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

Scratching the Surface

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

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the Surface Book 2 is a solid gaming device when it's using the GTX 1060, ably supported by a quad-core Intel Core-i7 8650U processor that can hit 4.2GHz (though, between actual need and moderate thermal throttling, tends to sit in the mid-3.0GHzs). The fan is a bit noisy when it's in full flow - in contrast to the device's almost eerie silence when it isn't doing anything intensive - but it's not too disruptive.

The GTX 1060 can't realistically power the screen's native almost 4K resolution of 3240x2160 at 60fps in recent high-end games, but dropping to 1080p or thereabouts is remarkably sharp, while 30fps at native is feasible in most stuff. However, for some reason some games' settings won't budge away from the native res, which can require some fiddling with ini files or desktop resolution.

Causing much gnashing of teeth in the tech-centric corners of the internet has been the discovery that the Surface Book 2's maximum power draw in some circumstances exceeds that provided by its slimline charger. In other words, push the device to its limits and it'll slowly discharge its battery even while it's plugged into the wall. That, inevitably, mostly means gaming.

In practice, it's very rarely been a problem. For starters, it can't even happen unless you manually set it to Highest Performance mode via a slider in the system tray, though this is worth doing if you're playing something glossy like Far Cry 5 at highest settings, as it noticeably ekes a few more frames per second out of the GPU.

Likewise, only a very few games cause the device to exceed the charger's juice, and even then only in some scenes. There isn't a definitive list yet, but both my and others' experience has it that problem games are very much the exception rather than the rule. Finally, the battery drain is very slow - you'll easily get four or five hours of game-bingeing in before the cells are anywhere near empty.

Long term, the real issue there is that a battery constantly flicking between charging and discharging may lose maximum capacity far faster than it should, which is very bad news in a sealed device that cannot be user-serviced in any way. This is my major element of buyer's remorse, because I don't want to find myself forking out hundreds more pounds to Microsoft in three years cos my fancy 2018 laptop can barely last a couple of hours any more. As I say though, in the vast majority of games, this simply hasn't been an issue. I nevertheless feel that Microsoft owes Surface Book 2 buyers a fatter charger by way of apology/reassurance, but it's extremely unlikely to happen - MS is bullishly claiming the problem is, effectively, all part of the design.

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It's not a slam-dunk for gaming then, but as a very good-looking, well-sized yet eminently portable workhorse that can also manage games ably, there's little to compete - and nothing at all once you fold in the tablet witchcraft. It's a lovely, hugely versatile thing that is big enough for gaming without being too big for anything else, and saves me from having multiple devices.

However, while I don't regret the purchase, there are two other factors that make me sporadically wish I'd waited to see what the next generation could do. First of those is the lack of a Thunderbolt 3 support, meaning I've no hope of ever attaching an external graphics card. The CPU's powerful enough that it could have feasibly replaced a desktop that way, and more importantly it could have remained gaming-capable for years to come. But nope, all we get is a standard-speed USB-C port (plus two normal-sized USB 3.0 ones).

Secondly, I'm a teeny-tiny bit disappointed by the screen. It does look lovely, with its sharp near-4K resolution and punchy colours, but it doesn't go bright enough to compensate for how ridiculously reflective the glass touch panel over it is, so my hopes of occasionally working in the garden have been dashed. And the fact that it comes in a little lower than true 4K (3840x2160) may help with the impressive battery life - I get around 10 hours of general usage out of it - but it also means we're denied 4K Netflix or Amazon Prime, which are very much things you'd want to do with such a fancy device. 1080p video looks good though - it's more of a shame than an actual problem.

I'm also conscious that there'll probably be more high-end laptops with HDR or even OLED screens like the Alienware 13 before long, so maybe I'm buying at the wrong time. But hell, the march of screen tech never stops - every time is a bad time to buy.

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The final noxious strawberry creme in this particular tub of Quality Street is, of course, the price. The 15in Surface Book 2 is offensively expensive at £2349 for its starting 256GB capacity, the £2750 512GB spec is a sick joke and whoever decided that £3150 is a reasonable price for the 1TB model needs to be fired into the sun. SSD capacities are the only distinctions between those models - you get the same Core i7-8650U CPU, 16GB of DDR4 RAM and 6GB GTX 1060 in all of 'em.

Again, the lack of Thunderbolt 3 bites there, as you can't hook up a super-fast external drive, though standard USB 3.0 speeds are adequate for most things. However, I was able to near-double my 256GB model's capacity with a 200GB microSD card and a third-party adaptor which makes this sit flush to the edge of the laptop. Those cost £70 in total, which is a lot less than the £400 extra required for the 512GB model, though the SD card runs a lot slower - fine for general storage and smaller games, though.

If you're in the UK and know anyone in higher education, you can bag 10% off from the Microsoft store just by clicking a button to say it's for a student, which saved me £300. Between that, selling my old laptop and tech being tax-deductible for me, I'll end up with the Surface Book 2 effectively costing less than half price - there's no way I'd even have considered it otherwise. Same goes for the two-year warranty - the price and the inability to open it up and replace wheezing parts myself mean I couldn't have settled for just one.

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Clearly, as well as straight-up profit, Microsoft want to come across as premium as top-end Macbook Pros. This is a dramatically better-specced and more versatile device than anything Apple have to offer at present, but 'Microsoft' and 'Windows' imply something very different to many people than 'Apple' and 'Mac' do. Those stereotypes and loyalties have to be defeated before, rather than after, sky-high prices are matched.

This is a helluva machine, for both work and gaming, and I'm very glad to own one. However, I won't feel so glad if and when Microsoft knock £500 off the price to make it more appealing to the Macbook-tempted, and to compensate for the absent Thunderbolt and power drain issue.

About the Author

Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer

Contributor

Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about videogames.

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