Want to play games on your Surface Book? Prepare for disappointment

Microsoft Surface Book
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Microsoft’s Surface Book is arguably the most exciting device the company has ever built. There are many reasons for that excitement, from the form factor to the hardware. For some, the optional Nvidia discrete GPU was a real head-turner. The Book is the first detachable 2-in-1 to offer Nvidia hardware.

In theory that should expand its appeal, making it useful not just as a productivity tool, but a general purpose entertainment machine. What better way to wind down from a day of traveling than with an hour of your favorite shooter? But in our testing, we found the Book doesn’t live up to expectations.

Ho-hum performance

The Nvidia GPU in the Surface Book is not part of the normal model line-up, but it’s approximately the same as the GeForce 940M. It’s built on the same Maxwell architecture, and has the same number of CUDA cores. The main difference is the use of 1GB of GDDR5 memory rather than GDDR3.

Nvidia uses the GTX prefix to define its enthusiast-grade hardware. You’ll note the lack of it ahead of the 940M. It’s the third-slowest in the company’s 900-series mobile lineup, and way behind the GTX 950M, which has 640 CUDA cores and usually ships with at least 2GB of video memory.

In our testing, we found the Surface Book had trouble keeping a 60 FPS framerate in Heroes of the Storm at 1080p resolution, even with lowest settings enabled. PC World did report a framerate of 74 FPS in Tomb Raider – but that was at 1,440 x 900 resolution and medium quality. Not exactly the most demanding scenario.

Yes, yes, it’s better than the default Intel HD 520 option that you’ll receive if you don’t buy the discrete GPU. But remember, it’s a $200 option. If you’re spending $200 for the purpose of entertainment, you’ll want a good experience. And that’s not what you’ll get.

Those damned drivers

Potential buyers of the dGPU Book should also keep in mind another issue, one that’ll impact everyone – The drivers.

Microsoft’s use of customized hardware in the GPU means that Nvidia’s normal drivers don’t work. It also means owners can’t use the excellent GeForce Experience software, which can update drivers, pick the best settings in games, and enable features like game streaming.

That’s a real disappointment. A part of Nvidia’s recent edge over AMD comes down to its driver and feature support. If you buy the Book, you’ll be missing out on most of what the green team’s platform can offer.

Book owners will receive driver updates, according to Microsoft. But they’ll be through Windows Update only, and some additional testing will be required by Redmond’s engineers to make sure they play well with the Book. In our minds, that means delays.

Updated drivers are important. They improve performance, enable new features, and squash bugs. Complicating or delaying user access is never a good idea.

Not one for the gamers

There are reasons to buy the Nvidia GPU. It will accelerate some applications, like Autodesk and Cinebench. But if you were thinking of buying the dGPU model to play games on the road, think again. The Book is not the all-in-one productivity and entertainment machine it could’ve been. It’s a purebred work machine.

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