Notes

March 18, 2020

Reviewing the Surface Book 2

The first few paragraphs cover what I was looking for and what I considered. Then the review.

Why the Surface Book 2

I used a Macbook throughout my professional career until I had the choice a few years ago when I started my current job. Here, I ran Gentoo, then FreeBSD, then Arch, and now Windows 10 on the Dell XPS 15.

I enjoy Windows and I think Microsoft is doing a better job on hardware and software these days. At least, compared to Apple, they appear to be trying. So when my personal 2015 Macbook Pro died this year I decided to buy and run Windows at home.

On my Mac, I dealt with bad battery life for a while: running VMs, running Docker, compiling Go, running Node.js kills any battery. So I moved my development into the cloud and gained on battery life and network speeds at the cost of memory (I am paying for 4GB of RAM).

My ideal replacement was a cheaper machine that felt as good as a 2015 Macbook Pro. (The build quality has not been good since.) I was hoping not to pay more than $1000. My shortlist included the Surface Book 2, the Surface Pro X, the Surface Laptop 3, the Lenovo Yoga 14, and the LG Gram. So I went to Best Buy to try them out.

I was impressed by every Surface device. At first sight, I mistook the Surface Book and Surface Laptop for an old Macbook Pro. They both have a brushed aluminum body with a large trackpad and great keyboards. Even the Surface Pro X, which is a tablet, has an addon keyboard that is easy to type (that is, program) on.

I tried out the Lenovo Yoga 14 and it was solid, but I preferred the brushed aluminum body of the Surface devices. I did not get a chance to feel out the LG Gram.

I eliminated the Surface Laptop 3 because I like tablet mode. While the Surface Laptop 3 is a touchscreen, it is not a 2-in-1 device and does not have tablet mode.

And I eliminated the Surface Pro X because it is one of the first mainstream Windows ARM devices. While Windows on ARM is now the same operating system as Windows on a desktop, most consumer software ships x86_64 (not ARM) binaries. Windows on ARM can emulate x86 but not yet x86_64. I didn't feel like working around this on my primary personal device.

I bought the 13.5", 7th generation i5 Surface Book 2 for $999. It comes with 8GB DDR4 RAM and a 128GB SSD. I have had the device for two weeks now and I use it at least 10 hours a day.

Keyboard

The keyboard layout is standard, easy to use. The control, shift, caps, function, and alt keys are big enough that it is easy to program without staring at the keyboard. The up and down arrow keys are smaller than would be nice. But they are easier for me to find than on a 2019 Macbook Pro.

The function key is modal by default (like a Caps key) and indicates if function is enabled with a small LED. I have never seen a function key like this. I find it annoying when I turn it on.

And while there is builtin volume controls and a play/pause button, there is no media forward/back button. I assigned Ctrl+Windows+Alt+Left/Right to be media forward/back.

There is also no right Ctrl key. Instead there is a "media key" which is the equivalent of right-clicking... I guess. This is useless so I mapped it back to another Ctrl key.

Unlike macOS, which needs an app like Spectacle, Windows default window control shortcuts are great. Windows+Left to send to the left half, Windows+Right to send to the right half, Windows+Up to make full screen.

But macOS default swipe gestures are more intuitive: swipe left to go backwards, swipe right to go forwards. So I mapped this back myself.

Here is my autohotkey script.

Screen

The 13.5" screen feels top-heavy but may not actually weigh more than the keyboard/body. The bevel is larger than it feels like it should be. But the camera is in the right location: top and center.

Additionally, the default behavior when attaching/detaching the screen is to prompt you to enter/exit tablet mode rather than doing it for you. This prompt is easy to click out of and after doing so the option to switch between disappears until you reattach and detach again.

The screen isn't flush with the body when you close it. Few marketing pictures show you this, but here's one. This makes me worry something may snap if the laptop is ever slammed against a wall for some reason.

And fully open, it only goes back 120 degrees. This makes it hard to look at if it is on your legs and your legs are up higher than 90 degrees.

Finally, the headphone jack is not on the body but on the screen. This makes sense since the screen is detachable. But the jack is on the top-right corner, further away than usual. This requires me to be closer to the screen to feel like I am not pulling the screen when I am wearing headphones.

Pen

The Surface Pen is awesome and the screen's palm detection is too. I have had a lot of fun drawing on it in Paint 3. And it has been useful in annotating mockups for work too.

It costs $100 and comes with a AAAA battery. It is magnetized and sticks to the left side of the screen.

Body

As mentioned, the body is a brushed aluminum. It feels great. The power input is magnetic, which is helpful. But it uses a novel Surface-specific input rather than USB-C, so that sucks. A new charger from Microsoft costs $100.

The speakers are as good as Macbook speakers were 5 years ago. They don't have much bass. Additionally, these speakers get a little distorted at top volume.

The battery lasts 7-8 hours without charging. While this is as advertised, it is still disappointing of a new laptop in 2020 that is only running Chrome, Spotify, and Windows Terminal.

Tablet

To release the screen from the body, there is a key on the function row. However, it is not a hardware release. So when I accidentally killed the battery while the screen was flipped, I couldn't detach the screen after booting (to turn it back into a laptop) until after 10-20 minutes of charging.

The screen isn't easy to detach. It requires both hands lifting up from the base of the screen to get enough leverage. You cannot pull up from the top of the screen.

Aside from drawing apps, tablet mode apps on Windows aren't great. Kindle for Windows on tablet is terrible. I got stuck in Kindle's full screen mode and couldn't adjust the page size or exit full screen mode without reverting back to laptop mode first.

Tablet mode also throws away the standard Windows menu and shortcuts to give you a desktop of application cards. However, these cards don't adapt to recent or frequent applications. After I deleted Candy Crush and other built in apps I will never use, this desktop is blank except for Edge and Groove Music. It is incredible how bad the tablet desktop is. You have to use the full application list view every time you want to open a new program.

In summary

It's not a bad Windows machine for $1000. The body is great quality and the pen/screen interaction is solid. But I'd like to see Windows invest more in a useful tablet experience. And the detachable screen comes at the cost of being a awkward. So I'd go with the Surface Pro X or Surface Laptop 3 next time.

But above all I can't shake the expectation that a laptop built in 2020 running GMail and Slack in Chrome, Spotify, and a terminal application should last at least 10 hours.

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