Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base: Gaming First Impressions

Posted on January 27, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Games, Microsoft Surface with 6 Comments

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base: Gaming First Impressions

While most will not purchase Surface Book with Performance Base for gaming, this capability is indeed among the several major advantages it has over its predecessors.

No, really.

The Surface Book website barely mentions games or gaming, but it does do so. But our best indication that Surface Book with Performance Base does indeed target the gaming market came at the product announcement, which you’ll recall happened at Microsoft’s October 2016 Windows 10 Creators Update event.

At the time, Panos Panay indicated that this product was the result of customer feedback, though I suspect part of it was timing, too. (In that a second-generation Surface Book wouldn’t appear for at least several more months.) And some of that feedback was from gamers.

“Gamers … want more frame rate,” he said. They just want it. I don’t really get it, but they … They want it.”

OK, so he’s not a gamer. And one could argue that the level of understanding or caring he has about this topic is similar to what he showed for the Lumia 950 at the Microsoft event from a year earlier. But whatever. Surface is finally making its first real push into gaming.

It’s important to understand that the top half of Surface Book—the screen/tablet, or what Microsoft calls the Clipboard—has not changed. This is the same Core i7 processor, the same RAM, the same SSD storage we saw previously. Only the bottom base, where the dedicated graphics processor (dGPU) and the second battery resides, has changed.

It is this new dGPU that makes Surface Book with Performance Base more viable as a games machine than its predecessor. Those original Surface Book dGPU models could play games, as I discovered, but you really had to turn down the graphics quality to get acceptable frame rates. And as I’ve since discovered on more recent games, even titles like Batman: The Telltale Series, which one would think aren’t that graphically demanding, really bog down the earlier Surface Book models.

But the new dGPU offers “two times more graphics,” Panay says, “doubling the performance.” This new dGPU required a “full thermal redesign,” Panay said, one that distributes hot air to the back of the base using two fans—up from one in previous models—and “hyperbolic cooling fins.”

So observations about the cooling—by which I mean the fan noise—will certainly factor into my coming review. But the focus here today is on gaming. And this one is fairly simple: Do games play better on Surface Book with Performance Base? Meaning, do they offer better graphical fidelity and better performance in the form of higher frame rates and glitch-free game play?

A sub-page about Surface Book innovation on the Surface website says it will. “The new Surface Book with Performance Base also has the graphics power you need to play many of your favorite Xbox and PC games. Simply connect a Bluetooth-supported Xbox Wireless Controller and enjoy your down time.”

Challenge accepted.

I’ve done a few early tests so far, and the results are clearly positive. Games that looked horrible on previous Surface Book dGPU models—like Gears of War 4—now look wonderful on Surface Book with Performance Base, and viewing the same introductory videos and playing the same levels, you can really see a big difference. Even the menu screens look and perform better.

I mentioned Batman: The Telltale Series, and how the performance of this game was surprisingly lackluster on previous Surface Book dGPU models. With Performance Base, this game looks great and plays great, with none of the graphical glitching or pauses that dogged me before.

More testing is needed, I know.

So I’ve installed a number of games on this system—Forza Horizon 3Forza Motorsport 6, Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition, Quantum BreakRise of the Tomb Raider, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War, in addition to the previously-noted titles—and will do benchmark comparisons between it and my previous Surface Book with dGPU. I’ll be using the GeForce Experience application to auto-configure games for optimal performance and see how that differs between the two. And yes, I’ll be looking at Game mode in the Windows 10 Creators Update to see how/whether that improves matters.

But even at this early date, I can already see a very real difference. And while the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M dGPU that Microsoft is using in Surface Book with Performance Base isn’t necessarily leading edge, it really is a big step up from the previous dGPU. And appears to be good enough for many modern games.

More soon.


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