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Microsoft Surface Book review: Who needs a $4,000 laptop?

Chatter about Microsoft’s press event last month was dominated by the Surface Studio, its new desktop computer geared toward professional artists and creative types.

But alongside it came a refresh of the Surface Book, the laptop-tablet hybrid that launched to mostly positive reviews last year.

The new version, properly called the Surface Book with Performance Base, comes with powerful Intel i7 processors and twice the graphical power of its predecessor.

But it comes at a steep price, starting at $3,129 and going all the way to $4,379 if you want to beef up its storage space and memory.

That puts it in the upper price tier of premium laptops like Apple’s latest MacBook Pros, which range in price from $1,899 to $3,499.

Even with top-of-the-line specs, who needs to spend thousands of dollars on a laptop in 2016?

“This is kind of a weird computer, and it comes at a weird time,” says Igor Bonifacic, who reviewed the Surface Book i7 for Canadian tech site Mobilesyrup.

In this case, though, weird is good. “I can say it’s overkill for most computing tasks — though it’s overkill in the best way possible,” he wrote in his review.

Detachable screen

Externally, the new Surface Book is nearly identical to last year’s model.

Most importantly, the monitor can detach from the keyboard base and be used like a tablet — albeit a larger, heavier tablet than casual iPad users might be used to.

It can also be attached to the keyboard base (that’s the “Performance Base”) backward, showing off the screen at an angle useful for boardroom presentations.

Ben Shannon uses the Surface Book

CBC Radio senior graphic designer Ben Shannon gives the Surface Book’s touch screen a whirl. (Alexandra Kazia/CBC)

CBC Radio graphic designer Ben Shannon gave the Surface Book’s free sketching app a try and came away impressed.

“It feels great,” he said. “I tried [sketching on] the iPad Pro, and it feels like you’re skating on glass. This doesn’t feel like that. This feels like it has a little bit of tooth to it.”

The Book’s other notable features are also technically its oldest: the connectivity ports.

While the newest MacBook Pros dropped traditional ports in favour of the new USB-C format, the Surface Book comes with two traditional USB ports, an SD card reader slot, Mini DisplayPort and a 3.5-mm headphone jack.

Faster, stronger … heavier

The Fulcrum hinge that keeps everything together looks just as cool as it did last year, but it also comes with the same quirks.

The top-heavy construction means it tends to lean forward if you’re using it on your lap, and jabbing at the touch screen will cause it to wobble slightly.

When the Surface Book is closed shut, you’re left with a small gap near the hinge. That gap is a little bit smaller now, not because the hinge closes more tightly but because the Performance Base is a little thicker.

It’s also slightly heavier than last year’s model weighing in at 1.65 kilograms, compared to last year’s 1.52 kilograms.

SurfaceBookOreBendy

When the Surface Book is closed shut, you’re left with a small gap near the hinge. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Microsoft makes use of that space, adding more battery life (allegedly 16 hours’ worth of everyday computing) and fans that can handle the upgraded graphics card housed within.

The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M is a mid-range graphics card that plays modern video games well at medium settings. We got Gears of War 4 to play at 30 to 40 frames per second at 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution.

It’s impressive for a machine that doesn’t fashion itself a gaming-first PC, though hardcore pixel-pushers will be better served with a desktop PC or a console like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

Who should buy this?

So, back to the original question: do you need to spend between $3,000 to over $4,000 for a new laptop?

The Surface Book offers most to creative and artistic professionals looking to sketch, paint or render animation.

It’s more than capable of handling everyday tasks, except for the most intensive video games, but if you’re not looking to squeeze every ounce of functionality from the device, you’ll probably be satisfied with a less-expensive machine.

Bonifacic sees the device’s experimental nature as a positive for Microsoft, and for laptops in general.

“Laptops are more interesting and different than mobile phones” he says. “Mobile phones have become all the same, where you see in computers, there’s this willingness to try different things.”

Thankfully, that means that cash-strapped consumers won’t necessarily have to plunk down for the highest-end Surface Book to experiment themselves.

Lenovo’s Yoga line of laptop-tablet hybrids range in price from $749 to around $2,000. And if you want the Surface Book but can’t handle the sticker shock, last year’s slightly less powerful versions start at $1,799.