Teardown: Microsoft Surface Book 'laptop'

Microsoft’s high-end hybrid of a laptop and tablet is devilishly designed.

Do you remember when tablets were marketed as anti-productivity devices? Do you remember when, graphic designers apart, styluses were anathema? Do you remember when a laptop that could be separated from its screen seemed nice but hardly ‘disruptive’?

This autumn, Apple will release the iPad Pro, but before then Microsoft is refreshing its Surface line-up. The new Surface Book blurs the distinction between tablet and laptop still further, though the emphasis is on the latter. But one thing is consistent across both sets of new products: tablets are now productivity devices. Moreover, while Steve Jobs believed the stylus killed the Newton, smart pens are considered essential for that new market.

The Surface Book has, as we will see, an extremely complicated physical design, with a motherboard that seems to have been inspired by either Tetris or Tangram. Its main specifications though are its 13.5in screen size, with a detachable 3:2 aspect-ratio display that mimics a sheet of A4 paper, and a stylus as standard.

The dual-core processor can be either a 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 or a 2.6GHz Core i7. Given assumed competition between Apple and Microsoft for the graphics user, the Surface Book comes with Intel HD 520 GPU-capability in its standard configuration, but a more powerful option with an Nvidia GeForce chip is available. The Surface Book also has memory configurations from 128GB up to 1TB (the iPad Pro tops out at 128GB).

A few more to add to the list. The Surface Book has two batteries: one in the screen and one in the main body. Of these, the screen battery is designed for modest two or three-hour use in standalone mode - battery capacity splits roughly 75-25 in favour of use as a laptop. There are also two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, and a MiniDisplay port. Finally here, Surface Pro runs Windows 10.

That was quite a list of specifications but it is there for a reason. Looking at it, you have to note the similarity between Surface Book’s configuration and many of the lighter laptops from OEMs to which Microsoft licenses its operating system. A simple question then: who is Microsoft competing with here? Is the Surface Book too much of a step into the company’s core business? Will there be some pushback? Time will tell.

The Surface Book did catch many commentators by surprise when it was first unveiled. Nevertheless, as more got their hands on review copies, the response was generally positive. This laptop-tablet (as opposed to tablet-laptop) hybrid is very good for design and also well suited to the Office applications that remain the mainstay of productivity use.

Microsoft’s decision to offer full Windows 10 is also significant in that, as well as Office, users will have access to a full range of productivity software. The iPad Pro will remain restricted to iOS mobile/tablet versions of such programs, where they are available.

This is a premium product. In the USA, the various configurations range in price from $1,499 to as much as $3,199.

But at the same time, the Surface Book is, according to the iFixit teardown team, a villain to repair and they score it for such as a mere one out of 10.

One of the main issues is that the motherboard is not only an unusual shape but has also been inserted upside down. IFixit guesses that this is because Microsoft wanted a smooth backing to support the large, flexible display. However, it means that replacing even simple, standard components in the Surface Book involves lifting out the oddly-shaped board.

Similarly, the glass panel and the display have been soldered together, both the processor and RAM are soldered to the main PCB and, as is increasingly the case, there is an awful lot of glue holding components.

But this is happening increasingly as devices get thinner and lighter. Moreover, the motherboard does need to be in the display section of the Surface Book to ensure continued operation in tablet mode (although anyone tempted by the Nvidia upgrade should note that its board sits in the base, so the capability is only available in laptop mode). Still this is a laptop that has needed to make many concessions to the design rules for mobile devices.

In putting together the Surface Book, Microsoft has learned a lot from what are now four generations of the Surface range. Each of these has taken a slightly different but incrementally evolving approach to the physical placement and attachment of components. Given that reviewers credit the finished products with getting better in each iteration, it is hard to complain too much about some of the issues with repairability.

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