For a long while now I have been using a $250 Chromebook as my mobile computer, due to the fact that the majority of the work I needed to do away from home being writing that was sufficient. But as I have begun to travel more and more for photography reasons my need to be able to process, or at the very least offload images from my camera has grown. So I recently set out with the mission of finding a mobile machine that worked for me, and in the end I ended up settling on Microsoft’s Surface Book.
I actually was not aware, but my initial impression had wrote off the Surface Book due to reviews that came out after they were first announced. But there was a refresh that Microsoft did midway through 2016, updating some components and addressing some issues brought up in that initial release. When I came upon a review of that refresh I discovered that maybe this would be a machine that could work for me. They were editing 4K video footage and things of that nature with no problem.
It is important to note that I am very spoiled with my desktop computer. I built it myself, and it has an i7-5820k processor with 6 cores and 12 threads, 32 GB of RAM, multiple SSD drives, a RAID, etc. My point is, there is almost nothing that I can throw at my desktop that it can’t handle with relative ease and speed. Simply put, without spending way more than I had to spend, there was no way that any laptop in the form factor that I was looking for would be able to match that in performance.
But this isn’t, and I had to remind myself of this, about replacing my desktop or out performing it. Its about giving me a solid machine to edit and process images with while away from home. In the Microsoft Surface Book (2016 Refresh) I found that machine. So which model did I get? I ended up purchasing the Core i5 Model with 8 GB of RAM, 256GB SSD and the Nvidia GPU Performance Base. I bought it refurbished from Microsoft for the same price as the base i5 model that has half the SSD space and no Nvidia GPU. So I was happy with the specs in that context.
Many of you will note that I could have purchased a standard laptop with an i7 and at least double the specs for that price. That is true, but there are a few reasons that I went with the Surface Book instead. First, the screen. All of the other laptops that I was looking at in this price range that I liked had either lower resolution screens, or screens that were not very color accurate – something very important to me as a photographer. The second reason that I went with this was the Nvidia GPU, which simply put, blows the socks off the integrated Intel graphics included with most of the other laptops that I was looking at with this size and form factor.
My Experience So Far
I initially thought that many of the features of the Surface Book would be rather gimmicky, things like the touch screen, the detachable screen, the pen. But the more I am using the machine the more I am finding that I am using all of these things much more than I thought I would be, and not only am I using them more, they are making my life easier.
Lets start with the pen, it isn’t the most useful tool in Lightroom, but when paired with Photoshop, it is actually really nice. It’s not as accurate as a Wacom, but its close enough that I wouldn’t bother using a Wacom with the Surface Book (as well, now that the Surface Pro has been announced, in addition to a new and improved pen that is backwards compatible with my Surface Book, I may not need a Wacom at all in the future).
As I expected, rendering and such takes significantly longer than on my desktop, but the process of actually editing the images is smooth and mostly enjoyable. This is especially true if you take advantage of using Smart Previews, Lightroom hums right along with no issues. As well, I just discovered that Lightroom has a touch enabled workspace that unlocks on devices with a touch screen detected. In effect, this is laid out much like Lightroom Mobile on iOS or Android, but on a much larger screen and not quite as cramped. The editing process on this touch interface is not my favorite, but for culling a shoot this interface is great!
For my writing, the keyboard on the Surface Book is honestly one off the best that I have ever used on a laptop. The touchpad as well is just a pleasure to use and feels great. I am finding that I am actually preferring to type on the Surface Book than on my desktop, even at home, which is nice because that means I can write from bed or the couch and still be productive. ha!
That all said, there are some quirks with the device, nothing is perfect. I have noticed that the auto-brightness detection on the Surface Book is on the dark side, at least for my taste. I feel like I am constantly having to strain my eyes just to read the screen, so I usually have to turn the brightness up a little and ignore the auto-brightness setting. In addition to that, I’ve it a little annoying that the screen and base batteries both get used simultaneously. I would much rather the whole unit run off of the battery in the base unit, saving the smaller screen battery. But I guess that is a personal preference thing.
Oh, another thing. I never really used Windows ‘apps’ on my desktop, since I don’t have a touch screen and it just seemed faster to use a browser for most things. But on the Surface Book I have found my self using apps more, probably because in tablet mode and with the touch screen they just make more sense. I do enjoy that functionality a lot, its too bad that so many app developers dismiss the Windows Store.
Summary & TL;DR Thoughts
So in summation, my initial thoughts and impressions of the Microsoft Surface Book have been very good. Besides some minor quirks and things that I will likely just get used to as time goes on, the machine has performed great and has actually become my primary computer in the short time that I have had it – despite my desktop being much more powerful. The ability to just sit down and work anywhere (not that this is specific to the Surface Book) has trumped the higher performance of the desktop most of the time.
That is not to say I don’t sit down at my desk when I really need to get something done, but by and large I have not been at my desk nearly as often as I used to be – and for me, I consider that a win.
The Surface Book is a spendy piece of hardware, no doubt, but for me, someone who was looking for a device that was both powerful enough to do what I needed, and of a build quality that I felt good about, this was a price I was willing to pay. Is it the right choice for everyone, most definitely not, but for me, I think it worked out nicely!