Microsoft Surface Book 2 15-inch Review

We're still trying to figure out how Microsoft made the Surface Book 2 this good

Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 is the most technically impressive laptop we’ve ever tested.
Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 is the most technically impressive laptop we’ve ever tested.
Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 is the most technically impressive laptop we’ve ever tested.

Highs

  • Great keyboard and touchpad
  • Versatile, and light when used as a tablet
  • Sharp, high-contrast, pixel-dense touchscreen
  • Excellent performance in all areas
  • Unparalleled battery life

Lows

  • Display’s color accuracy could be better
  • Battery discharges at load even when plugged in
  • Extremely expensive

This review is for the 15-inch versions of Microsoft’s Surface Book 2. If you’re looking for the Microsoft Surface Book 2 13-inch, go here.

The original Surface Book was a testament to Microsoft’s engineering experience. It took the concept proven by the Surface Pro — a touchscreen Windows device, with digital ink support — and pushed it to the limit with a larger 13-inch display, more powerful processor, and discrete graphics. The company was proud of what the original Book had accomplished, as evidenced by its $1,500 price tag.

That pride is still visible in the Surface Book 2. Microsoft was so happy with the Book, in fact, that it’s decided to change as little as possible. At a glance the sequel looks almost exactly like the original, with one optional exception. Size.

For the first time, you can order a Surface device with a 15-inch screen. The larger version of the Surface Book 2 starts at an even more expensive $2,500. That nets you an Intel 8th-gen Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB solid state drive, and Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics. Our top-tier review model came with a 1TB hard drive, which bumped the price up to $3,300.

Obviously, there’s no concession for budget buyers here. The hardware in this system is quick, and you’re expected to pay up. Our Microsoft Surface Book 2 review will help you decide if this 2-in-1 is worth taking out a second mortgage.

Play it again, Panos

Describing the design of the Surface Book 2 means describing the Surface Book, because the two are entirely the same. Like its predecessor, the Book 2 has a hefty metal chassis coated in a professional, elegant matte silver coat that tries very, very hard to distinguish itself from the silver of Apple’s MacBook line. It succeeds, yet also looks rather plain. The Book 2 can turn heads at a meeting, but if it does, it won’t be thanks to the paint.

The Book 2 instead makes an impression with the same “dynamic fulcrum” hinge found on the original. It looks a bit like a watchband, or the arm of a Jetson’s robot, and it contains the hardware that lets the screen detach entirely from the base. The compromise, though, is that the hinge doesn’t swing the screen shut like every other laptop known to man. It folds over instead, leaving a gap at the rear end of the laptop.

You may already have an opinion of the hinge, and if so, the Book 2 won’t change your mind. It’s the same as before even on the larger 15-inch version. If you’re unfamiliar, then you should be warned the hinge makes the Book 2 thick when closed, and invites the slim chance of an object getting wedged between the base and display, possibly scratching the latter. Microsoft is unapologetic about this. The Surface Pro is for users who want extreme portability, while the Book 2 is better for an occasional jaunt.

The Book 2 can turn heads at a meeting, but if it does, it won’t be thanks to the paint.

The benefit of the hinge is that the screen detaches completely, which is unique. Large 2-in-1s are rare to begin with and all serious competitors, like the Lenovo Yoga 920 and HP Spectre x360 15-inch, use a 360-hinge that does not detach the base. Using the Spectre x360 15-inch as a tablet means holding 4.4lbs aloft. The Book 2 lets you remove the base, and its weight, so it weighs just 1.7lbs in tablet mode.

While the hinge has obvious benefits, it’s not perfect. The screen is firmly, physically kept in place, so it can only be removed after pressing a button. While the mechanism is solid, it’s not always smooth, and can take a few moments to activate. There’s also no kickstand on the tablet half, so the screen must be held when used independently. You can flip the screen around and re-attach it to the base, but that’s not as practical or flexible as a built-in stand.

Not a lot of ports, but what do you expect?

The Surface Book 2, no matter its size, comes with two USB 3.0 Type-A ports. There’s also a USB Type-C port and the Surface Connect port (either of which can be used to charge), though the included charger only connects to the latter.

An SD card reader and headphone jack round out the ports, with the latter found on tablet. That makes using a pair of headphones in laptop mode awkward because the cord is suspended high above your desk. You won’t find any USB ports on the tablet potion, either.

While this might not sound like many options on a 15-inch 2-in-1, it’s actually on par with the HP Spectre 15 x360. Most premium 15-inch laptops, like the Apple MacBook Pro 15 with Touch Bar, do no better, though there are exceptions like the Dell XPS 15. There are certainly laptops of this size that offer many more ports, but they’re typically mobile workstations, which are much heavier. If you want the flexibility of a 2-in-1, you’ll have to get used to dongles.

Tap it, touch it, ink it

Typing on the Surface Book 2 feels a lot like typing on the previous Surface Book — right down to the size of the keyboard. While the 15-inch model has more space, it opts not to include a numpad. We like that decision, as we prefer a spacious and centered key layout, but accountants should be warned.

Key feel is great with good travel, a linear feel, and a firm yet forgiving bottom action. You shouldn’t have issues touch-typing at high speeds from the moment you lay hands on the 2-in-1. There’s even gobs of palmrest space, so those with large hands won’t feel cramped.

We’re less enthused about the keyboard’s backlighting. Three levels of lighting are available and they provide a good variety of options, from dim to excessively bright. The lighting doesn’t filter evenly through the keys, however, and some light leak is visible from underneath the top row. That’s not a huge problem, but it detracts from the luxury of the device in a way not evident on Apple’s MacBook Pro.

The touchpad, though large enough, feels a bit small given the size of the 2-in-1. We’d like to see it better fill the massive space below the keyboard. That said, what’s there works well. It’s Windows Precision Touchpad compliment, of course, so it can support all the many touch gestures found in Windows 10. That includes the ability to open tab management with a three-finger swipe, or move back and forth between pages with a horizontal swipe of two fingers. We also liked the integrated left/right buttons. They actuate with a satisfying click, offering better feedback than the norm.

Of course, you can also tap the display. Microsoft has engineered the screen so that it’d bonded closely with the glass, reducing the visible gap between it and the LCD below it. The 15-inch screen on our review unit offered plenty of space to swipe and tap, yet the bezels are no thicker than on Apple’s MacBook Pro or HP’s Spectre x360. We’re happy to see that. Still, the sheer size of the larger Book 2 must be remembered. A tablet this large will never feel easy to handle.

You may appreciate the size, though, when you pull out the pen. The screen offers all kinds of room for writing. It’s even large enough to act as a miniature Surface Studio when the tablet is laid flat on a table. We suspect that even the smaller Book 2 will feel great — though, the credit goes to the precise, well-balanced Surface Pen and Windows 10, which has made massive leaps in digital ink quality. The pen works in virtually every text field, in all Office applications, and in the Windows Ink Workspace, which appears at the press of a button on the Pen. That provides plenty of chances to ink without downloading a single third-party app.

The Windows 10 inking ecosystem is so complete we never needed to use software that wasn’t built by Microsoft. Your mileage will vary depending on what you do — designers and artists will need, at the least, their suite of choice – but you can certainly make do with what’s bundled if you just intend to take notes and markup webpages.

There is one problem, however. You won’t find the Surface Pen in the box. It’s not included with the Surface Book 2, so you must pay another $100 to enjoy it. We don’t agree with this decision, and would rather see the Pen included with every Surface Pro and Book device. Not only because of the value, but also because Microsoft insists digital inking is an important part of the Windows 10 experience. With the Book 2, at least, we’d agree — if you plan to buy it, you should plan to buy the Pen.

The display is almost too vibrant

The 15-inch touchscreen on the Surface Book 2 offers 3,240 x 2,160 resolution in a 3:2 aspect ratio. While not quite 4K, it does cram 260 pixels into every inch, which is more than enough to offer a perfectly sharp image. If you notice a pixel or jagged edge it’s the fault of software, not the display.

Past Surface devices have proven there’s more to a display than pixels, as the family includes some of the best screens available on Windows laptops and 2-in-1s. The Book 2 carries that torch, and even throws a bit more fuel on the flame – perhaps too much.

The Surface Book 2’s average color error came in at 3.96. Lower is better in this test and the best devices, like the Apple MacBook Pro, can limbo under a value of one. The Book 2’s relatively high reading seems due to overblown colors across the board. Everything looks too bright, too vibrant. It’s not unappealing to the naked eye, but it’s not accurate, and may throw off photographers, video editors, and other professionals

Color gamut was just okay, too, hitting 95 percent of sRGB, and 71 percent of AdobeRGB. That’s on par with the Lenovo Yoga 920, yet behind the Apple MacBook Pro and HP Spectre x360 15-inch.

The great contrast ratio, paired with over-blown colors, translates to an exceptionally sharp, crisp image.

Contrast is another story, however. Our test measured a ratio of 1410:1 at the display’s maximum brightness. That result, which matches the original Surface Book, is the best we’ve ever recorded from a laptop lacking an OLED display — a rare option not found on any of the Surface Book 2’s direct competitors. Maximum brightness came in at 428 nits, which is slightly behind the MacBook Pro, but defeats most other laptops and 2-in-1s. Black levels, meanwhile, proved much darker than the norm, layering incredible detail into dark images and movies.

While we’re surprised the Book 2’s colors aren’t truer to life, we can’t say it’s unattractive. The great contrast ratio, paired with over-blown colors, translates to an exceptionally sharp, crisp image. It looks best when fed high-resolution, high-contrast content, like video of a sunset, or fireworks at night.

Speakers so powerful, they’re barely contained

A laptop with a 15-inch screen is large enough to deliver strong audio, and the Surface Book 2 is no exception. Its beefy stereo sound has no problem filling a mid-sized room with music. The volume can become so high, in fact, that the Book 2 has trouble containing it. You can feel the vibrations when holding the tablet, and odd reverberations can be noticed at certain frequencies. The problem can be avoided by turning volume a notch down from its highest setting.

Intel’s new processor makes the Book 2 look good

Intel’s new Core i7-8650U processor arrived in our review unit, and it felt custom-made for the Surface Book 2. It served excellent multi-core performance alongside surprisingly moderate power draw.

GeekBench 4 showed the benefit of the new processor. While the single-core score of 4,547 is only 12 percent better than the original Book, the multi-core score of 13,900 represents an 85 percent bump over its predecessor. The Book 2 also scored well in Handbrake 0.10.5, where it transcoded a 4K trailer from h.264 to h.265 in about 12 minutes. Doing the same with the Surface Book took about 27 minutes — over twice as long.

That’s not to say the Surface Book 2 lacks competitors, however. The slightly smaller Lenovo Yoga 920 beat Microsoft’s system by a slim margin in every processor benchmark, and while the last HP Spectre x360 15-inch we tested did not have the new 8th-gen Intel quad, current models do. We expect they’d at least give the Book 2 a fight.

Microsoft new system is merely on par with its competitors, then, but also far and away quicker than its predecessor, and any other 2-in-1 lacking the new Intel hardware. The 8th generation Core is a major leap forward in demanding software, and the Surface Book 2 reaps the benefit of it.

We do need to make note here of an issue with the Surface Book 2’s power supply, which isn’t powerful enough at 95 watts to supply all the juice needed by the CPU and GPU when they’re running at full speed. That means that if you’re performing tasks like video encoding or high-end gaming, the Surface Book 2 can start pulling power from the batteries to make up for the power supply’s deficiency. Eventually, the system will throttle performance to maintain battery, and the additional discharge and charge cycles can cut into the battery’s lifespan. Keep this limitation in mind when you’re considering the Surface Book 2 for the highest-performance needs.

Don’t blink! You’ll miss your file transfer

The base Surface Book 2 comes with a modest 256GB solid state drive, but our review unit was upgraded to 1TB. It’s entirely responsible for the bump in price from $2,500 to $3,300, as every other component on the 15-inch version is already maxed out in the “basic” configuration. Let’s see what spending $800 on an SSD gets you.

Wow. While the price of the upgrade is difficult to tolerate, the performance is top-tier, delivering read speeds of 2.8 gigabytes per second. The HP ZBook 14u G4 is the only Windows laptop that bests the Surface Book 2, and most competitors struggle to offer even half its speed. Write speeds are weaker at 1.2GB/s, but that’s still enough to beat the Lenovo Yoga 920 and HP Spectre x360 15-inch.

Don’t call it a gaming laptop, but it can game

Microsoft’s promise of upgraded performance has rung true so far, with big gains in both processor and hard drive speeds. Now, we come to the cherry on top of this silicon sundae — the GPU. The 15-inch Book 2 comes with an Nvidia GTX 1060, while the 13-inch model has the GTX 1050.

These are the exact GPUs you’d expect to find in an entry-level gaming laptop. Does that mean the Book 2 is a sleeper gaming rig? Let’s have a closer look.

While its performance can waver from benchmark to benchmark, the Surface Book 2 15-inch generally scores solid results. In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided it hit about 40 frames per second on High detail at 1080p resolution, and it delivered 46fps in Civilization VI at Ultra detail and 1080p.

These results absolutely trounce the older HP Spectre x360 15-inch, which never saw better than 10fps in Deus Ex. The Yoga 920, meanwhile, can hardly even load that game, and scored less than 10fps in Civilization VI. A true gaming laptop like the Acer Predator Helios 300 – which we also tested with a GTX 1060 — can beat Microsoft’s Surface Book 2, however, as it achieved 52fps in Deus Ex with settings on High at 1080p resolution.

While this performance is good news for gamers, we do urge caution. Microsoft uses a custom driver for the GTX 1060, instead of the standard Nvidia driver, and it can cause issues. One of our test games, For Honor, failed to load properly on our review unit. The resolution of the 3:2 display can also cause trouble. While it should work with most games, bugs can appear. For example, Civilization VI often opened in a window when we launched it at any resolution below the Book 2’s native, whether we wanted it to or not. Battlefield 1, meanwhile, turned in performance results below the expected, and suffered strange stuttering in pre-rendered cutscenes.

Yes, you can game on the Surface Book 2, but that’s not what it’s designed for and you’ll run into limitations

As you can see in our result graphs, you can install an Nvidia driver if you choose to – and we saw no downside or malfunction as a result. Installing the Nvidia driver improved performance, slightly to significantly, depending on the game. It also banished many of our initial problems. For Honor ran without issue, and Battlefield 1 no longer stuttered.

Even with the Nvidia driver installed, however, performance was not always in pace with the Acer Predator, though it and the Surface Book 2 have the same GPU. As we noted above, the power supply is the culprit. The battery can discharge in heavy gaming to compensate — particularly when the power plan is at “Best Performance” setting – but it’s not enough to keep gaming at full speed for hours at a time. Also remember that the GPU is in the base, so it’s not available in tablet mode.

So yes, you can game on the Surface Book 2, and performance is much better than a typical 2-in-1 device. Just don’t expect framerates on par with a GTX 1060-equipped gaming laptop.

Record-setting battery life in laptop mode

Our review unit’s 15-inch screen of course makes the Book 2 even more difficult to tote. Here, though, Microsoft deserves some credit. The larger model is exactly as thick as its smaller peer, and less than a pound heavier. The leap in weight is substantially less than HP’s Spectre x360 15-inch, which gains 1.5 pounds over its little brother. And remember, the Surface Book 2 has a detachable tablet. When removed, the tablet alone weighs just 1.7 pounds.

The real story, though, is the battery. Microsoft has blessed the 15-inch model with an outstanding 90 watt-hours of juice. That’s split between the tablet and base — the former packs 23 watt-hours, and the latter has 67. Combined, it’s a ton of raw battery to throw at a miserly Intel chip, and spectacular endurance is the result.

The web browsing test is the real star. That benchmark, which browses through a loop of real websites until the battery gives out, ran for just over 15 and a half hours on the Surface Book 2 — by far the best result we’ve seen from the test. The Yoga 920 lasted just over eight hours, and we thought that was a good result when it came in. Our video loop test, which replays a 1080p trailer of The Avengers until the battery gives out, saw the Surface Book 2 through over 20 hours. That exceeds the 17 hours quoted by Microsoft.

The Book 2 can last under heavier load, too. We saw six hours and 40 minutes of life in our Basemark test, which loops a heavy-load browser benchmark. That’s also a record setter, and it once again defeats the competition. Lenovo’s Yoga 920, and HP’s Spectre x360, both came in short of three and a half hours.

best 2 in 1 laptops microsoft surface book 15 inch review 3309
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

While the 15-inch Surface Book 2 is a true marathon machine, the split battery means its excellent longevity is only available in docked use. The tablet portion accounts for only a third of the overall wattage, so battery life is drastically reduced when the display is separated from the base. On its own, the tablet managed to endure 83 minutes in the Basemark loop, a bit more than four hours in the web browsing loop, and almost six hours of 1080p, locally stored video.

Those results seem adequate, as the tablet is too large to be considered an iPad or Surface Pro, replacement. We don’t think you’d want to use it alone for more than a couple hours. Still, most other tablets, including those running Windows, last hours more. The Surface Book 2 is a laptop that can sometimes work as a tablet, not the other way around.

Software

Windows 10 is, of course, the operating system installed on the Surface Book 2. It also happens to be our favorite desktop operating system, so we’re not at all bothered to use it here. As detailed in our review of the Fall Creators Update review, Microsoft has improved its latest OS at a rapid pace. Apple and Google, both of which focus more on mobile, lack the will to keep up.

The install comes pristine out of the box, with no bloatware — unless you count a trial of Microsoft Office 365. Microsoft doesn’t bundle any of its software for free, which is a bit of a bummer. Apple’s MacOS ships with a more complete suite of default software.

Warranty information

A one-year warranty ships with the Surface Book 2. We’d rather see a three-year warranty on a PC this expensive, but the competition is no more generous. The warranty does include in-store support for its duration, so you can visit a Microsoft store instead of calling the support hotline.

Our Take

Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 is the most technically impressive laptop we’ve ever tested. Its beautiful, powerful, portable, and versatile. It’s also expensive at $2,500 to start – and $3,300 as-tested — but, given everything available here, the company would be a bit daft to sell it for less.

Is there a better alternative?

Do you care for a 2-in-1, or not?

If you do, then the Surface Book 2 has few competitors. HP’s Spectre x360 15-inch is its most obvious peer, and it’s also an excellent system that performs well in many scenarios. The screen does not detach, however, and its GPU is drastically less impressive. Lenovo’s Yoga 920 is another option, and comparable to both the 13-inch and 15-inch Book 2, as its 13.9-inch screen splits the difference. It’s an extremely competent system, and much less expensive, but the Surface Book 2 is quicker and lasts longer on a charge.

Another significant competitor is the new Dell XPS 15 2-in-1. While it’s gaming performance isn’t as good as the GTX 1060, nor does it have as good of battery life, it comes at a discount in comparison.

Those who don’t care for a 2-in-1 may compare the Surface Book 2 to a variety of choices, from the Apple MacBook Pro 15 with Touch Bar, to the Lenovo ThinkPad P50. Many of these will offer superior processor performance, but the coin is flipped when GPUs are compared, and these more conventional options can’t match the Book 2’s portability.

How long will it last?

The Surface Book 2 should last at least five years, thanks to its powerful hardware and contemporary features. We do wonder about the long-term reliability of the hinge mechanism, considering Consumer Report’s remarks about the Surface brand’s reliability, but we have no evidence it’ll pose a problem.

Should you buy it?

Yes. There’s a lot to love about the Surface Book 2, and very little to complain about. The system aced many of our tests and was a joy to carry day-to-day. That latter part is important. While it’s a powerful 2-in-1 built for serious work, but it’s also fun off the clock. We can recommend not just to people who need a mobile workstation, or just people who want a tablet with pen support, but also to those who simply want the very best Windows device sold today – and don’t mind paying to get it.

The Surface Book 2 is expensive. It’s also worth every penny.