Top positive review
Luxurious laptop that does it all - but lacks Surface Pen and storage capacity
November 28, 2017
Can any laptop possibly be worth $2,500? This is the question that will vex anyone in the market for a Surface Book 2 – the 15 inch model starts there and only gets more expensive as the storage sizes increase (topping out at $3,300). I will try to evaluate the Microsoft Surface Book 2 from the perspective of someone who has other devices already, as well as from the perspective of someone who wants one unit to do it all.
BUILD QUALITY AND FEATURES
The Surface Book 2’s body is made of machined magnesium. I don’t know what benefits magnesium purports to give us over steel or aluminum, but it does sound nice. The feel of the body is very matte. It is not shiny at all, and doesn’t really collect fingerprints.
The “fulcrum hinge” works well, though it only allows the screen in laptop mode to be pushed back to about 115 degrees or so. Basically every time I open the laptop, I push it back completely and run up against the limit, then decide “eh, it looks pretty good anyway” and get over it.
The display is a 3,240 x 2,160 resolution IPS LCD. It has fabulous viewing angles, black levels, contrast ratio, overall brightness, and color.
Ports included are one USB-C, two USB 3.1, one full-size SD slot, and the magnetic-detach charging port. I kind of wish, given the gaming chops of this device, that an HDMI out had been included. There is a headphone jack, as well as a power and volume key on the screen/tablet portion. The jack is in a very odd place when in laptop mode – the top right corner. In laptop mode, this means that a cord will hang across the keyboard from above. The power button as well is a bit inopportunely placed, on the top left edge, and often gets pressed when re-attaching the tablet to the keyboard dock.
The detachable tablet portion of the Surface Book 2 is activated with a physical “Detach” key. It takes about 2 seconds to fully detach, assuming no conflicting program is in use. Once detached, you can flip the screen around and close the whole thing in a sort of “studio” mode. You could also tent the laptop and use the keyboard as a stand. Reattaching the tablet/screen is relatively easy, and it automatically detects that you are doing so. The screen does wobble when touched, but not tremendously so.
Front and rear cameras are very high quality for things like Skype, and the front camera also features Windows Hello, which Microsoft pioneered with its late, lamented Windows Phone, the Lumia 950. It is blazing fast, and unlocks the laptop even in a dark room by scanning for your face. I have not tried to defeat this with a picture, so I can’t comment on overall security of this unlock method – it can be deactivated, and a PIN or password are still unlock options.
NOT included in the package is the Surface Pen. This is pretty egregious given the market segment this is aimed at and the price of even the entry level unit. Also verging on chintzy are the storage options. A 256gb SSD is included in the base model, with very expensive step-ups available up to 1tb. Folks, for $2500, I think 512gb should be the absolute minimum. And while I realize that there may be bulk concerns from a design standpoint, I think a 2tb HDD should live in the keyboard base.
There are fans in both the tablet and the keyboard base. These are present to cool the Core i7 CPU in the tablet and the GTX 1060 card in the base. During heavy gaming, the fans kick in, but they are admirably quiet – much quieter than the Acer Predator Helios 300 that I use for gaming.
Front facing stereo speakers are contained in the tablet, not in the base. Given the size of the keyboard base and the generous extra space, I think speakers could have been placed on the base, as well. That said, the tablet speakers are truly excellent. Watching Netflix or playing a game, there is very little feeling of audio sacrifice. They are loud, clear, and even deliver a small feeling of bass response.
When detached, the tablet functions very well compared to other Windows 10 slates. This is no doubt owing to its Core i7 CPU and 16gb of system RAM. Watching Netflix or doing light computing is a breeze. The thing is enormous, though! It feels vaguely ridiculous to carry around such a big tablet, and it has no stand, so overall I think its utility is greater in terms of reversing the orientation of the screen on the keyboard base.
Once you purchase the Surface Pen, you are able to do a number of pen-based activities. The pen can be used as a stylus for the operating system. The pen can mark up documents and web pages using the Edge browser. And, of course, the pen can be used to draw and paint with the appropriate software. A few free trials are available, such as SketchBook and Drawboard PDF. Free apps are also available in the store, like Microsoft’s Fresh Paint and Paint 3D. There are many, many note taking applications available as well, and all of Microsoft’s Office suite is compatible with note taking via pen.
Using the appropriate software, sketching and drawing feels pretty close to using pencil and paper. There is a learning curve simply because of the different feel, but it is slight, and there is little to no lag when using the Surface Pen. The screen rejects the artist's palm reliably, and it does get a tad warm in the center, though not uncomfortably hot by any means.
After using the pen with Sketchbook Pro for a week, I have to say it's kind of revolutionized my creative work and inspired me to stretch myself. I had been puttering away at a kids' book project for several years now, and the capabilities of this hardware with that software really have given me a lot of juice. I've posted a picture of my work with Sketchbook Pro. All in all, how great this feels is another indication of how incomplete this unit really is without the pen packed in.
The keyboard base contains batteries and an nVidia GTX 1060 video card. This is the sort of card found in mid-range gaming laptops like the Acer Predator series. It is capable of running modern games at 1920x1080 resolution without breaking a sweat – though given the 3:2 screen aspect ratio, 1920x1440 is a better fit.
I tested Arkham Knight on this laptop. It played quite admirably at 1920x1440 with max settings. The included system test showed average frame rates of 56fps without nVidia’s “Gameworks” graphics upgrades, and 35fps with all activated (leaving off interactive smoke but keeping the lighting and rain improvements netted 53fps). This is a really good set of frame rates, and bested the Acer Predator Helios 300 running on max settings at 1920x1080 (which returned 48 and 42fps, Gameworks off and on, respectively). Forza 6 Apex was able to run at a stable 60fps on Ultra settings, at 1920x1200, which was also better than the Predator Helios. Not bad!
Heat generation and fan noise were surprisingly light while playing both Arkham Knight and Forza. This may be due to the CPU and GPU being separately cooled.
The real problem with gaming is the included storage. 256gb fills up very fast (Arkham Knight alone is 50gb). As such, I will probably use my Acer Predator for heavier gaming, while loading up some lighter games like Civilization, Inside, or The Witness.
UPDATE: I have added a 400gb microSD card, using a BaseQi adapter to sit flush in the full-size (but not full depth) SD card slot. After re-mapping the drive to read as dedicated storage (I called it the M: drive), I moved most of my Steam library over to it. Happily, I can report that gaming performance using SD storage is fine. Load times are slightly longer than when utilizing SSD storage, but honestly not all that different than using an HDD for storage. My performance results above are very similar to what I found on games like Skyrim, Civilization VI, Fallout 4, and Witcher 3. Your best bet for good frame rates at "Ultra" quality is to set resolution at 1920x1440 (though it is capable of higher on most titles). I run things in "Balanced" power mode - since "Best Performance" runs your fan like a jet engine, which is very distracting during gameplay. A few extra frames per second was not worth the noise tradeoff to me. Anyway, given the level of performance, I can definitely say that the SB2 is a great gaming laptop - but only if you spring for a larger storage model or go my route and purchase some additional storage. A 400gb card and the BaseQi adapter will probably run you around 200 bones.
UPDATE 2: I have been playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey on this laptop. It runs at around 30 fps in 1920x1440 resolution, with graphics visual options maxed. This is a very good performance, if you ask me, comparable to a gaming console.
COMPARISONS AND CONCLUSIONS
In terms of performance based on my personal use, I am comparing this laptop to my Acer Switch Alpha 12, which is a 2-in-1 from late-2016 (Core i7 6500U, 8gb RAM, integrated graphics), and the Acer Predator Helios 300, a gaming laptop from mid-2017 (Core i7 7700HQ, 16gb RAM, GTX 1060).
The Surface Book 2 (Core i7 8650U, 16gb RAM, GTX 1060) performs better than both across a wide variety of tasks. It delivers better performance than the Switch Alpha 12 at tasks like browsing, word processing, photo editing, media consumption, and the like. It provides slightly better gaming performance at cooler temperatures than the Predator. Both of these machines are what I would call mid-range examples of their category. You could purchase both for about $1700 with some minimal comparison shopping online, so a good $800 less than the SB2. The Predator provides an HDMI out, which is lacking on the SB2. I prefer this to game on larger displays with better audio. The Switch provides portability, which I like for my work and commute.
A 2017 MacBook Pro 15” with 256gb of SSD space (Core i7 7700HQ, 16gb RAM, Radeon 555 graphics card) is the most accurate comp in the market right now. It retails for $2350, or $150 less than the SB2. The SB2 is more powerful both in CPU and graphics card areas. But the Surface Book 2 also has a top notch touchscreen and pen interface, which the MacBook Pro lacks completely. Ditto the detachable tablet capability. So I think it’s fair to say the $150 premium is reasonable.
So who is this for? I guess it is for people who:
1. Want the best and most stylish laptop they can get in the current market.
2. Want high performance across a variety of tasks, but don’t want multiple devices.
3. Creative professionals who will utilize the high-end image editing and pen capabilities.
If you don’t mind having multiple devices, I would say you should get devices that are less expensive and more purpose built. A gaming laptop that costs half as much will give you expandable HDD storage and comparable performance. A 2-in-1 that costs half or less as much will give you greater portability.
If, however, you want one device to do it all reasonably well, and you’ve got the money to do so, I don’t have a hard time recommending the Surface Book 2. It operates like a dream and can truly replace any other device, desktop included, that you currently use. If you are an art professional, this is likely worth serious consideration just given the raw power.
My two caveats are the lack of a packed in Surface Pen and the meager storage. To get the most out of this laptop, you’re going to have to provide for those two aspects, which means an outlay of several hundred more dollars for the pen and an external storage solution. Based on these caveats, I am giving the Surface Book 2 a 4-star rating. If the pen had been packed in and the SSD had been 512gb for this price, it would be a 5-star rating all the way. It’s a great device.