A unique and tremendously versatile laptop, especially if you choose a model with a discrete graphics chip.
The original Surface Book was an odd fish in a sea of 2-in-1 convertibles. Microsoft’s first attempt at building a “proper laptop”, it was an innovative design for an expensive price. While gaining plenty of plaudits for the unique way its lid detached from the keyboard base, it never matched the Surface Pro for breakthrough popularity.
So, after the Surface Laptop’s release last year, you might have forgiven Microsoft for shelving its ambitious detachable and focusing on devices with more established mass market appeal. Not a bit of it: the Surface Book is back for another bite of the do-everything laptop cherry, and it’s just as mad, bad and expensive as before.
What’s different? Well, the new 15in version is the most interesting development – but that’s the version we don’t have yet. It isn’t going to be available in Australia until later in 2018, so you’ll have to wait. In terms of the 13.5in model we review here, Microsoft has nipped and tucked rather than opted for a grand redesign. A quick inspection of the Surface Book 2’s external surfaces reveals a USB-C port has replaced the Book’s mini-DisplayPort socket on the right edge of the keyboard base, but in every other respect it’s the same design.
Hinge upon its success
I’m surprised that Microsoft hasn’t been more ambitious, because although there are many things I loved about the Surface Book, there were some that I didn’t. That segmented “fulcrum” hinge is still there and still wobbles when you open the lid. The rubbery strips on the laptop’s underside also remain: these don’t grip smooth surfaces particularly well, allowing the laptop to slide around too easily.
There’s another price to pay for the Surface Book’s unique skills: the whole design is bulky and heavy compared to top 13in ultraportables such as the Dell XPS 13. It’s a substantial 23mm thick at the hinge when closed and the Core i7 version with the extra discrete graphics chip (the one Microsoft sent for this review) weighs 1.64kg. The MacBook Pro 13in is 15mm thick and weighs 1.37kg; the XPS 13 15mm and 1.29kg.
Still, 1.64kg isn’t a bad weight for a laptop this flexible and powerful. And make no mistake, the Surface Book 2 is the most versatile machine around – much more so than the 2017 Surface Pro, which I loved. The Book’s rigid keyboard base gives you a more solid platform to work on your lap and Microsoft has also squeezed in a second battery to complement the one in the tablet, a move that – as long as you stick to the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 and resist the urge to game with the Nvidia GTX 1050 chip enabled – promises all-day life.
The keyboard itself is great with plenty of travel and just the right amount of feedback, while the touchpad is large enough to accommodate Windows 10’s gestures comfortably. It’s lovely and smooth under the finger as well.
If all you want to do is browse the web, take notes or sketch, the screen can be disengaged from the keyboard base with a simple dab of the eject button at the top right of the keyboard. Wait for a second or two and the electromechanically activated clamps holding the two parts together release and you can lift the screen away. It’s a clever system that ensures the two parts mate together perfectly every time, while providing a vice-like grip in laptop mode that doesn’t let go even if you pick up the machine by the screen.
Plus, with Surface Pen and Dial support, the only thing separating the Surface Book 2 from the Surface Pro in “tablet mode” is the absence of the kickstand. But you can replicate even that capability with the Surface Book if you want: dock the screen backwards and use the base as a stand. With Xbox One wireless controller compatibility, this is the perfect mode to kick back and play a quick session of Forza Motorsport 7.
On the periphery
Connectivity-wise, the Surface Book 2 is an impressive beast. Anyone frustrated by the seemingly inexorable move towards USB-C-only connections on rivals will be delighted to see a pair of full-size USB Type-A 3.1 ports on the left edge of the keyboard base, complemented by a photographer-friendly SDXC card slot. Microsoft’s proprietary slot-shaped power connector sits on the right edge along with that USB-C port, which can also be used to charge and output video to an external display simultaneously.
As for wireless, you get the usual 2x2 MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1. There’s a 5-megapixel front-facing Windows Hello-compatible camera above the display and an 8-megapixel camera at the rear. Both can also shoot 1080p video.
Then we come to the screen. The “PixelSense” displays adorning Microsoft’s Surface line of products have been great for a while now and the Surface Book 2’s is no different. It’s an absolute triumph in terms of resolution, usability and performance. The 3:2 aspect ratio means displaying two applications side by side is a more comfortable experience than on squatter, 16:9 displays. The resolution of 3,000 x 2,000 makes everything look pin sharp, and the performance of this IPS-based panel is spot on.
Peak brightness hit 462cd/m2 in testing, so it will be readable in most conditions, it covers 96.6% of the sRGB colour gamut with no adjustment required, and colour accuracy is impressive. If you’re planning on buying a laptop to carry out professional grade photo editing, the Surface Book 2 won’t let you down.
New generation chip
But it’s the internal components that are most exciting here, with an eighth-generation quad-core 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U providing the horsepower, backed up with 16GB of RAM and a desktop-class Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU. This line-up means the Surface Book 2 is as comfortable running Adobe Premiere Pro as it is playing the latest games.
Despite this, the Surface Book 2 performed only adequately in our application-based benchmarks. While its 1.9GHz quad-core i7-8650U might be faster than the dual-core Kaby Lake chip in its predecessor in short bursts and for multithreaded applications, it isn’t as fast under sustained pressure and for single-core tasks.
In our media-focussed benchmarks, its overall score of 75 lags significantly behind the 108 achieved by the dual-core Kaby Lake-based Surface Pro 2017 (the Core i7-7660U model) and that’s almost certainly due to the latter chip’s higher base clock of 2.5GHz.
When it comes to graphics grunt, though, the Surface Book 2 is streets ahead. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 chip despatched the Metro Last Light benchmark at native resolution and High quality settings at an average of 26.5fps and that frame rate rose to 71fps at 1080p. In the less demanding Dirt Showdown benchmark it achieved an average frame rate of 68.3fps at native resolution, while Forza Motorsport 7’s benchmark hit 35fps at 1080p with Medium settings enabled.
That doesn’t make the Surface Book 2 the best gaming laptop around, but it’s good for the money. Yes, the model I have here may cost a blowout $4,499, but you can knock $1,500 off that price if you don’t mind halving the RAM to 8GB and putting up with 256GB of storage.
The only significant disappointment is that battery life appears to be down on the original Surface Book. I was only able to coax 5hrs 36mins of video playback from the Surface Book 2 in our video-rundown tests, and that’s with the integrated graphics engaged and power settings set to Recommended for battery operation. That’s enough to give you around a day of light work, but I’d like more from my twin-battery powerhouse of a portable.
This looks like a problem with the main battery in our review unit, though, because not only does Microsoft claim 17 hours of life but other testers have eked over 20 hours of battery life from it. One thing you should expect for certain is that gaming will sap battery faster than Lewis Hamilton on a private jet. I spent 45 minutes on Forza Motorsport 7 during one lunch hour and the battery gauge dropped from 100% to 30%.
Despite these niggles, the Microsoft Surface Book 2 has unique appeal. It’s a laptop that can be a tablet, graphics pad, notepad, workstation, portable workhorse and games console all in one compact package. Nothing else around can match its power and versatility.
It has its drawbacks. It isn’t the lightest or slimmest laptop when compared to 13in ultraportables, and battery life isn’t as good as I’d like (with the caveat that this looks like a problemwith our early test unit). The $2,199 model with its Core i5 Kaby Lake chip seems a touch overpriced, too, especially as it lacks the discrete graphics chip of its more expensive Core i7 brethren. At least it includes a 256GB SSD rather than an insulting 128GB.
Move up to the $2,999 base Core i7, though, with its 8GB of RAM, 256GB of PCIe storage and GTX 1050 graphics and the Surface Book 2 makes a lot more sense. It remains a lot of money to pay for a laptop, no matter how multitalented, but if you can see yourself taking full advantage of everything it has to offer, the Microsoft Surface Book 2 is a truly brilliant machine.