Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base Review

Posted on March 11, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 40 Comments

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base Review

Microsoft’s Surface Book with Performance Base fills an interesting niche in a crowded model lineup. It redefines what it means to be a high-end Surface Book, edging the product into mobile workstation territory. And it does so while providing even better battery life.

Of course, there’s a lot of history with Surface Book. I’ve reviewed two Surface Books so far—a Core i5 model with no discrete graphics and a Core i7 model with the original dedicated GPU. Between those two reviews, of course, Surface Book (and Surface Pro 4) suffered from prolonged and very public reliability problems. And that experience weighs on this new model, as it does on my impressions of the device.

That said, my experience with Surface Book with Performance Base has been largely excellent and trouble-free. Aside from a misguided (and self-inflicted) adventure with the Windows 10 Insider Preview—which left me unable to control the display brightness until I reset it back to its factory state—this PC has proven itself to be an able companion.

And to be clear, this isn’t a new version of the product, per se. Instead, Performance Base represents three new models of the original (late 2015) Surface Book lineup. By which I mean, each of these new Performance Base models combines the same Intel “Skylake” Core i7-based Clipboard tablet module that Microsoft first offered in late 2015 with a new version of the keyboard base that provides a speedier dGPU and more battery. What separates each of these three new models is different RAM and storage configurations, and higher price tags that range from $2400 to $3300.

(If you’re confused by the Surface Book lineup, you’re not alone: I explained the differences between each model back in October.)

Design

Surface Book with Performance Base retains the interesting but somewhat controversial design of the original models, but with a few subtle differences. That is, it is a largish 13.5-inch laptop with a removable screen, called the Clipboard. It is not an Ultrabook by any measure, and isn’t thin or light, weighing in at 3.8 pounds, not including the power adapter. (Which is larger on Performance Base models too.)

This design has a few ramifications.

Functionally, of course, Surface Book is a 2-in-1 PC because you can remove the screen—the Clipboard—and use it like a large tablet. 2-in-1 PCs are not unusual these days—frankly, we’re kind of swimming in them—but Surface Book’s design is in fact unique.

That is, most 2-in-1s fall into one of two categories: Detachable PCs, which are tablets (like Surface Pro 4 and its many clones) that can transform into pseudo-laptops with a keyboard cover, and convertible PCs, which are laptops in which a non-detachable screen can in some way rotate back around the device, turning into a very large and heavy tablet. Each of these designs has its advantages and disadvantages, and each will appeal to users with different needs.

But Surface Book offers a new take on a 2-in-1: Here, we have a true laptop form factor, with a hardware base that contains the keyboard and touchpad, various ports, a battery, and, in the case of Performance Base, a dedicated graphics processing unit, or dGPU. So the functionality it provides is unique—the Clipboard is bigger than your typical detachable PC, but it’s also lighter and thinner than a convertible in tablet form—and offers an interesting middle ground between other types of 2-in-1s.

The Surface Connector for the screen also features positioning tabs

That said, Surface Book will still appeal to those who need a laptop for most tasks, but only occasionally need a tablet. By way of comparison, detachable PCs are typically smaller and very portable, and offer a fairly even divide between tablet- and laptop-type form factors. And convertibles are basically just laptops that will only very occasionally be used as tablets, given their bulk. (The real appeal of convertibles these days, I think, is more about their ability to transform into tent and presentation form factors, basically for content consumption, not creation, purposes.)

Put another way, Surface Book is correctly optimized for most use cases, I think. That is, it is nearly ideal as a laptop, though the top-heaviness of the design means the screen can’t tilt back as far as is the case with most true laptops.

This is the maximum screen angle

And in Clipboard mode, Surface Book presents a large but comparatively usable tablet, complete with active pen support, that can be used for true content creation tasks. Surface Book is likewise unique in that you can actually attach the screen backwards, giving you some other interesting form factors, including that tent mode that convertibles offer, and a neat, angled writing surface for those who really do use Surface Pen regularly.

I mentioned that Surface Book is controversial, however, and that’s because its unique design also necessitates a teardrop-shaped “hole” that sits near its weird tractor tread-like hinge when the device is closed.

Related to this, all Surface Book models are a bit top-heavy, with a thicker (and heavier; remember, its detachable) than usual screen that is necessitated by its 2-in-1 design. The internal design of this hinge is no doubt a technical feat worth cheering, but 18 months after Surface Book first debuted, I still find the resulting hole to be somewhat ugly, weird, and unnecessary. And I fully expect that hole to either disappear or at least become smaller if and when a Surface Book 2 appears.

But Surface Book with Performance Base is stuck with that hole. Fortunately, I do have some good news to share: Over a long period of time using a few different Surface Book models, I never once experienced my greatest fear for this hole, that material of some kind would fall inside and somehow mar the exposed screen or keyboard areas. And with Performance Base, that hole has actually gotten a bit smaller.

Original Surface Book model (top) and Performance Base (bottom)

The reason for this, interestingly, is the extra battery and improved dGPU that Microsoft added to the base. So the keyboard is actually angled slightly more than with previous models, providing more room for the extra battery and the new dGPU, and for the latter’s new cooling system, in which heat is vented out to the back, behind the keyboard, and onto the hinge. The keyboard angle is not noticeable in daily use—I was curious if it would somehow improve the already-excellent typing experience, but no—and is in fact barely noticeable unless you really know to look for it.

These vents channel heat out of the Surface Book Performance Base

The unique Surface Book design also means that all of the expansion ports—two full-sized USB 3 ports, a miniDisPlayPort, a full-sized SD card reader, and a proprietary Surface Connect port for power—are in the base. (OK, there are actually two Surface Connect ports: A second such port connects the Clipboard to the base as well.) The Clipboard screen part only includes one port, for the headphone jack, which is badly positioned at the top right of the display, meaning that your headphone cables will always fall onto the screen while you’re trying to watch a movie. This port should be on the bottom, not the top, in other words.

The appeal of any hardware design is of course subjective. But I find Surface Book to be professional-looking and attractive overall, despite my issues with the hinge-created hole and the mistaken headphone jack placement. This is a great-looking device, and while many were probably eager to see if Microsoft would update its initial Surface Book design by late 2016, it has held up nicely. It’s also been incredibly durable: Unlike with some smudge- and scratch-attracting laptops, my various Surface Books have retained their factory-fresh newness over time.

Display

The display of the Surface Book with Performance Base is unchanged from previous Surface Book models, and it is housed in the removable, tablet-like Clipboard as before. And that’s just fine with me: This is one of the best mobile displays I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve come to love its capacious size, 3:2 aspect ratio, and very high resolution.

Let me put some numbers to that, though to be honest, all you need to do is look at the thing to fall in love with it. Surface Book with Performance Base—like all Surface Book models—provides a 10 point multi-touch and Surface Pen-enabled 13.5-inch display running at an unbelievable 3000 x 2000 pixels. That’s 267 pixels-per-inch (PPI). By comparison, a 13.3-inch MacBook Pro offers a resolution of just 2560 x 1600, at 227 PPI.

Following in Apple’s Retina footsteps, Microsoft brands this display as PixelSense. This word is both a thoughtful throwback to the Surface team’s roots—as you may recall, the original Surface device was designed by a company called Perceptive Pixel, which Microsoft acquired—and a way of describing a screen in which the pixels are so tightly packed together that the human eye cannot differentiate them from a normal usage distance.

And on that note, PixelSense isn’t just marketing: Once you have experienced a gorgeous high DPI display like this, going back to mere Full HD-type resolutions is painful: Your eyes won’t be able to unsee the jaggy text and blotchy graphics that are suddenly so obvious, and so disagreeable, on such displays. Surface Book’s PixelSense display is a revelation.

It’s also the “right” size, at least for me. As you may know, I prefer larger displays on portable PCs, and this year in particular has seen a nice resurgence in large 15-inch displays with such devices as the Dell XPS 15 and HP Spectre x360 15 (both of which I’m reviewing now as well). But those larger laptops are bigger and heavier, whereas Surface Book, even in Performance Base form, cuts a better compromise, I think. Despite having a display that is “only” 13.5 inches—maybe it’s the aspect ratio—there’s something just perfect about this design. Assuming you’re looking for a laptop form factor, of course.

Components and ports

Internally, all Surface Book with Performance Base models feature the same 6th generation dual-core Intel Core i7-6600U “Skylake” processor. This is the same processor that was available with certain Surface Book models starting in November 2015, and while they may have seemed leading edge at the time—Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 were in fact the very first mainstream PCs to ship with Skylake parts—that is no longer the case. In the many months since that original release, Intel has shipped 7th generation “Kaby Lake” CPUs, and those parts are now in use by virtually all of Surface Book’s competitors.

But this is perhaps less problematic than many would have you believe. The performance and energy efficiency advantages of Kaby Lake over Skylake are modest at best, for starters. And if you consider the reliability issues that dogged Surface Book for several months in late 2015 and early 2016, you can see why Microsoft wasn’t particularly interested in taking a chance on swapping out the internal parts for this midstream refresh.

On that note, there’s also an argument to be made that Skylake is now a known quantity, that Microsoft’s extensive experience fixing those issues has resulted in a product that is now well-tested and reliable. My experience with this device suggests that this is the case: Unlike with my previous two Surface Books, a Core i5 model with no dGPU and a Core i7 model with the original dGPU, Performance Base has worked well and has been consistently reliable.

The dGPU in Performance Base is, of course new. When Surface Book debuted in late 2015, Microsoft offered a few models with an NVIDIA-based dGPU. That dGPU provided 1 GB of RAM, but Microsoft declined to specify the part, leading testers to benchmark it and compare the results against NVIDIA’s GPUs of the day. What they discovered is that Microsoft was basically utilizing a GeForce GT 940 chipset, which was even then fairly low-end.

In my testing of that original dGPU version, I found that it enabled those Surface Book models to play modern games, if barely, while utilizing lower-than-desirable resolutions and quality levels. So there’s a certain amount of extra utility there, of course. That said, Microsoft was quick to point out that these devices were aimed at productivity needs—massive spreadsheets and databases, image and video processing, and so on—and not games.

Surface Book with Performance Base turns things up a notch. These devices pack an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M dGPU with 2 GB of RAM. Which, yes, is not exactly a “new” part, but then it’s important to remember than its successor, utilizing NVIDIA’s new Pascal architecture, didn’t debut until CES in January. Put another way, as with the CPU, Microsoft is going with a known-reliable part when it comes to graphics too. My take on this is that reliability is job one, given the history.

Back in January, I offered a first peek at Performance Book’s gaming acumen, noting that this new device specifically targets gaming, thanks to feedback from customers. The new dGPU offers “two times more graphics,” as Microsoft’s Panos Panay says it, “doubling the performance” over the previous dGPU models.

I’m not sure about the specifics of Panay’s claims. But Surface Book with Performance Base can play many modern games, like Gears of War 4, Quantum Break, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, and even do so effectively if you don’t mind bumping down the quality a bit. (Your best off using NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience app to do this for your automatically.) Compared side-by-side with the previous dGPU-equipped Surface Book, the differences are startling: Surface Book with Performance Base provides smoother, faster performance and noticeably superior graphical quality in each of the games I’ve tested.

But compared side-by-side with a beefier gaming laptop, the dGPU in Performance Base shows its age. This isn’t really a gaming rig, of course, and it cannot handle 4K resolutions at all: The 3DMark Fire Ultra benchmark, which measures your PC’s readiness for 4K gaming, indicated that the performance of this device at such resolutions was about 1/10th that needed to meet the requirements of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, for example.

I’m going to write-up a comparison of the gaming performance of the various laptops I’m currently testing soon. But put simply, don’t buy Surface Book with Performance Base to play games, as there are far more powerful portable PCs to be had that can do so with better performance and graphics quality. These run the gamut from true gaming laptops like the HP OMEN 17 to workstation-class laptops like the Dell XPS 15, which feature more modern and powerful internals.

Looking past the dGPU—and its new cooling/thermal system, which I’ve found to be nicely quiet unless you’re hammering on it with a game, which is to be expected—little else has changed internally. These high-end Surface Books can be configured with 8 or 16 GB of RAM, as before, so there’s no 32 GB option, which I find odd. It skips over the 128 GB entry-level SSD and offers 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB storage choices, and as you’d expect of this class of device, these are speedy PCIe-based parts. (The review unit is a high-end model with 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage.)

As noted, all of the expansion is in the keyboard base, which is fine. As a late-2015 design, however, Surface Book with Performance Base lacks USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 compatibility, meaning that it cannot take full advantage of the performance and expansion benefits of that more modern platform. Instead, Surface Book’s Surface Connect port, which is used for both power and to connect the Clipboard/display to the base, is USB 3-based, but using a proprietary connector. This is all kinds of bad—you can’t drive two 4K displays at 60 fps, for example, even when docked—and I fully expect Microsoft to switch to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 for the next generation Surface Book.

And before you get too weepy-eyed over Surface Connect, it’s also worth pointing out that this terrible proprietary connector’s magnets sometimes result in the connector attaching to the outside of Surface Book rather than making an actual connection. Meaning that, yes, if you’re not paying attention, you may not actually be charging Surface Book. This used to be much more common on early Surface designs, but it still happens. I can’t wait until Microsoft gets rid of this outdated and flawed technology.

Keyboard, touchpad and Surface Pen

Thanks to its larger battery and those new dGPU thermals, the backlit Surface Book with Performance Base keyboard is more angled upwards to the back when compared to the keyboard on previous models. But I have not noticed a difference in the typing experience, which is great as Surface Book has always provided what I believe to be the ideal portable PC typing experience. You simply cannot find a better keyboard on any portable PC. (That said, the HP Spectre x360 15 offers an interesting challenge, and it is possible that that device’s keyboard is just as good. I’m still testing it.)

Likewise, the glass touchpad on Surface Book with Performance Base is unchanged from previous models. Meaning that it, too, is best in class: This is the best touchpad you can find on any Windows PC, period. And now that Apple has ruined its own touchpads, the Surface Book touchpad is the best in the industry too.

There’s so much to like about this touchpad, and as a Windows user, this isn’t something I get to gush over very often. It’s the right size, for starters—Apple, especially, but even companies like HP are super-sizing touchpads for dubious if imaginary reasons these days—and it’s buttery-smooth. Perfect is a tough word. But it is ideal. And that it is backed by Windows 10’s excellent precision touchpad configuration software is just the icing on that celebratory cake.

Like other Surface Books, Performance Base includes a Surface Pen, Microsoft’s well-regarded active pen. Surface Pen supplies over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity. It also provides excellent latency, which is basically a measure of the lag between pen tip-based movements across the screen and digital ink appearing in whatever software you’re currently using. Put another way, it works like a real pen, pencil, or brush, and provides a very natural feel.

Readers who are disappointed with my lack of focus on Surface Pen will remain so, however, sorry. Despite my background as a professional artist, I have no particular need for Surface Pen and do not use it regularly. But I think my needs/wants here actually mirror the general populace: Few people actually use this kind of accessory, despite Microsoft’s multi-year effort to drum up interest. Those who do need such a thing will no doubt be enthralled by the quality and usefulness of Surface Pen. And apologize for not having more to say on that topic.

Battery

After the improved dGPU, the biggest change in Performance Base is its larger battery, when compared to previous Surface Book models (both those with and without a first-generation dGPU). So I was curious to see whether this battery—which adds almost half a pound of weight—would improve battery life overall, or whether the power requirements of the new dGPU would offset the gains somewhat.

The difference is dramatic. In a good way.

In my testing of Performance Base battery life—which I’ve had to do under artificial conditions because of the last minute cancellation of a lengthy series of flights to Africa—I consistently achieved about 11.5 hours of life over several tests.

While these tests were indeed artificial—in that, yes, they involved Full HD video playback using the Movies & TV app that comes with Windows 10—I still feel that they represent a real world result, as I was streaming these videos over Wi-Fi, and not using downloaded files. I’m performing similar tests on all of the portable PCs I’m currently reviewing, and if it makes sense to publish a single battery life comparison, I may do so.

Regardless, Surface Book with Performance Base has provided excellent, all-day battery life in regular use.

Software

Surface Book with Performance Base includes Windows 10 Pro, which makes all kinds of sense. It provides the user with access to Microsoft’s business-focused capabilities, of course, but also power user and developer features like BitLocker, Bash, and Hyper-V.

Of course, Windows 10 is a double-edged sword in this regard, too, as it comes bundled with a crazy amount of outright crapware, not to mention intrusive advertising and other annoyances. That’s not the fault of the Surface team, but Surface devices have typically offered a Signature PC-like experience, and things are changing at Microsoft, and not for the better.

Surface Book does bundle a few utilities, like the mostly worthless Surface app, which is only useful for configuring the pressure sensitivity of Surface Pen, a feature that should simply be included in Windows 10 Settings. And a few apps, most of which are not completely objectionable, though some might deem them as unnecessary bundleware, if not outright crapware. Fair enough, but they are at least easily uninstalled.

Pricing and configurations

While Surface Book is a premium family of products, the Performance Base models move the pricing needle even further upward.

I’ve already provided a deeper overview of the entire Surface Book family. But at a high level, it may help to divide the various models into three groups: Those without a dGPU, those with a first-generation NVIDIA dGPU (with 1 GB of RAM), and the Performance Base models, with the new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M dGPU with 2 GB of RAM.

“Base” Surface Books—those without a dGPU of any kind—range from $1500 to $2000, depending on the configuration. Those with a first-generation dGPU range from $1900 to $2700. And the Performance Base models? You’re looking at $2400 to $3300.

As noted, all Performance Base configurations feature a 6th generation dual-core Intel Core i7-6600U “Skylake” processor and that NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M dGPU with 2 GB of RAM. What differs as you move up the price range is the RAM and storage configurations. You can configure a Surface Book with Performance base with 8 or 16 GB of RAM—again, there’s no 32 GB option—and with 256, 512, or 1024 GB (1 TB) of SSD storage.

I tested the most powerful Surface Book version, a Performance Base model with 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage. But even given some of my developer work, this configuration is overkill for my own needs.

Recommendations and conclusions

Surface Book with Performance Base provides Microsoft with a neat mid-stream upgrade, a sort of “1.5” release that improves on the original models while not really changing the design. The question, however, is whether you need such a product. And whether it warrants its lofty price tag.

Asking some additional questions will help provide some context and help with your decision. The most obvious:

Does Performance Base offer enough improvement over other Surface Book models to justify the extra cost?

And is there some other computer, from a major PC maker like Dell, HP, or Lenovo, that offers the same quality, performance, and utility, but at a lower price?

These are more complicated questions than is immediately obvious, and of course your needs and wants will differ from mine. But it’s important to remember that Surface Book is unique in the world of 2-in-1 PCs in that it is a real laptop with a removable screen that can be used as a tablet when needed. The Surface Book is very much laptop first, tablet second.

That alone has interesting ramifications for your potential usage. With a typical detachable PC like Surface Pro 4, the tablet part is the PC. That is, all of the “guts” of the PC—its processor, graphics, RAM, and storage, but also its battery and expansion ports—are all in the tablet part. In Surface Book in general, and in Performance Base in particular, these internal components are actually spread between both the tablet (Clipboard) top and the hardware base. There is battery in both, for example, and a dGPU in the base. So when you detach the Clipboard, you can’t use the dGPU. And the battery life is much lower, something like 3 hours. (I’ve not tested this since the original Surface Book, but this piece hasn’t changed in Performance Base.)

For me, the ability to detach the screen is not particularly interesting, except in certain unusual circumstances. That is, I’m never going to use Surface Book like a tablet. But I have on very rare occasion seen the need to detach the screen and flip it around so that it is on “backward.” This is useful if you wish to watch movies in a cramped airplane seat but still want to take advantage of the device’s full battery life, for example.

But that is a nicety, not a requirement, and some PCs have lay-flat or 360-degree convertible designs that would let you accomplish the same thing.

Point being, you should shop around. I would personally compare any Surface Book with three product families: The HP Spectre x360 (which comes in both 13- and 15-inch variants), the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and X1 Carbon Yoga (which both feature 14-inch displays), and the Dell XPS 13, XPS 13 2-in-1, and XPS 15. Each offers a premium design, and each can be configured for much less money than a Surface Book with Performance Base. Some—like the XPS 15, in particular—can be had with an even higher-end processor, RAM, and dGPU options than the Microsoft product.

I’ve reviewed some of these products, and I’ll be reviewing the 15-inch HP Spectre x360 and Dell XPS 15 soon. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, of course. But each is also truly excellent. As is the Surface Book with Performance Base.

On that note, the Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base is a well-made and nicely designed premium PC with truly useful features and incredible battery life. As a writer, I find myself particularly drawn to its excellent display, keyboard, and touchpad. You could save some money by looking at lower-end Surface Book models—or the competition—for sure. But you would be hard-pressed to find another PC with this combination of elan and utility.

Surface Book with Performance Base is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Gorgeous 3:2 PixelSense display
  • Versatile, attractive and durable form factor
  • Excellent battery life
  • Superior keyboard and precision touchpad

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Slightly big and heavy
  • That weird hole
  • Unclear if the dGPU warrants the additional cost

 

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