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Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch) review: A satisfying sequel

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The Good The new Surface Book 2 adds a long list of worthy upgrades, from new CPUs and gamer-ready graphics cards to a bigger 15-inch version. Battery life and performance are both excellent.

The Bad The two-in-one design still feels awkward at times, and for some users, the detachable screen may be superfluous. The most interesting new components are only available in very expensive configurations.

The Bottom Line The Surface Book 2 is a satisfying sequel, but like many sequels, it may be trying to broadly serve too many audiences.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9

There's a lot going on with the new Surface Book 2.

It's not just a laptop, it's a laptop with the latest 8th-gen Intel Core-series CPUs.

You can detach the screen and cart it around as a standalone tablet, or connect it to the keyboard base for extra battery life and graphics power. And that graphics power comes from a couple of gamer-friendly Nvidia GPUs, up to the very popular GeForce 1060.

You lose the graphics power when detaching the tablet, but that just makes it easier to use the proprietary (and sold separately) Microsoft Pen stylus for drawing or note-taking, which has been a standout feature of the entire Surface line since Day 1.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15 inch)
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Sarah Tew/CNET

It also has the camera hardware and updated Windows software for trendy new augmented reality experiences.

And don't forget, the 13-inch version is now joined by a second model, with a bigger, higher-resolution 15-inch display, clearly designed to go head-to-head with Apple's category-defining 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Long story short, there's a lot to unpack in Microsoft's new Surface Book 2, a computer that aims to satisfy many different audiences.

The new models start at $1,499 for the 13-inch and $2,499 for the 15-inch. The 13-inch model is hitting several global markets, with a starting price of £1,449 or AU$2,199, while the 15-inch model is US-only for now (but it converts to £1,880 or AU$3,180).

Microsoft Surface Book 2

Price as reviewed $2,499.00
Display size/resolution 15.1-inch, 3,240x2,160 touch display
PC CPU 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U
PC Memory 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz
Graphics 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
Storage 1TB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)


Under the Surface

The Surface Pro tablet and cloth-covered Surface Laptop may get more buzz (and there's also the Surface Studio, an all-in-one desktop built like a drafting desk). But since its launch in 2015, the Surface Book ($789 at Walmart) has been the high-powered member of the Surface family targeted at pro-level buyers such as artists, designers, engineers, or photo/video editors.

A grab bag of features has led to the Surface Book, now in its third incarnation, feeling like an attempt to juggle too many hats at times. Is it a graphics powerhouse? A portable slate? A MacBook Pro alternative and/or an iPad Pro ($660 at Walmart) alternative? Thanks in part to a slightly awkward hinge mechanism and how the components are split between the screen and body, it historically felt like a machine designed as a standard clamshell laptop, with the two-in-one part thrown in as an afterthought.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15 inch)
View full gallery
Sarah Tew/CNET

None of those fundamental questions are resolved by the Surface Book 2, but this new version of the system does improve on the first two generations (the original 2015 Surface Book, and an intermediate 2016 model with a few design tweaks and a CPU upgrade) in a great many substantial ways.

If you were on the fence about the Surface Book because you wanted more power, VR and mixed reality support, or a bigger screen, then I'm pleased to say this is a smart set of upgrades that should push you into the buy-now category. The new 15-inch model in particular feels, big, powerful and fun, and will also play any current PC game at decent medium/high settings.

But if you don't think you'll ever need or want to pop the screen off as a standalone tablet, then maybe look for similar parts (an 8th-gen Intel Core i5/i7 and an Nvidia GeForce 1050 or 1060 GPU) in a less-expensive clamshell.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15 inch)
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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Book's articulated "dynamic fulcrum" hinge gets some minor tweaks in the Surface Book 2, and translates well to the larger 15-inch size. It feels stiff enough and stays where you put it, although there's a little screen bounce when adjusting the angle.

As with the previous Surface Book systems, detaching the screen is a more involved affair than in many other hybrids. Rather than just pulling the two halves apart, as on a Surface Pro, you have to press and hold a button on the right side of the function key row, then wait for the mechanism to unlock. It takes about four seconds from when I first pressed the button, until I saw the "ready to detach" message pop up on the screen. By detaching, you lose access to the discrete GPU and also the larger battery inside the keyboard base. 

The keyboard half, with two USB 3.0 ports and one USB-C port, has a satisfyingly chunky island-style keyboard, although the touchpad is small for a laptop of this size, dwarfed by the 15-inch MacBook Pro's pad. 

The standalone tablet is big -- holding a 15-inch screen as a slate takes some getting used to. As an oversize drawing pad, it's creatively satisfying to use, and the Surface Pen experience remains arguably the best Windows-based way to draw on a computer screen.

Microsoft Surface Book Pro 2 (15 inch)
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I call this recurring stylus test art, "The Indistinct Man."

Sarah Tew/CNET

Getting in the game

It's not being marketed as one, but this is be the first Surface device that can be taken seriously as a gaming machine. In our benchmark testing, the Nvidia GeForce 1060 GPU inside performed well. It didn't play games at framerates as high as many dedicated gaming laptops with the same GPU, but the difference wasn't major.

In actual hands-on use, I was able to play new and recent premium games, including Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, very smoothly with high detail settings at resolutions close to 1,920x1,080 (the 3:2 aspect ratio means you'll have to adjust your game resolution slightly to perfectly fit the screen). The display itself has a native resolution of 3,240x2,160, but in many games you'll have to turn down the detail levels for better performance, although that's true of most 4K gaming laptops as well. When pushing games, the internal fans tended to crank up audibly. 

Away from games, in our performance and video rendering tests, the 8th-gen Intel Core i7-8560U continued the impressive gains we've seen from the first wave of PCs with Intel's latest chips. Some systems with older 7th-gen Intel CPUs can be as fast or faster, including the current 15-inch MacBook Pro, but that's because those use higher-end HQ versions of those processors, rather than the lower-voltage U-series CPU used here. 

Even though the Surface Book 2 comes just after the first wave of Windows Mixed Reality headsets, it lacks an HDMI port, so you'll need a USB-C-to-HDMI adaptor to connect one. Even if you're using a higher-end VR headset like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, which both have heavier system requirements, the GPU in the 15-inch version will work, as long as you can dongle your way to having enough ports. Some gaming tests in Space Pirate Trainer with an Acer Mixed Reality headset showed the Surface Book 2 works just fine for the current state of VR. 

Microsoft Surface Book Pro 2 (15 inch)
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Sarah Tew/CNET

Both the 13-inch and 15-inch models work with the sold-separately Microsoft Pen stylus (which gets a very minor update itself) and the new Fall Creators Update version of Windows 10 ($126 at Walmart), which lets you do all kinds of cool augmented-reality stuff through the new Mixed Reality Viewer app, like taking a 3D model from Microsoft's Paint 3D program, and dropping it into a real-world situation, as captured by the rear-facing camera (the Surface Book 2 has a 5MP front-facing camera and an 8MP rear-facing one).

More batteries, more life

The Surface Book line has always been an impressive battery performer, because it actually has two batteries. There's a smaller battery inside the tablet half and a larger one in the base.

We're still running additional battery tests, but in an initial round, the combined performance of the base and tablet batteries together was 16:24 in our online video playback battery drain test. That's close to Microsoft's estimate of 17 hours. The tablet half by itself ran for 3:59 in an initial test.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15 inch)
View full gallery
Sarah Tew/CNET

Beyond the Surface

If you're looking for this high level of application and 3D performance, and also feel like you'd actually use the detachable screen and a Microsoft Pen, then this might be just what you're looking for. However, that may be a somewhat smaller selected segment of premium laptop-shopping community. If you like the size, shape and power of the Surface Book 2, but don't need a screen that pops off, then look at something like the Dell XPS 15 ($1,600 at Amazon). Or, if you feel like skipping the touchscreen altogether, then Apple would probably like you to give the 15-inch MacBook Pro a test drive.

The new 15-inch Surface Book 2 is big, expensive and powerful. And like many hybrid laptops, it's a better clamshell than it is a tablet. In its favor, the battery life is killer, and the Surface Book design aesthetic translates well to this larger size. Plus, I personally love any laptop that can play games and run VR hardware, without actually looking like a "gaming" laptop.

Cinebench R15 CPU (multi core)

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017)
764
Dell XPS 15
702
Microsoft Surface Book 2
691
Lenovo Yoga 920
545
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro
355

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance


Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017)
15540
HP Omen 15
14221
Dell XPS 15
14161
Lenovo Yoga 920
13981
Microsoft Surface Book 2
13958
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro
8055

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance



Streaming video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Book 2
984
Lenovo Yoga 920
770
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017)
643
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro
509
Dell XPS 15
432
HP Omen 15
180

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)


3DMark Fire Strike Ultra

HP Omen 15
2323
Microsoft Surface Book 2
2283
Dell XPS 15
1242
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro
547

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance


Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (fps)

HP Omen 15
50.7
Microsoft Surface Book 2
47.8
Dell XPS 15
30.9
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro
13.9

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

System Configurations

Microsoft Surface Book 2 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 ; 1TB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.5; 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 4GB Radeon Pro 560 / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 630; 512GB SSD
Dell XPS 15 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHZ Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050; 512GB SSD
HP Omen 15 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with Max-Q Design; 256GB SSD + 2TB HDD
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon 540 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Lenovo Yoga 920 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD

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