The first generation Surface Book was a feat of engineering that took Microsoft’s Surface tablet PC and turned it on its head, making it a laptop first and a tablet second. The Surface Book 2 refines a few things, adds much more power and finally adopts USB-C.
If you’re primarily a laptop user, who occasionally wants to take just the screen with you and needs some brawn for your processing duties, the Surface Book 2 is the machine for you. But getting your head around what the machine can do is the first challenge.
With the screen attached like a laptop it behaves just like any other Windows 10 laptop with an interesting hinge. Press the detach key and the screen pops off, turning into a full tablet PC with up to five hours of battery life. But you can also turn the screen over and re-attach it to the base to either have the screen facing away from the keyboard, or folded down to make an angled drawing pad.
It means you can go from a laptop one minute to a note-taking tablet the next to a graphics tablet thereafter. In every situation the Surface Book 2 excels, thanks to some accessories, including the excellent Surface Pen and Dial.
There are a few caveats. The screen on its own is thin and light for a PC tablet, but I would not be comfortable taking it out and about on its own as it doesn’t feel as robust as the Surface Pro or similar. As a laptop, the fulcrum hinge extends out further away from the user than a traditional laptop hinge would, meaning the base of the laptop is quite long and I struggled to fit it between my gut and the back of the seat in front of me on a train. On a desk, though, the Surface Book 2 is arguably the best Windows laptop available.
The keyboard is brilliant – better than most dedicated keyboards. The trackpad is a bit clicky but smooth and precise, while the screen is crisp, beautiful and bright. The machine also runs cool. The only time I could detect the fans going was when playing XCOM 2, and even then they weren’t very loud. Most of the time the Surface Book 2 was completely silent.
Battery life was solid, but not as spectacular as Microsoft’s quoted 17 hours might suggest. With 10 or so tabs open in Chrome and with Spotify, NextgenReader, Windows Mail, Typora and Affinity Photo open at different times, as well as 45 minutes of watching video on Netflix with the tablet detached (and all with recommended brightness and recommended power mode active), the Surface Book 2 lasted around nine hours before powering down.
The tablet alone would easily last around three hours of movie watching, or more with the brightness turned down.
The Surface Book 2 runs the same version of Windows 10 as any other modern PC, which in this case is the Autumn or Fall Creators Update. Since the launch of the first Surface Book, Windows 10 has become more efficient, with various battery saving settings that can make a real difference when using the screen in tablet mode.
With plenty of useful gestures, excellent stylus and accessory support, and a modern design, the Fall Creators Update is the most well thought out, fastest and slick version of Windows 10 yet. There are still the legacy bits, such as parts of the Control Panel and back-end tools that look like they came straight from Windows XP 16 years ago, but Microsoft’s progressive modernisation of the user interface means most will not have to encounter them unless something breaks.
One of the important updates for the Surface Book 2 is Microsoft’s eventual acceptance of USB-C, which has increasingly become an important standard, not only for connecting accessories such as displays, but also for charging.
The Surface Book 2 has one USB-C port, which will also charge the machine, alongside the Surface Connector. But unlike most other high-end machines, the USB-C port does not double as a Thunderbolt 3 port, which is a shame for such an expensive and otherwise capable computer.
The Surface Book 2 will quite happily drive a 4K monitor at 60Hz, as you would expect, via the USB-C port, but if you want more than one display you’ll have to switch to the Surface Connector and Microsoft’s optional extra docking solution, which will drive two external displays, provide power and USB connectivity.
The improved £100 Surface Pen is the best stylus in the business – accurate, with low latency, pressure and tilt sensing, it stays firmly attached to the side of the screen with magnets. It’s the first stylus that has not come off in my bag while transporting any machine.
The new machine also supports Microsoft’s £90 Surface Dial rotary accessory, both on and off the screen similar to the company’s Surface Studio desktop computer. While using it on the screen can be a bit cramped, it works very well indeed. It will work as a general computing input for things like scrolling through web pages, zooming or adjusting the volume, and can be set to perform certain tasks on an app-by-app basis.
It comes into its own when used with photo editors and other creative tools. In Affinity Photo, for instance, you can adjust brush sizes, change opacity and other settings, or you can put it on the screen and use it to rotate the image. There are plenty of ways to use it, and while it’s by no means a must-buy for most, creatives will certainly get their money’s worth out of it – particularly with the Surface Pen in the other hand.
The Microsoft Surface Book 2 starts at £1,499 (buy here) for the base model with 256GB of storage, a 7th gen Core i5 (dual-core) and 8GB of RAM, but without a discrete graphics card in the keyboard.
The 8th gen Core i7 (quad-core) version with 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and a GeForce GTX 1050 discrete GPU costs £1,999 (buy here). The same Core i7 version with 512GB, 16GB of RAM and GPU costs £2,499 (buy here) and with 1TB of storage and 16GB of RAM £2,999 (buy here).
For comparison, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop starts at £979 (buy here), the Surface Pro starts at £799 (buy here), Apple’s 13in MacBook Pro starts at £1,249 (buy here) and Dell’s XPS 13 starts at £1,099 (buy here).
The 13.5in Microsoft Surface Book 2 is an adaptable powerhouse of a computer. There aren’t many rivals that can double as a true hinged laptop, tablet and angle graphics tablet-style halfway house, particularly with the power of a discrete graphics card.
Given that the minimum specification anyone should really buy if they’re considering the Surface Book 2 is the £1,999 model with the discrete graphics card and 8th-generation Core i7 chip, Microsoft’s do-it-all machine is very expensive. But you get a lot of computer for your money with some very neat party tricks.
It’s not perfect, lacking Thunderbolt 3, but the Surface Book 2 is arguably the best Windows 10 power-user laptop going – plus you can take the screen off.
Pros: excellent keyboard, great trackpad, brilliant screen, great stylus, 9-hour battery, fancy hinge, great 2-in-1 compromise, USB A, full-sized SD and USB-C, Windows Hello, Surface Dial support, 8th generation Core i7 chips, discrete GPU
Cons: Windows still has tablet app gap, very expensive, relatively heavy, still a bit of play in the hinge, no Thunderbolt 3
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