Microsoft Surface Book 3 13.5 review: A bold but ageing beauty – CNET


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The Microsoft Surface Book 3.

Ian Knighton/CNET

Have you seen the original 13-inch 2015 Surface Book, or its 2018 followup? Then this new version is going to look and feel very familiar. In fact, you’re likely to be underwhelmed by the design. That’s not because it’s bad, but rather because it’s the same. It’s not unusual for Apple to release three samey-looking MacBook Pros in a row, or for Dell to do so with its XPS line, but those laptops come out every year. The Surface Book, Windows’ laptop-tablet hybrid, has retained the same design language since 2015.

How it stacks up

Like

  • Flexible and unique laptop-tablet-convertible design
  • Outstanding graphical power for a laptop of its size
  • Excellent keyboard and 3:2 display

Don’t Like

  • Design is becoming stale
  • Speakers are far too soft
  • No Thunderbolt 3 port

That jumped out, because this is an ambitious device that combines the full power of a laptop with the detachable portability of a tablet (oh and double batteries). It’s even one of the few detachable 2-in-1 Windows systems that makes more sense as a laptop. 

The Surface Book 3 is certainly luxurious — its terrific build quality is evident from the moment you touch it. Yet seducing buyers with a sexy new design is clearly not Microsoft’s plan. Instead, it’s hoping brute power is enough.

You get a 10th-generation Intel chip no matter what configuration you buy, a nice boost from its predecessor’s 8th-gen CPU. The range starts at $1,599 (AU$2,649, £1,599) but that variant comes with just a Core i5 processor and integrated graphics. You’re far better off dropping extra to get an i7 chip and, more importantly, an Nvidia GTX 1650-Max Q graphics card ($1,999, AU$3,399 and £1,999). This is an improvement over the Book 2’s GPU and Microsoft also offers models with 32GB of RAM ($2,499, AU$4,129, £2,449), double the Surface Book 2’s amount.  

The Surface Book 3 isn’t cheap. But though it asks a lot from you, it gives a lot too. A detachable screen makes it both a laptop and a tablet, particularly helpful for creatives when paired with the Surface Pen (which disappointingly isn’t included, it’s an extra $99). It provides welcome gaming and video processing power that’s unusual for a laptop of this size. And, least sexy but perhaps most important, it’s an excellent clamshell laptop, with a particularly comfortable keyboard and a beautiful display.

Still, as good as a laptop as it is, it’s prohibitively expensive for those of you who are simply looking for a laptop to send emails, create spreadsheets and watch Netflix on. But if you’re after a 13-inch laptop with power typically reserved for machines 15-inches and up, or if you’re a fan of the OG Surface Book or its successor and have specific need for the extra power offered here, the Surface Book 3 is a delight. If gaming is your main thing, however, we have a running list of excellent gaming laptops under $999 you should consult. 

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A unique take

Though the Surface Book 3 is identical in many ways to the Surface Book 2 and the 2 to the original, the Surface Book line itself is unique. There are plenty of tablet/laptop hybrids out there, but most, like the excellent HP x360, are laptops at heart that allow you to fold the keyboard behind the display, making it a tablet. Others, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Apple’s iPad Pro lines, take powerful tablets and let you clip on keyboards. A clamshell laptop with a detaching display is exclusively Surface Book territory.

It works well, though there are trade-offs. The most conspicuous one is visual: The fulcrum hinge that connects the laptop base to the screen. I personally like it, as distinguishing features like it are rare in laptops, but many will find it a turn off. And since the display is also a fully functioning tablet, with its own components and battery, it’s much thicker than a standard laptop’s.

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There are also small performance sacrifices. The Intel i5 and i7 chips used, because they live in the tablet rather than the base, are 15w rather than the standard 45w versions (Y series vs. U series). This isn’t a huge deal, but it does mean performance will be slightly inhibited for certain tasks. (This was reflected in benchmarking, where the Surface Book 3 performed well for single-core tests but noticeably worse for multi-core.)  More rankling, the speaker is also inside the tablet. Not only is it softer than my entry-level, 2017 MacBook Pro, even my phone’s speakers are louder.

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Screen time

Small issues like these aside, this is an exceptionally well-made device. One of the best things about the Surface Book 3 is its magnificent screen — its 3:2 ratio feels just right and (vs. the usual widescreen 16:9), with a 3,000×2,000-pixel resolution and plenty of brightness, its display is satisfyingly crisp — which translates directly into a satisfying tablet experience.

As a tablet, there are certainly areas for improvement. You’ll only get around two hours of use when using the Surface Book 3 as a tablet, a fraction of what you’d get in an iPad Pro. At 13.5-inches, it’s too big to comfortably use anywhere, anytime, a problem far more pronounced in the 15-inch model. But once I got used to the size and shape, I quickly began to relish doing my morning reading using the Surface Book 3 as a tablet. Again: The screen is exceptional.

Creatives will get the most use out of it, though again, the Surface Pen is an extra $99 (AU$139, £99).

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Graphics powered up

Apart from the detaching display, the Surface Book 3 has another welcome feature that, though not unique, is rare. It’s common to get discrete graphics in 15-inch laptops, but unusual in 13-inch ones. Even then, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 graphics card that comes with all but the entry-level Surface Book 3 is significantly more powerful than the graphics chips usually used in 13-inch machines. The only other 13-inch laptop to offer that kind of graphical grunt is the Razer Blade Stealth ($1,549 at Amazon).

That’s not enough power to make it a serious gaming laptop per se. Though you’ll be able to play most games, you’ll have to reduce the resolution or detail level to get demanding ones to run smoothly. And it’s not quite powerful enough for high-end creative work, like 3D rendering. But it’s enough power to do and play significantly more on this as compared to almost any other 13-inch laptop. I was able to play Rise of the Tomb Raider smoothly in Full HD, albeit with graphical settings switched down, which is a real luxury for a laptop of this size.

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Apart from its dazzling display and appreciated power, I was also constantly struck by how high-grade the keyboard is: The Surface Book 3 is far bigger than other 13-inch laptops, but the upside of this is that the keyboard is refreshingly spacious. It’s one of the most comfortable I’ve ever used on a laptop. The trackpad is a little small, but perfectly responsive. Battery life is less superlative, but still above average.

But at such a hefty price, the Surface Book 3 should be great in all those ways. That cost makes it hard to recommend to just anyone. It’s not that the Surface Book 3 is too expensive, rather that the average person is unlikely to take advantage of its many luxuries. But if you are one of those people — a creative, someone looking for a graphically capable 13-inch laptop, or just a person looking for a deluxe device to indulge in — the 13.5-inch Surface Book 3 becomes a much easier recommendation. 

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