The Surface Book 3: A Great Laptop, But It's No Workstation
Michael Alba posted on July 28, 2020 |
Our review of Microsoft’s latest flagship laptop/tablet hybrid.

The Microsoft Surface Book 3 is the latest addition to the Surface lineup of hybrid tablets, laptops, and desktops. By now, the Surface brand is well established with its trademark premium finish, unique 3:2 touchscreen display, and ever-present magnetic stylus.

Now in its third generation, the Surface Book remains the crown prince of the Surface family. (Still on the throne, though idle, is the Surface Studio, a massive slate of a touchscreen that lacks the mobility of other Surfaces, though arguably represents the moniker best).

At first glance, the Surface Book 3 looks like a normal laptop, but don’t be fooled; the defining feature of the Surface Book is its detachable display, which undocks neatly from a stylish curved hinge. It can be used as a standalone tablet or flipped around and reattached to set up the Book in alternate configurations.

The Surface Book 3 screen detaches from the base and can be reattached in either direction. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
The Surface Book 3 screen detaches from the base and can be reattached in either direction. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

We got our hands on the latest Surface Book 3 to see how it holds up for engineers.

What’s New in the Surface Book 3

The original Surface Book debuted in 2015. Five years and two generations later, you can be forgiven if you can’t tell the difference between the Surface Book 3 and its progenitor. The biggest aesthetic change since the original Surface Book was the addition of a 15” variant with the Surface Book 2; the Book 3 is offered in both 13.5” and 15” form factors. 

Can you tell which is the Surface Book 3 and which is the original Surface Book?
Can you tell which is the Surface Book 3 and which is the original Surface Book?

The changes to the Surface Book 3, then, are entirely internal; here are the latest specs:


Surface Book 3 (13.5”)

Surface Book 3 (15”)

CPU

Intel Core i5-1035G7 (4 Core, 6MB Cache, 1.2GHz up to 3.7GHz Turbo, 15W)

Intel Core i7-1065G7 (4 Core, 8MB Cache, 1.3GHz up to 3.9GHz Turbo, 15W)

Intel Core i7-1065G7 (4 Core, 8MB Cache, 1.3GHz up to 3.9GHz Turbo, 15W)

Discrete GPU

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 with Max-Q Design (4GB GDDR5 VRAM)*

*only with i7 CPU

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q Design (6GB GDDR6 VRAM)

NVIDIA Quadro RTX 3000 with Max-Q Design (6GB GDDR6 VRAM)*

*only on Surface Book 3 for Business

Memory

8GB, 16GB, or 32GB (3733MHz LPDDR4x)

16GB or 32GB (3733MHz LPDDR4x)

Storage

256GB, 512GB, or 1TB PCIe SSD

256GB, 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB PCIe SSD

Price (USD)

$1398.00 to $2799.99

$2242.44 to $3699.99


Despite the bump up to 10th gen Intel processors, the CPU options in the Surface Book 3 are underwhelming. Even the better of the two options, the Core i7-1065G7, is a paltry 4 core, 15W CPU that belies Microsoft’s claims of “powerhouse performance.” However, the Surface Book 3 does offer twice as much memory and storage as the Book 2 (32GB vs 16GB max RAM, 2TB vs 1TB max storage).

As for the graphics, though the specs have improved, it would have been nice to see NVIDIA GeForce RTX cards rather than the less capable GTX cards. There is one RTX on offer, the Quadro RTX 3000 with Max-Q Design. It’s available exclusively on the “Surface Book 3 for Business,” which otherwise differs only in the operating system—it’s loaded with Windows 10 Pro instead of Windows 10 Home.

Our review unit was the Surface Book 3 for Business with the i7-1065G7, Quadro RTX 3000, 32GB of memory, and 512GB of storage, priced at $3499.00.

Like the Surface Book 2, the Book 3 features 6 ports: two USB-A, one USB-C (3.1 Gen 2), a full size SDXC card reader, a headphone jack, and the power port that Microsoft calls Surface Connect (actually, there are two Surface Connect ports—one is hidden on the base of the display and is only accessible when it’s detached). 

It’s a pretty light complement of ports, and all but the headphone jack are on the base. It would be great to see a Surface Book with a USB-C port on the top half—which Microsoft calls the clipboard—so that users could plug in a thumb drive or other peripheral when using the clipboard in tablet mode.

Performance of the Surface Book 3

There’s a lot to like about the Surface Book 3, but if you’re after a laptop that caters to intensive engineering applications, look elsewhere.

Our benchmark tests show that the Surface Book 3, even with the Quadro RTX 3000, falls flat in graphical applications. Compare the results for the SPECviewperf 13 benchmark between the Surface Book 3 and Boxx GoBOXX SLM 15, a mobile workstation with similar specs:

This performance difference can be partly explained by the Max-Q variant of the RTX 3000 in the Surface Book 3. NVIDIA’s Max-Q design is made for thinner, quieter laptops, and essentially limits performance to achieve better thermal efficiency and reduce the need for loud and bulky fans. According to Notebook Check benchmarks (RTX 3000 and RTX 3000 Max-Q), the RTX 3000 Max-Q should perform at roughly 83% of the standard RTX 3000—in our tests, we saw an average of 66%. The Surface Book 3 leaves some graphical performance on the table, perhaps due to thermal design constraints with its form factor.

Full results for one iteration of SPECviewperf 13 on the Surface Book 3. Four iterations were averaged for final score. (Note: the run for 3ds Max was completed separately from the other viewsets.)
Full results for one iteration of SPECviewperf 13 on the Surface Book 3. Four iterations were averaged for final score. (Note: the run for 3ds Max was completed separately from the other viewsets.)

The Surface Book 3 didn’t fare much better in SPECworkstation 3, which is a more comprehensive test of processing power across a number of industry workflows.

A third benchmark, the consumer-oriented Passmark PerformanceTest, also reveals the Surface Book 3’s subpar capabilities as a mobile workstation. Once more, the graphics card seems to perform well below expectations even taking into account the Max-Q design.

PassMark PerformanceTest results for one iteration. Five iterations were averaged for final score.
Full results for one iteration of PassMark PerformanceTest. Five iterations were averaged for final score.

As Versatile as Ever—But Could Be Smoother

I’ve long appreciated the versatile form factor of the Surface Book, and having used all three generations over the years, I’m still impressed with the unique advantages of the Book’s detachable display. The ability to use the clipboard as a tablet or adjust the Book’s configuration on the fly is very handy (you can read more on that in our Surface Book 2 review). The Surface Pen—unfortunately not included with the Surface Book 3—provides a great handwriting experience, and the Surface Dial—also not included—is, well, possibly useful for someone (read more on these accessories in our Surface Studio review).

The Surface Book 3 in “studio mode” alongside Surface Pen and Dial. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
The Surface Book 3 in “studio mode” alongside the Surface Pen and Dial. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

As with previous Surface Books, you can detach the clipboard with a physical button on the keyboard or an on-screen control in the task bar. Despite the advantages of this trademark feature, it remains a clumsy experience—disappointing for a device that’s had three generations to refine it.

The Surface Book 3 claims to be faster than ever at detaching the clipboard, but if anything, it seems to be slower than my original Surface Book 1. In the best case scenario, there are two or three seconds of hangtime before the clipboard is released with an audible click. If you have a discrete graphics card in the base, detaching will take longer. If any applications are using the discrete graphics, you’ll be prompted to close them before detaching (if you ignore the prompt, the applications will close themselves).

Example of detachment warning on the Surface Book 3.
Example of detachment warning on the Surface Book 3.
Reattaching the clipboard isn’t always seamless either. At times I was unclear whether the operation was a success, with the “Attached” pop-up taking half a minute or more to, well, pop up. More than once, the Surface Book 3 lost track of components in the base, including the Quadro RTX 3000 and the battery. I had to detach and reattach the clipboard—sometimes several times—before the system registered them again.

Check again.
Check again.

While I’m nitpicking about the clipboard, its battery life is also an issue. The Surface Book 3 boasts 82.7Wh of battery capacity, but only 22.8Wh are in the clipboard, with the rest packed in the base. That means the clipboard only has about an hour or so of juice before it has to plug in or return to the mothership, reducing its usefulness as a tablet.

Speaking of…

Battery Life of the Surface Book 3

With 82.7Wh of battery (59.9Wh in base, 22.8Wh in display), the Surface Book 3 is straight average in terms of battery capacity for mobile workstations. Its real-world battery life, however, is a bit below average. When pushing the Surface Book 3 as hard as possible (full brightness, forcing discrete graphics, performance mode on, running SPECviewperf 13) we eked out 1 hour and 24 minutes.

When we let the Book 3 coast along (ten percent brightness, auto graphics, power saving mode on, looping a local video), we managed 6 hours and 3 minutes.

Finally, in a test of typical use (~60 percent screen brightness, a bunch of Chrome and Office windows, some dabbling in Fusion 360, and recommended power mode on) the Surface Book 3 provided 4 hours and 10 minutes worth of electrons.

It’s interesting to note that in the latter two tests, both batteries are active until they hit 79%, at which point the clipboard battery pauses. It kicks back in when the base battery reaches 40%. In the high performance test, the clipboard battery holds off from the start (possibly due to the power profile), but also kicks in when the base nears 40%. It seems that the Surface Book 3 does its best to save the clipboard battery for when you want to detach it.

Here’s how the data looks for combined battery capacity. Note the clear shift in slope whenever the battery in the base dies and the clipboard carries on alone (slightly better, it would seem).

The Display

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

The Surface Book 3, like all Surface devices, has a bright and responsive touchscreen display with a unique 3240 x 2160 resolution. Compared to standard 16:9 laptops, the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface Book 3 gives the screen a little extra height, which I personally appreciate—it’s great for working with two documents side by side.

That said, all Surface displays suffer from some common problems, and the Book 3 is no exception. One noticeable defect is screen bleed, in which the edges of the display leak light when the display should be dark. In our review unit, the top left corner was the biggest offender. It’s not a huge issue, and it’s really only noticeable in dark environments (watching a movie in bed, perhaps).

A more frustrating issue has to do with screen brightness. I normally turn off adaptive brightness, preferring to adjust the screen’s luminosity myself. Like most laptops, the Surface Book 3 allows you to turn off automatic brightness changes pretty easily. You’d think that’d be problem solved, but not quite. If you’re on battery power, an Intel feature called Intel Display Power Saving Technology (DPST) will kick in and automatically adjust the screen based on the content—changing both brightness and pixel chroma values to optimize power use, theoretically without disruption. In practice, DPST is far from seamless. If you switch from a dark app to a lighter one, the screen will look washed out for a few seconds while DPST recalibrates.
Example of DPST adjusting screen brightness over time on the Surface Book 3.
Example of DPST adjusting screen brightness over time on the Surface Book 3.

There’s no easy way to deal with this problem, but blogger Mike Battista has written an overview of how to disable DPST in the registry (the blog post is from 2016, by the way—this has been an issue with Surfaces for years). It’s far from an elegant solution, and one you’ll likely have to apply again after each Windows update, but it works. Maybe by the Surface Book 4 Microsoft will put this option in the settings proper.

As for the quality of the display, the Surface Book 3 scored a 4.5/5 on tests with our Spyder5ELITE colorimeter, but take that with a grain of salt. Color coverage is nothing special, with the Book 3 covering 96% of sRGB and 71% of Adobe RGB, but color accuracy was excellent with an average Delta E of just 0.82 (anything below 1 is essentially perfect as far as human perception is concerned).

The Surface Book 3’s display shines with a 100% brightness level of 358 nits and looks great with a contrast ratio of 1370:1 on the center of the display. However, as with all laptops, the display of the Surface Book 3 varies from corner to corner. The Book 3 is above average in luminance uniformity, with the highest deviation being only 10 percent off the maximum 100% brightness. Color uniformity, which accounts for color accuracy around the display, is off by a maximum Delta E of 2.3—also slightly better than average. Neither of these defects is noticeable to the naked eye (my naked eye, at any rate).

Price/Performance Comparisons

For users who spend a lot of time in processor-heavy applications, the Surface Book 3 will disappoint. For a similar price in either direction you can buy a laptop with significantly more processing power (albeit half the panache of the Book 3). Here’s a price/performance comparison of our most recent mobile workstation reviews:

Performance comparison based on all benchmark tests, with double weight given to SPEC benchmarks. (See reviews for the GoBOXX SLM 15 and Acer ConceptD 7 Pro.)
Performance comparison based on all benchmark tests, with double weight given to SPEC benchmarks. (See reviews for the GoBOXX SLM 15 and Acer ConceptD 7 Pro.)

Here are the comparisons broken down by benchmark:

Final Thoughts

I admire the Surface Book 3, despite its smattering of flaws. The occasional annoyances are compensated by brilliantly versatile hardware, though it would be nice to see a more significant update than the biannual spec refresh. (That reminds me, in that picture way up at the top, the Book 3 was on the right, Book 1 on the left.)

Don’t get me wrong—I like the design of the Surface Book. I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything that should be changed about the design. But a few tweaks might be nice. For instance, maybe Microsoft could take a stroll through the design orchard and pick an idea from one of its competitors:

Left: Microsoft Surface Book 3. Right: Apple MacBook Pro 16”. (Images courtesy of Microsoft and Apple respectively.)
Left: Microsoft Surface Book 3. Right: Apple MacBook Pro 16”. (Images courtesy of Microsoft and Apple respectively.)

The Surface Book 3’s keyboard and trackpad are top notch, as usual, providing possibly the best combination on any Windows device. But more could be done with each. The trackpad could be a touch bigger, if not as gargantuan as the MacBook’s. The keyboard should connect wirelessly to the display when it’s detached from the base. Also, I’d love to see a hinge on the clipboard akin to the Surface Pro’s—it would be great for using the clipboard in tablet mode. Alas, I don’t have high hopes we’ll see these features anytime soon.

In summary, here are the key takeaways for the Microsoft Surface Book 3:

Stay tuned for our video review of the Microsoft Surface Book 3.


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