Review: Microsoft Surface Book 3
I love the Microsoft Surface products. They have a whole spectrum which ranges from the affordable Surface Go, to the ultra-high-end and expensive Surface Studio. All of the Surface devices which I’ve used I have found easy to recommend. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using a Surface Book 3, Microsoft’s high-end, high powered laptop. I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, but there are a few niche groups of people who the Surface Book 3 is absolutely perfect for.
It’s impossible to start an article about a Surface Book without mentioning it’s party piece. It’s the only laptop I’m aware of that can be as powerful as a true high-end desktop machine, while also having the option of being a tablet. There’s a key on the Surface Book 3’s excellent keyboard which you won’t find on any other laptop. A key which, when pressed, unlocks the laptop’s screen from the keyboard base and turns the screen into a large 13.5 or 15 inch, touch-screen, tablet.
That display is excellent by the way. On the 13.5-inch model it has a 3000×2000 resolution, and on the 15-inch that’s bumped up to 3240 x 2160. Both models have the same 3:2 aspect ratio, which is amazing for productivity. If you’re buying this machine mostly for the tablet function I’d recommend going for the 13.5-inch model, 15 inches is far too big and uncomfortable to use for a tablet. The display also works brilliantly with the Surface Pen, which I think is the best digital pen you can get for a windows device.
The Surface Book has been doing this for 5 years now, and it never gets any less impressive or any less satisfying. This technological magic trick is possible because, unlike most other laptops, the majority of the Surface Book’s internals are situated in the screen section. The CPU, the RAM, the SSD, in fact, the only thing that isn’t in the screen is the graphics card. If you buy a model that includes a dedicated GPU (which you should), it resides in the keyboard half of the computer, and can be used when the two sections are attached.
When detached the CPU handles all the heavy lifting. One of the main and most obvious improvements of the Surface Book 3, in comparison to the Surface Book 2, is how long this entire process takes. Detaching the screen from the keyboard on the 13.5-inch Surface Book 3 is twice as fast, and on the 15-inch model it’s three times faster. You really feel this difference when going between laptop mode and tablet mode. On the Surface Book 2 I rarely used the tablet mode, if ever at all. This was because attaching and detaching the tablet part of the screen used to be buggy and slow. On the Surface Book 3 I haven’t found detaching the tablet either buggy or slow, and that makes using the device as a tablet much more appealing. On the Book 2 if you were running any program which was using the GPU, detaching the tablet was impossible until you closed that program down. Again, the Surface Book 3 fixes this. It just switches the GPU running the program over from the dedicated GPU to the integrated CPU graphics, and you can detach the tablet. It’s so so so much better than it used to be.
The other main and obvious upgrade of the Surface Book 3 in comparison to the Surface Book 2 is the updated specs. It supports up to an Intel i7-1065G7 processor, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and on the 15-inch model an Nvidia GTX 1660Ti. On the 13.5-inch device it’s a 1650Ti. As you can see from those specs, the Book 3 is a very capable machine. In some tasks it’s right up there with expensive desktops, let alone laptops. The inclusion of a 1660Ti and a powerful Intel CPU mean power-intensive tasks like video editing and even gaming aren’t out of the question when using this machine. The only downside here is that if you spec the Surface Book 3 up to its top specs it gets very, very expensive. The 13.5-inch model starts at £1,359 and goes all the way up to £2,289, while the 15-inch model starts at £1,869, and goes all the way up to $2,459. Because of the detachable screen and excellent pen support the Surface Book 3 is the perfect device for artists on the go. The battery size has been increased, so battery life on the device is brilliant. During general use I got between 12 and 13 hours out of it, which is definitely at the upper end on the scale of laptop battery life.
There are a few decisions which hold back performance slightly though. The first and most confusing is Microsoft’s decision to offer the Intel i7-1065G7 as the highest-end CPU available on the Surface Book 3. It’s a capable CPU don’t get me wrong, but in 2020 I feel having a 4-core CPU as the most powerful option on your laptop is a bit odd. For example, the highest-end MacBook Pro, which costs a similar price, is equipped with an 8-core Intel i9 CPU, as is a similarly priced Dell XPS-15. So if you need to use your laptop for work which benefits from a CPU with lots of cores, there are better options than the Surface Book 3. When it’s running at full power, plugged into the wall, the entire device gets very hot. And I really do mean the entire device. Because most of the internals are behind the screen, it makes the top of the laptop lid extremely hot to the touch, as well as the bottom. If you’re using the touch-screen it also makes the glass very hot. I have a suspicion that this may be why Microsoft opted to stick with the less powerful 15-watt CPUs rather than upgrading to the more powerful 45-watt ones. If it got much hotter it would be borderline unusable.
Another issue is the lack of a Thunderbolt 3 supported USB-C port. I don’t understand why Microsoft have decided not to include one. They’ve said that it’s due to security concerns, but either way it would have been nice to have. Apart from this, the IO is good. There is one USB-C port, 2 USB-A ports, a headphone jack, an SD card reader, and a charging port on the keyboard base and the bottom of the screen for when it’s detached.
Now let’s talk about my least favourite thing about the Surface Book 3. The design. When it was released in 2015, the original Surface Book looked incredible. It was a Windows PC that, design-wise, could go toe-to-toe with Apple’s Macs, and in a lot of cases win. It’s made from magnesium that, despite being a metal, somehow manages to feel soft to the touch, and looks very premium. It was exceptionally well built, and when you used it, it felt good enough to justify its high asking price. With the Surface Book 3, the build and high-quality feeling hasn’t changed which is good. The issue is that the design hasn’t either, and that’s not good. A design that felt incredibly fresh for a Windows PC in 2015 has now become incredibly stale. When I put the Surface Book 3 next to a Surface Book 2 with exactly the same desktop wallpaper it is pretty much impossible to tell one from the other.
When this design launched in 2015, big bezels were the norm. Now in 2020, we have devices like the Dell XPS-15 which looks so much more modern thanks to its super thin bezels. It’s such a shame that aesthetically Microsoft has done absolutely nothing different with the Surface Book 3. It was a device which, when it originally launched in 2015, changed what people thought a Windows PC could be in terms of design, and with the Surface Book 4 Microsoft needs to give it a big refresh and try to recapture some of that magic.
There are a lot of great things the Book 3 inherits from the previous model though. It still has the same faultless keyboard, great trackpad, good speakers, and best-in-class webcam, which is all the more important these days.
So, to conclude, the Surface Book 3 is a weird product. It is a great laptop, but it’s not quite powerful enough to be a desktop replacement thanks to sub-par CPU options, but it’s not cheap enough to justify buying just for light tasks like browsing the web. It’s not an ugly machine, but when I boot it up and start using it, it feels like I have been doing so for 5 years, and most of that is down to the outdated design. Using it isn’t a bad experience though, I do think it’s a very good laptop, but I just also think that for the majority of tasks you’ll want your laptop for there are better, or cheaper alternatives. That’s why it’s such a difficult device to recommend. If you are a video editor I’d recommend you use something with a more powerful CPU. If you’re a gamer, I’d recommend you use something that has a display with a better response time and more standard resolution. If you just want a laptop or a tablet for surfing the web, I’d recommend something much, much cheaper. The people I can envision this computer being for are people who need a lot of power but also need something with a top-quality digital pen, and extremely wealthy people who can’t decide whether they want a powerful PC or a tablet. There aren’t many of those people about, but because of what the Surface Book 3 can do that no other device can, it’s pretty much the only device for them.