Posey's Tips & Tricks

Random Thoughts on the Microsoft Surface Book 2

We can say it now: From its hardware quality to its ecosystem of third-party apps, Microsoft's answer to Apple's MacBook Pro has been a pleasant surprise.

Late last year, I acquired a Microsoft Surface Book 2 for a project that I was working on. Although I have owned the device for the better part of four months, I have only been able to freely use the device since the time that the project wrapped up, about six weeks ago.

Having spent a decent amount of time with it, I now feel as though I have some useful insights to share about the Surface Book 2.

Before I get started, let me just say that I honestly never expected to be writing this column. Laptops and tablets tend to be relatively mundane, utilitarian devices these days, and it often feels as though every laptop is exactly like every other laptop. Sure, one device might be a little faster or have a bit more memory than another, but all Windows 10 devices provide the same basic functionality as one another. That's why I almost never write laptop reviews.

In the case of the Surface Book 2, I keep finding myself legitimately surprised by both the device, and by how I catch myself using it. Among those surprises is the Surface Book 2's build quality. In a time when quality has largely gone out the window, it is refreshing to have a device that seems to be well-made. The Surface Book 2 is a little bit heavy for its size (I've got the 15-inch model), but I am willing to accept that because of the build quality.

I also find that I like the feel of the keyboard (it's totally different from the Type keyboard on my old Surface Pro 3 device). Laptop keyboards have long been a major pet peeve of mine. As someone who does a lot of writing, I can't stand the chiclet keyboards that all of the manufacturers seem to be using these days, because the keys are so often prone to not registering keystrokes. I haven't yet attempted to write anything longer than an e-mail message using the Surface Book 2 keyboard, but so far my experience has been entirely positive.  

Another thing that has really surprised me is how well facial recognition works. For those who may not be familiar with this feature, Windows 10 has the ability to log users onto a device by using facial recognition in place of a password (the feature is called Windows Hello). The catch is that facial recognition requires a special 3-D camera. Fortunately, such a camera is built into the Surface Book 2.

I never thought that I would use the facial recognition feature. I only enabled it because I wanted to experiment with the feature in preparation for an article that I was writing on biometric authentication. Ultimately, however, I was so impressed with the facial recognition feature that I have left it enabled.

The thing that I like about this feature is that it makes authentication completely effortless. You don't have to do anything at all. As soon as the camera sees you, it logs you in (and it does it quickly -- there's no waiting around). Oh, and in case you are wondering, I have tried to fool Windows in various ways to see if it is possible to gain unauthorized access to the device. So far, however, I have not managed to fool the Windows facial recognition engine, nor has facial recognition ever locked me out of my device.

While working with my Surface Book 2, I have also discovered two apps in the Windows Store that have really helped me to unleash the device's capabilities.

The first of these apps is called Xodo. Xodo is a really simple app, and yet it is one of the most useful apps that I have ever found in the app store. Xodo allows you to mark up .PDF documents using the Surface Pen. I have used this app to sign writing contracts, and to fill out various .PDF forms. I have also used this particular app to help me in my studies. I am currently taking four online classes as a part of my spaceflight training. I have used Xodo to add handwritten notes to some of the study materials.

There are other apps in the Windows Store that can be used for .PDF editing, but there are a few things that make Xodo stand out. First, it is completely free and does not contain any ads. Second, of the .PDF editors that I have tried, Xodo has the best support for the Surface Pen. Third, Xodo can also add typed text and other types of objects to .PDF documents. It doesn't limit you to using only the Surface Pen.

The second app that has helped me to really unleash the power of the Surface Book 2 is called Tracing. Tracing is a free drawing app (like Xodo, it doesn't contain any obnoxious ads). The idea behind Tracing is that it allows you to use the Surface Pen to trace a picture. I tried tracing a Scooby-Doo cartoon, just to see how the software worked. Even though that little experiment worked well, I find that Tracing actually works really well for drawing (not just tracing). Recently, I was asked to design a mission patch for an upcoming spaceflight simulation. I drew the mission patch artwork using Tracing (although I used Microsoft Publisher to add text, borders, et cetera).

The thing that made Tracing such a standout app for me wasn't just its support for the Surface Pen, but also its native use of the Surface Dial. Tracing even exposes the straight-edge and protractor tools that I had previously only seen on the Surface Studio.

It isn't just Tracing's excellent hardware support that earned it a mention in this column. The reason why I chose to write about Tracing is because it truly enhanced my own capabilities. The original artwork that I was able to draw in Tracing turned out far better than anything that I would have been able to draw on paper. In my opinion, a good app should help you to leverage the available technology to get results that are better than would have otherwise been possible, and that is exactly what Tracing has done for me.

One last thing that I want to mention about the Surface Book 2 is that it fully supports Microsoft's Mixed Reality portal. I have found that mixed reality works just as well on my Surface Book 2 as it does on the high-end desktop computer in my office. The only caveat to this is that my Samsung Odyssey headset has to be plugged into an HDMI port, and the Surface Book 2 uses a mini display port instead. I found a HDMI-to-mini-display-port adapter on Amazon that works really well, so long as I connect the adapter directly to the Surface Book and not to its docking station.

I realize that I have covered a lot of ground here, but I'm glad that I had the opportunity to talk about the Surface Book 2, because this device has surprised and inspired me in ways that no device has in a long time. I would recommend the Surface Book 2 to anyone, without hesitation.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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