Microsoft Surface Book 2 review: A 15in gaming laptop in disguise

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Microsoft have been striving to present a stark alternative to Apple’s coffee-shop-ubiquitous Macbook line for a while now. In the past, their Surface range of (mostly) hybrid laptops/tablets have hardly been gaming machines, but that’s now changed with current range-topper, the shockingly expensive Surface Book 2. Its industrial edges and muted silver tones mean it announces itself as all business in the streets, but the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 tucked inside its detachable keyboard base makes a case for more than casual gaming in the sheets.

In theory, then, a gaming laptop not to feel hideously embarrassed by – not least because removing the keyboard and brandishing a hilariously large 15in tablet on the train will generate all the self-consciousness you could ever require.

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Full disclosure first: I bought the Surface Book 2 used for this article, as we weren’t able to get hold of a review unit promptly and I was itchy-keen to sample a lappie that seemingly ticked a ton of personally-important boxes (such financial recklessness is rare for me, but I succumbed to temptation as a friend could use their student discount on the MS store). I say this up-front because investing a huge sum of cash in something means one feels inherently different about it than they would something loaned for free for a while – there’s that burning need to justify the purchase. Still, I’m a picky sonuvagun, so this won’t be breathless praise of my own decision-making, promise.

The Microsoft Surface range’s shtick has long been devices that switch between laptop and tablet by attaching and removing a keyboard cover/base. In the main, the scales were tipped mostly in favour of tablet, with the keyboards being functional but insubstantial affairs that couldn’t recreate the solidity and lap-friendliness of a conventional laptop.

The specs tended to be middling too, as Surfaces were more interested in slimline portability and decent battery life than they were raw grunt. My Surface Pro 3 from 2015 has been my trusty on-the-road work companion until now, but playing games with even a whiff of 3D on it was a no-no, and video-editing could get painful. Still, it remained a doughty device to this day, and I felt real sadness when I sold it on to partially fund the Surface Book 2.

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The Surface Book range is different to (most) of the rest of the Surface range, as these are first and foremost proper, and high-end, laptops, very much intended to be a respectable Windows alternative to Apple’s ooh-look-at-me Macbook Pros. They retain the Surface party trick of switching to tablet mode when you wrench the keyboard away, but it’s a full, solid base rather than a thin flap, held by electromagnets onto a thick, compressing hinge that either oozes industrial chic or looks like a bunch of marshmallows squeezed together depending on where you’re coming from.

In the case of the 15in variant of the Surface Book 2 (there’s a less powerful 13in, which is not realistically gaming-capable), the base also contains a more-or-less full-fat 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060. It’s hardly a top of the line graphics card, and it should be said that the significantly more powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 can be found in laptops that aren’t substantially bigger, and even for a lower price. But it is more than enough to run any current game at high settings, 1080p and 60fps. It’s also rare (though not entirely unheard of) to find it not housed in something that looks like Tron and Slayer gene-spliced together by someone who didn’t care about either of ’em.

I won’t pretend that appearance wasn’t some of my motivation in wanting a Surface Book 2. I’ve always liked my tech in silver and with non-fussy design, and even the less wretched gaming-specific laptops tend to be dour black with some sort of neon-hued mythical animal logo and lurid keyboard backlighting. Each to their own, but I guess my aesthetic is permanently stuck at ‘early-80s hi-fi equipment.’

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The stark metal (magnesium, specifically – very light though easily damaged) lines and oddball clamshell profile of the Surface Book 2 thus appealed deeply, though in practice it looks slightly more, well, boring than I’d hoped. The metal doesn’t gleam, and the boxiness doesn’t quite manage the aspirational quality of a Macbook. It’s certainly good-looking, especially in the desperately dull and plasticky world of laptops, but if you put it and Apple’s rival on a table, most people will gravitate towards the latter. The side holes at its rear, where its powerful hinge-claw cannot flatten any further, will also divide responses between a striking design flourish and it looking like an unsightly, dust-collecting gap.

Until, that is, you press a button, wait a moment til you hear the ‘click’, and then lift the screen away from the base, transforming the Surface Book 2 into an enormous but astonishingly light and comfortable tablet. It looks absurd initially, but in practice it’s a glorious sofa or bed reading device when it’s in portrait orientation. In my near-month of owning the Surface Book 2, not a day has gone by that I haven’t used it that way. The battery life in this mode is quite short – around 3 hours – as it doesn’t enjoy the larger secondary battery in the base, but even so it’s put the last nails in the coffin of my old iPad Mini 2.

In terms of gaming, in tablet mode it’s no longer attached to the GTX 1060 and instead uses integrated Intel graphics. You might manage some minimum settings 720p 3D gaming on this, and it works well for any 2D stuff that supports touchscreens (the likes of Into The Breach work with the scandalously not-included £90 pen – I kept my Surface Pro 3 one), but really, why would you when you could just plug it into the base?

Next page: Gaming performance, power, display & conclusions

20 Comments

  1. Nolenthar says:

    I’m in the market for a gaming laptop, and I’m also a puncher for the new line of Microsoft product, so I was pleasantly surprised this model offered a great 1060.
    This made for a very interesting article. Thanks for your honesty. That said, you end up not selling the product so much :). I mostly read that as : “grab it on sale or wait for the new one”

  2. IncredibleBulk92 says:

    It’s a great looking laptop and I’ve loved my Pro 3 but honestly I cannot justify the upgrade at that price. Like you’ve said the 1 TB model has been priced by a complete lunatic.

  3. Ejia says:

    Katherine, did you get married again? You changed both your names this time!

  4. Cederic says:

    I use my Surface Pro (last year’s version) for gaming, but it has to be blinking old games.

    I bought it for work. Taking notes in meetings is easier with handwriting than a keyboard, but I get an electronic copy of them automagically, they’re searchable, I can easily bring up documents or websites to show people and I can draw someone a diagram then email it to them. The gaming is purely bonus.

    Recommended: Myscript Nebo. It’s a bit magic.

    • Premium User Badge

      alison says:

      Can you expand on the “blinking old”?

      I am still using a Lenovo 2-in-1 I bought in 2014. Back then I was able to (barely) play stuff like Far Cry 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mass Effect etc, but anything 2011-era and newer was really pushing it, even at 800×600.

      I was thinking of upgrading to a current 2-in-1 primarily for the new Life is Strange and Tacoma, or at the very least to get stuff like Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor working smoothly, but even though on paper the specs leave my current computer in the dust, I’m worried games have gotten much more demanding too, which would make the purchase pointless.

      Since Surfaces are the reference model other 2-in-1s are developed around, it’d be great if you could share a bit more what is working for you and what’s too much.

      • Inu says:

        I hate matte screens personally. Yes taking notes on my Surface Pro 4 can be a pain sometimes under artificial lighting, generally i can find an angle to make it work though.

        Matte screens diminish picture quality and there is no point to that on such a beautiful display.

  5. napoleonic says:

    I still use my old-school Surface Pro 2, but its battery has died completely and it only works when it’s plugged in. I blame that massively on the absolutely horrifying charger. Everyone I know with a Surface has loved it except for the charger.

    So, are you saying they’ve still not fixed it? Are they using the same useless charger as always?

  6. fish99 says:

    Those price bumps for more storage are disgusting.

  7. Syneval says:

    Personally I was looking for a svelte business/gaming hybrid and ended up with the xps 15 9570. While the 1050ti is somewhat less powerfull than a 1060, the laptop doesnt suffer from any of the book2 compromises: no battery drain, full thunderbolt support, and user upgradeable ssd and ram.

  8. aschaeffer says:

    I’ve had mine since they delivered pre orders (I’m in NYC)..so november?

    I bought the highest specced 15 inch model because I’m bad at money and also still use a primary 3770k/ssd desktop build from 2012. Getting the highest end model I could afford seemed like the way to go to ride the wheels off this thing for as long as possible. I don’t really plan on doing any heavy heavy 4k gaming on it (and the 1060 max q in there has actually handled that well on older titles surprisingly) considering I have a 1080 in my desktop build…

    I really love the machine and don’t regret the purchase at all nearly 6 months in. It’s a beast and having a high res 15 inch tablet for reading is a nice quality of life luxury.

    The only downside was that price (1tb annnnddd the stylus and applecare knockoff)..I legit try and avoid sharing how much I paid with anyone out of shame.

    • ngz00 says:

      I’m in NYC as well and I’ve been eyeing a fully spec’d one to replace my old dev machine and allow me some gaming while traveling. If you’re interested in parting ways with it, let me know!

  9. kodachrome says:

    Damn, someone else figured this out too! :) I imported the 15″ from the US few months ago (it was delayed in Europe.. also was cheaper in US) under the guise of “its a great work laptop that can play games”.

    Its very good, though was also sickened I had to buy the pen separately (and they are NOT cheap)! Interested to hear it can handle FC5! I planning on getting the Samsung Odyssey WMR headset and attach that to the Book2 and leave my Rift set up on main PC. The WMR headsets are a bit more portable friendly. 2 Player VR!

  10. thekelvingreen says:

    Constructicons superior, microsoft inferior.

  11. Will the wtf says:

    I assume it at least does wireless typing?
    No simple stand mechanism for the screen? With screens so close to the keyboard, laptops crook my neck. If its going to be detachable it should press home this advantage.

    Surprised there is no streaming to the tablet from the base. With that, Microsoft would put the PC in some sort of oversized and premium Nintendo Switch/Wii-U territory. A Thunderbolt Port and more upgradeable, modular innards would all be bonus, but in this day and age that’s the realm of high fantasy as much as asking for a joy-con style Xbox controller that could split in two and click into place on either side of the laptop would be.

    Surprised that matte-finish screens aren’t more popular. They stop reflections, smudges and glare and save so much battery life in use outside as you don’t need the brightness so high. You can get stick-on matte screen protectors that help with glare but they are inevitably bubbly.

    • Caiman says:

      Yes, I will never buy another glossy screen again. They’re made purely to look good in the showroom, but they’re a pain in the ass to use in any room with a light on or a window (basically, a room). I can’t believe I suffered through one with my previous laptop.

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