Microsoft Surface Book 2 Review

Posted on January 6, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 39 Comments

Microsoft Surface Book 2 Review

Technically a third-generation device, Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 is a portable workstation, a gaming rig, and a productivity monster. Few computers can do it all. But Surface Book 2 comes very close.

A look back

Microsoft announced the original Surface Book in October 2015, describing it as “the ultimate laptop.” Its unique hardware design, which has carried over almost unchanged in subsequent generations of the device, included a removable Surface Pen-compatible touchscreen, which Microsoft calls a clipboard, and a hardware keyboard base. This design has always been controversial, thanks to the odd teardrop-shaped hole that remains open when the device’s lid is closed; Microsoft says this hole is required by Surface Book’s unique fulcrum hinge.

I issued my first Surface Book review later that month, noting that it offered great performance and good looks. But I warned readers, somewhat presciently, that it was a first-generation and untested product too. Plus, Surface Book, like most Surface devices, has always been very expensive.

In the wake of my review, the Surface Book—and the related Surface Pro 4, which was announced at the same time—was the subject of an incredible series of reliability issues, which were followed by months of silence on Microsoft’s part. Eventually, I coined the phrase Surfacegate to describe this sad state of affairs and, over time, Microsoft finally began speaking about what it was doing to fix the flaws. (And Microsoft, of course, later ran afoul of Consumer Reports because of these reliability issues. I previously reported on Microsoft’s internal debates about this topic, and its evolving stance on the causes.)

With Microsoft getting ahead of the reliability issues by mid-2016, I also reviewed a more powerful Surface Book model, with a Core i7 processor and an unnamed NIVIDA dGPU. I found that the laptop was wonderful, thanks to the resolution of its power management issues and the enhanced productivity performance. And I was finally able to recommend Surface Book to others.

In January 2017, Microsoft announced what I think of, logically, as the second-generation version of this laptop, the Surface Book with Performance Base. The goal here was to provide a Surface Book version with much-improved performance, so Surface Book with Performance Base included a much more powerful dGPU (an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M dGPU with 2 GB of RAM) and a larger battery in the base. As a result, the keyboard angle was slightly raised as well.

In my review, I found that Surface Book with Performance Base delivered incredible performance compared to its predecessors and could even be used for light gaming. Better still, battery life was up, too, to about 11.5 hours.

Microsoft announced Surface Book 2 in October 2017, two years after it announced the original version. The form factor is the same as with the previous two generation devices, with Surface Book 2 taking on the raised keyboard design of the previous Performance Base version. But there are three other changes: Now there is a bigger 15-inch version of Surface Book 2 (with 13.5-inches being the more typical size), with almost all Surface Book 2 models offering dramatically better dGPUs. Microsoft has replaced the miniDisplayPort on each with a USB-C (not Thunderbolt 3) port, mostly for video out. And thanks to the larger device version, Microsoft also reworked the hinge connections for this release, which should further aid with reliability. (Part of the Surfacegate issues involved the unreliable connection between the Surface Book’s top and bottom halves.)

Brad received a 15-inch version and reviewed it on the Sams Report, with a separate side-bar on its gaming acumen. I am focusing here on the 13.5-inch version of Surface Book 2.

Design

As noted, Surface Book 2 retains the same form factor and professional-looking magnesium design as its predecessors: It is a 13.5-inch detachable laptop with batteries in both the display, called the clipboard, and the keyboard base.

The design is rightfully controversial; it’s just weird looking, really. But in two years of usage, I’ve found that its expected downsides—like its teardrop-shaped hole when closed and the top-heaviness of the battery-weighted display—have never been an issue. Indeed, despite the early reliability problems, Surface Book has emerged as my favorite overall portable PC in recent years. It’s the one I would pick if I could have just one.

The appeal is obvious, even if you’re not a fan of this design, per se. The Surface Book 2 is inarguably the most versatile laptop available today, and that is aided in part by the large, gorgeous display and the roomy keyboard that such a design enables.

Surface Book 2 owners can detach the clipboard display and use it like a really large tablet, which is surprisingly workable given the lightness of that clipboard, and the fact that this display part is fanless and thus silent.

Or they can reattach the clipboard display to the keyboard base backward.

Doing so and pushing the display down enables a nice raised writing surface on the display, perfect for Surface Pen and note-taking. (Less perfect: Surface Pen is not included in the price of Surface Book 2. If you need this peripheral, you will need to budget an additional $100.) This usage mode is also useful for those cramped airline seat situations. By attaching the clipboard backward, you get a large tablet that can use all of its battery power.

Granted, Surface Book 2 isn’t for everyone: It’s relatively big and bulky—with a weight of 3.4 to 3.6 pounds, depending on model—and the display and base halves of the design are roughly the same thickness at their thinnest (which isn’t thin). The device is overtly masculine, where Surface Laptop is feminine, and it will appeal to fans of Teutonic industrial design. Or perhaps those who prefer inner strength over flashiness.

There are some subtle design differences between Surface Book 2 and its predecessors.

Thanks to the addition of a 15-inch model, Microsoft has reworked the connectors in the hinge that bridge the clipboard display to the base. And those changes came to the 13.5-inch versions, too, which is great because they improve the reliability of that connection. In my admittedly short experience so far, I’ve never seen any of the hinge-related wonkiness that remains an issue on previous Surface Books today.

And the display seems more solid, with less of a wobble, even when you poke it aggressively.

And as noted, Microsoft replaced the miniDisplayPort port on older Surface Books with a USB-C port, mostly for video-out.

But that’s about it. Any but the most dedicated of Surface fans would have trouble telling Surface Book 2 from, say, Surface Book with Performance Base. They’re almost identical looking.

Display

The Surface Book 2 design may be controversial, but there is nothing controversial about its display: As with its predecessors, the 13.5-inch display has a perfect 3:2 aspect ratio and a high DPI 3000 x 2000 resolution, and it is a joy to use. Is, in fact, one of the best portable PC displays available today.

As you should expect of any PC in this class, the Surface Book 2 display offers 10 point multitouch and Surface Pen capabilities. But it is also compatible with Microsoft’s unique Surface Dial peripheral, which debuted alongside Surface Studio. It’s the right display in a perfect laptop for creatives, in other words.

Performance

While Microsoft used performance as a key selling point with previous Surface Book versions, each fell short of true portable workstation status thanks to their dual-core processors and middling graphics. But those issues are rectified nicely with Surface Book 2, which features quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core processors (except in the lowest-end model, so be careful) and powerful, gaming-class NVIDIA dGPUs.

Those dGPUs vary between the 13.5-inch and 15-inch Surface Book 2 versions. On the 13.5-inch models like the one I reviewed, you can get an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 dGPU and 2 GB of dedicated GDDR5 graphics memory in most models. That’s a portable gaming PC class GPU.

And I mean that literally: Surface Book 2 has handled every modern game I’ve thrown at it, and while you may need to lower the resolution and graphical effects somewhat, anyone but the most dedicated gamer will be happy with the performance and visual quality. It’s not like Surface Book with Performance Base: Surface Book 2 is a credible portable gaming PC, though you will be accompanied by a lot of fan hiss.

Consider two of the games I tested: Gears of War 4, which is a 4K-capable Microsoft Store-based Xbox Play Anywhere title, and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, from Steam. In both cases, the games were optimized by NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience software for this particular hardware, and I enabled Windows 10’s Game Mode.

Gears of War 4 on the Surface Book 2

Gears of War 4 provides a handy built-in benchmarking tool that reports that the game runs at 1080p (1621 x 1080 in this case, thanks to the 3:2 aspect ratio) with most effects set to Medium, and it delivers an average frame rate of 34 FPS. I think the visual quality looks great, and the game plays without any hitches or glitches.

PUBG, meanwhile, is a graphical dumpster fire in some ways, given its ever-in-preview status, but then that’s why it’s a good test, too. It was configured to run at 1280 x 800, which seems low, but many of the graphics settings were bumped to Ultra and I thought it looked fine.

Using the on-screen frame rate counter, the game consistently hits above 60 FPS once you’re on the island, with no noticeable glitching.

Surface Book 2 can even deliver the 90 Hz “Ultra” experience in Windows Mixed Reality, albeit with a lot of fan yowl. Plus, you’ll need to buy an adapter for video-out: Fortunately, Microsoft sells a $40 Surface USB-C to HDMI 2.0 Adapter that fits the bill nicely.

If you’re interested in an actual gaming benchmark, Surface Book scores 1,782 on the 3DMark Time Spy test, with a graphics score of 1643 and a CPU score of 3429. That’s OK by laptop standards, but an OMEN desktop gaming rig with dual GTX1080 graphics scored 11,261 on this same test.

For productivity performance, I routinely put my review PCs through a video encoding test in which I use Handbrake to convert a 4K video called Tears of Steel 4K to 1080p using the app’s “Super HQ 1080p 30 Surround” preset. And this confirmed a theory I had about the move from dual-core to quad-core CPUs: Surface Book 2 indeed performs far better than its predecessors in real-world power user tasks.

That is, Surface Book 2 finished nearly neck-and-neck with the previous portable PC champion, the Dell XPS 15, on this test. Surface Book 2 converted the video in almost exactly one hour, just behind the Dell, which finished in 54:29. That Dell, you may recall, sported a quad-core Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor and the same dGPU as Surface Book 2, so it’s a great comparison. And it suggests that Intel’s newer generation U-series chips are now basically the equivalent of the previous-generation HQ-series chips.

By comparison, Surface Book with Performance Base required 1:34 to convert the video. That’s over half again as long, and about average for portable PCs based on a dual-core U-series chip.

Components and ports

With the exception of the base model, Surface Book 2 ships with quad-core 8th generation Core i7-8650U processors that are significantly faster than their dual-core predecessors. (The entry-level 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 utilizes an old-school and dual-core 7th generation Core i5 processor.)

Surface Book 2 can be configured with 8 or 16 GB of RAM. Given its new prowess as a workstation, I’m surprised a battery life-killing 32 GB option isn’t available this time around.

But the storage options are more well-rounded: Depending on configuration, you will see 256 GB, 512 GB, or 1 TB of speedy PCIe-based SSD storage.

From a noise and heat perspective, Surface Book 2 doesn’t suffer from the phantom fan sound problems that plagued earlier versions, and it’s been notably quiet and cool all along. Obviously, you can stress the system by playing a video game—or, worse, by using Windows Mixed Reality. And in such cases, the fan noise will kick in, and loudly, as should be expected. Aside from gaming, however, it’s been very quiet.

Part of the reason for this, I’m told, is that Microsoft removed the fans from the clipboard display. That means that the 13.5-inch Surface Book is technically a very large and fanless tablet with a Core i7 processor, 8 or 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB to 1 TB of storage. (The dGPU is in the base.)

Surface Book supports reasonably modern connectivity, of course, with 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 support. But Microsoft does not offer LTE/4G capabilities, even as an option. (The 15-inch models include a built-in Xbox Wireless chipset. Why this is not available on the 13.5-inch models is unclear.)

From an expansion perspective, Surface Book 2 offers the dated Surface Connector (for power and an optional dock), two full-sized USB 3.0 ports, and an SD card reader. All are found in the keyboard base. (As with other Surface device’s the Surface Book 2’s power brick has a spare USB 2.0 port for charging phones too.)

There’s also a USB-C port, but it does not include Thunderbolt 3 capabilities, so you cannot drive two 4K displays at 60 Hz or add an external GPU. Yes, you can use it for video-out (with a dongle, probably, as before), or for power or external storage. But there is no excuse for a new premium PC to not support Thunderbolt 3 for expansion. This is a curious omission in this class.

Also, I will note that the headphone jack is in the same terrible place it’s always been located, on the top right of the display. This means that the headphone cord will often lay naturally in front of the display as you’re trying to look at. It should be at the bottom right of the display, not the top right. Obviously.

The stereo speakers, housed on the left and right sides of the display as before, are excellent, with deep sound and nicely separated stereo.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Like previous Surface Book versions, Surface Book 2 delivers what I consider to be nearly ideal keyboard and touchpad experiences.

The keyboard is backlit and full-sized, and it has a great typing feel with a perfect 1.5 mm key throw. It’s slightly raised towards the back to accommodate the base’s cooling and battery systems, but I’m not sure that did much to improve the typing experience. No matter, as it’s excellent.

My only real nit here is the backlighting: It can be configured to three levels of brightness, plus off, and it turns off when not in use. But because gray keys are not that much darker than the white lighting, the keys can be hard to read in certain conditions. And I find myself manually turning backlighting on and off as the ambient lighting conditions change. (This was true of previous Surface Books, too.)

The touchpad is a precision touchpad, of course, and that means you have all kinds of configuration capabilities, especially for gestures. But I like that Microsoft has ignored the giant touchpad mania that is sweeping the industry: The Surface Book 2 touchpad is right-sized, not too big and not too small. And unlike many PC touchpads, it is accurate and silky-smooth.

Surface Book 2 no longer includes a Surface Pen in any configuration, so you will need to buy that separately if you need such a peripheral.

Battery

Microsoft claims a battery life of about 17 hours for Surface Book 2, and I generally see about two-thirds of what the manufacturer estimates in my own testing.

But Surface Book 2 surprised me in this regard, as it delivered 15:20 of battery in my streaming HD video rundown test. That’s considerably better than Surface Book with Performance Base, which hit 11:30. And it’s better battery life than any PC I’ve tested over the past year, including Surface Laptop, which delivered a bit over 13 hours.

There’s no fast-charging per se, and while I haven’t tested full time to charge, it’s somewhere in the 2-to-3 hour range. This is another area in which USB-C/Thunderbolt-3 would help. Just saying.

Software

Within the context of the growing creep of crap that Microsoft adds to a basic install of Windows 10, Surface Book arrives from the factory relatively clean. There’s an innocuous—OK, nearly useless—Surface app and not much else. As a business-class device, Surface Book 2 ships with Windows 10 Pro, not the cheaper and less capable Windows 10 S or Home.

Pricing and configurations

Microsoft offers a variety of Surface Book 2 configurations. All but one—the base model—provides a quad-core 8th generation Intel Core i7 processor and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 graphics.

That base model is a curious one-off, with a dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of SSD storage, and integrated graphics at a cost of $1499. (You may recall that previous-generation Surface Book laptops were based on the 6th-generation Intel Core processors.)

You get more if you pay more. For an additional $500, or a total of $1999, you can step up to that quad-core 8th generation Intel Core i7 processor and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 graphics. And you can add RAM to 16 GB and storage to a full 1 TB, with various configurations in the $2499 to $2999 range.

There no way around it, Surface Book 2 is expensive. And that is particularly true when you factor in the loss of Surface Pen (an additional $100) and the fact that this year’s base model is so much less enticing than the other models. In my mind, the sweet spot is the Core i7/16 GB of RAM/512 GB SSD configuration, but that costs a whopping $2499 before adding the cost of Surface Pen. Warm up that credit card and your spousal explaining skills.

Recommendations and conclusions

With Surface Book 2, Microsoft has kept what works and improved almost everything else in meaningful ways. The display, keyboard, and touchpad were all excellent in previous Surface Book versions, and those carry forward basically unchanged here. But the processor and dGPU are both significant advances that Surface Book 2 firmly into portable workstation and gaming PC territory. It’s a good fit for the form factor.

But Microsoft’s inability to move forward to USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 remains a mystery, especially in this class of device. That Surface Book 2 includes a USB-C port but without Thunderbolt 3 capabilities is even more maddening: Such a change would make the device a clear recommendation for any power user. In its current form, Surface Book 2 owners will need to deal with something that is almost perfect. It’s so close.

One might be tempted to compare Surface Book 2 to other Surface devices, like Surface Pro (2017) and Surface Laptop. But these devices all occupy their own niches: Someone seriously considering Surface Book 2 probably won’t look twice at Surface Laptop, and vice versa. You either need—or want—this level of performance and sophistication or you don’t.

If you do, Surface Book 2 is very much recommended. But go into this knowing that your expansion options will be limited, especially if you want the future-proofing performance of Thunderbolt 3.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Gaming PC-class performance
  • Stellar battery life
  • Superior 3:2 PixelSense display
  • Superior typing and touchpad experiences
  • Versatile design

Cons

  • Dated expansion options
  • Surface Pen is not included
  • Hinge is awkward
  • Expensive

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