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Microsoft's update to the 15-inch Surface Book 2, the aptly named Surface Book 3, remains essentially the same. It's still the laptop that tries to be all things to all people: it's a clamshell, a convertible and a standalone tablet, where most laptops settle for two out of three. But in the past couple of years the competition for creative dollars has gotten a lot tougher while the Surface Book has pretty much stood still. If you want its exact combination of convertible/detachable/clamshell operation or want to stick with it as an upgrade from the Surface Book 2, it won't disappoint.
Microsoft does offer a new configuration with an Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 graphics processor. The Quadro's a professional GPU that's roughly equivalent to a GeForce RTX 2070. Quadro graphics enable professionals to take advantage of some acceleration capabilities in high-end video and 3D-intensive software that aren't enabled for GeForce consumer-level GPUs.
It's the first Microsoft system to enter that fray -- not even its supposedly high-end Microsoft Surface Studio 2 desktop offers that level of graphics -- and pits it against 16-inch MacBook Pro models (the Radeon Pro graphics in Macs are workstation-class GPUs). I didn't get to test the Quadro model, though, just the consumer-level GTX 1660 Ti version.
The Surface Book 3 is physically identical to its predecessor and received a mostly run-of-the-mill refresh for its "3" designation: an Intel Core i7-1065G7 with the accompanying memory improvements, a choice of Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q or the aforementioned Quadro graphics, Wi-Fi 6 and a bump to 10Gbps USB-C from 5Gbps.
The four configurations come with 16GB or 32GB RAM combined with 512GB through 2TB SSD, with prices ranging from $2,300 to $3,400. The Quadro model sells through the business channel, configured with 32GB RAM and a 512GB SSD, for $3,500. And seriously, Microsoft's still going to charge extra for the stylus and the laptop still has no place to store it when not in use.
|Price as reviewed||$2,800, £2,700, AU$4,439|
|Display||3,240x2,160 PixelSense touchscreen|
|CPU||1.3GHz Intel Core i7-1065G7|
|Memory||32GB 3,733MHz LPDDR4x|
|Graphics||6GB GDDR6 GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q|
|Storage||512GB SSD, SD card reader|
|Ports||2x USB-A, 1x USB-C, headphone, 2x Surface Connect|
|Networking||Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.0, Xbox wireless|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909)|
|Weight||4.2 pounds (1.9kg); Tablet: 1.8 pounds (0.8kg)|
There are things about it I like, or at least want to like.
I'd never used the Surface Books before in anything other than clamshell mode, and it is kind of useful to be able to choose between essentially a power tablet, where you remove the display, turn it around and dock it facing the other way or as a lightweight tablet that can run very, very lightweight graphics apps. However, despite that flexible-looking hinge, it can't tilt back far as far as I'd like while using it as a clamshell on my lap. Microsoft streamlined the detach process so it warns you which apps to close beforehand.
It's also still one of the few laptops with a 1080p webcam and the microphone array and camera work well.
Adobe Fresco was developed for tablets so you'd think it would be nimble, but under Windows the Live brushes and the interface were laggy. It's fine for streaming video or web surfing, though it's awfully expensive if that's all you want to do with tablet mode.
Even docked to the keyboard with the discrete GPU, real-world performance is sub-stellar. It feels held back by the quad-core processor; given its speed, it's likely running at 15 watts instead of 25 watts, which is why it lags systems with the same i7-1065G7 CPU on multicore performance. (With less power a CPU hits lower frequencies on all-core operations). Intel makes a big deal about how single core operations still dominate everywhere.
But you know what common operations hit multiple cores? Application loading. File copying. Medium-bandwidth Wi-Fi downloading. Four cores might be plenty for those if they ran faster. It wants to be the laptop that delivers "powerhouse performance," but I guess that depends on your frame of reference. For its size and weight it delivers okay performance.
It manages to be faster than its predecessor simply because that model has two-year-old components. But its overall performance disappoints compared with less-expensive competitors like the Lenovo Yoga C940. And CPU-intensive operations like generating thumbnails in Adobe Bridge or Lightroom Classic can be unbearably slow. Still, for general-purpose use with a little bit of a graphics kick, it serves quite well.
In order to support its three-way operation, the design requires the basic guts of the system -- the processor with its integrated GPU, memory and storage -- live in the display section for use as a tablet. That constrains Microsoft's options when it comes to components. So I understand why it chose the processor it did -- it's the highest-end Intel option fitting within the power requirements and using the Iris Plus integrated graphics -- but it may not be worth the trade-off for a lot of people.
It is sufficient for most gaming, though it's about the same as any laptop equipped with the same 1660 Ti graphics: you can get decent 1080p at 60fps if you compromise a bit on quality, but it lacks gaming perks like a high-refresh-rate screen and you'll almost always have letterboxing because of the 3:2 aspect ratio.
The Wi-Fi performs especially well, though. (It's the only Wi-Fi 6 laptop I've used thus far at home that can actually download from Xbox Game Pass for PC at anything approaching double-digit megabyte-per-second download speeds.) I do like the keyboard as well; appropriate layout and nice travel with a little bit o' bounce feedback.
But a single USB-C port -- no Thunderbolt 3 -- limits external drive and monitor options, even with a hub. And I find the proprietary, magnetic power connector tends to pull off too easily. Especially since I have to plug it backwards and route it around the back of the laptop so it doesn't obstruct the USB-C connection.
Though Microsoft rates its battery life at 17-plus hours, that's on the optimistic side; Microsoft's tests include standby time, which resembles some people's actual work behavior.
On battery, my test unit wouldn't let me disable autobrightness, which even in a dim environment dropped it unusably low -- to about 50 nits. (I'm still waiting to hear back from Microsoft on that problem.) In our streaming video tests, which don't tax any part of the system heavily, the battery lasted up to a reasonable 12 hours with brightness initially set to 50. The system automatically uses both batteries -- a small one in the tablet section and a bigger one in the base -- which drain and charge together when they're connected, and which you don't need to think about unless they stop charging or communicating. You can charge them independently as well.
In my real-world usage, without opening a single graphics app -- just Google apps in Chrome, Firefox and Slack with brightness set higher -- I'm down to 23% after roughly 3.5 hours of steady use. If subsequent testing shows improvement, we'll update this. The tablet ran down to 35% after about 2 hours in detached mode using Fresco.
The Surface Book remains Microsoft's most interesting and ambitious Surface PC, playing to creatives, gamers and tablet users. But two years ago, there was a lot less competition. Now convertibles, discrete graphics and color-accurate displays are common, plus there are more with Adobe RGB or P3 gamut coverage and 400-nit-plus brightness compared to the Surface's sRGB-ish, 380-nits peak. Especially given the price premium you're paying for the three-way flexibility you may not really need.
First published June 1, 2020.
|Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch)||Apple macOS Catalina 10.15.1; 2.4GHz Intel Core i9-9980HK; 32GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Radeon Pro 5500M/1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 630; 2TB SSD|
|Lenovo Yoga C940 (15-inch)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-9750H; 16GB DDR4 RAM 2,667MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 with Max-Q design; 512GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Book 3 (15-inch)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 1.3GHz Intel Core i7-1065G7; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 4,267MHz; Intel Iris Plus Graphics and 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q design; 512GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch, Intel)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1903); 1.3GHz Intel Core i7-1065G7; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,667MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics; 256GB SSD|
|MSI Prestige 15||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (1909); 1.1Hz Intel Core i7-10710U; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,667MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 with Max-Q design; 1TB SSD|