Microsoft Surface Book 2
13in: £1,499 inc VAT from fave.co/2A0rw84 15in: £2,499 inc VAT (available early 2018)
The Surface Book 2 solves a big problem for Microsoft: how do you market the Surface Book as a performance notebook when it’s two years out of date? As our review shows, by making it bigger and faster, with longer battery life.
Microsoft brings 8th-generation Intel Core processors and powerful, discrete Nvidia GPUs with enough horsepower to start thinking of the Surface Book 2 as a graphics workstation. But Microsoft’s big October surprise was the debut of not one, but two Surface Book 2 devices: a 13.5in and a new 15in model (we reviewed the latter). Neither is a simple clamshell notebook, though calling them convertible 2-in-1s instead seems like we’re selling them short.
As our review shows, however, the new generation isn’t perfect. An ambitious decision to use a USB-C port has ripple effects for expansion capabilities. And then there’s the price: up to £3,299.
Display and chassis
Microsoft’s Surface Book has always reminded me of an answer to Lenovo’s classic ThinkPad, replacing the classic black Bento box with a nearly uniform silver slab. Unlike the Surface Pro and the Surface Laptop, there are no colour options, and the only adornment is the Windows logo on the outer casing. Raise the display into a laptop configuration, and the keyboard’s backlighting is the only visual cue that the Surface Book 2 is awake and active.
Your eyes are sucked toward the big, bright, vibrant screen. Our Surface Book 2’s display pumped out 412 nits, more than enough. And while a 3.2K IPS display might not quite reach that magic 4K milestone, the superb visual quality lives up to the Surface brand. More pixels would have negatively affected performance and battery life. It’s a good trade-off.
Though Microsoft doesn’t tout the Surface Book 2 as a content-creation machine as it does the Surface Studio, the Book 2 does include both of its colour profiles: standard RGB, and its ‘enhanced’ profile, which makes colours a bit more vivid. If you’d like, you can also use the Surface Dial peripheral on the ten-point touchscreen. Unfortunately, the Surface Book 2 reclines to about the same 50-degree angle as the original Book, not nearly flat enough to let the Dial rest without sliding to the ground.
Though the Surface Book’s weight climbs to 1,905g, the incredibly long battery life means you can leave your charger at home. (If you’re an acolyte of the Microsoft ecosystem, you probably already own a Surface Dock for expansion and charging, anyway.) Still, it’s no wonder why Microsoft’s device chief Panos Panay refers to the Surface Book 2 as a desktop, as the device is big and bulky, though not especially heavy.
The Surface Book 2 is a 2-in-1 convertible. Though it lacks the 360-degree hinge of most such models, the display can be flipped over and reattached into a tent mode for viewing videos, or detached to function as a conventional tablet. Press a button on the keyboard, and after a second or two the ‘muscle wire’ retracts, and the tablet disconnects from the base.
Microsoft claims the tablet disconnects more quickly than in the previous Surface Book, though in testing both, I couldn’t see any difference. After a second or two, the Surface Book 2 releases the tablet, and you can lift it free. This is no Amazon Kindle, though: Undocked, the 15in tablet is almost ludicrously huge, and unless you’re in the NBA, I doubt one hand will have enough breadth to hold it comfortably. By itself, the tablet weighs around 800g, surprisingly light for something so big, but it’s still awkward. Once detached, it feels like it needs a Surface Pro-like kickstand. The tablet is multi-touch, with the standard ten points of contact.
(Undocked, you’ll discover that a Surface connector provides the data interface between the base and tablet. Though you can connect a charger or Surface Dock to this port, there’s very little point in doing so.)
The silvery metallic exterior of the Surface Book and Surface Book 2 both exude an almost military-like solidity. In a year or so of using the original Surface Book as a daily driver, it became slightly dented in places from normal wear and tear within a sometimes crowded backpack, and suffered a larger divot from a Kinect that plunged from the top of my roll-top desk as it lay, closed, on my desk. Neither affected its performance. That’s a good indicator that the Surface Book 2 will be equally durable.
Piling an additional notebook or two on top of the Book never damaged its iconic, accordion ‘dynamic fulcrum’ hinge, which remains within the Surface Book 2. When the Book 2 is closed – now with a more authoritative click – a small gap remains near the hinge. While that space may still be oddly frustrating to some, it doesn’t affect performance and seems as structurally rigid as before. The tablet does wobble when you jiggle the base, though not as much as with the original Surface Book. It’s a reminder, though, that this isn’t a true notebook.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Surface Book 2, though, is simply how quiet it is. Microsoft uses a passive cooling system to cool the
clipboard or tablet portion of the Surface Book 2, forgoing the fan entirely. Yes, it’s a fanless Core i7.
The keyboard, and the port debacle
The Surface Book 2 didn’t mess too much with one good thing: Its keyboard feels essentially unchanged from the first iteration. Note, however, that it follows the Surface Laptop’s layout, rather than the original Book’s: Microsoft eliminated the ‘Insert’ key, and added a separate key for toggling through various backlight controls. Otherwise, a wider bezel surrounds the keyboard on the 15in model, really emphasizing how vast the available space is.
I’ve always found the Surface Book’s keyboard quite comfortable to type upon, with a firm response and good key travel. The Surface Book 2 keyboard felt ever so slightly stiffer, with response that felt a tad shallower. The trackpad feels identical: slick, smooth, and responsive.
Microsoft did mess with the port allotment, however, and it’s one area where I feel the Surface Book 2 takes a step back. The left side of the base should look familiar to Surface Book owners: with two USB 3.0 Type A connectors, plus a UHS-II SDXC card reader. Microsoft even preserved the 3.5mm headphone jack. Along the right side, though, things change: Alongside the expected Surface connector, there’s a USB-C connector – and that’s it.
Previously, Surface Books included a miniDisplayPort connector, a simple way to connect to a single monitor by way of a miniDP-to-HDMI cable. To connect to multiple monitors, you used the Surface
Dock, a £189 (from fave.co/2zVKjRT) hub with two additional miniDP connections.
With the Surface Book 2, the miniDP connector is gone. Instead, you’ll need to invest in new infrastructure, beginning with a new adaptor – a USB-C to HDMI cable, perhaps – that will cost you about £20. Theoretically, the USB-C connector also anticipates a future where you’ll be able to connect the Surface Book 2 to an ecosystem of external hard drives and other devices. But Microsoft’s implementation also lacks the Thunderbolt I/O implementation, part and parcel of Apple’s MacBook Pro and an easy way to connect multiple displays to a device that supports it.
That means connections to external monitors are somewhat limited. Officially, the Surface Book 2 can drive two 4K monitors at 30Hz either via the USB-C port or the Surface Dock. Alternatively, either the Dock or the USB-C port can power a single 4K monitor at 60Hz. (If you try simultaneously to connect a monitor via USB-C and a second monitor over the Dock, only the Dock-connected monitor will light up, Microsoft says.) We successfully connected the Book 2 to a conventional 1080p monitor at full frame rate, but managed only 30fps on a 120Hz 4K HDTV.
Microsoft’s traditional solution for multi-monitor setup has been the Surface Dock, which allows you to connect up to two external displays via a pair of miniDisplayPort connectors. But that has a problem, too: The 144W Dock doesn’t supply as much power as the Surface Book 2’s 180W native charger. Microsoft says that, under load, a Surface Book 2 powered by the Dock may use up so much power that it will drain the battery and enter sleep mode.
During testing, I played a few 3D-intensive games for nearly an hour, while using the Dock, as well as an additional 15 minutes or so while completely undocked. During that time, the battery decreased to about 65 percent overall. During ordinary use – web browsing, office work, and so on – the Dock supplied sufficient power without issue. And if the Surface Book 2 is connected to its charger, as well as to a single monitor via a USB-C to HDMI cable, the Book 2 should operate normally.
Microsoft claims that the Book 2 will charge from any USB-C PD3.0 compliant charger from 7.5- to
95W, with a 60- to 95W USB-C charger powering the Surface Book 2 to 80 percent charged in 1.5 hours time. I didn’t have enough time to confirm the latter claim, but as for the former, our Surface Book 2’s USB-C port didn’t accept power from a few random external chargers or battery packs. (And no, you can’t charge the Surface Book 2 from the USB-C and Surface ports, simultaneously – we asked.)
Confused? Well, so were we. Microsoft had a pricey but effective solution in the Surface Dock, but complicated the matter unnecessarily.
All of this talk of ports and power sparked a somewhat lively debate between myself and a colleague, Gordon Ung. His take: how many people actually connect more than one monitor to a laptop? My response was to point to all of our coworkers with two or more displays. It may be somewhat of a niche case, but it’s a niche that lines up neatly with the power users that make the most likely candidates for Surface Book 2 purchases. One fix would simply be to release an upgraded Surface Dock that could accommodate the power needs of the Surface Book 2.
Otherwise, the Surface Book 2 also includes 802.11ac for wireless connectivity, which connected
satisfactorily as I roamed around my home and office. Bluetooth 4.1 Low Energy is also built in, which avoids collisions with the Wi-Fi signal. Finally, there’s a bonus for gamers: Xbox Wireless is built into the 15in version, meaning you can connect your wireless Xbox One controller for gaming on the go. Speakers, cameras, the Pen and the Precision Mouse Like the original Surface Book, the Book 2 sports both front (5Mp, 1080-capable) and rear (8Mp autofocus, 1080p-capable) cameras that take serviceable pictures and enable Windows Hello’s biometric logins. Normally, few people would care about a tablet camera. But the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update that’s rolling out now includes such fun utilities as the Mixed Reality Viewer, where you can snap a photo with the rear camera and drop in a computer-generated dinosaur, giant taco, or bug right into the scene. Our review unit shipped with the older Creators Update, however.
The Surface Book 2 continues the Surface Book tradition of decent audio, accompanied by Dolby Audio processing. Though it supplies an adequate range of sound, you’d still be better off routing Spotify through headphones or an accompanying Invoke speaker for better bass response. The speakers are mounted inside the tablet, unlike the Surface Laptop’s base-mounted speakers.
Microsoft also provided what it calls a “nextgeneration” Surface Pen for review (£99 from fave. co/2j8q9MI). To be honest, the increasing levels of sensitivity – 4,096 in this version – have moved beyond our ability to test. Microsoft’s new Pen looks nice, writes smoothly, and is powered by a replaceable AAAA battery. That’s enough.
We didn’t receive Microsoft’s new Precision Mouse in time for review, but we were quite impressed in the short hands-on time we had earlier. Performance We expect an Nvidia GTX 1060-powered system such as the Surface Book 2 to perform well. Microsoft created extra pressure, however, by claiming the Surface Book 2 would perform three to four times better than the original Surface Books. In our performance charts below, you’ll see us compare the Surface Book 2 to its predecessor, as well as some recent laptops we’ve reviewed that have discrete graphics: Dell’s XPS 15, Lenovo’s Yoga 720, and Samsung’s Notebook 9 Pro.
We threw both mainstream and gaming benchmarks at the Surface Book 2. Somewhat surprisingly, the
Surface Book 2 doesn’t necessarily top the heap in general productivity performance, but as a graphics workstation it’s among the very best.
Our first test is PCMark Work 8 Conventional, which simulates everyday activities like web browsing and document editing. It’s a good test for isolating the CPU’s role in everyday use. Any machine scoring 2,000 or above will sail along smoothly during these low-intensity tasks. The Surface Book 2 lands square in the middle: a little faster than its predecessors, but a little slower than the trio of recent competitors.
The Home and Creative broaden the scope somewhat, adding light gaming, photo editing, and finally some image and video processing. In general, how the Surface Book 2 compares against the Surface
Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 landed in the middle during PCMark Work 8 Conventional. It was faster than its predecessors but slower than other laptops we’ve tested with discrete GPUs