When it launched in 2015, Microsoft's Surface Book was easily the most versatile machine for creative professionals on the market. No competitor could come close to matching its combination of a flexible 2-in-1 design, detachable display, top-notch pen support and sheer graphical power. And now this Swiss Army knife of a laptop has gotten a big upgrade, making it an even more impressive mobile studio – albeit a pricey one.
The refreshed Surface Book offers twice the graphics capabilities of last year’s model, thanks to the included “Performance Base” keyboard dock that houses a beefed-up GPU. But while the system earns high marks for its versatility, graphical power and premium design, it’s simply overkill for most workers, starting at a staggering $2,399. But for creative professionals who want a laptop that makes zero compromises, there’s nothing else like the new Surface Book.
This isn’t the Surface Book 2, so don’t expect any big design changes from last year’s model. If you’re not familiar with the Surface Book, though, you’re sure to take note of its uniquely rounded hinge, which looks a bit like the tread on a futuristic tank, and gives the system a sleek tapered profile. But the hinge also keeps the display from sitting flush with the keyboard. It’s an interesting design that’s actually functional, since it provides a comfortable angled writing surface for taking notes with the included Surface pen – but more on that later.
There are a few big tradeoffs to the tapered design, though, the biggest being the fact that that dirt and dust tend to accumulate in the space around the hinge. That’s especially true if you’re pulling the system in and out of a laptop bag on your daily commute, so it would be wise to invest in a protective sleeve.
While the new Surface Book looks almost identical to last year’s model, it isn’t quite as commuter-friendly. That’s because Microsoft beefed up the design to accommodate an extra cooling fan, which is required to keep the system’s temperature down with a more powerful graphics card on board. It’s a bit thicker, and slightly heavier compared to the baseline Surface Book model (3.68 lbs. vs. 3.34 lbs.). On the bright side, the heavier base keeps the Surface Book anchored to your desk, making it easier to lift the lid.
Rival systems are a lot lighter. The Spectre x360 weighs just 2.8 lbs., while the 13-inch MacBook Pro (non-Touch Bar) weighs in at 3.02 lbs. Workers who prize portability above all else – and don’t mind losing the Surface Book’s discrete graphics and detachable display -- might be better off with one of those.
What really sets the Surface Book apart from other laptops its detachable display. The system’s 13.5-inch screen detaches completely from the keyboard dock with the press of a button, located just to the left of the Delete key near the top right corner of the standard QWERTY layout.
Once its detached, you have a couple of options. First, you can use the display like a large standalone tablet. That works pretty well, especially since Windows 10 automatically switches to a touch-friendly tablet mode when you undock. Tablet mode is handy for using touchscreen apps, or for taking notes on the display without having to lug around the hefty keyboard.
The other option is to reattach the display in the reverse orientation. That lets you sketch and take notes with the keyboard attached, which is handy for a couple of reasons. As previously mentioned, it provides a comfortable angled writing surface. But more importantly, sketching with the Performance Base keyboard attached lets you take advantage of the dock’s discrete graphics card, which is a huge perk for creative pros.
Detaching and reattaching the display is quick and easy, but there are a few limitations. Specifically, you can’t detach the display if the Surface Book is running software that actively uses the GPU. Fortunately, the system is smart enough to recognize which software is blocking you. When I tried to detach while using Photoshop or Blender, a window popped up telling me to close the programs first.
I couldn’t ask for a nicer display than what the Surface Book offers. The 13.5-inch panel is big and beautiful, cranking out crisp text and vibrant colors. The display feels really roomy, too, thanks to its super-sharp resolution of 3,000 x 2,000 pixels.
But what makes this display special is its unusual 3:2 aspect ratio, which is noticeably taller than the widescreen displays that you get on most 13-inch laptops. That provides more vertical real estate while editing documents or viewing web pages, so you can see more and scroll less. And I noticed that things feel less cramped during split-screen multitasking, too.
The aspect ratio also makes note taking feel more natural when you’re holding the tablet in portrait orientation, since the display is close to the dimensions of a typical sheet of notebook paper. Other 2-in-1 laptops feel awkward in portrait mode because their widescreen displays are too narrow.
Writing and sketching on the Surface Book’s display feels smooth and natural with the included pen. The display can detect 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, which is more than good enough for taking notes. On the other hand, professional artists might notice that very light strokes don’t register quite as well as they would on one of Wacom’s Cintiq displays – though the difference in fidelity is definitely slight.
Regardless, writing in OneNote – Microsoft’s excellent note-taking app that comes installed on the machine – feels great. I could effortlessly vary my line width and taper my strokes, just like I would with a real ink pen.
The Surface Pen itself has two buttons. The top programmable button defaults to launching OneNote, though it can be remapped using pre-loaded software on the Surface Book. That button has a rubbery finish, and can actually be used like an eraser in most apps when you flip the pen over. Then there’s a secondary button on the side of the pen that can be used for right clicks.
Another perk is that the pen has one flat side, which adheres magnetically to the edge of the Surface Book’s display. The magnetic connection is really strong, so the feature is good for keeping the pen handy for whenever you need it. Few other stylus-equipped laptops provide a way to stow the pen when it’s not in use.
The Surface Book still lacks a fingerprint reader, a feature you’ll find on most competing business systems, but it doesn’t need one. That’s because the system has a special camera that’s capable of facial recognition, letting you unlock the laptop just by looking at it.
During my testing period, the feature just worked, whisking me away to my desktop almost instantaneously each time I powered the machine on. It initially had trouble recognizing me without my glasses, but that issue was easily resolved when I set up a second face profile, which took just a few seconds. I was especially impressed that the camera – which uses infrared technology – could recognize me in a dark room. And the feature isn’t just convenient; it may actually be more secure than a fingerprint reader.
The Surface Book also comes equipped with all the security features you’d expect in a premium business-class laptop. That includes a Trusted Platform Module for full hardware encryption, which is enabled by default. You also get secure manageability options with Intel VPro technology.
I love typing on the Surface Book. The keyboard is excellent, offering deep key travel – about 1.5 mm, which is on par with what we look for in a premium business laptop. Plus, the keys feel snappy, with a nice sense of tactile feedback on every stroke. The combination makes for one of the more comfortable typing experiences you’ll find on a laptop computer. The keyboard deck itself may not be as slim as what you get on competing systems like the MacBook Pro or HP Spectre x360, but I’ll take a superior typing experience over a slim design any day.
You get full backlighting on the keys, which is nice for low-light typing. I also like that the function keys default to system controls, letting you adjust the screen brightness or volume easily.
The 3.1 x 2.7-inch touchpad feels great too, with a nice matte finish that allowed my finger to glide easily from one edge to the other. Cursor control felt extremely precise, and gestures such as two-finger scrolling were very responsive.
The new Surface Book will effortlessly last through your longest business flights – even if it dies a bit sooner than last year’s model. With the new Performance Base attached, the Surface Book ran for 9 hours and 10 minutes on our battery test, which involves continuous web browsing over Wi-Fi. That’s pretty good, but the 2015 Core i5 model blows it out of the water with a whopping 12 hours and 29 minutes of battery life. Of course, it’s also not as powerful as the newer Surface Book with Performance Base.
Similarly, other less powerful systems also outlasted the new Surface Book, including the 2016 MacBook Pro (non-Touch Bar) which ran for 12:21, while HP’s Spectre x360 ran for a solid 10:06.
The Surface Book is speedy enough to handle just about any productivity task you throw at it, and then some. The laptop really flew during bouts of serious multitasking, and I didn’t notice any lag even while editing extremely large Photoshop documents with more than a dozen tabs open in the Chrome browser, including one streaming HD video.
My review unit came equipped with an Intel Core i7-6600U processor with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage. That configuration allowed the system to crank out an impressive score of 7,559 on the synthetic Geekbench 4 test, which measures overall performance. That beats the 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro’s mark of 7,053, though that laptop was running on a Core i5 processor.
Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed that Microsoft stuck to the old 6th-generation Intel Core chips, since the newer 7th-gen processors are currently available and provide faster and more efficient performance. HP proved that with the 7th-gen Core i7-powered Spectre x360, which scored 8,147 on the same performance test.
The Surface Book performed similarly well on our spreadsheet test, matching 20,000 names to their addresses in 3 minutes and 42 seconds. That’s pretty good, easily outpacing the MacBook Pro’s time of 4 minutes and 39 seconds. But again, the Spectre fared a bit better, finishing the test in just 3 minutes and 33 seconds.
The Surface Book with Performance Base isn’t as slim or sleek as its closest rivals, but the extra thickness accommodates something you won’t find in competing laptops: a discrete graphics card. That’s a big deal if your workload includes video editing, CAD modeling or other graphically-intensive tasks. To my delight, I fully rendered detailed 3D models in Blender in just a couple of minutes, a task that left the 2015 model chugging.
My review unit came equipped with a Nvidia 965m GPU with 2GB of video RAM, a big upgrade over the Nvidia 940m GPU in last year’s model. In fact, the Surface Book’s new Performance Base gives you double the graphics power of its predecessor. In comparison, the MacBook Pro and Spectre x360 have low-power integrated Iris Pro or Intel HD integrated graphics.
On the synthetic Cinebench OpenGL graphics test, the Surface Book with Performance Base impressed by reaching 78.5 frames per second, more than double what we saw from the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The Surface Book also blasted through the synthetic 3DMark Fire Strike test with a score of 4,406, more than quadruple the score of the Spectre x360.
The Surface Book with Performance Base is available with 256GB, 512GB and 1TB storage configurations for $2,399, $2,799 and $3,299 respectively. All models come equipped with a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and an Nvidia 965m GPU.
Meanwhile, the original 128GB Surface Book model from 2015 is still available with an Intel Core i5 processor (but no discrete GPU), starting at $1,349. A higher-end version of that model is also available with 256GB of storage and an Nvidia 940m GPU for $1,749.
All Surface Book models come pre-loaded with Microsoft's Windows 10 Pro and a 30-day trial of Office 365.
The Surface Book has always been a one-of-a-kind laptop, and that hasn’t changed since it first launched in 2015. No other device offers such a versatile design, transforming from sleek tablet to mighty workstation in seconds. And its top-notch pen support will make it an indispensable tool for note takers and artists alike. A gorgeous display and strong security round out the package.
But while the addition of extra graphical power in the refreshed Surface Book will help you tear through graphically-intensive workloads, most business users would be better off saving $900 and sticking with the 2015 Surface Book release. It’s not as powerful, but it is more portable and its lower price and longer battery life makes it the more practical option by far. On the other hand, the Surface Book with Performance Base is a true dream machine for creative pros who can afford it.