follow your favorite sites are pulling in those stories via RSS and ATOM, otherwise the submission process to those places would not ask for feed addresses, and I have some custom plugins to test that affect RSS/ATOM feeds.

Getting back to the issue at hand though, how am I even able to use some of these apps if I cannot read the text?

Yes, I can decrease screen resolution, or take some other routes to make text bigger, but I should not need to do that.

Not only does this make things harder to read, but it also hinders my ability to maintain virtual machines, which I now need to maintain all but one of my sites.

Why must things be so difficult to read in apps that do not come from the Windows Store, Microsoft? I have met people with worse vision that I have and even they handle things better when text is bigger than it is presented here.

Maybe things will improve as time goes on, but I want to be able to fully use my computer like I thought I was going to be able to do, and that means making the text bigger when needed, instead of forcing developers to do that job for you.

Other than those things, I cannot really think of anything else that I particularly disliked, especially since the Surface team on Twitter seem to be quite helpful.

While there was not not too much to complain about on the hardware front, the things that were wrong with the computer, such as not being able to perform an initial log in after detaching the display and the annoyance of being able to upgrade the machine, as well the fact that things can be hard to read and Microsoft deciding to have the pen always launch OneNote, even when it is disabled in the settings, did kind of cause some grief.

Considering that there was more wrong on the software front than the hardware front and that I am indeed enjoying the ability to detach the screen, which is simple no matter whether you use one or two hands, Microsoft’s Surface Book was definitely worth the purchase and makes a good primary computer.

I would recommend this to anybody that wants to try out a new computer, especially those with physical disabilities like I have.

As for those that do web design work, I recommend staying away from this computer like the plague, if you think that you will be able to design a website without the keyboard that comes with this product, since theme design and plugin creation for platforms like WordPress are impossible to create on the virtual keyboard of this product. You are better off getting a computer with a Debian- or Red Hat-based operating system.

What are your thoughts on Microsoft’s Surface Book? If you have used it, do you like it or hate it? Are there things that you like or hate about the product that went unmention? Leave a comment.

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