Review: Microsoft Surface Book 3

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The last time we looked at Microsoft’s Surface Book was version 2, back in January 2018. Now in version 3, the Surface Book has a very familiar design and after reviewing a bunch of thin and light ultrabooks, this is noticeably chunky in comparison.

Obviously being part of the Microsoft Surface range, it comes in the matte grey finish and of course a detachable screen (which in this model is dramatically faster than previous generations).

This is the second laptop I’ve spent time with recently that features dedicated graphics and I have to say I love the extra capabilities that gives you. While the laptop is certainly something build for productivity, it’s great to have the ability to throw a few games on there during down times.

So now, after spending a couple weeks with the Surface Book 3, it’s time to let you know if you should buy it or not.

DESIGN

We need to talk about those bezels

The first thing you notice about the Surface Book 3 is it’s size. The chasis is large, with a scale that domainates man other similarly sized laptops. The Surface Book 3 is also a lot thicker than most laptops, particularly in the screen. What is normally a thin sliver of glass, is actually a substantial tablet attached to the top of the laptop base. When folded with that famously unique Surfacebook hinge, the device is comparitively really thick.

When you open up the Surface Book, it has space around the keyboard and large areas to rest your palms while typing, or use the trackpage. This is also a sympom of the 13.9″ display being presented in a 3:2 aspect ratio. Personally I love this ratio, it provides a lot more vertical resolution, which is great for applications that require have a lot of toolbars and especially for apps like Adobe Premiere that eats a lot of space at the bottom of the screen with it’s timeline.

That screen is beautiful with is 3000×2000 pixels, Windows 10 will scale it to 200% by default, so you can actually read the text. The thing I don’t love about it, are the bezels. They’re massive, like a 1st-gen iPad kind of massive. Compared to other laptops out at the moment, that are all trending to barely there bezels, this is an immediate eye-sore they need to resolve with Surface Book 4, or even better yet, a mid-cycle refresh.

While we’re talking about size.. this screen is 13.5″ which sounds great, but the size and weight of this body, feels like it needs to go on a post-iso diet, when compared to something like the Huawei Matebook X Pro which actually features a 13.9″ display in a smaller body.

The keyboard is great to type on, with the matte finish on the body, following through to the key surface. The keys are backlit with 3-levels of brightness, which can be helpful at night, particularly if you’re still learning to type.

Now to that hinge. The Surface Book hinge looks exactly the same as last generation and Microsoft still haven’t been able to get it completely flat when folded. While this presents a unique look to the device, it leaves an opportunity for something in your bag to get between the keyboard and the display and potentially scratch it. I always use the dedicated laptop sleeve in my backpack and nothing else goes in there, but I know plenty of others who are a lot more cavalier about transporting their devices.

PERFORMANCE

How does it perform ?

In terms of the performance, there’s a number of models of the Surface Book 3, which we cover in the price and availability section. Our review model came with an Intel Core i7 CPU (1065G7), with 32GB of RAM, that’s double what most of the premium laptops are shipping with this year. That makes this thing, understandably fast, but for the price, it’d want to be.

Running through our normal benchmark – PCMark10, we get a score of 3,822 which places in better a little below a gaming laptop with a score of 4,515. Now here’s the fun part. If you update the drivers (yes that means GeForce Experience), and then re-run the benchmark using the GPU instead of just Intel’s on-board graphics, you score of 5,279. This really demonstrates the difference between a device with and without dedicated graphics.

When you have a device like the Surface Book 3, some of the additional weight and size could potentially be justified by the extra performance. As we know Microsoft devices have had issues with heat in the past (looking at your Xbox 360) so having a larger chassis allows for better distribution of heat.

While most laptops hide a series of air vents out the back of the laptop, underneath and basically every surface possible, the Surface Book has just a single vent in the body, located above the keyboard and at the start of the hinge. The tablet on top (or display), has a thin vent around almost the entire thing, allowing heat from the internal components to cool, if you use the tabel in isolation.

When on the base, you get access to the GPU and I’m glad to report, this thing is incredibly quiet. Even under performance loads like video rendering or even gaming, you don’t hear the fans spin up to an excessive noise level, telling me Microsoft has done a great job on the cooling here.

The I mentioned the GPU is in the base and that’s important to know as you’re not only losing one of the batteries, but also some of the graphics performance in tablet mode. The main guts of the device is in the display, so when you pop it off and use it as a tablet, it works (albeit with Intel’s on-board Iris Graphics). When the screen is attached, the device actually feels well balanced, not top-heavy like it easily could have been.

The GPU is a GeForce GTX 1650 which will happy help accelerate most of your mid-level performance tasks. Of course you could find an outrageous gaming laptop with better performance, but good luck turning up to a business meeting and being taken serious. If you can muscle the 15″ body around, you could get the GTX 1660 Ti graphics. This has enough performance to power dual-4K displays.

FEATURES

Stand out features of this display.

Surprisingly for a device of this price point, there’s actually not that many noteworthy features. The Surface Book is much more about straight up performance, that showing off with bells and whistles.

Detachable screen

Most of the time, you’re likely to use the Surface Book as a regular laptop, in the even you need to use it as a tablet, you can. Simply press the dedicated hardware button and in around a second, you get a message on-screen letting you know the display is ready to disconnect. It may seem strange that you have to wait at all, but given you’re about to disconnect 1 of the 2 batteries in the system, and a GPU, there’s some work behind the scenes that the device needs to work through.

Surface 2-in-1 devices are famous for their kickstands, however the Surface Book doesn’t. Basically you’re either using this on the coffee table, hopefully in very short bursts as ergonomically that’s a terrible idea. The other option is to hold it and given the mass, I’d suggest you use the waiter/waitress-style of resting it on your forearm and wrapping your finger around the end to secure it.

It’s a neat feature, but I really would like a kickstand built-in to make the number of use cases more substantial. When not using the base, it really sits around and will absolutely look out of place on your desk. I think Microsoft have missed an opportunity to create a docking strip that allows the Surface Book display to be mounted in the kitchen while cooking, or in a build room at work, while building computers.

Ports 

There’s a nice mix on ports on the Surface Book 3, with 2x USB-A ports, a USB-C port and a full size SD card slot. There’s even a 3.5mm jack in the right side of the display for any old headphones you have lying around.

Personally I would have loved to see at least 2x USB-C ports and if Microsoft were to remove the Surface connector, they could fit a third, which would make it amazing. Whenever I use a device, I likely have a USB cable to power it (usually going to a dock in the office, or straight to a 65w wall adapter when mobile. I am also likely to be charging GoPro cameras, or my phone or both, so yep, 3x USB-C ports is my wish in a laptop for 2020.

Maybe the biggest omission is a lack of any USB-C or A ports in the display, as this means you’re out of luck when using it in tablet mode. Of course there’s Bluetooth, but then if Microsoft was really all in on the future, why the 3.5mm jack?

Pen support

Microsoft’s really strong in the area of pen support. Built natively into Windows 10, pen support is also found in OneNote, perfect for sketching out ideas you would have traditionally done on paper. I don’t think it was an accident that the size of the Surface Book 3’s display, almost perfectly matches the size of an A4 sheet of paper. This is likely to appeal to those people in more mobile locations that have occasional needs to do things like site inspections, who could easily tick off a list, when a keyboard and a surface to place a whole laptop, isn’t practical.

ISSUES

Not everything’s perfect

The Surface Book 3 features both the legacy Surface connector and USB-C charging options. To me, this feels like a strange decision and I’d really like to have seen Microsoft go all-in on USB-C.

Remember when the original plan for Surface was to produce additional keyboards that used the proprietary dock connector? There was a brief moment where they hinted at a DJ add-on, but that never came to fruition. Years on and there’s still no accessories for the Surface Book 3, so lets move beyond proprietary connectors and move to another USB-C port.

For the performance user, that this laptop is pitched at, more ports would be incredibly welcome. It felt like Microsoft realised this when they chose to include a full-sized SD card slot, apparently that didn’t carry over to the right side of the device.

This feels a lot more like a simply copy+paste from the last generation’s design, rather than spending the time to redevelop the product based on what people need in 2020.

PRICE & AVAILABILITY

How much and when can you get one ?

Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 is available now from Microsoft’s Store online, or from a number of their retail partners.

There are a number of configurations available:

  • 13.5″ – Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD – A$2,649.00
  • 13.5″ – Core i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD – A$3,399.00
  • 13.5″ – Core i7, 32GB RAM, 512GB SSD – A$4,149.00
  • 13.5″ – Core i7, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD – A$4,499.00

The 15″ version has just 3 configurations available:

  • 15″ Core i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD – A$3,699.00
  • 15″ Core i7, 32GB RAM, 512GB SSD – A$4,439.00
  • 15″ Core i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD – A$4,759.00

So there’s no real way around this, those prices are seriously steep and even with the performance of this laptop, I find them very hard to justify. This definitely feels like Microsoft not only wants to play at the premium end of the market, but also wants to price their products higher than they typically would, in an effort to appease their hardware partners.

OVERALL

Final thoughts

The Surface Book 3 is really a rinse and repeat in terms of design, feature the same exterior as the Surface Book 2. It’s not bad, so I understand why Microsoft though they could get away with another year with the same look, but that won’t stand in 2021.

The bezels are massive by today’s standard and the body is much larger than it really needs to be. It is great to have a matte finish to the surface, on the Surface, as it completely removes any issue with fingerprints. This means your laptop will look exactly the same at the end of the week as it does at the start.

The performance is nice, however that quoted battery life figure really does rely on you using the two halves of the device together. Personally I think I would use this as a laptop for at least 95% of the time, but if it had a kickstand, that number would probably change to around 70%. Most people when they buy a laptop or 2-in-1 today, expect it to go with them everywhere and yes, that even means bed. Having to hold the tablet is probably one of the worst Netflix experiences I can imagine, maybe only followed by having the whole hefty base on top of you.

Overall the Surface Book 3 is a high end device, both in its performance and its price tag. As with most technology, I wish this was offered at a much lower price point, so more people would consider it. If you use AutoCAD, Adobe’s Creative Cloud, or Visual Studio in your work, then you should definitely try pitching your boss on buying you one.

8.5
Review: Microsoft Surface Book 3
The Good
  • Design
  • Performance
  • Battery life
The Bad
  • Bezels
  • Thick
  • Expensive
  • Design
    8
  • Features
    8.5
  • Performance
    9
  • Value
    8.5
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Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis.
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