Hands-on In its most recent quarterly earnings report, Microsoft highlighted its increasingly popular Surface line as the growth leader in its More Personal Computing line of business. Surface led the category with 61 per cent growth in constant currency, a rise driven by the top products in the line, the Surface Pro 4 tablet and the Surface Book detachable-tablet laptop.
Despite its popularity, the future of Surface — particularly the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book — may depend on Microsoft’s ability to address a reliability issue now known colloquially by an alarming number of users as “Sleep of Death.”
I purchased a top-of-the-line Windows 10 Surface Book in February. With an Intel Core i7-6600U dual-core processor and 1TB of flash storage, it wasn’t cheap. The system had a base price of $3,199; configured with Office 365, a Surface Dock, and Microsoft Complete Accident Protection, I spent a bit over $4,000 (including tax). That may be a hefty price tag for a laptop, but I prefer to max out an initial configuration — not because I’m a power user or advanced gamer, but in hopes of prolonging my system’s lifespan and delaying the always painful process of migrating to a new system.
The Surface Book was pleasing to use right out of the box. It balances the delicate tradeoff of having a bright, high-resolution (3,000 x 2,000-pixel) screen, driven by an Nvidia GeForce GPU, while still being lightweight (3.34 pounds, with keyboard) and sporting a long battery life. The screen detaches to become a nifty tablet — this feature usually works — though with less battery power, since one of the two batteries is in the keyboard attachment.
Novel design ... Microsoft's Surface Book
I found I use the touch screen only in the rare times I’m in tablet mode, though overall it’s a plus. The system comes with a stylus with clickable tip and pads. Maybe if I were an artist or spent a lot of time in tablet mode I’d use it, but after trying it a few times, the stylus became part of the detritus of pens, thumb drives, and mints in the bottom of my laptop bag. The Windows Hello facial recognition for sign-in is neat, but it doesn’t recognize me about 10 per cent of the time. It did unlock immediately for my friend Peggy, who must look enough like me.
From a performance perspective it’s a good laptop, and one that I would have been happy using for my small business. It’s when I’m not using it that the big problem sets in.
Sleep of death
Whenever the system goes to sleep for a few hours or more, chances are it’s not going to wake up. These long sleep periods, such as overnight, usually result in system crashes. The start of my work day, almost every day, involves bringing my Surface Book back from an unplanned full shutdown. If I attend a few meetings then come back, it might be dead. Catch a flight to the East Coast? The laptop won’t make it.
In the three months I’ve been trying to solve this problem, I’ve found it’s so common it has a name. Sleep of Death has plagued Surface users, particularly on Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, since early this year. Searching “sleep of death Surface” on reddit.com brings up 50 relevant threads. Even more damning, the same search on Microsoft’s own support forums yields over 75,000 results; for users who don’t know the bug’s nickname, a simpler search like “Surface sleep crash” nets even more: 250,000.
Sleep of Death is just what it sounds like. You leave your computer in sleep mode. When you come back, it’s shut down, and needs to be powered back up, leaving you to sift through auto-saved versions of files, hoping to avoid data corruption. This can happen whether in tablet or laptop mode, on battery power or plugged in (including docked), with or without hibernation enabled. Even if the system is set never to hibernate, long sleep is usually fatal.
Outcry ... A search on Microsoft’s support forum for “sleep of death Surface” gets over 75,000 hits
In some cases, the shutdown is worse. (“Crash” is technically the wrong word, as there is no crash dump file; it is an unplanned shutdown.) The system may end up unresponsive to the power button. This has happened to me about twice per month, leaving me to follow online instructions from Microsoft (read from my iPhone, naturally) on what to do when your “Surface won’t turn on or wake from sleep.” In the worst scenarios, my Surface Book has overheated while allegedly sleeping inside my laptop bag. This tends to happen if I close it and put it away without giving a specific sleep command.
From my experience, the best chance to avoid a crash is to close applications before allowing the Surface Book to sleep. The fewer things I leave open, the better the chance it will sleep peacefully through the night or my flight. (Despite these precautions, the longer the sleep, the more likely a crash is.) But if I’m going to close everything, I might as well shut it down. The whole point of a sleep function is to leave your work open on your computer or tablet and then have it be in the same state when you come back.
Microsoft asleep at the wheel
I first contacted Microsoft technical support about my issue after my first week using the Surface Book as my primary work system, having experienced multiple “unplanned shutdowns” per day and an overheated laptop bag, including an embarrassing crash in front of a conference audience. In the course of the three-hour call, nothing functional happened. Eventually the technical support representative took remote control of my desktop, checked that all updates were installed (they were), reset my power settings to the defaults (useless), and rebooted, saying that was as much as could be done that day, and that I should follow up if I still had problems.
The next day I emailed that I still had problems and asked what the next steps were. After no reply, I reached out twice more by email, and once on Twitter, specifically asking for a refund. (I admit my tweet was snarky: “@SurfaceSupport New Surface Book still sleeps like a bad drunk - doesn't remember where it was when woken. Support no help. Need to return.”) Neither my tweet nor my three emails got any reply.
Eventually I contacted Microsoft again by online chat, demanding a refund on my balky product. Some 90 minutes later, the deed wasn’t done. I asked them to email me next steps. Nothing. Again, my follow-up emails went unanswered.
When I next called to ask for my refund, I was told that I couldn’t have one, on the grounds that I was now outside the 30-day window for returns. I didn’t care for that logic, but Microsoft representatives are emphatic on two things: their point-of-sale (POS) system doesn’t allow refunds after 30 days, and the POS system cannot be questioned. Still, I insisted that my case be escalated. After another hour on the phone, they promised they’d follow up within 48 hours.
A few of the fifty current threads on Reddit related
to Sleep of Death on Surface (click to enlarge)
Roughly 46 hours later, I did get an email from Microsoft, saying my case was still under review, and that they would need another 48 hours to reply. That was nearly a month ago, and that’s the last I ever heard from them.
Following the advice of some folks in various forums, I decided to tilt at one last windmill, bringing my Surface Book into a nearby Microsoft store. The customer service representative there was friendly and welcoming but immediately took the same stance of sympathetic ineptitude I got elsewhere: “I’m feelin’ you, bro. That sucks. I’m sorry I can’t help you. The POS system just doesn’t let us do it.”
Still, he was an initial sales contact, in the flesh, and I was interested in his views on the Sleep of Death bug. He was completely aware of it, but dismissive of its seriousness, saying, “Eight times out of ten, it’s just the drivers need to be updated.” But mine are up to date. What about the 20 per cent who, like me, need more than up-to-date drivers? “Yeah, then you need a new system.”
My Surface Book still suffers from Sleep of Death about once a day on average, and I’m far from alone. No one seems to know what exactly what causes the Sleep of Death bug or how to work around it. One interesting theory is that the Intel hardware or Windows drivers are not gracefully losing chipset context when entering sleep power state S3, but I’ll leave that to Microsoft engineers to figure out. In the meantime, I cannot recommend the Surface Pro nor the Surface Book to anyone who needs a reliable system, or a supported one.
Barred from a refund, I’m not sure what I’ll do from here. I think I’ll sleep on it. And I bet I’ll still remember this experience when I wake up. ®
On May 24, Microsoft released another driver update for Surface, but it appears not to have fixed the Sleep of Death issue. In a recent comment on one of the support forum threads, one Surface Book owner posted: “I updated last night, closed the SB and this morning found it had crashed and restarted. I too am starting to think it might be hardware related, in which case MS should just own up to it instead of keeping silent.”
The Reg asked Microsoft for help via its PR team. If we get any answers, we'll publish them here.
Updated to add
After this article was published, Microsoft contacted me to discuss the issues I was having with my Surface Book. After I declined their offer for additional technical support, they agreed to honor a refund, which I had originally requested within 30 days.
On June 20, Microsoft released another set of Windows 10 updates for the Surface line, and judging from responses in the Microsoft forums, these updates seem to have fixed or improved Sleep of Death issues for many but not all users.
Addison Snell is the CEO of Intersect360 Research, an industry analyst firm focused on high-performance datacenter markets, including high performance computing (HPC), cloud, big data, and hyperscale. He is a contributing editor to The Next Platform, a partner publication to The Register. His weekly podcast, This Week in HPC, can be found on iTunes and Stitcher.