Direct from Shenzhen, Chuwi's SurBook hybrid aims to be the perfect budget travel companion when you need to stay productive on the move.
Chuwi isn't exactly a household name in Australia, but sometimes it pays to look beyond the usual suspects when in search of a bargain. There are plenty of budget Chinese PC makers vying for our attention but, as always, remember that you get what you pay for.
Starting life as an Indiegogo project, the SurBook is an impressive Surface Pro clone on paper, right down to the keyboard cover. It's selling on Indiegogo at a slight discount at US$319 (around AU$415) with 64GB of onboard storage. For US$379 (AU$515) Chuwi throws in a keyboard cover and stylus, or you can step up to 128GB of storage for US$439 (AU$570).
Depending where you buy it, you might need to pay shipping to get it to Australia. For a warranty claim you'll need to go back to China although Chuwi tells me it's looking at expanding its Australian operations.
By the numbers
The SurBook's spec sheet certainly makes for interesting reading. The tablet features a 12.3-inch, 2736x1824 display with 3:2 aspect ratio so it's shaped more like a sheet of paper than a movie screen. It's a 10-point touchscreen with an active stylus in the box to take advantage of 64-bit Windows 10 Home's touch-friendly features.
Under the bonnet lies a quad-core 1.2GHz Intel Celeron N3450 processor and Intel HD Graphics 500, which admittedly doesn't fill me with confidence, but the generous 6GB of RAM is reassuring even if it is only DDR3. It's a fanless design, which ensures that it's quiet but in return it can't run the processor too hot so it's not going to be a powerhouse.
You've got 64 or 128GB of storage at your disposal, eMMC rather than a Solid State Drive, along with a micro SDXC slot tucked away behind the kickstand for expanding the storage.
A magnesium alloy body gives the SurBook the same look and feel as Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 and they offer the same ergonomics, although the SurBook is a little heavier at 967gm. That extra 200gm might take its toll on your arm if you're carrying the SurBook around all day, plus the keyboard adds another 300gm just like Microsoft's accessory.
In portrait mode you'll find the SurBook's volume and power buttons across the top right, with two USB3.0 ports down the right-hand side. They're accompanied by a fully functional USB-C port which doubles as the power connector.
As for multimedia, the tablet sports 5/2 MP rear/front cameras. You'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack alongside the USB ports, as well as speaker grills on either side of the tablet. There's no Ethernet, but you've got dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Along the bottom edge is a magnetic dock for attaching the backlit keyboard cover, which looks identical to that supplied with the Surface Pro. Like the Pro, you can even push the keyboard back slightly so it sits up on an angle rather than flat on the table.
Fire it up
The SurBook sports the same bright, crisp 12.3-inch IPS LCD screen as the Surface Pro, but it doesn't look as vibrant because the glass isn't fully laminated. This isn't a dealbreaker if you're primarily looking for a productivity machine, but it's the first sign that the SurBook is understandably a story of compromise.
The SurBook's Intel Celeron processor is also a major step down from the Surface Pro 4, which offers a choice of a Core m3 ($899) or i5 ($1,178) processor with 4GB of RAM or a Core i7 ($3,441) with a generous 16GB of RAM.
If you need the grunt of a Core i5/i7 then the SurBook obviously isn't for you, but many people in the market for a hybrid tablet would be looking for a secondary travel computer rather than an everyday workhorse.
It's fairer to weigh up the SurBook against the Core m3, which also allows for fanless designs like the little Lenovo Yoga 710 notebook I bought for travel earlier this year. Unfortunately the SurBook's Celeron powerplant still falls far short in terms of performance and power consumption.
You can see this in the benchmarks and feel it in SurBook's real-world performance, it's fine for everyday tasks but starts to groan once you launch a few applications and open a few tabs. Once again, not necessarily a dealbreaker but still important to know before you lay down your money.
In return for sacrificing grunt you'd expect a boost in battery life for long days on the road, but here the SurBook disappoints. It promises "about eight hours, dependent on workload" but you'll only get around four hours using Wi-Fi and the browser with battery saver enabled. Expect less if you're running multiple apps and/or playing music.
Down to work
Place the SurBook on a desk and there's an adjustable kickstand on the back with a sturdy hinge which lets the tablet stand up or tilt back as far as 125 degrees. You can use the onscreen keyboard or attach the physical keyboard, which the tablet is quick to recognise.
With the keyboard in place you can balance the SurBook on your lap but, as with other hybrids, it doesn't feel as stable as a notebook and it's best used on a flat surface.
At these prices the SurBook was always going to make sacrifices and the keyboard is another. The keys are large and well-spaced but they're shallow and very clackity. The keyboard also has more flex in it than the Surface Pro keyboard cover, which will frustrate people who appreciate a decent keyboard at their fingertips.
To be fair, hybrid designs like this are for people who'll primarily use their device in tablet mode and consider the physical keyboard a bonus.
If like me, you spend your days typing, then you might not be happy with this keyboard, or the Surface Pro's keyboard for that matter. If that's the case then you're probably better off with a slimline notebook like my little Lenovo.
Unfortunately the SurBook's trackpad is a dealbreaker. It feels imprecise and "Tap to click" is enabled by default. It's incredibly sensitive, making it easy to click by accident, and there's no way to turn it off. It's incredibly frustrating when you're trying to get things done.
You can't dip into the Windows settings to change this because the SurBook only recognises the trackpad as a mouse. This means you lose Windows' advanced trackpad configuration options and access to the trackpad driver tab. Cutting corners like this really takes the shine off the SurBook and you can find owners of other Chuwi devices complaining about it in the forums.
Even worse, the SurBook has an annoying habit of minimising windows when you're in the middle of doing something, hiding them away so you need to recall them from the taskbar. For example, if you change tabs in Microsoft Edge and then move the pointer down quickly using the trackpad, the browser disappears as if you'd used the Windows + Down + Down shortcut. It also happens in other apps.
Chuwi tells me it hasn't encountered this issue before, but there are plenty of complaints on the Chuwi forums about the same problem with other Chuwi devices going back more than 12 months. One workaround is to install a third-party hotkey app to override these shortcuts, but you shouldn't need to employ these kind of hacks just to make your tablet useable.
So what's the verdict?
At these prices Chuwi's SurBook was always going to be a story of compromise. In some ways it was better than I expected, such as the build quality, but the disappointing battery life and terrible trackpad implementation would strike it off my shortlist if I was shopping for a productivity-focused travel companion.