My Surface Book 2 is sleek, fast, innovative — and I hate it

Surface Book 2 op-ed header
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

In addition to reporting about technology as dispassionately as we can, we technology writers are also technology consumers who spend our own hard-earned money just like everyone else. As a very personal example, I swiped my already-strained credit card for over $3,400 back in December on a top-of-the-line 15-inch Surface Book 2.

And now I regret it.

Don’t misunderstand me: I love my Surface Book 2. It’s fast, innovative, and exudes quality. I love the display’s excellent contrast, high resolution, and lovely text — quite important for a writer. I love its battery life and its keyboard, and tearing off the tablet to flick through RSS feeds and watch video feels like the future.

But I also hate my Surface Book 2. Microsoft made some unfathomable decisions when they designed it, and those decisions render it far more limited than I would have ever imagined.

The Surface Book 2 won’t be your only PC

My editor, Matt Smith, wrote an editorial about some Surface Book 2 limitations that made it less than ideal as a user’s only PC. He spoke about scaling issues with external displays, inconsistent performance and GPU-related oddities, and the general tendency for Surface devices to exhibit early hardware and software problems (some of which I’ve experienced myself).

In fact, he only scratched the surface.

Everything he said is valid, but there are even more reasons why the Surface Book 2 isn’t the greatest standalone PC. Microsoft might fix some problems — the randomly disappearing discrete GPU and the laggy touchpad, for example — with firmware updates, but others are built in. And that sucks.

Seriously, what’s the deal with that power supply?

The 15-inch Surface Book 2 has a real problem with its power supply. I won’t detail the issue here, because I already covered it in another story. Suffice it to say that the power supply can’t keep up with the GPU in many situations and it taps into the battery to compensate. Mere inconvenience aside, I hate that pushing the GPU on the Surface Book 2 adds unnecessary charge cycles to the non-removable battery and shortens its lifespan.

Admittedly, though, I was aware of this limitation when I bought the machine and well within my standard return period. I decided to keep the machine because, on balance, I thought its performance and flexibility were worth the cost.

I was wrong, and the power supply that ships with the Surface Book 2 was only the first disappointment.

The Surface Dock is even weaker

Suppose you want to plug in a couple of external displays (Thunderbolt 3’s support of dual 4K displays at 60Hz would have been helpful here), a few USB devices, and an Ethernet connection. At first glance, Microsoft’s Surface Dock seems like a convenient solution, but there’s a problem: it provides only 60 watts to the notebook. If the dedicated 95-watt power supply causes battery drain, then imagine having only 60 watts available. In fact, don’t just imagine it — I ran a quick test with a 65-watt USB-C power supply, and my Surface Book 2’s battery lost 30 percent after less than an hour of playing Diablo III. Ouch.

The net result? I gave up on my plans of replacing my aging desktop with my (incredibly expensive) Surface Book 2.

The Surface Book 2 (mostly) won’t play Netflix in 4K

Here’s where things got even more disappointing. I’m an aspiring science fiction writer, and thus I naturally find science fiction movies and TV both entertaining and educational. Netflix has a ton of great sci-fi, much of it in 4K, and so once my first plan fell through I devised an alternative for my home office. I decided to set up a space for the Surface Book 2 as a secondary PC and to connect a 4K display for viewing Netflix’s growing library of 4K content while I worked on less demanding projects.

And so, I bought the Microsoft Surface USB-C to HDMI Adapter for $40, plugged in a known good HDMI cable, and… 1080p was the best I could get. I unplugged everything from the Surface Book 2 and plugged it into an Acer Switch 7 Black Edition I was reviewing, and voila! 4K in all its glory. I plugged into a Lenovo Yoga 730 review unit, and again, 4K. But the Surface Book 2 was stuck at 1080p.

Here’s some background: playing Netflix in 4K (or any premium copy-protected 4K content) on a PC requires the right combination of CPU or GPU, ports, cables, and displays. Also, everything needs to support the most recent version of the High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP) protocol, or HDCP 2.2. If anything in the chain doesn’t support HDCP 2.2, then you’re out of luck. It’s Netflix in 1080p for you.

dell xps 15 vs microsoft surface book 2 inch review 318 720x720
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

And this is where things get stupid. For some reason, Microsoft limited the Surface Book 2 to HDCP 1.4 for external wired displays. It’s HDCP 2.2 to the internal (non-4K) display and to Miracast devices (which aren’t a solution for me), but plug in a display, and you’re limited to the older copy protection standard.

Now, it makes no sense that an ultra-premium notebook released in late 2017 only supports HDCP 1.4. And as far as I can tell, this information isn’t published anywhere, and so buyers aren’t going to discover it while doing their research.

But here’s what they will find when — as I did — they come across the Microsoft Store description of the Microsoft Surface USB-C to HDMI Adapter:

“Connect the new Surface Book 2 with built-in USB-C port to an HDMI-compatible display to share pictures or videos on your big-screen HDTV. HDMI 2.0 compatible, HDCP 2.2 compliant, and 4K-ready, this is an active-format adapter that supports AMD Eyefinity and NVIDIA.”

Yes, that’s right. The Surface USB-C to HDMI Adapter supports HDCP 2.2, but only for PCs that aren’t the Surface Book 2. And if you’re assuming — again, as I did — that the Surface Book 2 supports HDCP 2.2, then this description isn’t likely to convince you otherwise.

And then life gets in the way

Unfortunately for me, I was delayed in testing things until after my Surface Book 2’s return period was over. Here’s the sad part of the story: my dog was diagnosed with bone cancer shortly after I bought the machine, and for the next few months I spent much of my free time and most of my extra energy taking care of him. It wasn’t until a little over a month ago that I had an opportunity to put everything together and discover this limitation.

Is the inability to play Netflix in 4K such a big deal? Maybe not, at least not in the grand scheme of things. But here’s what it is for me — the last straw. The fact it makes zero sense just adds insult to injury.

Now I’m stuck with the Surface Book 2 because as I’ve since learned, Microsoft is reluctant to make exceptions to its return policy. I’m not happy about it, and I’m left with one conclusion.

Microsoft needs to do better.

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