Microsoft has been on a roll as of late. They’re doing great with Azure public cloud, substantially increasing Office 365 subscriptions, fielding a much improved Dynamics, and were first with an AI and CaaP ecosystem. So how about hardware? Well, Surface is on a $4B annual revenue run-rate and they just launched their first all-in-one, Surface Studio, one of the most highly-acclaimed products I’ve seen in a while. Microsoft also updated Surface Book with what they call the Performance Base and claimed a doubling of graphics performance and improved battery life. These are big claims especially since the Surface Book is still a relatively new product.
Microsoft loaned me a unit of the new Performance Base for the Surface Book and I used it for two weeks as my primary system. The secondary device I used alongside it was my Apple iPad Pro 9.7” tablet with an accessory keyboard. I have extensively used the previous Surface Book as well as competitive devices like the Apple MacBook Pro 2016, Dell XPS 13 and 15 as well as the HP Spectre x360. The Surface Book with Performance Base is the second revision of the Surface Book, a follow up to the one that I reviewed last year but with fresher and faster specs.
My experience overall with the Surface Book was that it was already a differentiated and enjoyable product and the addition of the Performance Base, 1TB storage and improved battery life have made it even better and more powerful. This is one of the best-in-class 13” if not the best 13” device. It doesn’t have the latest CPU, GPU or I/O, but that shouldn’t matter to everyone. Many consumers simply want proven technology that meets their expectations, but there are some that it will matter to that it doesn’t have the latest hardware.
My productivity and gaming use case
My configuration for this upgraded Surface Book includes a nice mixture of business and productivity applications in addition to a bunch of graphics benchmarks. I attached my own hardware to the Surface Book to make it dockable and stationary use-friendly for what I’m used to when I must be the most productive, which is desktop computing. My Windows desktop apps were Office 365, OneNote, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, OneDrive, Acrobat Reader, CPUID and HubSpot. In terms of Microsoft Store applications, I used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, IM+ Pro, Insteon for Hub, Messenger, Nest Manager, Mobile Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote, Photos, Camera, OneDrive, Mail, Calendar, Weather and News. Many of these apps were Microsoft UWP apps, so they’re better optimized for good performance on Windows 10 and I believe more rigorously tested by Microsoft on their own hardware. I used the Surface Book with the Performance Base primarily as a notebook, sometimes as a clipboard tablet and in canvas mode. I’m not a big pen user today as I have been keeping notes digitally in Evernote and OneNote for the last 10 years. I connected a Dell 34” ultrawide monitor and ASUS 30” monitor via Surface Dock as well as a Logitech C920 1080P webcam with wireless Logitech keyboard and mouse to complete the setup.
Out of box experience
When you buy a product, the first thing you experience is the packaging. Microsoft’s high quality packaging mirrors the company’s premium positioning and $3,000 price point, and you know you’re getting a nice product when you open the box. Once you’re inside the box, you notice the magnesium chassis which feels cool to the touch and is distinctive. You just want to touch it and don’t have to worry about fingerprints either because you simply can’t see them on it.
Setup of the Surface Book was very intuitive, easy and clean after I added my Microsoft credentials and immediately started syncing everything as you’d expect, like OneDrive, Mail, Calendar, OneNote, Edge bookmarks, and even my background.
Looking at the screen you immediately notice the beautiful PixelSense display and its brightness as well as sharpness. This display is a 13.5” 3K resolution display with a unique 3:2 aspect ratio, which was once standard but is now considered unorthodox but works really well for productivity and better as a tablet. It is simply one of the best displays I have ever used in a device.
Big performance with a 2.5X graphics boost
One of the biggest pluses is the performance boost given by the new Performance Base for the Surface Book. This Performance Base model came packed with an Intel Core i7 6600U with a maximum clock speed of 2.6 GHz and a TDP of 15W. Microsoft also packed 16GB of RAM, a 1TB NVMe M.2 SSD and discrete NVIDIA GTX 965M GPU inside of this new Performance Base.
I tested the graphics performance primarily because the CPU stayed the same, and the average improvement was around 2.5X excluding PCMark 8, which is less 3D Graphics intensive and focuses on more menial tasks and video.
- VR Mark- 5.2X improvement (no, the system isn’t at HTC Vive or Oculus VR levels but telling, nonetheless.)
- 3D Mark- 3.62X improvement
- Tom Clancy Rainbow 6- 3X improvement
- Dirt Showdown- 2.22X improvement
- CompubenchCL- 2.18X improvement
- Tomb Raider- 1.92X improvement
- Sleeping Dogs- 1.9X improvement
- Hitman Absolution- 1.86X improvement
- Bioshock Infinite- 1.8X improvement
- PCMark 8- no improvement even on accelerated graphics-accelerated benchmarks. I even forced discrete GPU use in settings.
This is a really big graphics improvement, and in many cases, made unplayable games playable. You will find similar improvements in graphics-reliant commercial products.
The detachable design is a force-multiplier of use cases which separates the Surface Book from a standard notebook. It can be a professional tablet, a design canvas (in studio mode), or a movie machine. I really appreciate this flexibility particularly on a plane and even having this performance on the couch using the pen. This design is also very lap-friendly, too, unlike some other detachables or convertibles that simply don’t feel comfortable. I also found the keyboard and trackpad to feel great and don’t feel like Microsoft has compromised on them at all.
Finally, I never got the big deal some people are making about “the gap”, but it’s closed with Performance Base, ironically, by adding more magnesium.
I/O and expandability
For connectivity, Microsoft opted to include USB 3.0 ports as well as miniDP graphics ports which don’t require dongles and have complete compatibility. Microsoft also has the Surface Dock which provides good expandability for my two displays, keyboard, mouse, camera, phone and headphone jack. The Surface Dock is also very stable and delivers a very consistent experience, something Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C do not yet provide. Microsoft also opted to include a full-size SD card reader, which is not a big deal to me personally, but for others who must use dongles to connect one it will be. My wife, on the other hand, has a very high-end DSLR and would absolutely need an integrated SD card reader. I also love the USB power port on the power brick and it also feels high quality like the device itself. Many manufacturers, in the spirit of cost cutting, standardize on power bricks and its usually to the detriment of the high-end.
A few things I have mixed feelings about
There are some things about the Surface Book with the Performance Base that I’m not quite sure how I feel about yet. One of those things is the fact that I chronically lose the pen that’s attached to the Surface Book magnetically. Maybe it’s because I don’t use it for my primary pointing device, I’m an occasional pen user. For more prevalent pen users, I suspect losing it isn’t as common as it is for me. I would really like to see Microsoft consider shrinking the size of the pen for occasional users so that they could hide it within the Surface Book, this way it doesn’t get lost and it can recharge as well. I also found the overall weight of the device, 3.63 pounds to be a bit heavy, but then again, it’s a beast of a machine, is detachable, it isn’t really an issue for me but it’s something I noticed.
The lack of an Intel Kaby Lake processor or an NVIDIA GTX 1060 was a bit off-putting, but then again, the schedule likely didn’t work out, and I suspect getting a 1060 inside would make the unit even larger. It’s not an issue for me personally, but it will be for some buyers who expect the absolute latest in their high-end devices at the detriment to other variables. It also doesn’t help that some laptops like the Dell XPS 13 are shipping Kaby Lake in virtually all flavors. This does leave room for improvement on the next Performance Base upgrade, but it may also be a turn off for some as noted before. I also think that upgrading the camera would be a positive thing for the Surface Book, because when I used the camera in tablet mode it didn’t seem to be as high quality as some of my professional tablets.
I didn’t have a chance to test things like the sound on this device, nor did I have enough time to run proper battery life benchmarks.
Things I’d love to see in a Surface Book 2
I have seen battery life tests done for the Surface Book with Performance base and they do live up to Microsoft’s claims of 16 hours of video playback and an extra two hours versus prior generation. Video playback is only one of many use cases and it isn’t my or others primary use case, either. I’d like to see battery life claims include web surfing over Wi-Fi and Office 365 productivity. Video playback is great, but this machine is made for getting things done and that’s how the battery life should be communicated.
Today, neither Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C has a completely compatible or stable ecosystem. I know, because I’ve personally used almost every peripheral available today. For $3,000, one may have expected at least one Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C. I do understand the issues associated with both and how much it would take to revise the design, but it’s a future technology that gives the system longevity.
Finally, I believe the Performance Base should be offered as an upgrade. It would make the current Surface users feel better about their prior purchase and that Microsoft took care of them. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it, I just don’t know what it is, but would like to see an ecosystem of bases.
Overall, the new Surface Book with Performance Base is a welcome upgrade to the original whiz-bang Surface Book concept. People were absolutely wowed by it the first time they saw it, still are, and rightfully so. It’s unique and different. I offered my daughter any device to take to her college this fall and she chose Surface Book, which tells me a lot. While this new version still has some areas for improvement as all devices do, the new Surface Book with Performance Base is a welcome premium Windows device from Microsoft. The company clearly understands what it takes to build a premium device and they are slowly iterating to a point where it could be considered perfection. That iteration includes minor changes to the mechanical design, including the reduction of the gap between the two components of the Surface Book. This is a welcome revision to a great original device and I hope Microsoft continues to push the envelope with the next one as taking giant swings is what makes Surface great.