A Hands-on Review of the Surface Book 2
Michael Alba posted on March 15, 2018 |
The Surface Book 2 comes in two sizes, 13.5in and 15in. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
The Surface Book 2 comes in two sizes, 13.5in and 15in. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

When Microsoft released the first Surface tablet back in 2012, I didn’t get it. I always thought to myself, why not just buy an iPad? But in the years since, I’ve changed my tune significantly. When the Surface Pro 3 launched in 2015, Microsoft had polished its experimental hybrid form factor to the point that I could no longer dismiss it. I bought an SP3 and loved it.

When Microsoft unveiled the Surface Book in late 2015, it seemed to me like it had everything I loved about the Surface Pro but with a bigger screen and sturdier keyboard, which I wanted out of my primary computer. I picked up a Surface Book, and I’ve used it as my daily driver ever since. Though it’s not perfect, the sheer versatility of the Book has quite possibly spoiled me for other laptops.

In late 2017, Microsoft updated the Book line with the Surface Book 2, available in the 13.5in and new 15in form factor. I’ve been testing out a 15in SB2 for a little over a month now, and I’m here to report my findings. 

What’s Changed

The 15in Surface Book 2 next to the 13.5in Surface Book 1.
The 15in Surface Book 2 next to the 13.5in Surface Book 1.

Let’s begin by getting the specs out of the way. The following table compares the Surface Book 2 to the original Surface Book:

 

Surface Book

Surface Book 2

Screen Size

13.5in

13.5in and 15in

Resolution

3000x2000 (267 PPI)

13.5in - 3000x2000 (267 PPI)

15in - 3240x2160 (260 PPI)

Storage

128GB to 1TB SSD

128GB to 1TB SSD

Memory

8GB or 16GB

8GB or 16GB

Processor

Low-end: 6th Gen Intel Core i5-6300U (3.0GHz Max Turbo)

High-end: 6th Gen Intel i7-6600U (3.4GHz Max Turbo)

Low-end: 7th Gen Intel Core i5-7300U (3.5GHz Max Turbo)

High-end: 8th Gen Intel Core i7-8650U (4.2GHz Max Turbo)

Graphics

Low-end: Intel HD graphics 520 (i5)

High-end: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M 2GB GPU (i7 w/ Performance Base)

Low-end: Intel HD Graphics 620 integrated GPU (i5)

High-end: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB discrete GPU (15” i7)

Weight

3.34lbs (1,516g) to 3.68lbs (1,647g)

3.38lbs (1,534g) to 4.20lbs (1,905g)

Price (USD)

$1,499 to $3,299

$1,199 to $3,299

I/O Ports

2 USB 3.0, 1 Mini DisplayPort, SD card reader, headphone jack

2 USB 3.1, 1 USB-C, SD card reader, headphone jack

Surface Pen

Included

Sold separately (USD$99.99)


Besides the addition of the new 15in screen size, the biggest difference between the two Surface Book generations is the processor and graphics upgrades, which are to be expected with any product update. Microsoft also replaced the Mini DisplayPort with a USB-C port, which is a welcome substitution. There’s a slight price change, as Microsoft is offering the lowest end model (128GB i5 13.5in) for only $1,200, compared to $1,500 for the equivalent from the first generation—sadly, this price reduction does not carry through to the higher-spec models. The Surface Pen is no longer included in the box, so you’ll have to spend an extra hundred bucks to match the hardware from the first generation.

Besides the new USB-C Port, the form factor of the SB2 is identical to the SB1, down to the trademark hinge. The keyboard is slightly different—there are finally screen brightness control keys, for one thing. Microsoft claims the mechanism to detach the screen is quicker, but it is not noticeable to me. The hinges connecting the screen to the keyboard are a little longer, which supposedly gives the screen more stability, but this is another change I haven’t really noticed in day-to-day use.

Surface Book 2 keyboard (left) compared to the original Surface Book (right).
Surface Book 2 keyboard (left) compared to the original Surface Book (right).

It would have been great to see Microsoft add a bit more to the keyboard of the 15in SB2, considering the extra room—a dedicated function key row, extra speakers, a fingerprint scanner, anything. That said, the SB2 keyboard gives a fantastic typing experience, with better spacing and depth than the Surface Pro type cover. Some extra USB ports would also have been appreciated—with the USB-C hooked up to an external monitor, the two remaining USB 3.1 ports don’t always get the job done.

The Performance

The Surface Book 2 I tested out was the 1TB SSD model; all the other specs (i7 processor, 16GB memory, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB GPU) are fixed for the 15in model. In terms of everyday use, the SB2 runs lightning quick. The SSD boots up in seconds, switching between tasks is instantaneous and, for the most part, applications are responsive.

But how does the SB2 fare for getting some real engineering work done? I tested out the machine with some 3D modeling work, and it certainly gets the job done. But when I tried rendering a small assembly in Fusion 360, the application completely froze up on me. I did eventually manage to get the render finished, but you can hear the fans in the SB2 running at full throttle during this type of intensive work. However, as Kyle Maxey points out in his review of the Microsoft Surface Pro, with cloud rendering so easily available, local rendering may not matter to all users.

After one failed attempt where the application froze on me, I eventually managed to render this hydraulic bottle jack in Fusion 360. (Model courtesy of Autodesk).
After one failed attempt where the application froze on me, I eventually managed to render this hydraulic bottle jack in Fusion 360. (Model courtesy of Autodesk).

I also pushed the GPU with some 4K video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro, and it wasn’t exactly a smooth experience. You can do it, but be prepared for some frustrating lag. All told, the Surface Book 2 will go far in performance—just don’t expect it to go to the moon and back.

4K video editing on the Surface Book 2 was a frustratingly laggy experience.
4K video editing on the Surface Book 2 was a frustratingly laggy experience.

The battery life on the SB2 is decent, giving me just under five hours of on time during a regular day with my typical millions of tabs open in Chrome, five or six Word docs, a couple Excel spreadsheets, and some light use of Solid Edge and Fusion 360. This was on the recommended power mode, so I could have stretched it even further if I’d opted for the “Best battery life” mode. One more thing to note about the battery life of the SB2 is that most of it comes from the base. If you detach the screen, it’ll only give you about an hour before you have to plug it in or redock it.

Oh, and if you plan on detaching the screen a lot, keep in mind that certain applications won’t allow you to do so while they’re running. Graphics-hungry programs will have to be closed before you can detach, as they make use of the discrete NVIDIA GPU in the base. You can reopen them with the screen detached, but they’ll only be able to use the integrated Intel GPU, which may not be up to snuff.

The Machine

While some people don’t like the Surface Book’s unorthodox hinge, I personally find the device beautiful. Its sleek magnesium body and minimalist aesthetic recall Apple’s famous focus on form. Some people won’t care how their computer looks as long as it gets the job done, but in tech, just as in life, it never hurts to be beautiful.

My favorite thing about the Surface Book 2 is its versatility. Since the screen can be detached and reattached facing either direction, the Book can easily be set up in four configurations, which Microsoft defines as follows:

(Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
(Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

Even if you never feel the need to leave the classic laptop mode, having these options is a bonus. I’ve personally used all four in various situations but usually have the device set up in View Mode with an external monitor. This allows me to easily interact with the touch screen and gives me more flexibility with the screen angle than laptop mode. 

View mode is one of the many ways the Surface Book 2 can be configured.
View mode is one of the many ways the Surface Book 2 can be configured.

The high-resolution PixelSense display is crisp, bright and a pleasure to use. The only annoyance with such a high-res screen is that some applications don’t scale properly for the display, meaning the user interface is extremely small with text and icons hard to read. There are some workarounds for this problem, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

The 15in Surface Book 2 weighs over 4 pounds, which is pretty much a given for a laptop of this size. If a lightweight, slim size is your key consideration, you’ll be better off with the Surface Pro. That said, the SB2 easily fits in my bag and has been no problem to carry around.

My main complaint with the Surface Book 2 is the price tag. With the cheapest model (the 13.5in 128GB i5) coming in at $1,200 and the highest-end (15in 1TB) maxing out at $3,300, the SB2 will leave a sizeable hole in your wallet. The Surface Book is marketed as a premium device—and the build quality, aesthetics and versatility certainly attest to that—but it’s a lot of money all the same. If you’re just looking for raw horsepower, you can find comparable specs for less.

The Verdict

The Surface Book 2 is a sleek, well-built machine that can handle your everyday engineering tasks. Despite its high cost, its versatility, performance, beautiful design and great display make it an option worth considering. 

Pros

In the Middle

Cons

  • Extremely versatile – can be used as a laptop, tablet or standing touchscreen, and the Surface Pen means you can interact with the device however you want
  • Gets the job done – works great for part modeling and other graphics intensive engineering tasks (just don’t expect it to seamlessly handle gigantic assemblies)
  • Beautiful design – the sleek magnesium frame and signature hinge are a pleasure to behold
  • Great display – the high-res PixelSense display is great to work with, even if some apps don’t play nice with it
  • Battery life – just under five hours of screen on time isn’t bad, but the battery in the screen will only last you about an hour
  • I/O – two USB 3 ports and one USB-C is better than the Surface Pro’s one USB 3, but more ports would have been nice
  • Weight – at just over 4lbs, the 15in SB2 is comfortable for its size, but the Surface Pro (1.73lbs) is a better bet if you’re looking for lightweight
  • High cost – while the SB2 is a premium device, you can find comparable specs for less

 

Watch our video review of the Surface Book 2 here.

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