Microsoft Surface Book 2 13-inch review

With surreal speed and battery life, the 13-inch Surface Book 2 is hard to beat

The Surface Book 2 13 manages to go really fast and yet last forever on a charge.
The Surface Book 2 13 manages to go really fast and yet last forever on a charge.
The Surface Book 2 13 manages to go really fast and yet last forever on a charge.

Highs

  • Excellent design and build quality
  • Awesome display
  • Incredible battery life
  • Decent entry-level gaming performance
  • Great keyboard and touchpad

Lows

  • Coil whine is excessive and obtrusive
  • Expensive compared to traditional convertibles
  • No Thunderbolt 3 support

Microsoft wowed us when it introduced the original Surface Book and showcased its ability to produce innovative products that create entirely new PC categories. Watching the display tear off to become a usable tablet with active pen support felt like gazing into a time machine set firmly to the future.

Two years later, Microsoft continued to leverage the design, releasing two versions of the Surface Book 2: the 13.5-inch and 15-inch. They’re nearly identical to previous versions — that is, until you turn them on and start running them through their paces.

The model we reviewed was a higher-end configuration, decked out with an 8th-generation quad-core CPU, the Nvidia GTX 1050 GPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB solid state drive. It’s very expensive at $2,500, and you can also bump up our review configuration to a 1GB SSD and spend a whopping $3,000. Are the updated guts of the Surface Book 2 enough to justify the huge investment?

A design that’s stood the test of time

There’s a reason Microsoft didn’t mess with the original Surface Book’s design: It’s just that good. The magnesium chassis is solid as a rock, with zero flexing or bending no matter where you poke or prod. Seriously, the thing is built like a tank. It’s also innovative with its push-button, “muscle wire” latching mechanism that makes detaching the display downright fun. The only notebook that matches the Surface Book 2 in build quality is the latest MacBook Pro, but even Apple’s design isn’t as daring.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The “dynamic fulcrum” hinge, which is required to push the display farther back to better balance the weight created by jamming a complete PC into the display, remains an oddity that takes some getting used to. It makes the Surface very and rounded in the rear, and it creates a sharp angle whereby the display doesn’t sit flush with the keyboard. Theoretically, that means that debris could get in between and cause some problems, but we haven’t seen too many complaints about it.

To stress the point, the Surface Book 2 isn’t the thinnest (0.51 to 0.90 inches) or lightest (3.38 pounds) 2-in-1 notebook around. Other 2-in-1s, such as the Lenovo Yoga 920 (0.50 inches and 3.02 pounds) and HP Spectre x360 13 (0.54 inches and 2.78 pounds), are considerably thinner and lighter. They’re also built well, but they can’t match Microsoft’s machine for pure granite-like solidity.

And of course, flipping their displays around results in a tablet form factor that’s not nearly as comfortable to carry around and use as the Surface Book 2’s almost unbelievably thin (0.30 inches) and light (1.6 pounds) tablet portion. The Surface Book 2 is just as flexible, only rather than spinning the display, you detach and reverse it for multimedia and drawing modes — although you do sacrifice battery life (see below).

We enjoy the Surface Book 2’s conservative silver-grey color, though some might prefer something with a little more panache. The Spectre x360 13, in particular, offers a bit more ostentation with its Dark Ash Silver with Copper Luxe accents color scheme.

Finally, we should note that the Surface Book 2’s main PC component, the tablet, is completely fanless. That means that unless you fire up the Nvidia GTX 1050 GPU in the base, you won’t hear any fan noise. Among other 2-in-1s, the newest Surface Pro stands out with a similarly quiet design, but only for the slower Core i5 configurations.

There’s a reason why Microsoft didn’t mess with the original Surface Book’s design: It’s that good.

Breaking that silence, unfortunately, is a very serious case of coil whine, which creates a maddening cacophony of electronic buzzing, fritzing, and whirring that’s obtrusive and distracting in a quieter environment. It seems like a fairly widespread problem judging by certain Reddit threads and other forum posts, and our review machine was the issue’s poster child.

The coil whine is most noticeable when the Windows 10 power slider is pushed all the way to “Best Performance,” and oddly enough only when the CPU is idle. Push the CPU to full speed and the problem disappears. The Surface Book 2 13 isn’t alone in suffering from coil whine — the 15-inch model can have some as well, for example, as can other makes entirely — but it’s just worse than we’ve seen elsewhere.

Finally, the Surface line has never been known for offering the best in connectivity options, and for the most part, the Surface Book 2 13 follows that trend. There are two USB-A 3.0 ports, both on the left-hand side, along with an SD card reader. On the right side is the Surface Connect port that provides power and the connection to the Surface Dock peripheral, and a new USB-C 3.1 port that is Microsoft’s only nod to future peripheral support.

Unfortunately, the USB-C port is only Gen 1, meaning it’s limited to 5 gigabits per second (Gbps) speeds and it doesn’t provide Thunderbolt 3 support. It won’t support the fasted add-ons and external monitor support is limited, including a disappoint lack of HDCP 2.2 (requried for watching 4K premium content such as Netflix). Wireless connectivity includes the usual 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 radios. When you compare to just about every recent notebook or 2-in-1, the Thunderbolt 3 omission is a serious one, and might give some buyers reason to pause.

Getting information into the Surface Book 2 is a real breeze

The Surface Book 2’s keyboard is only slightly changed from the previous versions, and that’s a good thing. Microsoft decreased the key travel the tiniest bit (from 1.6mm to 1.55mm) and changed the feel just slightly to be closer to the very good keyboard on the Surface Laptop. But you’d probably be hard-pressed to tell the difference from the older models.

We found the keyboard to offer a crisp, precise action that’s consistent across all of the keys. Our only concern is that it’s slightly loud. Keyboards in general have improved over the last several years, and the Surface Book 2 has some tough competition. The keyboard on the HP Spectre x360 13, for example, is very good as well, as is the Yoga 920’s.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 13 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The touchpad is even better. It’s large enough to be eminently usable but not so large as to take up too much space below the keyboard. It has a smooth glass surface that provides just the right amount of resistance, and its support for the Windows Precision Touchpad protocol is absolutely perfect. Multitouch gestures work flawlessly, and the Surface Book 2’s touchpad thus remains the gold standard.

Of course, the machine is a 2-in-1, and so it also sports a multitouch display that benefits from Microsoft’s continuous effort to reduce the space between the glass and the touch electronics for the best possible response. The Surface Pen also benefits from these efforts, while also gaining the ultra-low latency, 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and tilt support introduced with the 2017 Surface Pro. Simply put, it’s the best inking experience available in a Windows 10 PC.

Finally, the Surface Book 2 sticks with Microsoft’s usual facial recognition for Windows 10 Hello password-less login. It works perfectly, recognizing us every time and very quickly indeed.

The usual Surface display – in a word, it’s excellent

The Surface line universally enjoys some very nice displays, with high contrast and great brightness. The Surface Book 2 retains the same 3,000 x 2000 (267 PPI) Panasonic panel used in the previous models, and that’s a good thing. Of course, like all Surface machines, it’s in the 3:2 aspect ratio that’s great for productivity (but with some video letterboxing).

Our colorimeter agreed. The Surface Book 2 scored well in just about every metric. Maximum brightness was excellent at 402 nits, and contrast was a stunning 1,460:1. Gamma was close to perfect 2.3 (2.2 is ideal), meaning that images and video will be just slightly darker. Overall, the display should make for deep blacks and awesome text (given the sharpness as well). Only color gamut and accuracy support were average, which means that anyone looking for the utmost in color support and accuracy might want to look at a different machine.

In practice, the display is just as good as some excellent objective results would indicate.

So how does that compare to most notebooks, including our comparison group? Simply put, you need to pick up another Surface device or a MacBook if you want a better overall display. Or check out the Sharp IGZO displays that Dell puts in machines like the XPS 15 2-in-1.

In practice, the display is just as good as these objective results would indicate. Black text is pin sharp and contrasts nicely against a white background, making the productivity experience simply excellent. Images look great with fairly natural colors, and video is fantastic even if the display isn’t quite 4K resolution. In short, the Surface Book 2 has a superior display to the vast majority of its competition.

Sound quality also matters, and the Surface Book 2 attacks audio with two front-firing speakers set into the edge of the display on each side towards the top. They put out loud audio that’s clear and bright, but that lacks in bass like most notebook speakers. It’s great audio for watching movies and TV shows and for listening to music, but anyone whose favorite music tends toward the lower registers will want to put on a pair of headphones.

Finally, the Surface Book is up to speed

The Surface Book with Performance Base improved the machine’s GPU, but it held onto the same 6th-gen Intel processor. With the Surface Book 2, Microsoft has finally caught up, putting in Intel’s 8th-gen, 15-watt quad-core processors for a nice boost in both performance and efficiency.

We’ll note that Microsoft has incorporated a power slider into Windows 10 that has a real impact on performance. It’s accessed by clicking on the battery icon in the system tray and selecting from “Recommended,” “Better Performance,” and “Best Performance.” You can dial in better performance or better thermal performance simply by moving the slider to the left or right. “Recommended” is the default, and so this is where we focused our benchmarks, but we included the “Best Performance” results in the graph because Microsoft makes aggressive use of the slider.

As we expected, the Surface Book 2 performed admirably in CPU-intensive tasks. In Geekbench 4, for example, the machine scored a solid 4,528 in single-core mode and 14,510 in multi-core. That’s in line with the Lenovo Yoga 920 and it blows away seventh-generation competitors like the earlier model of HP’s Spectre x360 15.

On our more demanding and real-world Handbrake test that encodes a 420MB video to H.265, the Surface Book 2 was able to finish the task in 740 seconds. The Yoga 920 was faster but the Surface Book with Performance Base took much longer, demonstrating the benefits of Intel’s latest CPUs. The Lenovo Yoga 720 15 with Intel’s higher-power 45-watt Intel Core i7-7700HQ is faster but it’s also considerably less efficient.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

In short, the Surface Book 2 is plenty fast for even higher-end productivity tasks, and it’s a real jump up from the previous generation. You can get a faster notebook in machines like the Yoga 720 15 or the Dell XPS 15 thanks to their higher-powered CPUs, but you’ll pay a price in battery life.

Another note: There’s a power supply issue with the Surface Book 2 15-inch model related directly to the 95-watt unit that Microsoft ships with both versions. The larger machine’s GTX 1060 GPU uses up to 80 watts or so of power by itself, meaning that it’s easy for the system to exceed the power supply’s capabilities and start pulling from the battery. The Surface Book 2 13’s GTX 1050 GPU, on the other hand, maxes out at around 50 watts. So while it’s theoretically possible that it could suffer the same battery discharge when both the CPU and GPU are being stressed, we didn’t encounter the issue during our testing.

To provide quite access to data, Microsoft chose the popular Samsung PM961 PCIe solid state drive (SSD). That typically means that accessing and saving files will be more than fast enough for the typical productivity tasks.

In our benchmark tests, the Surface Book 2 13’s implementation was a little slower than most other notebooks using the same drive. In CrystalDiskMark, it scored 1,203 megabytes per second (MB/s) in the read test and only 657 MB/s in the write test. That’s crushed by the Surface Book 2 15 results, while the Yoga 920 was lightly slower in the read test but much faster in the write test.

We’re not sure why this Surface Book 2 scored as low as it did in the write test, but it’s not that big of a deal. These are still fast scores that promise excellent overall performance, and you’ll be unlikely to notice any kind of a slowdown even in applications that write a lot of files.

Solid entry-level gaming, just don’t crank things up

The Surface Book 2 13 comes equipped with an Nvidia GTX 1050 GPU, a step up from the previous models’ GTX 965M and a common chip for entry-level gaming systems and faster productivity machines. Notebooks with this GPU tend to provide for a solid 1080p experience in modern titles if graphical details are kept in check.

In the 3DMark synthetic benchmark, the Surface Book 2 13 scored 5,160. That’s slightly slower than the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 that utilizes AMD’s Radeon RX Vega M GH GPU, and it beats out the Surface Book with Performance Base (GTX 965M) by reasonable margin. Of course, the GTX 1060 in the Surface Book 2 15 was much faster. As with our CPU tests, we ran our gaming benchmarks in “Recommended” mode, but we’ve reported the faster “Best Performance” mode results in the graphs.

In actual gaming, the Surface Book 2 13 did well in Civilization VI, at least in 1080p and medium details, where it managed 51 frames per second (FPS). It was less impressive with ultra details configured, where it could only muster 30 FPS. That matches up well with the XPS 15 2-in-1 and slower than the Surface Book 2 15.

You won’t find another in its class that lasts as long as the Surface Book 2.

Next, we ran Battlefield 1 at 1080p, and the Surface Book 2 13 scored 39 FPS in medium detail and 28 FPS in ultra. The XPS 15 2-in-1 and Surface Book 2 15 were both significantly faster. The same held true for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

In conclusion, we can say that the Surface Book 2 13 makes for a decent entry-level gaming notebook with modern titles at 1080p resolution and medium graphics. This is particularly true if you’re willing to crank the performance slider to “Best Performance” and deal with the fan noise and potential battery drain — in that case, the Surface Book 2 is more competitive with the other 2-in-1s equipped with a GTX 1050 like the Lenovo Yoga 720 15.

Record-breaking battery life

Microsoft packed a fair amount of a battery capacity into the Surface Book 2, specifically a total of 70 watt-hours between the tablet and base portions. Given the energy-efficiency of Intel’s 8th-gen U-series CPUs, we were hopeful for this 2-in-1’s longevity.

In short, the Surface Book 2 delivers. In our most aggressive test, which uses the Basemark web benchmark to stress the CPU and GPU, the Surface Book 2 13 lasted a very solid six hours and 21 minutes. That’s bested only by the Surface Book 2 15 that lasted just ten minutes longer. By comparison, the HP Spectre x360 13 lasted for just over four hours, which is a very good score for any machine that’s not a Surface Book 2.

On our web browsing test, the Surface Book 2 13 lasted for just over 10 hours, another very strong score. Its larger sibling lasted for a spectacular 15 hours and 33 minutes, and the Lenovo Yoga 920 lasted for just over eight hours. The Surface Book 2 is a huge upgrade over the previous Performance Base model, which could only muster just shy of seven hours — a good score for previous machines but eclipsed by today’s Intel eighth-gen notebooks.

Finally, in terms of watching video, the Surface Book 2 13 could loop our local Avengers trailer for almost 17 hours, an excellent score that’s only topped by the Surface Book 2 15’s 20 and a half hours. The HP Spectre x360 13 was a strong performer at just over 14 hours, but the Surface Book 2 line obviously leverages the efficiency of the new CPUs with their large battery capacities.

You might be wondering about how long the Surface Book 2’s tablet portion will last, with its 18 watt-hour battery (meaning the base portion has the other 52 watt-hours). We have those results as well, and they’re naturally less impressive. The tablet lasted for an hour and 16 minutes on the Basemark test, two hours and 44 minutes on the web browsing test, and three and a half hours on the video test.

Microsoft Surface Book 2 13 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

As a clamshell notebook, you won’t find another in its class that lasts as long as the Surface Book 2 13 away from a charger. It’s all-day battery life and then some, with a chassis that’s just the slightest bit clumsy putting into a backpack but that will allow you to work an entire day away from a charger. The only notebooks likely to last significant longer is the upcoming wave of 2-in-1s using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 ARM processor, but those will most certainly sacrifice quite a bit of performance.

Our Take

The Surface Book 2 13.5-inch model is an ultra-premium machine that feels like one, with one of the most innovative designs around and build quality that rivals the best the PC market has to offer. It’s incredibly expensive, but for the money you get solid productivity performance, strong entry-level gaming chops, great battery life, and the ability to enjoy both an awesome traditional notebook experience and a very usable high-powered tablet.

Is there a better alternative?

The Surface Book 2’s 13.5-inch 3:2 display is in between the usual 14-inch and 15.6-inch 16:9 alternatives, and it has a unique form factor with some unusually powerful components — that makes for an interesting set of alternatives, but none that match exactly what the Surface Book 2 13 offers.

First up is the Lenovo Yoga 720 15, which matches the Surface Book 2 13 with its GTX 1050 and is a bit faster in CPU-intensive tasks. It’s also much less expensive, at $1,700 for 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and a 4K UHD display. You’ll get equivalent performance if you go this route, but you’ll give up a lot of battery life and you’ll be relegated to used a very thick tablet.

You can also consider the excellent HP Spectre x360 13, our favorite in the very strong convertible 2-in-1 market. The Spectre x360 offers strong performance for productivity tasks, great input options, and solid battery life. It’s also significantly less expensive than the Surface Book 2, coming in at $1,380 for a similar configuration with a Core i7-8550U CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160 or 331 PPI) display. Of course, it’s not as fast and it’s battery life, while good, isn’t as spectacular.

We should note that Intel and AMD introduced a new CPU/GPU hybrid solution, Kaby Lake-G, that mates a 45-watt quad-core Intel Core processor with AMD’s Radeon RX Vega M GL GPU. That combo  promises somewhat greater performance than the Surface Book 2 13 at lower prices, meaning that machines like the new Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the updated HP Spectre x360 15 that sport Kaby Lake-G are also worth considering.

How long will it last?

The Surface Book 2 has a future-proof design that promises to be useful well into the future, with matching performance. The addition of a USB-C port helps it keep up with the newest standard in peripheral connectivity, but the lack of Thunderbolt 3 support will hold it back from working with the latest and greatest add-ons.

Should you buy it?

Yes. You’ll pay through the nose, but you won’t be compromising in design, build, or performance, and the battery life. It’s only beaten by the larger, more expensive 15-inch version.

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