Power, Portability, and Flexibility
In a traditional architectural office, collaboration requires most or all the following: computer, printer, scanner, a pen or pencil, and a phone or close proximity to your team. Said another way: technology with three chief capabilities of power, portability, and flexibility can delineate successful from unsuccessful projects. We find that the Surface Book combines these tangibles and intangibles into one very mobile tool enabling a team to harness all three capabilities. This post discusses how we take advantage of the Surface Book’s trio of positive attributes, particularly in the production phase of our workflow. It should be noted that as of the time of this post, both the production and sale of the original Surface Book directly from Microsoft have ceased. Information for the equivalent Surface Book 2 will be shown in parentheses where things have changed. I have also added a lot of links for those of you who want to dig deeper into the hardware specs.
The Surface Book we are using is the version with the performance base. It has an i7-6600U processor (i7-8650U), 16 GB of RAM, and integrated intel graphics plus a dedicated graphics card with 2 GB (6 GB) of RAM. The graphic card is a GeForce GTX 965M (GeForce GTX 1060) from Nvidia. This provides enough power to replace a production desktop in a computer-aided design (CAD) environment. In fact, it uses both cards simultaneously delegating programs that don’t need dedicated graphics to the onboard chip.
Typically, I have AutoCAD, Outlook, Chrome (3+ tabs), MS Edge (2 tabs), OneNote, Excel, Teams, and Skype for Business running at the same time. All of this spread across the built-in almost 4k display at 3000 x 2000p and 3 external 1920 x 1080p displays. (The 15” version of the Surface Book 2 has a true 4k display at 3240 x 2160p.) It runs AutoCAD 2018, Sketchbook Pro 2017 and SketchUp 2018 with ease, so it has no trouble at all handling Microsoft Office 2016 and Skype for Business. On paper, it will also run Revit and 3d Studio MAX. To date I have not used these programs for production on the Surface Book, though I am confident it’s a capable mobile-workstation because I’ve used desktop-workstations with similar specs in the past. For final renderings, nothing beats a dedicated desktop rendering machine or farm with multiple dedicated Nvidia Quadro cards.
The Surface Dock uses the same connection as the power supply that comes with the Surface Book and is necessary to connect all my peripherals. The dock has four USB 3.0 ports, a Gigabit ethernet port, two Mini DisplayPorts, and an audio out. Two external displays are powered by the mini-DisplayPort outputs, which can also be used for a single 4K monitor. The third is powered by a USB graphic adapter. The Surface Dock is also handling the wireless keyboard and mouse, external webcam, ethernet, and Logitech G13 I use to run macros in AutoCAD.
All versions of the Surface Book provide the level of portability that is to be expected in a current generation laptop. The Surface Book with the Performance Base weighs 3.68 lbs. total. The detachable display Microsoft calls the “Clip Board” weighs 1.6 lbs.
The Surface Book has two batteries, one in the Clip Board and a second, larger battery in the base. To accommodate the hardware variations, the size of the battery in base increases to meet in the power requirements of the more powerful hardware and maintain consistent battery life. Detailed information on the batteries can be found in this article. The Clip Board usually lasts a couple of hours while on site measuring existing conditions with the screen brightness at 50% using Drawboard PDF and Sketchbook Pro. The brightness will need to be set at 100% in direct sunlight and 50% under the typically bright lights in a retail space with all the lights on. On a survey lasting a full day (8 hours), you’ll want to charge the battery when breaking for lunch.
The built-in cameras make video calls an option while on the go if you have a stable internet connection. The front-facing 5 MP camera (same side as the screen) is perfect for video calls while on the move or in lieu of an external camera when at your desk. The rear-facing camera is convenient for taking a quick picture and writing or drawing directly on the picture. It does not have a flash or do well in low light—nor does it have image stabilization. It should not be relied on for photos, especially survey photos. I rely on my cell phone for this as it outperforms most point-and-shoot cameras I’ve used, especially in low light, and I always have it with me.
The Clip Board is key to the Surface Book’s flexibility and separates it from similar offerings from Lenovo and HP. It is important to note that the dedicated graphics card is in the base, leaving only the onboard graphics to power the Clip Board when it’s detached. On a short survey, all you’ll need is the clipboard. A 2-lb. difference doesn’t seem like much, but it’s noticeable when holding a device in one hand for 30 minutes. The Clip Board can be charged separately from the base, too, making it possible to leave the base behind when doing tasks that don’t require dedicate graphics. In the normal configuration, the Surface Book operates as a traditional clamshell laptop. The Clip Board can also be attached backward so that the screen is available when the device is closed to create a drawing board. The HP and Lenovo devices accomplish this with a 180-degree hinge. This configuration is for drawing while connected to the Surface Dock.
If you’re using an external camera or transferring files from a digital camera, there are two USB 3.0 ports and a full-size SD card slot that supports SDXC cards in the base. If you’re using MicroSD cards, there is an adapter designed for the Surface Book that matches and finishes flush when inserted. With the 256 GB MicroSD cards currently available, this slot can be used as additional “internal” storage. I recommend using it for music or long-term storage/archiving, because SD cards do not have the read/write speeds to make them practical for use as an active drive for working on or continually accessing files. The base also has a Mini DisplayPort for connecting an external monitor. When connected, the Surface Dock blocks the Mini DisplayPort on the base. It does not cover the port, yet it also does not leave enough rough for the casing around the Mini DisplayPort cable. Therefore, we use the USB graphic adapter previously mentioned. I suspect this is intentional, because Microsoft supports connecting the Surface Book to only two external monitors at once.
You can probably see we are pushing the Surface Book to its limits (perhaps beyond) and it’s handling it with a versatile mix of power, portability, and flexibility. The devices from HP and Lenovo are also capable. Lenovo adopted the GeForce GTX 1050 series graphic card first, though it has only 2 GB of dedicated RAM. Both the Lenovo and HP require another solution for connecting three monitors, which seems possible on paper. For us, the choice to go with the Surface Book came down to the detachable Clip Board. (The Surface Book 2 adds another reason with the 6 GB GeForce GTX 1060.)
Technology with power, portability, and flexibility dominates many industries. These articles are written from my point of view as an architect; however, these tools can prove useful to any business in the construction industry, in design, and beyond. Follow this blog for future posts discussing how we use the Surface Book at REspace to streamline our workflow.