It’s safe to say the MacBook Pro may have given Microsoft an opening. Tim Cook’s latest laptop has left users wondering why the keyboard is defeated by specks of dust, why the touchpad makes “crunching noises,” and why one user found it “randomly powers off every 15 minutes.”
Enter the the Surface Book 2: A laptop that transforms into a tablet at the touch of a button, and has the added bonus of not breaking all the time. I lay aside 10 years carefully cultivated Mac loyalty to go full-time with the Surface Book for seven days to find out more — and it reminded me that tech can be fun.
Here’s what seven days with Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 was like, what I noticed, and why I think Microsoft’s take on the laptop tablet hybrid may just be a window into the future.
Mac Vs. Windows: Microsoft’s Golden Opportunity
Microsoft has been quietly laying the groundwork to make Windows cool again for years. Windows 10, launched in 2015, is a strong culmination of everything the company has learned so far about how people want to use a computer. The Surface line of Microsoft-designed computers, aimed at showing the rest of the market the sort of groundbreaking designs that could run Windows, picked up steam with the launch of the Surface Book in 2016. And while Apple has steadfastly refused to merge the MacBook Pro and the iPad, Microsoft now offers a laptop that transforms into a tablet with the press of a keyboard button. The keyboard half houses batteries, ports, a touchpad and graphics processor, while the screen half houses the rest of the machine.
Perhaps most importantly for Microsoft’s chances, the MacBook Pro’s shortcomings have presented an opportunity.
My regular computer is a mid 2014 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with a 2.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid state storage and an Intel Iris integrated graphics system. I bought it brand new soon after its launch, it’s served me well and I have no current plans to upgrade. For the purposes of this story, Microsoft supplied me with a 2017 Surface Book 2 with 15-inch screen, quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of solid state storage and an Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics processor. It’s safe to say the Surface Book blows my old machine out of the water on specs, but so would a new MacBook Pro, so for this article I’m going to focus on the other aspects.
Surface Book: A Smoother Onboarding
Switching on the Surface Book for the first time makes you realize you’re in for a treat. Apple has long touted the benefits of having one company produce both the hardware and software, and it’s clear Microsoft has been listening. The facial recognition scanner takes a shot of your face, the whole setup process uses the microphones to register your voice, and the whole machine is ready to go with minimal effort. Again, the Surface line is meant to show other manufacturers what’s possible: face scanning forms part of Windows Hello, a feature that other companies can build into their own machines. Face recognition is fast and hassle-free, although it does mean having to stare intently at my laptop after opening it up.
But it wasn’t until I took my first tea break of the day that I realized how the laptop form factor is weirdly cumbersome. If I want to keep reading an article while putting the kettle on, I have to cradle my device like a cold, aluminum baby. Apple’s solution to this is Continuity: open your phone, call up the task switcher and a bar along the bottom invites you to transfer your current task onto your handheld device. It’s not exactly seamless, and the switchover does take some time. With the Surface Book, task-switching is more intuitive: press the keyboard button, wait a moment, and pull the screen off to take it with you.
The tablet is gorgeous. On paper, 15 inches sounds like a giant monster of a tablet, but I found it perfect for holding an article or flicking around social media during short breaks, before locking it back into the keyboard with a satisfying click to return to work. The size also means the Surface Book is big enough to comfortably view two apps side-by-side should you need to.
More than any work device I’ve tried in years, the Surface Book induced moments of sheer delight. I’m no Picasso, but clicking the pen and squiggling on the open windows tapped into such a lovely childhood sense of wonder. Even if I don’t often need to draw on my screen as a journalist, sometimes you simply want want to, and don’t bother because it’s too difficult.
Microsoft hit it out of the park with its stylus that also doubles as a pen (you know, for writing on paper). These features along with the tablet’s ability to unlock seem like superfluous features, but they actually do eliminate a lot of the barriers of switching tasks and makes using the computer feel far more effortless.
It feels like using a computer from the future. Quite frankly, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt the same from a Mac.
On the software side, returning to the Windows fold also has its upsides. For one, I can play video games again! Valve brought Steam to the Mac eight years ago, but it didn’t exactly set the world alight. Apple has also encouraged developers to make games with its powerful Metal toolkit, but it’s left more common tools like OpenGL and Vulkan to the wayside. Windows, on the other hand, supports a broad spectrum of Steam games and offers cross-buy through the Windows Store with the Xbox One. I can play big hits like Forza 7 the same day as console players, and the 15-inch Surface Book 2 supports wireless connectivity with Xbox One controllers.
MacBook Pro: Grass is Always Greener?
I also get the sense I’d have gotten even more out of the Surface Book had I not been using Mac for 10 years. I’m constantly hitting “alt” to copy and paste, and my passwords are all locked in iCloud and I need to call them up all over again.
Other changes are more welcome, like the inclusion of Skype and Microsoft Office, although the latter only works for five days before Microsoft shakes you down, a far cry from Apple’s free iWork suite. Asking users to cough up more for Office feels like quite a cheeky ask considering this is a laptop well in the four-figure territory. But aside from financial gripes, I also had to re-train muscle memory all over again which did make work feel like slow going.
Windows also shows signs of age in parts. Apple follows a brutal approach that ditches legacy software and drops support a little faster than some users may like, but with the benefit of a more consistent experience and lower chance of quirks. Windows, while it maintains support for older apps, has some curiously old components and methods of working. Getting my Apple trackpad to scroll in the correct direction on Windows involved digging around the registry. It’s not pretty, but the tradeoff is features that stick around for longer.
There are some issues that the Surface Book 2 may never resolve, namely around how well Apple has pulled off integrating its various devices. I miss being able to answer phone calls to my iPhone and respond to text messages from my computer. It sounds like a small niggle, but I also use Ecamm’s Call Recorder to record important calls through FaceTime on my Mac, so I also lost that benefit. Microsoft unveiled a solution at the Build conference last month called “Your Phone” that could provide an answer, mirroring the smartphone onto the computer screen. The software will offer seamless integration with Android, but iOS’ closed-off approach to the world means it may never offer the same level of support to iPhone users.
I also miss iCloud. Microsoft offers OneDrive with competitive pricing, but I’m fully wedded to Apple’s system at this point. My photos are all stored there, as are my call recordings, documents, memos and other data. Apple offers iCloud access on Windows, but the integration on the Mac side is far superior. I can move all this over, just as I can learn all new shortcuts, but I’m willing to bet most users won’t want to do this. Buying a new computer is one thing, but changing all your subscription services in the process is a much bigger ask.
On the hardware side, the device could also do with some refinement. There’s a weird wedge-shaped gap when the lid is closed due to the metal hinge, and while I don’t really care about it, practically everyone else I’ve shown the laptop to has pointed it out unprompted. The potential for bric-a-brac in my rucksack to mess up the screen means I’d have to keep it in a separate case. This is pretty much the only gripe I have on the hardware side, though, and that’s far better than having a dust-allergic keyboard.
Apple should be worried about the Surface Book 2. The keyboard is solid, the trackpad feels as responsive as the MacBook Pro, and the hardware looks and feels premium. Microsoft has given users a good set of reasons to jump ship, but in the cloud-connected world of today, the jump is perhaps more dramatic than it would have been back in Steve Jobs’ day. For the first time in a while, though, I find myself jealous of PC users.