Microsoft has finally launched the second generation of its flagship laptop, the Surface Book 2, in India. The first variant of the Surface Book never came to India, but with the second generation, Microsoft has decided to launch not just the Surface Book 2, but also the Surface Laptop. The entry-level Surface Go is also expected to be coming to India soon. The Surface line of products is Microsoft’s flagship lineup and is meant to put Windows 10's best face forward, a hardware and software integration template for other manufacturers to emulate. In a way, it is Microsoft’s answer to Apple's tight-knit hardware-software ecosystem. So far, we have only had the Surface Pro selling in India. But with so many Windows-based laptops in the market across the price range, and some from established players such as Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus and so on, how relevant is the Surface Book 2?
This is a question that bothered me from the start. While it's got great specs on paper and has the best display and battery life I've seen on a laptop in Windows land yet, I find it almost impossible to define a use-case for the device.
For starters, Surface Book 2 is neither the thinnest nor the lightest notebook out there. At 1.9 kg for this 13-inch model (816 g for the tablet portion), it's heavier than the more powerful 15-inch MacBook Pro. The hinge, while beautifully engineered, is huge and ugly and makes the laptop much thicker (0.9 inches) than it needs to be. A Lenovo Yoga 920, while it doesn't come with a detachable display, is half as thick (0.5 inches). Barring gaming laptops, it's been years since I've seen a laptop this thick.
Then there's the matter of price. At Rs 2,23,000 in India (for the top end model), this laptop is already selling at a premium of almost Rs 50,000. Regardless of that, for the same price, you can get laptops that are cheaper, lighter, slimmer and more powerful. This includes devices like the Dell XPS 13, MSI GS65 Stealth and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
I assume the Surface Book 2 is meant for a certain kind of audience, though I'm not sure who that audience is. The pricing also means that it's far from being a value product. If nothing else, you could at least show off its party-trick hinge to a fascinated audience, but other than that, you might be better off buying literally any other laptop available today. Microsoft's own Surface Laptop, whose second iteration was announced on 3 October with 8th Gen Intel processor, also makes for a compelling case.
The original Surface Book was a diamond in the rough, an ugly duckling if you will. It had the ingredients for greatness, but a design that needed to evolve. Rather than an evolution, the Surface Book 2 is just more of the same.
So without further ado, here's the full review.
Build and Design: 7.5/10
The Surface Book 2 looks exactly similar to the first edition Surface Book. It has the same matte silver finish with a metallic build, same book-spine like curved hinge design and so on. The overall thickness of the Surface Book 2, when it is in a closed position, is almost twice that of the Apple MacBook Pro 13. Now in the ideal sense, that is not desirable, but in the case of the Surface Book 2, there is at least an excuse for that. The Surface Book 2 screen is detachable and is a fully functional device in itself as it houses the processor, RAM, storage and a battery. The keyboard section house an additional battery, I/O and an optional graphics card (a GTX 1050, in my case). Ultrabooks usually have everything within the body and do not feature a detachable display. It's a trade-off.
I really liked the sturdy hinge design, which ensures that the display doesn’t wobble. But that gap left when you shut the laptop is something I am not a fan of, and especially so for a country like India where that gap gives a free pathway for the dust to settle in.
The display portion of the Surface Book 2, which is detachable, looks quite similar to the Surface Pro tablet. You have a 3.5 mm audio jack on one edge and a power/standby button along with the volume rocker button on two edges. The base has two clips and two holding grooves to attach and detach the display from the Surface Book 2 hinge.
The process of detaching the tablet is almost a rite in itself. You press the tablet-release button (physical button or software one in Taskbar) and wait for the green light and on-screen notification that reads ‘Ready to Detach’. You then simply pop off the tablet portion and do with it as you please. To re-attach, simply slot the tablet into the base.
Once shut, opening the laptop will require using both hands. Interestingly, there's a small sound that plays when opening and shutting the panel, which is a nice touch.
The palm rest area is sufficient for easy typing and while the edges are sharp, it isn’t as sharp as the edges of the MacBook Pro. The groove below the trackpad region is useless when it comes to opening the laptop (when it’s placed on a table), as you will need to open it from the sides. Only when you have the laptop in your hands, placed on the elbow and the palm forming a grip around the hinge, does the groove assist with opening the laptop. For some reason, Apple is still the only company with laptops that can be opened with one hand.
The keyboard base houses a fan for cooling that GPU (Thank God!) and the vents are above the keyboard. The tablet portion of the Book 2 survives on integrated graphics, which is also why you need to press a button to detach the device. The button, essentially, forces Windows 10 to switch to integrated graphics. Incidentally, you cannot detach the tablet from the base when running an app that is using the discrete GPU, this could include games and video editing apps.
The USB ports are a design faux pas. In normal laptops, the upper surface of the keyboard region is flat and the underside is curved. This makes the laptop appear slim. On the Book 2, the base is flat and the upper surface is curved, accentuating the gap between the display and the base when closed and resulting in a sometimes frustrating USB placement. If you try plugging in a thick USB device into the Book 2, the device will sometimes raise the device a bit, owing to the unnecessarily low slots.
Overall, the Surface Book 2 is built like a tank. Although, I felt the design should have evolved and fixed the issues with the last generation model.
Keyboard and Trackpad: 8/10
I have to say that the keyboard is a joy to use. The amount of travel on the keys, the mild sound they make while you are typing, they're just perfect for long typing sessions. You will get used to typing fast on the keyboard in no time. And yes, it does not have a dedicated numpad. The keys are backlit and you can adjust the brightness of the backlight according to your preference.
The glass slab trackpad is huge but not as large as the one seen on the Apple MacBook Pros. In terms of response, it is great. Yes, there were instances when I would end up right clicking when I wanted to left click something, but it’s a matter of time before you get the hang of it. The placement of the trackpad is mildly off-centre, which can be a wee-bit annoying if you absolutely love symmetry, although that doesn’t affect performance. The trackpad supports all the gestures associated with Windows 10 such as scrolling using two fingers, switching between home and your current windows using three fingers and so on. In most office-related work, I didn’t feel the need to use a separate mouse.
The Surface Book 2 comes in various configurations and you can customise it according to your liking. The one I received for testing houses the 8th generation Intel Core i7-8650U CPU, which is a quad-core hyper-threaded CPU with a thermal design power of 15 W. The processor, built on the 14 nm process, has a base clock of 1.9 GHz and it can go up to a Turbo frequency of 4.2 GHz. In other words, it's twice as powerful, in theory, as the one released last year. All this is paired with 16 GB RAM and 512 GB of PCIe storage.
The CPU supports Intel UHD 620 graphics, which is primarily used to power the device in tablet mode. In addition to the integrated graphics, the Surface Book 2 also comes with the Nvidia GTX 1050 discrete GPU, which has 2 GB of VRAM.
The 13.5-inch IPS LCD display offers 3,000 x 2,000 pixel resolution. The top corners of the display of the Surface Book 2 are where the speakers are located.
One thing I did like was the fact that the Surface Book 2 has all the major connectors that you would need — looking at you, Apple — in addition to the now obligatory USB Type C port. You get two USB 3.1 ports as well as an SD card slot. But for a laptop priced over Rs 2 lakh, the lack of a dedicated Thunderbolt port is disappointing. Also, the charging adapter has a proprietary port which can charge the display separately as well or while it is in the attached mode. The USB Type C port on the Surface Book 2 does help with charging, but you will need your own charger and it won’t charge as quickly.
In terms of connectivity, the Surface Book 2 comes with support for Bluetooth 4.1 and Wi-Fi 802.11ac. Sensors include an ambient light sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope. It comes with a 5 MP front-facing camera which supports Windows Hello login and an 8 MP rear-facing camera. Both these cameras support Skype HD calling feature.
Microsoft Surface Pro had a great display and the Surface Book 2 is no different. The 13.5-inch PixelSense display comes with a resolution of 3,000 x 2,000 pixels and in the 3:2 aspect ratio that has become standard on all Surface devices. It gives a 267 PPI pixel density which ensures that there is absolutely no loss in sharpness of text. It is a pleasure to read long articles on this display.
After Apple’s Retina Display on the MacBook Pros, this is the best display you can get on a laptop. Using the Spyder Colorimeter, we got a static contrast ratio of 1332:1 which is higher than even the Apple MacBook Pro 13, which gave a contrast ratio of 1100:1. This is the highest contrast ratio among all the laptops we have tested so far. The display even offered an sRGB coverage of 91.2 percent which is excellent as well, but nothing compared to Apple's DCI-P3 gamut (130 percent sRGB).
Sharpness and contrast on the Surface Book 2 are on point. The only nitpicking I would do is that the display is a bit too reflective for my liking. This is particularly noticeable when you are watching a movie with a lot of dark scenes in it. There's an HDR mode as well for video playback which needs to be manually enabled in the settings. In HDR mode, which only works when playing video via supported sites in Edge and via the Netflix Store app, brightness is pumped up to almost blinding levels. In this mode, the video does look quite stunning, so it's worth enabling it. It must be noted that high-resolution HDR videos on YouTube bring the laptop to its knees. Everything else seems to slow to a crawl when such videos are running.
The Surface Book 2 is a beast when it comes to performance, both in terms of raw power and its fickleness temperament. While the laptop aced some benchmarks, like PCMark 10, Cinebench R15 and GeekBench 4, it also suffered miserably in others like 3D Mark and video transcoding.
My guess is that the CPU is over-heating and simply bottle-necking the rest of the system. Successive runs on benchmarks saw performance fall dramatically across the board.
This is only noticeable in benchmarks though. In general use, you won't notice any slowdowns. That being said, if your general use involves video editing and other such stressful (on the CPU) tasks, best prepare yourself for long waits.
When it comes to gaming, the device is certainly capable, but only as long as you're willing to sacrifice fidelity for frame-rate. Rise of the Tomb Raider saw frame rates in excess of 113 at 720p low settings, and I managed a playable 35 fps at 720p high settings on Fortnite. I also saw 50 fps in Far Cry 5 at 720p low settings. The gaming capabilities of the device aren't going to entice gamers anytime soon, but then again, one can't really complain when one can sneak in the occasional round of Fortnite while on the move.
You'll have to ensure that the high-performance mode is enabled though because that seems to be the only mode where the GPU fan kicks into high gear. Things get really loud with the fans on at full blast, but it's the only way to get playable frame-rates in games.
The front-firing speakers are located in the grooves on either side of the display and they are loud. In an office conference room or at home (as long as I wasn’t disturbing anyone) I would listen to the audio on the speaker itself. The 3.5 mm audio jack being in that odd position (on the top-right corner of the display) doesn’t really help. Audio is great for watching videos, listening to music in the background and it has a rich sound.
At no point did I found the Surface Book 2 to heat up. Yes, it does get warm (around 36-38 degrees) when working on image editing in Lightroom, or when doing transcoding work, but there's nothing that causes any sort of instability to the operating programs. The fact that it's the display unit heating up instead of the base also means that your legs don't get roasted.
Battery Life: 9/10 with the base, 2/10 in tablet mode
One of the first things that caught my eye as I was going through the Surface Book 2 feature list was the 17-hour battery life claim. I was eagerly waiting to test that out, and I have to say that in no use case scenario did I reach that incredible number. Now the Surface Book 2 has two batteries, one each in the keyboard section and the display section. When the display is attached to the keyboard, the battery housed in the keyboard is used. The tablet battery is used only when the Surface Book 2 is detached, or when the battery from the keyboard section is drained out. Charging the Surface Book 2 is relatively quick considering there are two battery components.
Microsoft has arrived at the 17-hour battery life number under specific conditions and that’s not how a regular user would use the Surface Book 2. My regular usage would comprise working on office documents for a major part of the day, streaming music in the background while working, watching around 20-30 mins of YouTube videos and maybe a couple of hours of Netflix binges and editing photos in Adobe Lightroom. I could eke out a good 9-10 hours with this kind of usage pattern, which is better than a lot of the laptops out there. Only the MacBook Pro 13 comes close to this kind of battery life. I was actually not that disheartened that I didn’t get 17 hours battery life as claimed, 10 hours is not bad at all. The PC Mark battery life test gave a score of 7 hours 40 mins — the highest recorded among all the laptops we have tested.
Unfortunately, the PC Mark test with just the tablet mode is around 1 hour 40 mins and around 2 hours in real-world usage, and this is the real nail in the Book 2's coffin. Forget those binge watch sessions if you are using it in just the tablet mode, while on a long haul flight. What's the point of a tablet that only lasts two hours?
I am not a gamer, and frankly the Surface Book 2 is not meant for gaming. But during our testing phase, we ran a few games on it and saw the battery life drop by a couple of hours at least. Marathon gaming sessions would drain the battery quicker.
Verdict and Price in India
The more time I spend with the Book 2, the more I'm confused about its target audience. The screen is gorgeous and the battery life exemplary, but these exceptional qualities are paired with design elements that make no sense. The Book 2 is bulky and expensive and doesn't perform as well as lighter and cheaper gaming laptops. The detachable display is nice, but with a battery life of two hours and a complete lack of ports, there's no way that you're ever far from its heavy base unit.
If you want a good laptop, you could just get the Surface Laptop, ThinkPad (wait for the ThinkPad X1 Extreme) , XPS 13 or even a MacBook Pro. If you want a better tablet, you could easily opt for the Surface Pro 5 or iPad Pro and snap on a keyboard to it whenever needed to use it as proper laptop. If you don't particularly care for a detachable tablet, you could even opt for the Lenovo Yoga 920 with its 360-degree hinge. A cheaper, slimmer, and yet, incredibly powerful gaming laptop would be the MSI GS65 Stealth.
So... Who is the Surface Book 2 meant for?
The honest answer to that is simply, "I don't know."
With inputs from Anirudh Regidi