Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: A larger screen, more power – and a much higher price
It isn’t Marmite – you won’t either love the Surface Book 2 or hate it. But you will fall one side of a divide: you’ll either see the point of a laptop with a detachable screen or you won’t. That was true of the 13.5in version and applies equally to this 15in spin.
When I say “spin”, though, I may be exaggerating things. The 15in Surface Book 2 is essentially the same machine as its smaller sibling, right down to the weird fulcrum hinge and magnificent electromagnet system that locks the screen in place. One second, it’s a 15in laptop and no amount of yanking will remove the screen but with a press of a button you’ll hear a clunk and the screen can be easily removed.
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The only difference between the two models is that the screen and chassis are proportionally larger here. Naturally, this translates into weight, too. The 15in Book 2 weighs 1.91kg with the keyboard, the 13.5in weighs 1.53kg. Used as a tablet alone, that’s 820g versus 720g.
Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: Extra grunt
Where things diverge is inside. Evidently, Microsoft believes that those people who want a 15in laptop will also demand more power. So while you can order the 13.5in Surface Book 2 with a Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, its big brother only comes with a Core i7-8650U and 16GB of RAM.
You can then choose from 256GB, 512GB and 1TB of storage, with each storage upgrade causing a £400 hop in price and a wider smile from Microsoft’s accountants. Note there’s no way to access this laptop’s innards, so you’re stuck with the amount you choose at the time of purchase.
The 15in version also comes with a discrete GeForce 1060 chip built into the keyboard base, with the tablet reverting to the CPU’s integrated Intel graphics when undocked. In laptop mode, you can expect a fine turn of pace in games: at 1,280 x 720, with settings turn to High, it scored an average 93fps in Dirt: Showdown. Even at its native resolution, with quality upped to Ultra, the Book 2 averaged 50fps.
It coped just as well in Rise of the Tomb Raider, hitting 94fps at 1080p, Ultimate quality. Moreover, the Surface Book reaches those scores with a low-level fan whirr. In general use, the only noise you’ll hear from the Surface Book 2 is the tap of your fingers against the keyboard. This is one indication that Microsoft veers towards power-saving over all-out-grunt, but that makes sense for a machine like this.
Nor should you underestimate what it can do. I put it through its paces in virtual reality environments – both Microsoft’s and Steam’s, not to mention a few VR games – and it performed admirably. It scored seven in Steam’s own VR Performance tests, which translates into “VR Ready”. If you want more power than this, you’ll need a gaming laptop.
Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: Everyday performance
Few people will need any more everyday speed than this laptop offers. Its overall score of 104 in our benchmarks is one of the highest we’ve seen from a machine this thin and light, and on a more anecdotal basis I noticed it was much more responsive in Adobe InDesign – a highly demanding application – than the 13.5in Surface Book 2.
Microsoft’s emphasis on power management pays respectable dividends when it comes to battery life, too, with a result of 10hrs 47mins in our video-rundown tests. That falls short of the “up to 17 hours” that Microsoft claims, but is a laudable result when you consider the power demands of the screen.
The crucial thing is that you don’t need to worry about carrying around the 102W power brick during a working day. That’s fortunate, because this isn’t the smallest unit in the world. It weighs around 200g and is roughly the size of an iPhone 5 – but triple the thickness.
Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: Tablet mode
Despite its 15in screen, in tablet mode the Book 2 feels well-balanced in the hand. Even at 820g, I doubt many people will struggle to hold it for extended periods of time. If you’re watching TV then it’s an exceptional second screen, but in such situations it felt like overkill – I found it more natural to reach for my phone.
It seems more likely that people will use the Surface Book in tablet mode for professional or artistic reasons. Here, though, the £100 Surface Pen is absolutely necessary, and I find it irritating that Microsoft doesn’t bundle it with such an expensive device.
Still, once you’ve bought the Pen, it’s a pleasure to write on and create drawings. As with the 13.5in Surface Book 2, it offers 4,096 pressure levels, which is approximately 4,090 more than I need but is a boon for artists. It supports the Surface Dial on-screen too, but I’m not convinced that it’s worth £90.
Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: Big screen hit
Then we come to the quality of the screen. It’s to Microsoft’s credit that, even before I took the Surface Book 2 from the box, I knew what to expect. Fantastic colour accuracy, vibrant photos and an excellent range of brightness across all 3,240 x 2,160 pixels (the same 3:2 ratio as the 13.5in version, but with a few more pixels to play with).
And so it proved – almost. With our trusty colorimeter in place, the 15in display romped through most of our tests. A Delta E of 1.32 is a fine result, likewise its 1,534:1 contrast ratio. But, given that Microsoft calibrates screens before they leave the factory, I was expecting near-perfection in our colour-accuracy tests as well.
You can choose between two colour modes – Enhanced or sRGB – and it achieved an 88% coverage of the sRGB colour gamut in the former and 91% in the latter. They’re both strong results, just not quite as high as I expected.
I love the fact that the screen brightness is so adjustable, ranging from a low of 3.9cd/m² to 442cd/m² through ten presses of the brightness button (F2) on the keyboard.
The F7/keyboard backlight button is equally handy in dark conditions, cycling through three levels of brightness (and off). This laptop is a pleasure to type on, too. While I prefer the more precise feel of, say, a typical ThinkPad, there’s nothing to irritate the touch-typist here, with plenty of space between the large keys.
With a large backspace, Enter and spacebar, there’s only one reason I found my eyes flicking down to the keyboard to see what I was hitting: the up/down cursor keys are half-height. If that’s the biggest criticism, though, you know Microsoft’s designers have got things right.
The same is true of the touchpad, which is not only large (albeit no larger than the 13.5in Surface Book 2) but covered in a layer of glass that ensures fingers glide across the surface. If you can master Windows 10’s gestures then you’ll grow to love it.
Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: Missed connections
In fact, there’s only one major criticism I have of the 15in Surface Book 2: the lack of ports. On the right, there’s a USB-C 3.1 port and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect power and data connector. On the left, two traditional USB 3.1 ports and an SDXC slot that supports fast UHS-II cards. There are no ports on the screen itself.
To get around this lack of connectivity for my 13.5in Surface Book 2, I invested in the Surface Dock power supply and docking station – even at £190, a much wiser buy than the Surface Dial.
That not only widens the number of display connections available and provides a ready supply of USB ports when at my desk, but also compensates for the lack of Thunderbolt support. USB Type-C 3.1 has a maximum bandwidth of 10Mbits/sec to Thunderbolt 3’s 40Gbits/sec, and lacks the ability to daisy-chain devices.
The Marvell Avastar wireless chip provides Bluetooth 4.1 and 2×2 MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi, both of which proved reliable and fast during testing, and Xbox owners should note the inclusion of an Xbox Wireless Adapter too. This means you can use your Xbox wireless controller on the Surface Book 2, without needing to plug in an ugly dongle.
Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review: Verdict
So to the big question: is the 15in Surface Book 2 worth the high price Microsoft demands? For some people, the answer will be a clear “yes”. If you have good reasons to opt for a 15in screen, want the extra power on offer and love the Surface Book 2’s unique form factor, then close your eyes and press the Buy Now button.
It falls short of a full-on recommendation for one reason, however. I can live with high prices for high-quality computer equipment, and the Surface Book 2 is undeniably that. What I find harder to swallow is the combination of poor fixability – the 13.5in Book 2 scored the lowest possible score in iFixit’s tests, and I suspect this 15in version will do too – and a one-year manufacturer warranty.
When a company is charging this much for a laptop that’s clearly targeted at enthusiasts and professionals, it should back it up with a two- or even three-year warranty.