- I have used a MacBook Pro as my main computing machine for the past five years, but I switched to Microsoft’s new Surface Book 2 for a week.
- The hardware is fantastic – but you need some time to adjust and appreciate it.
- The complexity is tied to the Windows 10 operating system, which is more flexible and intricate than macOS.
- To get you to fully appreciate the Surface Book and Windows 10, Microsoft indirectly asks you to switch to its suite of software and services, and my strong ties to Google’s ecosystem made that nearly impossible.
I have been using a MacBook Pro as my main computing machine for the past five years, and I have grown to love it. From the fantastic hardware to the sleekness of macOS, Apple’s offering has mostly kept me happy, despite a few shortcomings.
More recently, I have also become a big fan of what Microsoft has been doing with its hardware – and I jumped at the opportunity to try one of its new Surface Book 2 devices.
I have used a family Surface Pro 4 extensively and even got to spend some time with the most recent model, the Surface Pro, which I adored, so I’ve had my fair share of experience with Windows 10 (in addition to years of using Windows XP, 7, and 8).
With the Surface Book 2, however, I decided to take a different approach. I fully switched to it for a week, using it as my primary laptop as if I had purchased it to replace my MacBook.
This inevitably left me with some strong impressions – and a big, partly unexpected realisation: I am more tied to Google’s suite of software and services than I ever thought.
Here’s what I learned.
The hardware is spectacular
This is the first thing that’s obvious the moment you remove the plastic wrap. The cold feeling of the magnesium casing, its softly brushed texture, and the sturdiness of the device hit you right away. It’s the kind of thing you would expect from Apple rather than Microsoft.
Magnesium is also surprisingly refreshing to the touch, as opposed to the MacBook’s aluminium. It’s colder and feels more genuine, as if the alloy hasn’t gone through dozens of machines. It’s a subtle, distinctive detail that shows Microsoft cares and wants its devices to stand out in an expanding sea of homogeneous products from all sorts of manufacturers.
The Surface Book 2 is unlike anything else. It opens as a laptop but has a detachable screen that can turn into a tablet – you can flip it around, reattach it to the keyboard, and fold it all the way down if you want.
If you do reattach the top portion backward, you can keep it flat, perhaps for activities such as drawing, or at a 45-degree angle, which can be very comfortable if you plan to watch videos.
Any way you look at it, the 13.5-inch, 3000×2000 display is insanely gorgeous. It’s sharp and detailed, with colours that pop while not being overly saturated and a slightly warmer tone than my MacBook’s, making it a tad more pleasing to the eye.
The buttons, as well as the trackpad and keyboard keys, are stiff with good, satisfying travel, involuntarily reminding you that this is a high-quality product. After all, at £1,500 (or $US1,500) for the base model – with an Intel Core i5 CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage – it should be. (It goes all the way up to i7/16 GB/1 TB for £3,000 or $US3,300).
In terms of performance, my device always kept things speedy and quiet – it never froze, slowed down, or needed to reboot, even with three browsers (with dozens of tabs open), Steam, Spotify, OneNote, and other apps open at the same time.
It can also run games at decent settings, but don’t expect top-notch performance. If that’s what you’re looking for, the bigger 15-inch version has an option with a GTX 1060 GPU, which is decidedly more powerful than the 1050 my unit had. (The 15-inch model is available in only the US right now.)
The Surface Book did get a little warm at times, but overall I was surprised by its performance. For comparison, my ageing MacBook’s fans kick in rapidly if I don’t pay attention to my workload – though it, too, did just fine for the first years of its life.
There are other nice things you’ll find on the outer case, such as two full-size USB-A ports – the ones you won’t see on more-recent MacBooks – a USB-C port, and a MagSafe-like opening for charging. But the most interesting hides underneath the top portion of the screen’s bezel, where the camera is nestled.
Windows 10 is a great operating system that’s both powerful and complex
That camera, which can enable Windows Hello, is one of the few things that begin to really separate Microsoft’s and Apple’s offerings.
Windows Hello is Microsoft’s system that allows biometric authentications, like fingerprint reading and face scanning. The Surface Book has the latter, and in my testing, it has been consistently accurate – as well as blazing fast – in recognising me.
There’s something special about opening the lid and being automatically and securely logged in to your desktop. Apple has Face ID on the iPhone X, which has worked very well in my experience – but on the laptop, it makes even more sense, as you’re always looking at the screen at angles that don’t require you to adjust.
It’s probably a matter of time before Face ID finds its way to Apple’s computers, but for now, MacBook Pro users are stuck with fingerprint readers that work well but aren’t as seamless. For me, coming from an older machine, it was a very nice bump ahead.
Then there’s Windows 10, which is something that people – particularly tempted MacBook users like me – should weigh carefully before deciding whether it’s worth jumping ship.
In a nutshell: I think Windows 10 is a fantastic operating system, one that’s possibly more interesting than macOS. While Apple’s focus is clearly on iOS, with its desktop OS being treated more like legacy software with no real upgrades, Microsoft has turned Windows 10 into a constantly evolving service, always adding new things.
There are, however, two problems I’ve had with it. One is more likely to be shared by the majority of users, while the other was more personal – though it, too, is an issue many may run into.
After using the Surface Book 2 for a week, I was left with the feeling that Windows 10 is an incredibly powerful, flexible, and capable OS that does much more than I need it to. This can be good at times, but it can also feel overwhelming.
It’s a double-edged sword. The learning curve is steeper with Windows 10 than it is with macOS, which remains a relatively simple, straightforward OS – but the more I delved into Windows, the more I realised just how much stuff you can do.
Just think about how many ways of interacting with it you have. There’s the normal laptop mode with trackpad and keyboard, the tablet mode with dedicated software tweaks, and the flip mode. And beyond the touchscreen, you can use peripherals such as the Surface Pen stylus and the Surface Dial, a puck-shaped accessory that you rotate to change its functionality based on the app you’re using.
They change the experience, ideally for the better, but all ask for some learning time. You are not forced to use them and could stick to using the Surface Book 2 as a laptop – but in that case, it shouldn’t be the machine you buy.
The more time passes, the more you find yourself taking advantage of all this flexibility. That’s nice, but unless you are using specific applications and have particular needs in which using the Pen, the Dial, the flip mode, or another tweak is an obvious, immediate improvement, it still feels like overkill.
The Surface Book 2 is, by far, the machine that better encapsulates Windows 10: a system for pro users who have specific needs and know how to take advantage of such a complex and capable machine.
It feels like using a technologically advanced supercar, if you will. But if you’re just commuting to and from work and making the occasional jaunt, you probably don’t need a Ferrari.
Windows 10 gives its best only if you use Microsoft’s software and services
This makes the move to Windows more of a question of whether there’s more to gain by switching than lose by leaving a familiar system like macOS.
I believe I could switch without too much trouble. There is some readjustment – namely with gestures, which I use a lot on macOS and have grown accustomed to – but nothing that would make me wish I had never made the move. Over time, you learn to master and appreciate the versatility of the Surface Book 2 and Windows 10, and going back to the Mac actually feels like a bit of sacrifice.
My final assessment of the platform: I like it – I like it a lot – but I don’t really need all this added functionality. What I use my computer for, I thought, I can do just as well whether I’m on my old MacBook or a Windows 10 machine.
Except I can’t. Not really.
When I considered switching permanently (for the sake of change), one aspect stopped me: Microsoft’s suite of services.
As someone who spends most of his time online within a browser, I’ve devoted much of my online life to Google. This is where Apple isn’t too invasive, as I ignore most of its services and just stick to Google’s. It’s what I thought I’d be doing on Windows.
But Microsoft, which has a software suite ostensibly superior to Apple’s, always tries to lure you in – and it does a good job, not least because of the constant pop-up reminders to try its Cortana virtual assistant, its Edge browser, or its Office 365 suite. It may seem trivial, but when Cortana starts opening search queries on the Bing search engine inside Edge, you realise how invasive this is.
That’s certainly annoying, but Microsoft takes it a step further: Its suite of products is the only one that takes advantage of all the hardware and software perks built into the Surface Book and Windows. As you become increasingly accustomed to Windows and its features, you slowly realise how insanely wide the gap is between its products and those from other software makers.
The most staggering example is in performance. I noticed Microsoft Edge was considerably faster than Google Chrome, and Microsoft OneNote’s integration with one click of the Surface Pen is much better than opening Google Keep in a new tab.
I love using the Surface Pen and the Surface Book’s touchscreen to draw in Google Keep, my go-to notes app, but OneNote is much better integrated into the experience. So I’m torn between choosing the software I have always used and the one that works better.
On my MacBook, using Apple’s Notes app is better than opening a new tab and firing up Keep, but the difference is not nearly as big. In that case, the “ecosystem superiority” – sticking to what you already use – takes priority over small functional improvements.
And I use many of Google’s software products: Gmail, Inbox, Keep, Maps, YouTube, Search, Photos – the list goes on, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. On my MacBook, and Apple’s hardware in general, it’s much easier to reduce Apple’s influence and just live with Google.
Microsoft, on the other hand, makes this really hard and essentially asks for a full commitment. For every online service Google has, Microsoft has a counterpart that often works better.
The hardware switch to Microsoft from Apple is feasible, but the software and service migration is not – at least not in my case. The problem is not that Microsoft’s offering is bad, but that it’s demanding.
If you’re already using Microsoft’s software, then by all means, go for it. The Surface Book 2 is genuinely a spectacular product that will have a lot to offer – and if you think it’s too much of a pro machine, look at the Surface Laptop or the Surface Pro, or any of the other great Windows machines that manufacturers like HP and Dell offer.
But if, like me, you are tied to another ecosystem, you’d have to adapt, look elsewhere, or keep doing what you do with a few added annoyances. I was saddened by this, because it showed me how strong of a hold Google has on me. But it is what it is.
The whole package is great, but you need to take it all
I liked using the Surface Book 2 a lot and am excited about the development of Windows 10. It’s a great operating system, and the Book 2 is possibly its best incarnation.
But to enjoy it fully – and justify the purchase – you need to be in a very niche group of people who are both not too tied to another company’s software ecosystem and services and can really take advantage of all the Surface Book/Windows combo has to give.
I couldn’t justify the full switch. I bought my MacBook Pro only because of my admittedly demanding browsing needs, but, save for needing some heavier applications like Photoshop, I could very well live with a Chromebook.
If only it were half as nice as a Surface Book, that is.