Microsoft Surface Book for Photography - An In-Depth Review

Posted on 5th July 2016

Compact, powerful and a joy to use - the Surface Book could be the Windows laptop we have all dreamed of...

Let me start this review with a conclusion – I didn’t expect to like it, I love it - the Microsoft Surface Book is an absolute gem. It’s a well thought out, innovative computer that takes the hybrid world of tablet and personal computer combined to another level. If you like many you feel chained to the office desk covered in peripherals, a graphic designer using a graphics tablet and stylus, then this could be the mobile studio you have been looking for - it could literally set you free.

The Surface Book is for creative people – photographers, designers, graphic designers. It’s for professionals, amateurs, parents, children, scribblers, note takers – anyone. If you are office based or an intrepid traveller, the Surface Book can work wonders. It has not only changed the way I work, in both my office and on the move, but also made me re-evaluate the computers and operating systems I have come to rely upon. It’s not intrusive, it’s not trying to domineer; it wants to integrate. It has identity, it’s different, it’s engaging, it’s stable, it looks good, feels good; it will companion your ideas but above all, it’s one slick machine and you welcome its potential.

 

The Review Model

Surface Book
Skylake Dual Core 6th Generation Intel i7-6600U Processor
NVIDIA Geforce GPU with 1gb RAM
8gb of DDR3
Windows 10 Pro
256gb SSD
2x USB 3
Mini Display Port
SD Card slot (supports SDXC)
5mp front camera, 8mp rear (capable of 1080p)
Weight 1.5kg

 

Bullet points for those in a rush for the tube

  • It’s Microsoft's answer to the Macbook Pro, but with a twist
  • A tablet and a computer, effortlessly merged into one unit
  • Light weight at just 1.5kg
  • Great build quality
  • 12.3inches X 9.4inches
  • Very good battery life with a tandem of cells (8hrs + with conservative / varied use) – a battery in the keyboard and screen sections.
  • Tablet battery could do with a better battery life.
  • Power adapter cabling is not long enough (you can add a longer one yourself)
  • 3000 x 2000 high resolution screen is a absolute masterpiece for photographers, extremely bright, when dimmed iit s still very easy to see.
  • Keyboard is responsive and well mapped, but keys could do with a less textured surface
  • Keyboard is backlit; feature has to be turned off in good light or difficult to see characters.
  • Ports and slots are just right and well positioned, except for the headphone jack
  • Wifi receiver is under powered.
  • Surface Book has an omni directional magnetic power connector, important in this modern world of IT accidents
  • Trackpad is glass and great to use. Gestures work well.
  • 3000 x 2000 screen is just gorgeous. It won’t need profiling for most - very colour neutral
  • Screen appears a little too reflective, but when illuminated it’s not so much of an issue.
  • Screen can be detached, reversed, reattached to make the SB into a notebook
  • Windows 10 is very slick. At last the user feels inside an environment rather than an operator.
  • Boot time is very quick, as is Shutdown.
  • The Surface Pen is an absolute joy to use. Take notes, draw, make shapes. Works very well with Photoshop for retouching too, but the loss of easy access CTRL, ALT and SHIFT keys make shortcuts difficult.
  • Pen is magnetic and clips to the side of the screen. It holds well, with strong pull.
  • Leaving your hand on the screen when writing (palm rejection) is superb and does not draw on the page.
  • My pen experience started with significant lag, until I modified settings on the graphics card.
  • Onenote 2016 has become an office essential. I use it for jotting down ideas, sketching, explaining photographic principles and making extensive diagrams.
  • Onenote 2016 can be started from clicking the pen ‘rubber’ (after changing preferences)
  • Inbuilt speakers are really something – great performance sound quality.
  • Headphone jack position needs a rethink as it is on the top right corner of the screen. A second jack on the keyboard needs to be added in the next evolution.
  • Bundled Adobe CC Lightroom and Photoshop subscription
  • Photoshop is snappy and fast, Lightroom too, but LR is processor hungry beast and so the Surface Book needs mains power.
  • As a non-tablet user, it takes a while to get used to the pen when using LR or PS, but all obstacles can be overcome.
  • Photoshop tools / menus can be small on a 12” screen at native 3000 x 2000 resolution. There is a registry hack to make features appear this bigger.

 

The Hinge - everyone is fascinated by the way the Surface Book rolls open, keeping the keys away from the screen

 

A Small History Lesson

This review will not dissolve into an Apple bashing, Microsoft poking, Windows slagging OS, Nikon vs Canon style comparison site dross. You’ve transcended all that, but as we toss it into the gutter forum, let us engage in a little computer history.

Probably, like me, you have grown up using all manner of computing equipment and pledged allegiance to a company or two on the way. I had a ZXSpectrum 48k, my mate Ian had a Commodore 64 (which was better, but I never let him know I thought that). We had Apple II’s and Pentium PC’s at college in the mid eighties; it’s Apples and Pears in other words (the Pear Computer is a fabrication on Nickelodeon and doesn’t exist). The modern consumer likes to embrace all and most of my friends are the same.

Just like fashion where cool borders the absurd, innovative companies walk a similar path. We surrender, they flourish and permeate into our lives, but they can also wane and fall from favour. Microsoft have reacted from the lesson of Windows 8, regrouped and returned more dedicated, invigorated and recharged, but why did it not work?

In the tablet years, you remember when the iPad came out and you said, ‘err, it looks like a massive iPhone’ (but then realised what a revolutionary idea it was), well in that period Windows OS became ‘gender confused’. Struggling to encompass the volcanic mobile market and continue to serve those remaining static, this hybrid OS infant had the PC user cursing and the tablet user bemused.

 

All Hail Windows 10

Here’s my point – despite losing favour with Windows, this is my first return and I have to say it has been a wonderful experience. It’s the best it has ever been. Windows 10 is a slick, high performance environment that exudes potential; clean, snappy, spacious, well programmed and harmonious. You can tell they have taken a good look at the competition and have focused on producing a relaxing yet holistic user experience, a thankful departure from the methodical ‘operator’ feel of previous versions. There’s a lot of enjoyable interaction and software to get you started like Twitter / Flipboard as well as productivity tools like Voice Recorder and Skype. There’s also a lot of unnecessary sponsored ‘bloatware’ but this is easy to remove and customise.  Although I am adept at 'driver digging' and modifying the registery, like most modern drivers, few are actual mechanics. Windows 10 now steers you well away from this -  can we finally resign this to computing of the past? Without the BIOS boot screens, the Surface Book appears to be the professional machine that Microsft needs to stay in the game.  

Despite some initial problems that I read about online rather than experienced, Windows 10 is now very stable. I have had a few crashes when untethering the screen in the last three weeks. I cannot attribute this to a specific action. For now it seems a confident environment.

 

Early Days

We all know that OS’s slow down as the digital mud gets thicker – Mac OS is not perfect by any means. All operating systems take optimising and managing. Neglect only leads to catastrophe in the end. The battery life is compelling at over 9hours of light use, other idiosyncrasies are unknown, so I feel it therefore impossible to evaluate until I am more ‘in-tune’ shall we say.

The amount of photographers I meet with ‘why doesn’t it do what I think’ syndrome, speaks volumes about our patience to learn and adapt to software. Anything involving computers and creativity takes significant time to master – we can only be shown the way.

 

Detaching the screen is unsettling at first, but it's straightforward. Magnetic technology ensures a fumble is literally impossible

 

In Use

Lightroom and Photoshop are performance centred software marvels, but running them on an underpowered machine is not an enjoyable experience. Let’s get something straight from the start – it is not fair to compare the Surface Book to a top spec 15” quad core i7 2.8ghz Macbook Pro. They are in completely different leagues. This computer is supposed to be a competitor to the dual-core 13” Macbook Pro or Macbook Air which are of a similar performance spec and cost. My Microsoft review model is a mid range Surface Book which is a good cost / power point. Let’s see how it performs using Geekbench 3 benchmarking software, in both 32bit and 64bit.


This is a great result from a dual core machine. Topping out at nearly 7000 makes this a really for a dual core machine shows the Skylake processors are certainly packing some grunt.

After installing both LR and PS from Creative Cloud, I used a Sandisk 16gb SD card to transfer around 200 18mb Canon 1Dx images which it performed without hesitation. The card reader bus is very substantial. Now comes the processor intensive importing process. Lightroom likes to add these to a catalogue and this takes its toll on the processor. As it then starts to ‘build previews’ things get a little warmer, but the Surface Book copes admirably. The transfer rates between the chosen SSD and the main board are fast (as you would expect) so this whole process feels positive.

Tweaking images in the usual order is a snappy and responsive experience. Transfer and then the demand opening of PS is quick and moderate alterations of levels and curves are easily handled. I am keeping a watchful eye on the RAM at this stage using Task Manager, so after opening six images, after adding multiple layers the 8gb memory finally maxed out. It is at this stage that virtual memory engages, but although starting to get notably sticky with memory swapping (dumping memory to disk to continue calculations), Windows 10 was still operating well. If like me you like to open an image, work on it and them save, the 8gb Surface Book will be more than adequate. Those who use fast desktop machines with 16gb of RAM, may find the down grade a little too much so a 16gb machine would be preferable. Stitching a panorama takes additional processing power and my 8gb Surface Book did an admirable job, so consider the price points carefully and get the machine to suit your needs. I do not see the 8gb version as a issue, as long as a methodical and economic approach to your productivity is adopted.

 

I used this machine to process a recent commission for FleeWInter to shoot super yachts in Corfu and it coped admirably

 

Pen Power

The Surface Pen has fascinated me since I opened the box. It comes with different nibs and tips that simulate pencils too, which change the feel of the glide on the screen. Having a touch screen laptop is in itself a novelty even without the pen and I found myself using fingers on the screen or the keyboard to navigate the operating system. 

With the screen detached, spun 180º and reattached so I can keep the power cable plugged in, I started my maiden voyage. I have to say I felt very out of control at first, simply because I am so used to working with a quality mouse, but after an hour or things started to get a lot better.

I started to realise there was possibly a lag between slider and Surface Pen, so after abandoning general usage in favour of a quick drawing and note taking tests in bundled package OneNote, I was able to test this and make adjustments. The graphics card NVIDIA drivers were updated (a whopping 368mb) along with a new graphics card panel. I changed settings to force Windows to use accelerated graphics. It’s a simple fix that makes the connection almost instantaneous and I found my writing and doodling even ‘artistic’ shall we say.

The Surface Book handled Photoshop CC 2015 without breaking sweat. It took 6 images and multiple layers to punish the processor to a slow grind - very impressive

Photoshop is another matter. I have spent a good few hours and multiple images trying to process my work using the pen alone, but I have to confess that it didn’t start well for me. Unless you are using the Surface Book and Surface Pen for drawing, sketching and rendering, the pen takes a rather roundabout path. I have spent the last ten years driving a somewhat ‘Turbo Photoshop’, learning keyboard shortcuts (and making lots of my own) to reduce the time I spend menu digging and it’s down to a handful of keys. Without ALT and CTRL my frustration levels start rising and the process becomes somewhat laborious. CTRL or ALT click are fundamental operations in Photoshop, but I am perhaps being a little unfair here, as plenty of photographers do not require this faster pace.

Software keyboard overlays (that open in tablet mode when writing text) are sadly not the answer here, but a small USB or Bluetooth keyboard is. Once plugged in I was back to my familiar flow, only returning back to the menus for plugins or extended features. For the mobile user it’s more clobber to carry around, but back in the office the Surface Book becomes full of potential.

Again, it is important to consider some about a key points here. The Surface Book is a powerful little beast, incorporating features that would see a photographer carrying a separate laptop and a tablet system. Also, until recent versions of the iPad like the Pro, the drawing, writing and note taking features felt at a complete infancy. Writing with your finger or a fat, cushioned pen nib is a joyless experience. So, devoid of our craving for a perfect world, the Surface Book covers better than most – it’s a discrete and engaging powerhouse of variable computing options.

 

What a joy - remember there are two batteries in there, one in the screen and keyboard - battery life is very impressive

 

Final Thoughts

After nearly a month with the Surface Book, I have to report I am very taken with it. It sits in a niche for graphic designers and photographers alike. I am far luckier than website and magazine reviewers who have far less time to uncover the laptop virtues, so I hope this review uncovers a few more gems. Although not as taken with the pen, due to the speed I have to work, other photographers will welcome this connection in the same way many find Wacom tablets indispensible. Purchase an additional keyboard and it becomes the pen takes the Surface Book into a niche of its own. My troubles were over, but I am still more of a dedicated mouse man.

I am also very taken with Windows 10 which is something I thought I would never say. I enjoy it immensely and I have found software features that make the Surface Book second to none. I’ve spent my entire Windows life driver digging and hacking registries – now it seems like this nerve wracking sport is no longer necessary.

From everyday functionality to specific imaging requirements, the smaller size and weight are no compromise, leaving you admiring the build quality and detail. Microsoft’s answer to the retina screen is simply staggering. It has glorious resolution, contrast and colours even before profiling. It’s vivid, lazer sharp detail and glorious, accurate colour is something to behold.

Working at home with a separate monitor, means the best of both worlds. I could see myself finally abandoning the tower, with those whirring fans of the desktop entirely. The Mini Display Port was a great idea and means wonderful connectivity and functionality.

Finally, the partnership with Adobe means Microsoft take this computer very seriously as an imaging machine. Attractive to photographers and graphic designers alike, it’s another reason to consider the Surface Book over and above its rivals.

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