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Wednesday 13 December 2017
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Microsoft Surface Book 2

Microsoft Surface Book 2

Microsoft set the bar for the 2-in-1 market with the Surface Pro line, and in 2015, began to push the market further with the even more laptop-like Surface Book. After a year that included an iterative upgrade, the full-fledged sequel has arrived in the aptly named Surface Book 2 (the 15-inch model reviewed here starts at $2,499; $3,299 as tested). This beautifully designed machine can do it all, maintaining the signature ability to detach its screen from its keyboard while now acting as a legitimate gaming laptop and delivering near-workstation levels of performance. It’s very spendy as configured, but a swath of configuration options means you’re not locked in at the highest price.

With a new 15-inch screen size and a capable Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics card inside, the Surface Book 2 makes a compelling case for itself as the premium mobile computer. It offers more versatility and features, faster performance, and longer battery life than its main competitor, the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro, and is a more fully realized professional’s PC than the Surface Pro. It easily follows in its predecessor’s footsteps earning our Editors’ Choice badge.

Best of Both Worlds

For all practical purposes, the Surface Book line looks and behaves like a laptop, with the added ability of detaching the screen from its base and turning it into a tablet at the press of a button. This is the inverse of the pioneering Surface Pro’s proposition, which is more of a tablet that closely mimics the form and functionality of a laptop. It’s a fine distinction, but I think speaks to exactly what you’re expecting from each one. The Surface Pro more heavily weighs portability and handheld use over power, while the Surface Book strives for the opposite. This makes the Surface Book 2 easier to compare with standard laptops, as that represents the main experience. Also worth noting: The original Surface Book was followed up last year by a Core i7 model that includes a “performance base” with more powerful components, and this loaded version of the Surface Book 2 more closely aligns with that vision.

It’s immediately clear that the core design of the Surface Book 2 hasn’t changed from the previous model. That’s not a bad thing, since the original’s premium magnesium alloy build was one of our favorite aspects of it. It’s still thin, relatively light, and has that expensive feel that provides reassurance that you’re getting value for the money. The distinct dynamic fulcrum hinge is back, again leaving a gap between the screen and keyboard when the system is closed. That may bother some who worry about debris getting between the two, but that risk is pretty minimal, and it allows for versatility when detaching the tablet (more on that later). What is different is the size: Now you have your choice of 13.5 inches (the same size as the previous Surface Book) or the new 15-inch model. Our review unit is the fresh larger version, while the smaller model now starts at $1,499.

The 15-inch Surface Book 2 measures 0.9 by 13.5 by 9.87 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.2 pounds. The clamshell is angled, so it tapers down to 0.5 inches toward the front, the same thickness at both ends as the original Surface Book despite the increased power. It’s worth noting that the tablet is just 1.8 pounds when detached, which ups the portability factor. The Surface Book 2 is quite similar to the 15-inch MacBook Pro at 0.61 by 13.75 by 9.48 inches and 4.02 pounds—luxurious and light enough to be portable, but with emphasis on high performance. The slick Dell XPS 15 Touch (0.66 by 14.06 by 9.27 inches, 4.44 pounds) matches these two on design and power, but is much less expensive despite the high-end construction.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-Inch)

Whether docked or in Tablet mode, the whole experience centers around the PixelSense display. Fortunately, it’s a beautiful screen with 3,240-by-2,160 resolution in a 3:2 aspect ratio with a 1,600:1 contrast ratio and 10-point multitouch. That pixel count would qualify as 4K if it were a 16:9 display, but it technically isn’t at this cropped size (3:2 is more useful for some artists). Picture quality is very sharp, and the screen gets bright at maximum settings. The resolution is slightly higher than before, up from 3,000 by 2,000, and is much higher than the MacBook Pro’s 2,880-by-1,800.

As for that signature Tablet mode, there are a few things to keep in mind. To disengage the screen from the keyboard, you press a dedicated key on the top right of the keyboard, just like on the last model. After a few seconds, a prompt lets you know that it’s free to detach, and you can hear and feel it unlock. Some of the guts—namely the larger of the two batteries and discrete graphics card—are built into the keyboard. So when you undock, there are performance concessions that come with that, but there’s still no way to get those components into a tablet this thin. Worth noting: I did occasionally have a few issues getting the tablet to detach—in testing a notification appeared telling me I needed to resolve some applications first. This interrupted the seamless nature of switching to Tablet mode, especially since it was relatively benign programs like Edge or the Microsoft Store that were causing the issues, but they were intermittent.

Docking the tablet is easy—just line the connectors up and gently push down. It’s a breeze once you’ve done it a few times (the first couple of attempts may cause some fumbling, but you never need to push hard), and Windows will let you know when it’s attached. Other than the standard Laptop mode, you can attach the screen backward to achieve View mode like convertible laptops, where screen is pointed toward you with the keyboard behind (useful for airplane tray tables). You can also attach it backward and fold it down flat for Studio mode, in which the Surface book is shaped like a tablet but keeps the keyboard’s components in play.

Key Features

The keyboard is comfortable, with backlit keys that are satisfying to tap, quiet with a good amount of travel without feeling mushy. The touchpad is also responsive, though full click presses are quite audible (you can avoid this by just tapping). The speakers are on the two top corners of the tablet; there are none in the keyboard dock. For tablet speakers, they do an admirable job; loud enough to be heard from a moderate distance, if not exactly booming.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-Inch)

The volume rocker is located on the top left corner of the tablet, right next to the power button. Other than the headphone jack, found on the right side of the display, all of the ports are located on the keyboard dock. That includes two USB 3.1 ports and an SD card slot on the left, while the right edge holds the Surface Connect port (used for the power adapter as well as docking with the $200 Surface Dock) and a USB-C port. The Surface Book 2 is also compatible with the newest Surface Pen (which can magnetically attach to the side of the screen) and Surface Dial, both sold separately for $100 each. The two peripherals are hardly necessary, but may supplement your workflow if you’re an artist or designer. The 15-inch Surface Book 2 also has a built-in Xbox wireless controller receiver, which is handy for gamers (I, for example, had to purchase the wireless USB dongle to connect the controller to my desktop PC).

Internal storage comes in the form of a solid-state drive, the capacity of which is configurable when ordering—multiple drive options are available on each screen size. This maxed-out model uses a 1TB SSD, a very pricey add, while the lowest available is 256GB (that model is $2,499). For comparison, the $2,799 MacBook Pro we tested includes 512GB, while the 512GB Surface Book 2 costs $2,899. Although it’s a costly inclusion, 1TB of speedy SSD storage is a mouthwatering proposition for creative types and gamers, offering faster load times and plenty of room to store your files and game installs. Should you need support, Microsoft covers the Surface Book 2 with a one-year warranty.

Beneath the Surface

As mentioned, this model is fully loaded and packs an Intel Core i7-8650U processor (an eighth-generation, Kaby Lake R chip), 16GB of memory, and the Nvidia GTX 1060. These components are again more in line with last year’s “performance base” Surface Book (which included a GTX 965M and a Core i7 Skylake CPU) than the original, but the Surface Book 2 is a notch above. It showed its general productivity chops on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional test, producing a high score despite the ramped-up resolution—pushing more pixels lowers the results on this test. For example, the very portable Lenovo Yoga 920, our top pick for high-end convertible hybrid laptops, scored a few hundred points higher with a similar CPU because it was running at 1080p.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-Inch) BM

The Surface Book 2 was quicker overall on the multimedia tests, however, an objectively speedy system on tasks like video encoding and applying Photoshop filters. One down note is that the 16GB RAM ceiling may well be a turn-off for some professionals like video editors, who crave higher memory limits for crunching through footage. 16GB is fine for most uses, including gaming, but truly memory-intensive tasks for enthusiasts may leave you wanting more. It traded blows with the 15-inch MacBook Pro here (arguably its most direct competitor), with Microsoft’s system being faster on Photoshop, lower on CineBench, and just barely behind on Handbrake. Only something like the HP ZBook Studio G4—a pricey performance-focused mobile workstation—delivered any meaningful separation on these tests, and even then, the two were very close on PCMark and Photoshop.

The aforementioned performance difference between the Surface Book and the Surface Pro (admittedly less expensive as tested) is also made clear on these tests—not a big gap, but an extant one. All of this, and my anecdotal experience, is to say the Surface Book 2 is proficient at a variety of jobs, from multitasking with a few different programs (like a browser, a spreadsheet, and Spotify) to content creation.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-Inch) BM

Unlike most thin-and-light systems, the Surface Book 2 can handle graphics-intensive work and gaming. Its GTX 1060, a card usually found in modern midrange gaming laptops, is perfectly suited to 1080p gaming. The most comparable small and thin laptop to bear a GTX 1060 is the 14-inch Razer Blade, which doesn’t come with the Surface Book 2’s many advanced features and costs $1,899. Like other GTX 1060 laptops, the Surface Book 2 was capable of at or around 60 frames per second (fps) on the Heaven and Valley gaming tests on high settings in 1080p.

That’s a solid gaming machine (for HD—playing at the native resolution resulted in frame rates closer to 20fps), even if you must lower a couple of settings on the occasional title. Additionally, when I changed the system’s battery mode to “best performance” instead of default, it was able to average about 65fps and 72fps on the same tests, squeezing more power out of the components. (Keep in mind this mode will drain the battery faster, though.) Outside of the synthetic tests, I was able to run Destiny 2 smoothly on Microsoft’s system between 40fps and 60fps in 1080p, though the 3:2 aspect ratio sometimes makes the screen look squashed (this will vary by game support, but I was able to fix it by switching to windowed fullscreen). Tuning down a few graphics settings from maximum demonstrably bumped the frame rate up toward 60fps. The GTX 1060 is also suited to VR gaming, though since it’s the floor, you may not be able to max out settings.

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The MacBook Pro, as expensive as it is and with a dedicated AMD Radeon card, simply didn’t stack up to the Surface Book 2 on these tests, failing to average even 30fps in 1080p. General 3D performance (which is involved in professional graphics and video work) and gaming aptitude represent the greatest gulf between the two machines. I don’t mean that just in terms of the benchmark numbers, but for purpose and functionality—the Surface Book 2 can serve as a legitimate gaming and visual content creation system, even if it’s not the best in class in either sphere. An aspirational thin and powerful gaming laptop like the Asus ROG Zephyrus and its GTX 1080 delivers superior power (and it’s not often I can recommend it as the less expensive option), but the Surface Book 2 brings much more versatility to the table. The Dell XPS 15, quite admirably, is the only real alternative that takes some of the shine off the Surface Book 2. Its GTX 1050, while not as effective, is a competent card in just as slim and nice of a chassis for less money.

This is all supported by a top-notch battery power, managing 17 hours and 12 minutes on our video-rundown test. That’s with both the keyboard’s battery and the tablet’s battery—the latter on its own ran for 4:54. The combined total is one of the longest runs we’ve tested and extra impressive given the super-high resolution screen. It bests the 15-inch MacBook Pro (15:09), the Surface Pro (13:54), the Razer Blade (10:36), the XPS 15 (6:05), and the HP ZBook Studio G4 (6:56). Some of the only longer-lasting systems around are the 2016 Surface Book (19:16 by way of its same dual-battery setup but less-demanding components) and the Lenovo Yoga 920 (22:38).

Sublime Surface

Other laptops and hybrids achieve some of the Surface Book 2’s high points independently, but its successful integration of several computer archetypes into one is a feat of design. It’s not radically different from the original Surface Book or last year’s incremental upgrade, but the 15-inch size and legitimately powerful components elevate the concept. This is the most expensive version of the Surface Book 2, so it may not shine as brightly in a more modest configuration, but you can move within $100 of the MacBook Pro just by cutting the storage capacity.

Given that, unless you’re an Apple loyalist or simply need macOS software for work, it’s hard to argue against a touch-enabled, gaming-ready system with fantastic battery life that can also become a tablet at the press of a button. It’s also a better deal than the 2016 Surface Book, which was the same price as tested, and as a true luxury system, more fully realized and faster than the Surface Pro. The Dell XPS 15 is the strongest Windows-based alternative for a desktop replacement that won’t cost nearly as much, but it lacks the convertible design, many hours of battery life, and level of 3D performance. Yes, you’ll have to pay up for the Surface Book 2, but if you’re in the market for a premium laptop, it’s a unique option that executes excellently on multiple fronts, earning our Editors’ Choice.