Why Microsoft's Surface Book deserves a second look

Microsoft Surface Book running Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud / CC [2015]
Credit: Microsoft

First it turned heads. Then the glitches started. Still, in the long run, it may prove to be a smart business tool.

IT pros in charge of making sure employees have the tools they need don't often see the clouds part and the heavens open wide. Laptops and tablets, smartphones and desktops -- they don't slide down a rainbow and land in your office gleaming like the sun. In most cases, it's about examining the specifications and taking the time to evaluate employee requirements, compare pricing and figure out a deployment strategy.

Late last year, Microsoft released a two-in-one notebook hybrid called the Surface Book that immediately had heads turning. It runs Windows 10, starts at a cool $1,499 direct (see it on Amazon) for the Intel Core i5 version ($2,099 for the Core i7 version) and has a decidedly premium look and feel. The removable Windows 10 tablet attaches to the keyboard via a unique and clever hinge.

In other words, it's just the sort of high-end device that business executives clamor for.

According to Microsoft, it's been selling well; in a recent earnings report, the company attributed a 29% surge in revenue for its Surface line to strong sales for the Surface Book and its sibling, the new Surface Pro 4.

Of course, smart IT pros never rush to deploy a brand-new product line, and with good reason: A lot can go wrong. The new Surface devices, for instance, have been plagued by glitches including freezes and lock-ups, faster-than-normal battery drain, overheating, slowdowns on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, issues with sleep modes and screen abnormalities such as a shrunken login screen.

Microsoft has released a series of firmware patches, most recently on Feb. 17, to address the problems, with varying degrees of success. As with any device that's popular with consumers, there's an advantage here: Microsoft is motivated to please its wide audience by continuing to roll out fixes. For IT, however, it means waiting out these fixes and testing to make sure they are fully resolved and work with your apps.

Once the new-product issues are ironed out and your IT shop is ready to make a move to Windows 10, though, I believe the Surface Book may prove to be one of the most useful business productivity products you'll find. Here's why.

Flexible design meets user needs

A 13.5-in. laptop with a traditional metal keyboard base, the Surface Book breaks from the "tablet meets soft keyboard" design of Microsoft's Surface and Surface Pro tablets. Its detachable touchscreen glides into position using an innovative hinge mechanism. Corporate workers can adjust the viewing angle for use on a conference room table or their desks, or, if they are showing a sales demo or presentation, the screen can be flipped around to face backwards on the hinge and toward the audience.

"For organizations that want the flexibility of a two-in-one with high-end performance and good-quality graphics for a portion of their employees, the Surface Book is a good fit," says Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research.

O'Donnell says the Surface Book might be particularly appealing to business workers who are used to an Apple MacBook or similar light notebook, mostly due to the Surface Book's sturdy metal keyboard. The main benefit, he says, is that it works as a legitimate laptop (not just a tablet with a keyboard) and detaches to become a full-featured tablet.

"It's truly a laptop when attached to the base. But the top (tablet) portion is only 1.6 pounds, so it's also an exceptionally lightweight tablet for its size when removed from the base," chimes in J. P. Gownder, a Forrester analyst.

Hardware perks for productivity

The Surface Book is packed with features you might not expect. One is that there are two graphics chips, one for the base and one for the tablet, so even when employees go mobile with the tablet, they can still expect good performance for presentations.

Another plus for corporate employees: The Surface Pro has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity when using the stylus, so if you take notes in a meeting, even subtle gestures and light markings will work (something that isn't always true on the iPad, I've found).

For reliable sound when videoconferencing, the Surface Book has two microphones, one for the front camera and one for the back. Other perks include a 12-hour battery life, options for 1TB of SSD storage and plenty of travel accessories including a case and extra replacement stylus tips.

Windows 10 security

Finally, because the Surface Book is built to run Windows 10, it offers some key security features that are baked into the new OS. Microsoft Passport and Windows Hello provide a way to authenticate the device using a smartphone or biometrics -- without requiring employees to use passwords, which are notoriously insecure. And Device Guard, available with Windows 10 Enterprise, is a set of features intended to block hackers, preventing programs from running if they have not been approved by the OS.

In short, the Surface Book offers style and flexibility for enterprise users, while remaining IT friendly. While its high price tag might mean it's not suited for mass deployment, it's worth considering -- eventually -- for on-the-go execs.

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