Yes, it was too expensive. Yes, it looked dated and clunky. Yes, there were weird things going on with the hinge. But the world needed it. Please, Microsoft, bring back the Surface Book.
I’ve been using a Surface Book 2 as my primary personal laptop since 2018. When I was shopping for a computer back then, I had a particular constellation of needs that I was finding it very difficult to fill. I wanted a convertible device to watch TV and read piano music. (You laugh, but balancing a full-sized laptop atop an electric piano is a task I would not advise anyone here to attempt. Ask me how I know.) I wanted something that wasn’t too heavy because I am whatever the opposite of buff is. I also wanted to play games — not daily, but every so often — and I didn’t want them to suck. And I would not consider anything with a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Discovering the 13-inch Surface Book 2 changed my life. It delivered absolutely everything I needed. Not only could the screen pop off and become a tablet when necessary, and not only was the GTX 1050 inside workable for my occasional gaming needs, but everything else was also excellent. The battery life was endless. The keyboard and touchpad remain among my favorites from the past decade of PCs. The 3:2 touch display was luxuriantly roomy. This was basically the only laptop on the market that could’ve made me happy in 2018 — and in 2022, I’m still using it, because I haven’t found anything better.
I’ve been using a Surface Book 2 as my primary personal laptop since 2018
I know it may seem like I’m speaking to a specific set of quirky idiosyncrasies. But I actually think this situation is more common than it seems. The sort of laptop I’m describing is essentially a 13-inch lightweight convertible that can also game and that doesn’t make major sacrifices (i.e., port selection, battery life) for its small size. This is the sort of laptop that has only gotten harder to find in the past four years. That, in my opinion, is a real shame.
The year is now 2022, and my Surface Book 2 is on its last legs. The hinge is getting jiggly, the battery life is nearing its end, and the gaming experience isn’t what it was. I’m once again faced with a landscape full of laptop options that just don’t do it for me. Portable lines like Dell’s XPS 13 have eliminated their convertible options in favor of Surface Pro-esque detachables. These detachables are good, sure, but they’re harder to use on your lap, tend to have negative three ports, and certainly aren’t offering GPU options. There are gaming-specific convertibles in the 13-inch space — Asus’ eclectic ROG Flow X13 is a notable example — but every single one I’ve tried has had significant battery life issues. (After all, devices like the X13 only have one battery to work with — the Surface Book had two.)
I also don’t have another Surface Book to buy. The 13.5-inch Surface Book 3, released in 2020, is no longer available on Microsoft’s store except in its way-too-expensive For Business format. The 2021 Surface Laptop Studio, which ostensibly replaced it, is a weird, heavy folding thing that also has battery life problems. There is no longer anything on the market that fills the niche the Surface Book did.
Now, I’m sure Microsoft has done its market research. If it decided not to refresh the Surface Book, it’s probably because it wasn’t selling. I’m not necessarily here to argue that Microsoft was wrong to put the Surface Book on the back burner. What I am saying is that it’s a shame the form factor didn’t sell, and it’s a shame it was never available at a lower price point, because I think a lot of people would’ve liked it.
Specifically, I know all kinds of people who would’ve benefitted from this device. I know that because I know all kinds of people who own both a chunky GPU-powered laptop and a tablet. These aren’t people who are regularly running Cyberpunk 2077 with ray tracing maxed. These are people playing, like, Sims and Civilization, who assume that gaming stuff needs to happen on a desk at home, while the tablet is what comes out and about. I also know people who use a Surface Pro as their primary driver but complain that the detachable keyboard is flimsy. I know people who use budget gaming laptops but complain that they’re too heavy. I know so, so many people who use 13-inch ultraportables and complain that they don’t have any ports.
I think many of these customers just didn’t know about the Surface Book’s existence during its golden years of the late 2010s and have just never considered that one device could meet all of their needs. Others may have known about it but (very reasonably) determined that it was too expensive for the specs it offered or that a few of the kinks that Microsoft never really worked out (mainly, the massive hinge gap) were disqualifying.
I think the Surface Book 2 could’ve made a difference in these people’s lives. I think a Surface Book 4 still could. If Microsoft could fix some of the issues that lingered with the Book 3 — lack of Thunderbolt, for example, the wobbly screen, the limited offerings of Windows’s tablet mode, the far-and-wide complaints about the cooling (though I’ve never had that issue myself), the disconnection bugs that were known to pop up here and there, and the various dated aspects of its design — I think a Book 4 could’ve been one of the better laptops on the market. Even those issues remained, a Book 4 still would’ve served a need that no other 13-incher could.
It’s the same thing we see with all kinds of other gadget categories as they mature
Laptops are a mature market. And they’ve gotten less innovative. That’s the same trend we see with other sorts of gadget categories as they mature. Look at mobile. “Smartphones may be boring now, but that’s only because they’ve been so good for so long,” Verge editor David Pierce wrote in a recent column. Pierce’s argument there, and one that many other tech critics have made over the last few years, was that the iPhone has basically already figured out how to be the phone that people need.
The same may be true for laptops — or, at least, the product teams at major manufacturers like Microsoft may have decided that it’s true. It may be that the market is converging on the XPS 13 / MacBook Whichever / Surface Laptop as the sort of device that everyone is just going to be using now, forever.
But I think there’s a world in which the Surface Book was the iPhone — in which laptops that quickly and seamlessly became tablets were the thing that everyone realized they needed, in which silly clamshells with average battery life and no ports were tossed to the side. If Microsoft (or any other company) had been able to make the pop-off screen affordable, accessible, and really, really work, I think we could be in that world today.