Microsoft Surface Book 2 Review
Desktop power meets tablet portability in Microsoft's impressive successor to the Surface Book.
The evolution of mobile computing has been rather odd when you look back at it. First came the laptop, freeing us from our cubicle prisons and introducing the idea of working on your commute. When laptops proved too bulky for many people, the humble mobile phone stepped up in the form of the smartphone, giving us 24/7 access to the Internet from a device small enough to fit in our pockets. Of course, the limited real estate of a phone screen was always going to hold it back from keeping pace with the desktop world, and so the tablet was born: a compromise between size and power that promised to be the only device you ever needed.
As successful as iPads and other tablets have been, they've never quite lived up to that lofty promise. Typing on a virtual keyboard is rarely a pleasant experience, and the lack of peripheral support and reduced power have relegated tablets to casual devices incapable of the versatility of a full-blown laptop.
This is where 2-in-1s come in. Combining the portability of a tablet with the increased grunt and physical keyboard of a laptop, 2-in-1s are aimed squarely at those who want the flexibility to enjoy the best of both worlds at their whim.
Up until now, 2-in-1s have been held back by the same constraints of all portable technology, sacrificing the computing power of their bulkier brethren in order to remain light and luggable. Not so with Microsoft's new Surface Book 2. Packing hardware on par with high-end graphics-editing and gaming laptops, the Surface Book 2 promises to deliver uncompromising performance whether you're sketching designs in tablet mode, watching 4K videos while lounging on the couch or playing the latest games on its sleek 13.5-inch screen. What's really surprising, though, is it actually delivers on those promises, establishing itself as the clear leader in the 2-in-1 space.
Like the previous Surface Book, the Surface Book 2 comes in a variety of configurations suited for different computing needs and budgets. For this review, we tested the top-of-the-line model, boasting an i7-8650U CPU clocked at 1.90GHz and capable of boosting to 4.20GHz under heavy load, a dedicated GTX 1050 graphics card with 2GB of VRAM, 16GB of system RAM and a 1TB SSD. Serious specs, those, though Microsoft also offer variants with a slower i5 processor, less storage space, less RAM and no dedicated GPU.
Other than those guts, though, all configurations of the Surface Book 2 share the same design and external hardware. The centrepiece of this package is undoubtedly the gorgeous 13.5-inch PixelSense display. Sporting a 3000x2000 resolution, it delivers remarkable clarity when showing off both photos and videos. Sure, it's not quite native 4K, but on a screen this size, the difference is effectively imperceptible.
The Surface Book 2 also boasts a pair of surprisingly crisp and powerful built-in speakers. While they're not going to hold up against a set of dedicated computer speakers or a high-quality headset, they're more than adequate for watching videos, listening to music or non-competitive gaming. The audio remains crystal clear even at high volumes, making the Surface Book 2 well suited for watching movies in bed or playing music in a group scenario, something that few laptops and even fewer tablets are capable of.
The dock is a critical component of any 2-in-1, and the Surface Book 2's is superb. As is typical with 2-in-1s, it snaps onto the bottom of the screen using a magnetic connection, but it also features an automatic locking mechanism that prevents the dock and screen from accidentally detaching in the event of violent jostling. Simple as it is, having to press a button on the keyboard to unlock the screen before removing it makes the Surface Book 2 feel a whole lot sturdier than its competitors.
Similarly, there's a heft to the dock that reinforces the Surface Book 2's rugged design. While hardly heavy, the dock's weight balances out that of the screen, avoiding the top-heavy tipping issues some other 2-in-1s exhibit when resting at an angle greater than 90 degrees.
Despite that extra weight, though, the Surface Book 2 is one lightweight piece of kit. Even with the dock attached, it's slim enough to slip into a messenger bag and carry around for a full day without issue. Remove the dock and it's even lighter, ideal for holding in one hand while you tap away on its screen with the other. Given the power-packed components crammed into its shell, it's seriously impressive how much of a featherweight the Surface Book 2 is.
Apple has made a lot of fuss about its high-resolution Retina displays, but even the latest iPad Pro can't compete with the Surface Book 2's screen. At 3000x2000, the Surface Book 2 clocks in at a pixel density of 267ppi compared to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro's 2732x2048 and 264ppi. To be fair, you might not notice the difference unless you're comparing the two side-by-side, but if you're looking for the clearest picture available, the Surface Book 2 definitely takes the cake.
Browsing 4K photos is a treat on the Surface Book 2, with the screen bright enough even for use outdoors. 4K video looks equally stunning, and the powerful device doesn't miss a frame when streaming Ultra HD movies through YouTube or Netflix. The only caveat to the screen's beauty is its aspect ratio: at 3:2 instead of the traditional laptop resolution of 16:9, you're going to get black bars across the top and bottom of most videos, even standard YouTube clips.
Streaming 4K video without a hitch is hardly the extent of the Surface Book 2's capabilities. Not only is it flawlessly responsive in day-to-day tasks like browsing the Internet, editing images and typing up this very review, it'll handle just about anything you could possibly throw at it, from audio mixing to video editing to modern PC gaming.
As an example, we took the Surface Book 2 for a spin playing the demo of the graphical tour de force Forza Motorsport 7. Released just a couple of months ago, Forza Motorsport 7 was built to take advantage of the additional power of Microsoft's new supercharged Xbox One console, the Xbox One X, so it served as an effective trial-by-fire for pushing the Surface Book 2 to its limits.
Upon first booting the game, the graphics settings defaulted to "Low" at 720p resolution, not the best start, to be fair. Nevertheless, the game looked surprisingly sharp even at those settings, with the sun-scorched highways and sandy dunes of the Dubai track undeniably beautiful even if they didn't live up to the quality of the base Xbox One. More importantly, the game maintained a solid 60fps for the most part, a serious achievement for such a svelte device.
To see how the Surface Book 2 performed at levels consistent with the Xbox One, we cranked the graphics settings up to 1080p and turned on post-processing effects like anti-aliasing, field of view and high-quality reflections. Though this brought the visuals in line with the Xbox One, performance suffered as a result, with the framerate bouncing between 30fps and 60fps and dropping sub-30 when the graphical effects or the number of cars on screen ramped up. Still, for a device as thin and light as an exercise book, it’s remarkable how well the Surface Book 2 handled such a graphically intensive game. In fact, if you can live with a performance cap of 1080p/30fp, the Surface Book 2 is a perfectly viable gaming-laptop replacement that doesn't even need a keyboard – just pull out the screen, plug in a controller and you're ready to game.
With so much grunt under the hood, we expected the Surface Book 2's battery life to suffer accordingly. After all, battery life is still one of the biggest bottlenecks across all mobile technology, with most gaming laptops of similar specs to the Surface Book 2 struggling to last for more than six hours under general use. However, Microsoft claims that the Surface Book 2 is capable of trucking along for 17 hours straight, albeit based on tests conducted at low brightness settings and simply looping a video the whole time.
While we were sceptical as to how well this claim would hold up in a real-world setting, the Surface Book 2 managed to surprise us by surviving a full eight-hour day of work with 35% charge left in its tank. All told, a single charge gave us roughly 12 hours of use on Windows' Recommended power setting, and even though this is still a ways off from the 17-hour promise, it's an impressive feat nonetheless. Switching to Power Saver mode reduced the battery drain even more by sacrificing screen brightness, and if you're happy to work on a low-light screen, you could probably squeeze another couple of hours out of each charge.
It's not just the extra power that 2-in-1s have over their tablet brethren: iPads, Android tablets and even some Windows tablets run on scaled-down operating systems designed for mobile, with many features and functions pared back or removed entirely. The Surface Book 2 sports the full desktop version of Windows 10, with the ability to run any program your home PC can. Coupled with its high-performance components, this enables the Surface Book 2 to truly replace your desktop PC, your laptop and your tablet, all without compromise.
One specific Windows 10 feature worth mentioning is Windows Hello, a facial recognition system that lets you log into your computer by looking at it instead of typing a traditional password. As one of the newer features Microsoft has developed, Windows Hello is only available on select devices, the Surface Book 2 among them. In our testing, we found this to be not just a neat, future-seeming gimmick but a legitimate time saver, with the recognition software proving consistently accurate in identifying faces and logging in faster than via a traditional password. Considering how simple it was to use with the Surface Book 2, we imagine Windows Hello will be rolling out to plenty of other devices in the near future.
If there's one area where the Surface Book 2 falters, it's the price. Combining performance with portability doesn't come cheap, and you'll be looking at a cool $4499 for the top-of-the-line model with all the bells and whistles. That said, if you're happy to offload storage space onto an external hard drive, $3799 will get you the exact same model with just a slightly-smaller 512GB SSD. Less-demanding users can save even more by opting for the 256GB model with 8GB of RAM for $2999, or sacrifice the dedicated graphics card for the i5-7300U model with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $2199.
No matter which configuration you go for, it's clear that you're paying a premium for portability. Dedicated laptops like the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 or the MSI Stealth GS63 share similar specs to the top-end Surface Book 2, yet either one will only set you back around $2000. A $2500 premium for the mobility of a 2-in-1 is a lot to ask, regardless of how impressive the technical accomplishment of cramming so much power into a tiny tablet is.
As a technological accomplishment, the Surface Book 2 is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Microsoft promised a device capable of unbridled performance on the go, and there's no question that the Surface Book 2 delivers on that. But pushing the limits of modern technology doesn't come cheap, and the premium pricing of Microsoft's machine holds it back from dethroning the iPad as the de facto portable computing device for the average user.
Still, if you're after one device to take care of all your digital needs, there's nothing out there that can compete with the Surface Book 2's unification of power and portability. The world of 2-in-1s has a new king.
Purchase the Microsoft Surface Book 2 from Microsoft Store
Optimise your performance with the powerhouse Surface Book 2, now available at Microsoft Store.View details
Surface Book 2 (top-tier model) Specifications
- 13.5-inch PixelSense display
- Pixels per inch
- Intel Graphics 620 onboard plus 2GB nVidia GeForce GTX 1050
- 16GB at 1866MHz
- i7-8650U up to 4.20GHz
- 1TB SSD
- Up to 17 hours
- Windows 10
- 1.624kg including dock
- Rear Camera
- Front camera
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