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Surface Book with Performance Base review: Microsoft’s new laptop kicks ass

Microsoft announced its most powerful laptop last month during a press event in New York City. We had the good fortune of being in the audience to see, feel and try Microsoft’s new Surface Book. It packs a more powerful graphics processing unit (GPU), a slightly redesigned body and promises extra-long battery life.

Microsoft didn’t really dive head-first into the hardware market. Ex-CEO Steve Ballmer had tried, as a recent interview with Bloomberg revealed, but there were those among the company, even Bill Gates, who thought the Surface was a bad idea. I’m glad that the current CEO, Satya Nadella, continued to push forward with Microsoft’s hardware vision and the Surface product family.

We’ve spent the last week using the new Surface Book with Performance Base as our primary computer. Yep, we tossed the MacBook aside, hooked up a dock and used the Surface Book with Performance base for every last thing, from running the business to editing video.

The Surface Book with Performance base, in case you forgot, ups the hardware inside the original Surface Book (as well as the price, it starts at around $3,000). It is, in our opinion, the cream of the crop. If you can afford it, you’ll love what the Surface Book with Performance base offers. There are some areas where we feel it lacks, though, so we’ll touch on that, too.

Let’s get started, shall we?

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Hardware

I admit, I wasn’t wild about the Surface Book hardware last year. Maybe it just took me time to get adjusted to it. The gap, for example, between the display and the keyboard just seemed too wide, like a missed opportunity to create closed lines. Microsoft fixed that a hair with the new Surface Book with Performance Base. The bottom half is now slightly thicker, closing the opening between the screen and the keyboard a bit more when the laptop is folded closed.

There are other small changes, too. The keyboard is slightly recessed instead of sitting flush with the base. We didn’t notice much of a difference in typing, and the keyboard was just as comfortable as before. We have one little nitpicky thing with the keyboard, though. With the 3-stage backlight on, and at certain angles, it’s actually hard to see the keys at times. Weird, I know. But that’s minor.

Other things that stuck around, like the Windows Hello front-facing camera that makes logging in a breeze, are amazing. This is a feature in Windows 10, not specific to the Surface Book, but we love having it and it’s something that helps Microsoft’s products, either developed in-house or by partners, stand out against what Apple offers.

The touchpad offers your fingers plenty of space to play in while navigating. It’s wide and smooth, allowing you to quickly scroll through websites, photo galleries and more. This matters a lot, because a crappy touchpad can easily make or break an entire keyboard experience. It also has a great clicky feel and supports a variety of multitouch functions from viewing open apps to visiting other virtual desktops.

There are plenty of ports, including two full-size USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card reader (take that, Apple), a headset jack and a mini DisplayPort. We tested all of them, with the DisplayPort easily adding a second monitor. As frequent photo and video editors, we love the SD slot, and we’re glad Microsoft isn’t so quick to move in the same direction as Apple.

Still, we wish Microsoft did adopt some new technologies. A single USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port would have been appreciated, for example, particularly for the multitude of uses that Thunderbolt enables.

The 13.5-inch PixelSense Display sports a 3,000 x 2,000 ratio, giving you 267 pixels-per-inch. As we noted with the first version, it’s gorgeous, and we dig the full 10-point multitouch for use when the computer is in tablet mode.

Speaking of tablet mode, the Surface Book with Performance base includes the support to detach the entire display. It works much quicker than we remember from last year’s Surface Book (though software updates have fixed that machine, too.) We didn’t use the device in tablet mode so much as we did to flip it around to prop the screen for watching movies.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the actual design. In many ways, the Surface Book feels to me like the Windows 10 MacBook Pro, but better. I love the versatility, I love the metal design, the fancy hinge and the premium build. I love magnetic side for attaching the included Surface Pen. I don’t like that the top tablet-piece still bounces a bit if you tap it, though, which is kind of a bummer.

My general point is that Microsoft took an already fantastic product and made it even better. That’s what I like to see. Why fix what isn’t broken?

I don’t want to dive into the software too much because we’ve already talked about Windows 10 and the Windows 10 Anniversary update in detail. I’m a huge fan of Windows 10, that’s no secret, and I love what Microsoft did by adding Cortana, virtual desktops, a whole slew of screenwriting apps and more.

While we have plenty of artists in the office who are magical with what they can do with video, Jon and I aren’t very good at drawing. We didn’t use the Surface Pen much for that sort of stuff, but appreciated having it around for hand-written notes in meetings and, especially, for signing documents like embargo agreements. It just makes things so much easier, and we appreciate the added software like Drawboard PDF that enables that function right out of the box.

Other bits of software have improved, too. The last time we checked out the Microsoft Book, apps like Mail weren’t that great and felt unfinished. Now, we’re easily able to add our Google accounts, and really enjoy using it.

Performance

This is where things really matter, since the Surface Book with Performance Dock is supposed to, well, improve performance. You can now configure the machine with up to 16GB of RAM, an Intel Core i7 processor and a 1TB hard drive. That’ll burn a hole in your wallet, no doubt, with a $3,300 price tag.
The good news is this becomes a very portable powerhouse for editing video and photos, which we love given that’s what we’re primarily doing with our computers 99% of the time in the office. (Well, and writing.)

The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M performed admirably for video editing, but we can’t help but wish Microsoft stepped it up just a hair more with a 10-Series GeForce. 2GB of GDDR5 RAM is fine, too, but why not more? At the price the machine costs, we do kind of wish Microsoft crammed a tad more muscle, but we’re happy with what we got, which is probably all Microsoft wants anyway.

We found that, while running read and write tests on the new 1TB SSD, the read speeds were pretty darn fat, capping at about 1,651MB/ second. Write speeds were a hair slower, at about 1,244MB/s. Of course this slows down if you’re moving larger files, so 4K video transfers clocked in with slower read speeds (28 MB/s) but faster write speeds (79 MB/s) in our CrystalDiskMark tests.

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One area we did have issue, however, is with a set of Bluetooth headphones we tried to connect to the Surface Book with Performance Base. A pair of QC35 Bose headphones couldn’t reliably play music, with skipping and static becoming a problem during playback. This was also an issue on an older Surface Book, but would sometimes correct itself. The Bose QC35 headphones (we tried two units) worked with all other devices.

And if you’re wondering, sure, the dedicated graphics chip is going to get you better gaming performance than integrated graphics, but this isn’t a machine that’s meant to compete with the gaming notebooks sold by the likes of Alienware, ASUS, MSI and others. Don’t expect to play much, though you’ll definitely be able to cruise around in titles like Overwatch with playable framerates at lower resolutions.

Battery life is really solid on the Surface Book with Performance Base. We were able to milk out about 11-11.5 hours of battery life with the display brightness around 80 percent. Again, this is using the machine for everyday computing tasks, and you’ll find the battery life dips if you’re doing more intensive tasks, like editing videos and really putting the GPU to work. Also, this is below what Microsoft advertises; it says you should get up to 16 hours, but that’s only doing video playback. Without the base attached, you’re looking at a couple of hours of battery life.

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Rating: Buy

I need to go somewhere that I know might stir up some controversy, but I’m just being honest. The new MacBook Pro, without going into too much detail, doesn’t seem like it’s targeting actual “professionals” any more. It sacrifices too much too early, before we’re ready. The Surface Book doesn’t. Save for the sky-high $3,300 price, you’re getting an incredible machine, one that’s easily capable of handling all of the real professional tasks you throw at it.

Need to sign a document? Boom, Surface Pen. Edit a video? The new GPU handles that with breeze. You’ll get more than enough battery life to get you through a work day, ports for adding extra displays, full-size USB 3.0 ports for data transfers and, yes, an SD card slot. Want to kick back and watch a movie? Detach the display or flip it around.

Windows 10 kicks ass and now we have the machine to match the operating system of Microsoft’s dreams. There are no sacrifices here, only promises, and Microsoft keeps all of them. If you can afford it, the Surface Book with Performance Base is the best laptop you can buy.

Pros

  • First-class hardware
  • Great battery life
  • Excellent keyboard and trackpad
  • Powerful performance

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Hinge bounces

Disclosure: Microsoft provided TechnoBuffalo with one Surface Book with Performance Base for review and a secondary 2015 model for comparison.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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