Microsoft Surface Book 2 review

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Microsoft’s first try at the 2-in-1 laptop was no doubt impressive. But, it was also a tad divisive, releasing with some components that weren’t current at the time, and employing a design that didn’t jive with everyone because of a certain gap.

This time, Microsoft has addressed most of the main concerns lobbed at the original while digging its feet into the sand further on others. Namely, the performance and design, respectively. This year’s Surface Book 2 is more powerful than ever, naturally, but more importantly it is now current with laptop hardware trends, thanks to 8th generation Intel Core i processors and Nvidia GTX 10 Series graphics.

That said, the Fulcrum hinge design – replete with ‘the gap’ – are here to stay. However, the device has become thinner and lighter than before, an impressive feat and hopeful consolation for sticking to this gap-bearing design. Plus, Microsoft has introduced an even-more-powerful 15-inch model this year, meeting Apple’s professional-focused laptops head on.

Price and availability

It should come as no surprise that the Surface Book 2 is mighty expensive, starting at $1,499 (about £1,131, AU$1,909) for the 13.5-inch model and at $2,499 (about £1,885, AU$3,183) for the new 15-inch variety, the latter of which we’ve spent the most time with. That being said, Microsoft has also smartly priced both versions of the device to go practically toe-to-toe with Apple’s leading 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops.

Considering both models handily beat out either version of the MacBook Pro, at least in terms of spec sheets, that’s bound to make things interesting when Surface Book 2 becomes available November 16 for purchase and into Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season.

For that price, the 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 starts with an Intel Core i5 processor paired with Intel HD Graphics 620, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of PCIe solid-state storage (SSD). Of course, it can be upgraded to a Core i7 chip with up to 16GB of RAM and as much as 1TB of SSD space, not to mention an Nvidia GTX 1050 graphics chip. Prices on these upgrades are currently unclear.

If you leap for the 15-incher, that model starts with the same Core i7 chip as the souped-up 13.5-inch model, but with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. This model can upgrade storage to up to 1TB and house a more-powerful Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU.

So, yes, both Surface Book 2 models are ready for not only Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Mixed Reality headsets, but also VR through Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

Design

For those waiting for a complete overhaul of the Surface Book design, i.e. those that were left nonplussed by the gap left by the first model’s fulcrum hinge, stop holding your breath. The Surface Book 2 doesn’t do much, if anything, to change the core design.

Microsoft’s iconic, all-brushed aluminum design remains, if only lighter and thinner than ever, at 3.38 pounds (1,533g) and 0.51 ~ 0.90 inches (13 ~ 23mm) when put together. (The Intel Core i7 13.5-inch model is a bit heftier and thicker.) Meanwhile the 15-inch model comes in at 4.2 pounds (1,905g) and 0.57 ~ 0.90 inches (15 ~ 23mm).

The tablet disconnects from the base in the same way as before, a must because of the more powerful graphics located within the keyboard base, while the tablet or Clipboard offers no hardwired connectivity options – save for a Surface Connect charging port.

That said, the degree to which Microsoft has made the second Surface Book thinner is nothing short of impressive, employing the thinnest optical stack it has ever devised while managing a fanless design housing Intel’s first-ever quad-core mobile processors. You’re getting more power than before in a somehow more portable package.

Of course, to house that additional power, Microsoft seems to have made the slightly larger keyboard base employed in the Surface Book i7 model of last year the default frame for both Surface Book 2 models. To wit, the keyboard deck plateaus a bit toward its fulcrum hinge end, likely to make room for the thermals and battery needed to power the Nvidia GPUs inside.

No matter, as you’ll barely notice the additional height, as it’s easily hidden by the gap that was apparently so divisive in the first place. (This editor in particular didn’t pay much mind to it then, and he doesn’t now.)

The 13.5-inch model employs the same PixelSense display resolution as the previous year’s design (3,000 x 2,000), and the same 3:2 aspect ratio. Of course, the 15-inch model requires a few more pixels to maintain a similar pixels-per-inch (ppi) figure, so the resolution bumps up to 3,240 x 2,160 for a 260 ppi to the smaller model’s 267 ppi. Both of which are more dense than the 13- and-15-inch MacBook Pros’ 227 and 220 ppi, respectively. The 1,600:1 contrast ratio is just icing on the cake, especially for color-centric creators and consumers.

And, because Microsoft has flattened the optical stack of the display to its thinnest yet, inking on the Clipboard screen is faster and more pen-and-paper-like than ever. The trail of digital ink following the Surface Pen is practically not noticeable, now supporting tilt detection as well for even finer control and variety.

Our opinions of the tracking and typing experience on the Surface Book 2 haven’t really changed since last year, either. The glass-coated Precision Trackpad is just as plush and responsive as ever, and the white-backlit keyboard serves up respectable travel and feedback.

However, one piece of the Surface Book 2 design that leaves it a bit behind the crowd is the lack of Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. While the laptop offers two USB 3.1 ports, a USB Type-C port with USB 3.1 data speeds as well as a full-size SDXC card slot, USB-C Thunderbolt 3 would have future-proofed the laptop that much further with a more widely supported standard than Surface Connect.

Performance

Pure power is always a tough thing to gauge with only mere minutes to test out a device at a preview event, but we’re already excited for what the Surface Book 2 can accomplish. Housing the very latest Intel and Nvidia silicon already seems to be working out well for the thing.

For one, the inking experience on this device is the best it’s ever been on a Microsoft Surface product, working at the speed of our hands during our time with it. That’s thanks in part to a new timing controller (or TCON) chip beneath the display, but also to quad-core processing.

Plus, the GTX 1060 within the 15-inch model has been proven in countless gaming laptops to be more than enough for most 1080p gaming experiences. This, oddly enough, makes the Surface Book 2 a decent mobile PC gaming rig on top of everything else it offers. To wit, the 15-inch model includes Microsoft’s Xbox Wireless communication protocol for easier Xbox One controller and headset pairing.

As for longevity, Microsoft naturally has lofty claims for the battery life of its second round of Surface Books. According to the firm, both versions of the laptop can last for up to 17 hours when all put together and as long as 5 hours when separated in ‘Tablet Mode.’

Considering that the original Surface Book lasted just 3 hours and 58 minutes for us in the PCMark 8 battery test, don’t blame us for our skepticism of these claims. We’ll just have to wait for the full gamut of TechRadar testing before saying any more on the matter.

Early verdict

It’s obvious that Microsoft has improved upon its first Surface Book in almost every way with these new models. Since the design hasn’t changed much, the most notable of these improvements is bringing the devices up to speed with the latest, and some of the most powerful, Intel and Nvidia hardware.

On paper, the Surface Book is looking to legitimately challenge Apple’s stake in the creative professional scene with two devices that oust the 2017 MacBook Pro models in not only screen sharpness, but in pure performance. Plus, while the MacBook Pro has a Touch Bar, it can’t become a tablet.

We’re initially quite impressed with the Surface Book 2. While it may be mightily expensive, the price is on par with Microsoft’s main competition. Stay tuned for a full review ahead of its November 16 release to see whether Surface Book 2 is truly worthy of your lap – creative pro or not.



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