Review: Microsoft Surface Book 2

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Review: Microsoft Surface Book 2

The Surface Book was an odd fish in a sea of 2-in-1 Surface wannabes. It was Microsoft's first attempt at building a proper laptop and it was good if a tad expensive. Now that the Surface Laptop is here, you might have forgiven Microsoft for conveniently shelving its ambitious detachable and focusing solely on a device with more mass market appeal, but 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 and expensive as before.

So what's new, exactly? Ironically, it's the new 15in version that's most interesting and that's the version we don't have yet. It won't be available until 2018 so you'll have to wait.

And for the 13.5in model on review here it doesn't look like Microsoft has gone to town. A quick inspection of the 13.5in Surface Book 2's external surfaces reveals a USB Type-C port has replaced the Book's mini-DisplayPort socket on the right edge of the keyboard base but that in every other respect it's the same old laptop.

Design and key features

Which is a surprise, 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 it's still a little bit wobbly when you open the lid. The slightly rubbery strips on the laptop's underside still don't grip smooth surfaces particularly well and slide around too easily and the whole thing feels a little bulky and heavy compared to the best 13in ultraportables I've used.

The Surface Book 2 does look unusual but there's a price to pay for its unique appearance: 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.

Still, 1.64kg isn't all that bad for a laptop this flexible and powerful. And, boy, is this thing versatile – much more so than its namesake, the 2017 Surface Pro. The Book's rigid keyboard base gives you a far 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 – delivers all-day battery life.

The keyboard itself is great with plenty of travel and just the right amount of feedback, and the touchpad is large enough that it makes Windows 10's gestures comfortable to complete without feeling too cramped. Oh, and it's lovely and smooth under the finger as well.

And 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'll be able to lift the screen away. It's a clever system that ensures the two parts mate together perfectly every time you put the two halves back together 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 is the lack of kickstand. But you can replicate even that capability with the Surface Book if you really want: simply dock the screen backwards and use the base as a stand. With Xbox One wireless controller compatibility this is a nice mode to kick back and play a quick session of Forza Motorsport 7 on.

Connectivity-wise, the Surface Book 2 is an impressive beast. Anyone frustrated by the seemingly inexorable move towards USB-Type C only connections on rivals will be very happy to see a pair of full-size USB Type-A 3.1 ports on the left edge of the keyboard base, complemented by photographer-friendly SD card slot. On the right edge of the keyboard base is Microsoft's proprietary slot-shaped power connector and that USB Type-C port, which by the way 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 4.2, plus there's a 5-megapixel front-facing Windows Hello-compatible camera above the display, which can be used to unlock the laptop with your face, and an 8-megapixel camera at the rear. Both can also shoot 1080p video.

Screen quality, performance and battery life

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 its resolution, its usability and its performance. The 3:2 aspect ratio means displaying two applications side-by-side a more comfortable experience than on squatter, 16:9 displays. The resolution of 3000 x 2000 means everything looks absolutely pin sharp, and the performance of this IPS-based panel is spot on.

Peak brightness hit 462cd per square metre in testing, so it'll be readable in most conditions, it covers the 96.6 percent of the sRGB colour gamut out of the box with no adjustment required, and colour accuracy is very impressive. If you're planning on buying a laptop to carry out professional grade photo editing on, the Surface Book 2 won't let you down.

So far, so normal. It's with 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 lineup means the Surface Book 2 is a laptop that's as comfortable running Adobe Premiere or Photoshop 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 multi-threaded 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 that 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 dispatched 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 and it'll play even the most demanding of modern games. Forza Motorsport 7's benchmark, meanwhile, hit 35fps at 1080p with Medium settings enabled.

That doesn't make the Surface Book 2 the best gaming laptop around, but it is pretty good for the money. Take the 2017 Razer Blade, for instance. It has the slightly quicker GTX 1060 GPU, but the model with the high-resolution 4K screen costs $3249 and it doesn't have the touch or stylus support or the multi-configurability of the Surface Book 2. And, yes, the model I have here may cost a blowout $4499, but you can knock quite a bit off that price if you don't mind cutting the RAM to 8GB and putting up with “only” 256GB of storage.

The only significant disappointment, in fact, is that battery life is down on the original Surface Book. I've so far only been able to coax 5hrs 36mins video playback from the Surface Book 2 with the screen set to a brightness of 120cd per square metre, flight mode and integrated graphics engaged and power settings set to recommended for battery operation. That's enough to give you about a day of light work, but I'd like a bit more from my twin-battery powerhouse of a portable.

And I'd be surprised if you could get any significantly more than an hour of gaming on battery power out of it. I spent 45 minutes on Forza Motorsport 7 during one lunch hour and the battery gauge dropped from 100 percent to 30 percent. 

On that note, it's worth pointing that The Verge is currently reporting that the 15in Surface Book 2 drains the battery while playing some games, by up to 10 percent per hour, with the power supply connected. I've also seen this happen on the 13.5in model; is it a problem? Not really. From 100%, you'd have to be gaming for ten hours straight, pushing the CPU and GPU to the max continuously before emptying the battery, which isn't something I can see many Surface Book owners doing.

Verdict

Despite these slight niggles, there's no denying the Microsoft Surface Book 2 has unique appeal. It's a laptop that can be a tablet, a graphics pad and notepad, a workstation, portable workhorse and games console all in one compact package, and there's nothing else around that can match its power and versatility.

It has its negative points. It isn't the lightest or slimmest laptop in its size category and battery life isn't as good as I'd like. The $2199 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.

Move up to the $3000 base Core i7, though, with its 8GB of RAM, 256GB of PCIe storage and GTX 1050 GPU and the Surface Book 2 begins to make a lot more sense. It's still an awful lot of money to pay for any laptop, no matter how multi-talented, but if you can see yourself taking full advantage of everything it has to offer, the Microsoft Surface Book 2 is a truly impressive machine.

This article originally appeared at alphr.com

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