A lasting design
It might be my first rodeo, but I know that this is basically the same convertible laptop many of you might be rocking right now — on the outside, at least. Microsoft has done well to up their design game over the last few years, but it’s hasn’t ever veered into the flashy territory. Matte plastic, gray colors, simple four squared logo, and solid feel throughout. That includes the signature hinge, the literal bridge between the two halves of this whole. We’ve known this hinge for quite some time, including the fact that it keeps the laptop from closing all the way. As long as you’re not just stuffing this laptop in a pocket with small bits jumbling around, nothing should get in that hinge and ruin stuff. Despite how high the build quality is all around, I do admit that this little gap forces you to be a bit more mindful of your product. This little sign right here makes it clear: this is no ordinary laptop.
But it does a lot of laptop things really well. The bottom half has your standard inputs, with a good touchpad and a great keyboard. This thing is a joy to type on, which is a win for tasks like writing scripts, emails, or Twitter rants. And you already know the script you’re reading right now was written using this thing — especially into the night, as the backlight LEDs do a good job of illuminating every key. I have no problem with the size of the keys nor their position — I mean, the control key is missing on the right side, but I don’t use that one much anyway.
We’re going to stick to the laptop configuration as we discuss what Microsoft did to make the Surface Book 3 more powerful. First off, it’s a sturdy base complete with the right ports — 2 USB-A ports, an SD card slot, one USB-C port, and the magnetic spot for the proprietary fast charger. The headphone jack is on the screen side. Like many laptops under the 15-inch screen size this year, the CPU gets the upgrade to Intel’s 10th generation while discrete graphics finally start to appear within nimble form factors. That is the case here, with the GTX 1650. What does that mean for performance?
Well, for one thing, that means the Surface Book 3 opens up to more than the productivity crowd. See, the line already proved itself to the office or classroom audience: the webcam is 1080p and surprisingly high quality, which makes remote learning and conference calls a treat. There’s even a rear camera that is geared toward snapping documents and capturing notes off the teacher’s whiteboard.
It’s just that now those people get to scratch the gaming itch with the 1650, even if settings still have to be low for current titles. But you can get into games like Warzone pretty smoothly while having reborn classics like Persona 4 Golden and the new Streets of Rage always at the ready. I even got to do some video editing in Davinci Resolve Studio. 4K timelines might struggle a bit while scrubbing, but turning down the preview resolution and using proxies make the work a lot easier. A 1080p timeline with minimal graphical elements will do just fine here.
And the top half makes these visual tasks all the better with a 3000×2000 resolution display that is fun to view. I’m admittedly not to used to a more narrow aspect ratio, but it’s really not that hard to get used to. What is hard to get past is the glare — the screen is pretty bright and plenty viewable throughout shaded environments where the Surface Book feels at home. But if the sun is bearing down on it, the viewing experience falls apart. It’s not like you’d be taking the top half to places rougher than your desk or bed too often, anyway.
It’s clear that the enhancements in this third edition of the Surface Book managed to pack as much power as this current design can handle — because in order to achieve the convertible nature, the essentials needed to be in the detachable half.
Hence, all those vents around the display. That has to ensure that the laptop’s CPU — housed in this top half while the GPU stays within the base — keeps cool. But compared to most laptops in this segment, this is the 15W version of Intel’s 10-gen CPU. Lower power results in moments of lag when you’re really pushing the laptop to its limits, like in the gaming and editing examples I mentioned. It has to be in the screen, though, because you still need to do things after you hit that detach button. The performance is fine for your typical Windows Tablet Mode experience. When watching Netflix or YouTube, detaching seems like a good idea but I think many of you, like me, would only do it once in a while.
And that’s because using just the screen alone brings with it a small sense of constant separation anxiety. The Windows Tablet Mode is okay, but typing in it makes me miss the comforts of the keyboard. Windows warns you when you’re about to detach and break programs that need the GPU. And from a practicality standpoint, it’s not like you’ll be playing many games without the base there to let the screen lean to a comfortable angle.
The separation anxiety extends beyond just the form factor — Microsoft claims to forego the Thunderbolt port is in the name of security, but as someone who has an eGPU to extend my laptop’s power, it’s still a bummer. I suppose the Surface Book 3 is already tablet + eGPU in one product, considering how the parts are separated.
Two batteries, one in each half, power the experience separately or in tandem in the obvious scenarios. A Surface Connect 102W charger found on both halves of the Book is a surefire way to get back some power in a hurry, which is needed because battery life is just okay. While battery saver modes will get you a fair amount of browsing, writing, and some media done; for my heavy use scenario of video editing, I just barely scraped 3 hours at full power. Not that I do that often, it’s just a way of testing how far the Surface Book 3 can go under conditions that push its capabilities. If you went low power settings on everything and stuck to just browsing and writing, I imagine you could get above the 5 hour mark, maybe closer to 10. But doesn’t that feel odd to do, considering the new features and higher power we just talked about?
The Surface Book 3 is constantly in a war between its two configurations — if you’re a tablet user, it’s too obvious that the real fun is in the full set up. If you’re looking at this as your main laptop, you might end up neglecting an entire half of the experience.
For everyone, and no one
You can’t be watching this video and not think to yourself, “Damn, that’s really cool.” But every feature that makes this convertible laptop cool, a consistent proof of concept, and one of the most enviable current laptops also makes this product so aspirational.
Let’s start from the ground up. A convertible base that houses a second battery, a great keyboard, a decent port selection, and — most importantly — the GTX graphics elevates the Surface Book to usability levels that include gaming and content creation. Past Surface Book users will feel the envy — to gain the right spec sheet, you have to shell out so much money. I don’t know of anyone that is serious about gaming or creativity that could just get the performance they really need from a laptop that is slimmer in both form and price. And for that matter, I don’t how many of you are active tablet users who would need to level up to an experience that, admittedly, only the Surface Book 3 can provide.
Office professionals can definitely find use cases for the unique form factor. Media junkies, too, though the number of scenarios significantly dip. Casual gamers get to have their cake and eat it too, with the laptop of their dreams finally supporting their extracurricular activities. And on that train of thought, is this laptop great for students? It can be. But literally every type of user I have just mentioned comes with a huge asterisk: this can be for them. if they can afford it.
Let be clear — I have adored my time with the Surface Book 3. It’s an instantly memorable experience, even if it’s one that fans have experienced before. Advancements in laptops, in general, have helped this Book line ascend to the same heights, and that’s incredible. But the Surface Book is already a luxurious item, and those evolutions only drive the cost up.
My 32GB RAM, 512GB storage, 13.5-inch edition, i7 CPU, GTX 1650 review unit is the one I would want, for the tasks I need to accomplish. But that’s already $2499. If you want to reach for the stars with the 15-inch edition that packs 32GB of RAM, a 2TB SSD, and a bump up to the GTX 1660ti, it’s another $900. The Surface Book 3 is the fanciest tablet of all time, just inches shy of being a great performing laptop. But for these specs, you could just get one of those laptops and save upwards of $1500. So it begs the question: is $1000 enough “cool” for you?