Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch) review

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Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the original Surface Book wasn’t influential. Two years before the Surface Book 2 had occupied even a small portion of our mindshare, it wasn’t that the idea of a 2-in-1 laptop hadn’t been tried before. Hell, you could argue that Microsoft’s own Surface Pro tablets ignited this craze to begin with.

But, the Surface Book was the bigger and better version of the Surface Pro previously thought to be limited to our imaginations. It needed a hinge that could uphold a massive 13.5-inch (34cm) display. And, as funny as it looked, it ended up introducing exactly that. Fast-forward two years, and the Surface Book 2 is mostly a series of incremental refinements that we’ve come to expect not only from Microsoft, but from technology at large.

Most likely to pique your interest is that, if the Surface Book was a ‘Surface Pro XL,’ the 15-inch Surface Book 2 is a ‘Surface Book XL’. Bearing 1.5 inches of additional screen real estate this time around, there’s a lot more you can fit into a convertible laptop of this size. But, did Microsoft deliver on our long-standing Surface Book 2 wishlist? That’s for us to know and for you to find out.

Spec Sheet

Here is the configuration for the Microsoft Surface Book 2 (15-inch) configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U (quad-core, 8MB cache, up to 4.2GHz with Turbo Boost)
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620; Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB GDDR5 VRAM)
RAM: 16GB LPDDR3 (1866Mhz)
Screen: 15-inch, 3,240 x 2,160 (260 ppi) PixelSense display (3:2 aspect ratio; 1600:1 contrast ratio)
Storage: 1TB PCIe 3.0 SSD
Ports: 2 x USB 3.1, 1 x USB 3.1 Type-C, 2 x Surface Connect, SD card reader, 3.5mm audio jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac 2 x 2 MIMO Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, Xbox Wireless
Camera: Windows 8MP rear-facing autofocus camera (1080p), 5MP front-facing Hello face-authentication camera (1080p HD)
Weight: 4.2 pounds (1.9kg) with keyboard base
Size: 13.5 x 9.87 x 0.568 ~ 0.90 inches (343 x 251 x 15 ~ 23mm; W x D x H)

Price and availability

Surprising no one, the 15-inch Surface Book 2 is a hugely expensive laptop, with the configuration we’ve tested coming in at a crazy $3,299 (about £2,503, AU$4,341). Naturally, this is the highest end that the Surface Book 2 gets, with the entry-level model starting at a still-steep $2,499 (about £1,847, AU$3,288) – its only difference being a much smaller 256GB SSD inside.

Sadly, the 15-inch version of the Surface Book 2 won’t be available in the UK or Australia until 2018, we’re told.

The 13.5-inch version starts at $1,499 (£1,499, AU$2,199) for a 7th-generation Kaby Lake Intel Core i5 processor with integrated graphics and 256GB of storage – getting the Nvidia GTX 1050 graphics and 8th-generation Intel Core i7 CPU will cost you $1,999 (£1,999, AU$2,999), with each storage option from there costing another 500 bills in all currencies.

The 13.5-inch version of the Surface Book 2 is different enough from the 15-inch version that we felt it warranted a separate review, explaining our deliberate choice to write one. Likewise, there’s a vast distinction in the financial barrier of entry as well.

Keep in mind that none of these prices include Microsoft’s $99 (£99, AU$139) Surface Pen. And yes, we will keep calling Microsoft out on this until it begins bundling this nigh-crucial accessory in with the price of its Surface devices again.

For comparison’s sake, Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar starts at $2,399 (£2,349, AU$3,499) for a 7th-generation Intel Core i7 processor an AMD Radeon Pro 555 graphics chip with 2GB of VRAM, 16GB of memory and a 256GB SSD – all powering a 2,880 x 1,800-pixel 15.4-inch display at 220 pixels per inch as well as an OLED Touch Bar.

For another 100 bucks, you’re getting a more up-to-date processor and far stronger graphics powering a sharper display with touch control that detaches and acts as a tablet. Not accounting for personal taste, it’s tough to dispute that the Surface Book 2 is the better value here.

For a similarly premium, albeit far less versatile, laptop experience, the Dell XPS 15 starts at a much more approachable $999 (£1,429, AU$2,209) for 7th-generation Intel Core processors and Nvidia GTX 1050 graphics at higher-end configurations.

Design

It’s no understatement to say that, from a look and feel perspective, Microsoft simply took the original Surface Book and blew it up in all dimensions to make the Surface Book 2 a 15-inch device in all its brushed aluminum splendor. While Microsoft clearly put a lot of effort in vastly increasing the laptop’s power profile and screen technology, this is, in many ways, simply a bigger Surface Book.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Microsoft has clearly taken what it had learned from the Surface Book i7 and went to town with it, crafting a power-packed 15-inch laptop that’s actually rather light. Better yet, when detached from its base, this is the lightest-feeling 15-inch tablet we’ve ever tested – to the point that it feels deceptively small in our hands.

That said, the Surface Book 2’s fulcrum hinge does make for a laptop that’s a little more unwieldy to cram into a backpack than most, and it’s now more pronounced than ever. Worse still, Microsoft didn’t do much design-wise with the extra space that 15 inches affords you.

For instance, the glass trackpad isn’t quite as wide or deep as, say, the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s when it very well could have been, given the space. Also, the lack of up-firing stereo speakers in the base is a glaring omission, with ample space on all three remaining sides of the keyboard for extra audio chambers.

Instead, we’re stuck with rather tinny, albeit front-firing, speakers on the tablet portion of the device. The bigger keyboard base should offer us bigger everything, frankly, not just bigger graphics. Worse yet is that the audio jack is still in the same weird, upper-right-edge position it’s always been, dangling over our hands and distracting us while typing.

Speaking of which, typing on the Surface Book 2 is a pleasure, with a brightly backlit keyboard that demonstrates deep-enough travel and punchy feedback. However, in our view, the feedback could stand to be a touch more forceful – but that could be down to personal taste.

All told, we like the Surface Book 2 (15-inch) design quite a bit – even its 1080p webcam and rear camera should impress at the next meeting or in your Instagram feed. But, we can’t ignore the missed opportunities to refine the product that much further and make the experience that much bigger when it comes to how it feels, looks and sounds.

Display and Surface Pen

Of course, we’re just as in love with the Surface Book 2 (15-inch) display as we were with the previous two models. Text looks crisp on the screen as do photos and video, even if the 3:2 aspect ratio makes for some awfully thick black bars during the latter.

The display’s resolution is nigh-unmatched short of 4K laptops, and Apple’s MacBook displays can’t hold a candle to it pixel for pixel. While Apple’s P3 color gamut might tower over Microsoft’s panel in the eyes of art and media pros, we don’t see much difference between the two in regards to color reproduction.

We’re told that Microsoft devoted quite a bit of effort to improving the touch response in its latest PixelSense display for the Surface Book 2, and it shows in testing. If any lag between drawing on the screen with the Surface Pen and its appearance on the screen was there before, it’s certainly imperceptible now.

In fact, if you scribble on a sticky note and run the Surface Pen off of the note window – you’ll see traces of ink appear on whatever is there, though it will almost immediately disappear. That’s a special processor rendering the ink before even Windows 10 does, we’re told, which should speak to the absence of latency in the touchscreen.

Plus, attaching and detaching the display from the keyboard base is as speedy as you’d expect from a wildly expensive computing device. Whether it’s going into tablet mode or back into a laptop, it’s less than a second before you’re successfully tapping or typing away.

At any rate, the Surface Book 2 screen goes to show that Microsoft can craft displays worthy of comparison against the technology world’s greatest in basically every metric.

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