With the passage of time and a much-needed power management fix, I can now recommend Microsoft’s Surface Book without hesitation: This is a stunning 2-in-1 PC with excellent performance, great looks, and a unique design.
The only problem? It’s going to cost you.
I reviewed a mid-level version of the Surface Book—with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of SSD storage—back in October. Everything I wrote then still applies today. So rather than rehash the whole thing, please—please–re-read the initial review if possible for the full story.
But here’s the summary: At the time of that review, I had concerns about the newness of the product, the reliability of its unique hinge, and its heady pricing. For these reasons, I couldn’t issue a blanket recommendation.
But things have changed. And as a result recommending Surface Book just got a whole lot easier. So with this review—which focuses on a higher-end Surface Book model, with a Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of SSD storage, and the dedicated NVIDIA graphics option—I’d like to expand on my earlier review.
First up, pricing.
Surface Book is (very) expensive
My current Surface Book model costs an incredible $2100. To be clear, I have never and would never spend that much money on any PC. And my recommendation to all potential Surface Book buyer is to look lower in the model list: The Core i5 model I previously reviewed is the sweet spot, with a still-expensive $1700 price tag. But I could personally get away with the “entry-level” Surface Book—Core i5, 8 GB, 128 GB—which costs $1500.
Yes. That’s still a lot of money.
What you get in return is a gorgeous, non-reflective and spacious 13.5-inch PixelSense (3000 x 2000) touchscreen display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Which I love. You get the vaunted Surface build quality, with its magnesium case, near-perfect keyboard and touchpad, and a reasonable amount of expansion. (A first for any Surface.) And of course you get that unique Surface Book design, with the science experiment hinge and its detachable display.
These higher-end Surface Book models will appeal to well-heeled “power users”—whoever they are—creatives, and others who need this kind of power on the go. But every Surface Book performs well, and there’s no Core-M stripper model like we see with Surface Pro 4.
As you step into in the higher-end versions, like my second review unit, the scale is somewhat incredible. My i7-based Surface Book provides double the RAM (16 GB) and double the storage (512 GB) of the first review unit. But you could go up form there and configure a version with 1 TB of SSD storage … for a gulp-inducing $3200. I’ve spent less money on cars.
Point being, Surface Book is a premium device. But it’s one of only a handful of PCs worthy of commanding this pricing. Most people can’t afford it—in the same way that most people can’t afford an expensive Mercedes or Tesla—but for those that can … Oh my.
What you get—and lose—with that NVIDIA dGPU
Here’s an interesting Surface Book tidbit: It’s not actually possible to configure a Core i7 version of Surface Book without the NVIDIA dedicated GPU option, though my understanding and experience is that RAM and storage speed—and, with Surface Book—the dGPU have a lot more to do with performance—and the resulting loss in battery life—than does the processor. (Meaning that even those interested in the dGPU might consider an i5 processor instead.)
What the NDIVIA graphics option gives you is hardware accelerated graphics that really do make certain applications come alive. For example, that dGPU is the difference between being able to play the recently-released game Gears of War: Ultimate Edition … and not being able to play it. That’s not to say that the dGPU is designed for games per se—in fact, Microsoft explicitly states it is not—but it does open up a new world of possibilities, and that’s true whether you’re on the go or docked to multiple displays and using Surface Book like a workstation PC.
To illustrate the performance difference in more granular terms, I ran a set of 3DMark performance benchmarks on the device, with and without the dGPU enabled. Here are the results:
Surface Book with integrated Intel graphics: 886
Surface Book with NVIDIA GeForce 940M (dGPU): 1888
Surface Book with integrated Intel graphics: 3736
Surface Book with NVIDIA GeForce 940M (dGPU): 6220
Cloud Gate 1.1
Surface Book with integrated Intel graphics: 6021
Surface Book with NVIDIA GeForce 940M (dGPU): 7731
Put simply, Surface Book performs faster in 3D and other graphics-heavy applications—much faster—with the dGPU enabled.
In real-world terms, you won’t see any difference at all in traditional productivity applications, like those in Microsoft Office. And you will likely see a bit less battery life. So this one probably falls into the pat but true category of, “if you don’t know you need it, you don’t need it.” I certainly don’t need it.
Power management just works
When Surface Book debuted alongside Surface Pro 4, we had no idea that a curious sleep issue would expand into what I eventually named Surfacegate after Microsoft refused to publicly explain itself for several agonizing months. Those days, thankfully, are over. And with weeks of experience, I can safely declare that Surface Book power management, finally and wonderfully, just works.
I know this because I’ve tested Surface Book sleep and resume in every meaningful way I can. I’ve loaded up the system with running applications, closed the lid, and then reopened it under a variety of conditions: Immediately, after a few hours, after overnights, and, most recently, after a week-long trip (!) to Seattle. When I arrived home, I popped open Surface Book and it sprung to life almost immediately, and still had over 90 percent of its battery life.
Folks, it’s not possible to exaggerate here: That is a fricking miracle, especially for anyone who suffered through those months of hot-bagging and sleep issues. Yes, it took too long to fix. And yes, Microsoft was not transparent enough to customers. But it works now. The nightmare is over.
About that hinge design
I’m still not sure I like the big opening when the device is closed, and of course Surface Book suffers from a problem that plagues all 2-in-1s because the power button must be kept on the outside of the device: Sometimes, the button is engaged in transit, and it can wake up inside your bag.
But from a strength and reliability perspective, Surface Book’s weird hinge just works. I’ve listened to some people complain that the unique design causes the screen to wiggle more than other laptops when its open. But in side-by-side tests with a MacBook Air and various PCs (like the HP Spectre x360), I don’t find that to be the case at all. It moves no more or less than the other PCs I use.
Less interesting to me is one of Surface Book’s key selling points: The ability to remove the screen from the keyboard base and use it as a large tablet, which Microsoft calls a clipboard for some reason. Like the iPad Air, Surface Book makes for a cumbersome tablet, and what I’d rather own is a Surface Book with a non-removable and thinner screen. In other words, an actual laptop, or Ultrabook.
That said, the screen’s ability to detach in no way lessens my experience in using the device as I prefer. And who knows, it may actually come in handy on a flight someday if I’m squeezed in a tiny seat and just want to watch a movie.
We’ve really come full circle on Surface Book. When it first shipped, it was a beautiful and well-made device with a curious and unproven hinge design and—for some—serious sleep problems. Today, Surface Book remains beautiful and well made, of course, but the other concerns have (mostly) melted away, as noted above.
And that means that we can now evaluate Surface Book in a new light. We can see it as Microsoft envisioned it, as a well-made premium PC device, one that is beyond the means of most customers, yes. But Surface Book is aspirational, and it shows both potential customers and competitors what’s possible in a modern PC.
Put simply, Surface Book is one of the best PCs in the market today, and one of the best PCs ever made. It is well-designed, powerful, gets great battery life, and is attractive in ways that don’t mimic Apple or other designs at all. It is a triumph, albeit a belated one.
I’ve waited a long time to write these words, but Surface Book is highly recommended.
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