Microsoft Surface: Why success hinges on the hinges

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Image: Microsoft

As a laptop, the Surface Laptop Studio is a giant, glorious PC.

The screen is big and beautiful. The trackpad is big.

The keyboard feels a bit bouncy; as you type the keys almost spring back up, which makes it feel like there’s more travel than there actually is. The keyboard keys are boring grey plastic rather than the metallic look of the Surface Book keyboard, but you may find that higher contrast, especially if you use the keyboard backlight. The camera copes better with the brightness of the window I sit in front of in the office than any other Surface I’ve tried.

But the hinge is the clever bit.

It opens and closes like a laptop, but when you push on the top corners, the screen folds forward – at an angle over the keyboard (rather like an artist’s easel) or all the way down as a tablet. Or you can stop the fold halfway down and – like origami or a Victorian children’s toy – flip it back so the screen is facing the other way. That’s great for giving a presentation where you want everyone else to see your screen, or watching a movie where you want the screen upright on a table but you don’t need it to be an extra laptop-length away. I think of it like the movie screen at a drive-in, just hanging there in space. If you still get on planes, it will be great for watching movies.

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You could do the same thing on the Surface Book by pulling the screen off and putting it back the other way round, but it was certainly more fiddly.

So far, so clever and my colleague Simon Bisson is a big fan of the flexibility of the Surface Laptop Studio.

But some things are sacrificed to have the sleek ‘nothing but the screen’ surface.

It’s also more like a mini version of the Surface Studio than an actual tablet, because the expanse of screen is effective but not necessarily portable.

To finish dinner while catching the final After Hours session on the first day of Build, I flipped the Surface Laptop Studio flat like a tablet and carried it into the kitchen. But then I wanted to be able to see the screen from across the room, so I pulled the screen back up and then flipped it over in front of the keyboard. That was great for watching the video, but the sound level that worked in the office was much too loud in the kitchen – and when I reached for the volume controls I expected to find on the side of the screen they weren’t there, so I had to flip the screen back into laptop mode to use the keyboard controls.

Really, it would have been easier just to carry a laptop with me and not have the expectations that it would have all the controls I expected on a tablet.

For drawing on screen or writing into OneNote, the pen haptics are supposed to make the experience much more like writing on real paper – and signing my tax documents in Word did feel very smooth and comfortable. But then, doing the same thing on the screen of the Surface Laptop 4 using the new pen had very much the same feel (though obviously without the convenience of being able to fold the keyboard out of the way to do it). And while the screen is gorgeous and the pen smooth as silk, the bulk, heft and weight of the Laptop Studio felt very like the old days of Tablet PCs when balancing an HP or Toshiba tablet in one hand so you could write on it was as hard on the wrist as dragging around a heavy hardback book. This is a long way from the Surface Pro – or pulling the screen off a Surface Book to use as a tablet, which I do about once a week, even around the office.

There isn’t a pen well, just a magnet that holds the pen under a lip that would otherwise make the device extremely uncomfortable to hold one-handed. Because the pen is there, you stop trying to pick it up and hold it by that edge, and while the other edges aren’t gently rounded the way something you want to hold usually is, they’re at least slightly more comfortable to grip.

Between the pandemic and the 1.8kg weight, I haven’t taken the Laptop Studio out and about so I can’t tell if the magnet would hold the pen in place in a backpack or the trays going through airport security, where I’ve lost more than one Surface pen in the past.

Another thing I miss from the Surface Book is the angle you get when you flip the screen round to tablet mode; it’s maybe not as steep as a traditional drafting table, but just the little lift is really nice for drawing on. With the screen down, the Laptop Studio is just flat.

Perhaps because of Windows 11 (I left it running the shipping version rather than an Insider preview), I had a lot more trouble with the graphics, having to restart more than once because of corruption on the display; if you have similar problems, install the Intel driver utility. It was also more prone to wake up after restarting with the fan running and feeling more like a lap heater than a laptop than any Surface in recent memory. I could get the same effect by asking the (now very limited) Photos app to index my many gigabytes of pictures on OneDrive. That’s not ideal for Microsoft’s premium hardware device, but it’s more of a complaint about Windows 11 than about a laptop distinguished by how very clever its hinge is.

A game of two screens

The hinge is also what marks out Microsoft’s Surface Duo from other folding phones and the comparison between the two devices is instructive.

On the Surface Duo you definitely have two screens rather than one large one – with the option of dropping back to just one screen if you want to do something that fits better, like using the keyboard with both thumbs. You can drag an app to fill the whole screen but so far, I haven’t stopped noticing the dividing hinge: if I’m solving a jigsaw it’s nice to put the pieces on one side and the puzzle I’m building on the other, but a photo or video looks sliced in half. Most times, I want to have two apps open, like email and the document I open from the message (I’d like to have Twitter in one screen and web pages I open from tweets in the other, but Twitter doesn’t understand the different screens and I can’t always be bothered to tap through a menu to send the page to open in Edge).

When you’re on a phone call, opening the screens or folding them back to back switches you between speakerphone and a more private call.

So far, so multi-tasking – but the times I most appreciate the hinge are when I don’t want to hold the phone or lay it down flat. Pull the screens apart like the pages of a book and you can stand the phone on end (I do that a lot when I’m making phone calls). Pull them round a lot further further and you can stand it on its side like an easel. That’s sturdy enough to stay up and let you scroll or tap on screen – just like a mini laptop (or a mini tablet with a kickstand), and handy if you want to follow a recipe. It’s a shame there’s no way to unlock the device with your face, though: because when it locks while you’re halfway through the recipe, you have to pick the whole phone up again to get at the fingerprint sensor if you’ve put it down with the screen sideways. If you open it like a laptop and remember to have the sensor on top, you can at least press to unlock it again without moving it around, as long as you don’t have butter on your fingers.

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The hinge is also sturdy enough that you can fold the screens out at right angles and hang the Duo over the edge of a table or shelf. If you’re working on something at ground level, or you’re lying down, this is really handy and something you can’t really do with any other phone. When my husband was isolating after testing positive with COVID-19, I could keep a video call open while I was kneeling down to unfold the sofa bed in the spare room, which was enormously comforting. The flexibility of the hinge is what makes the Duo shine.

I haven’t yet found a situation where the clever hinge on the Surface Laptop Studio has made as much of a difference. Gorgeous as this machine is, I’d rather have the Surface Book.

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