Hands On: Microsoft Surface Book 3

The third iteration of the Surface Book from Microsoft (Image: Microsoft)

Same versatility, same limiting chassis

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1 July 2020 | 0

The Microsoft Surface Book line, in much the same way as the Surface Pro tablets, took a left off the standard design road.

Surface Books took the specs of a top end laptop and combined them with the versatility of a 2-in-1 tablet platform that was yet robust and rugged. Many at the time asked why, but the first time one uses that extra versatility, the question becomes moot.

With its detachable screen that is in itself a fully functioning Windows 10 tablet, the Surface Book provides a level of versatility that does not exist in other platforms. It works just like a normal, high-spec laptop, until you hit the detach button and turn the screen through 180 degrees and then reattach it. It can then work in tent mode as a media screen, for work or pleasure. Or, it can sit down on the base, allowing the screen to be angled for easy pen use and/or pen and Surface Dial for creative and design mode. Or, the screen can be detached altogether for use as a remote presentation device, in conjunction with a big screen or Surface Hub, or media consumption device.

 

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Few other combinations of devices, let alone a single platform, can provide this level of versatility, all the while wrapped in a magnesium chassis that is rugged enough to withstand life on the road as easily as it does surfing boardroom tables. The Surface Books can also, with the Surface Dock, drive multiple 4k screens to provide more desktop real estate.

It is because of this range of capability that the Surface Book line has been adopted by, and endeared to, creatives, engineers, researchers, educators and students alike. It is more than a laptop or tablet, and still provides enough horsepower to be a desktop for the most demanding of design and engineering practitioners.

And therein lies the rub: some reviewers have pointed out that the chassis concept, which is largely unchanged for the third generation, is too restrictive to allow the cooling measures necessary for the very latest generation of 8-core processors that would have taken performance levels to new heights, as well as future proofing on what is not a cheap choice.

And while there is validity to this argument, the combination of the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q Design, with up to 6GB GDDR6 graphic memory, make the Surface Book 3 line a powerhouse still, if not the outright performance leader in the ultra-versatile space. The CPU/GPU combination in full combined, mains power mode still provides a powerful solution to tackle the most demanding jobs.

The tested spec was the 15” model (380mm) 1899, with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB PCIe SSD, available direct from Microsoft for €2,649, with an optional Microsoft 365 Personal bundle at the reduced price of €49 for the first year.

The processor is the quad-core 10th Gen Intel Core i7-1065G7, with the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q Design, and supported by 16GB of 3733Mhz LPDDR4x RAM. This potentially hungry set up still managed, in day to day testing, to provide a good 8 hours of performance on a full battery charge. This would have included Outlook open all day, multiple Word documents, PDFs, image manipulation (GIMP), various online services (G Suite, OneDrive, Dropbox, Basecamp, WordPress), as well as Teams and Zoom calls, and three browsers. While not the most rigorous of tests, it still comprises the kind of usage typical for many knowledge, if not creative, workers. All of which was done while using adaptive screen brightness.

Microsoft claim up to 15.5 hours of typical device usage for the Surface Book 3 13.5″, while connected to keyboard base, and up to 17.5 hours of typical device usage for the Surface Book 3 15″ connected to the base. As always, these must be taken with a grain of salt, but rest assured, a single charge should see most users through a business day of typical usage. The vendor has taken onboard feedback from users as regards the standard, portable power supply, and these have been uprated since the version 2 models.

With the new Surface Dock 2, the Surface Book 3 can drive 4K screens for extra desktop space. (Image: Microsoft)

The Surface Dock has also been updated, though was not tested here, and now has seven ports, including two front-facing USB-C ports, with 15 watts of fast charging power for phone and accessories.

The screen is the PixelSense Display at 3240 x 2160 and 260 PPI, supporting 10-point multi-touch G5, on an aspect ratio of 3:2 and contrast ratio of 1600:1.

On the chassis are two USB-A (version 3.1 Gen 2), a USB-C (version 3.1 Gen 2 with USB Power Delivery revision 3.0), 3.5mm headphone jack, two Surface Connect ports (one on base, one on tablet), and a full-size SDXC card reader. When combined with the Surface Dock, this gives more than enough capability and diversity.

The Windows Hello facility is provided by the front-facing, face authentication camera at 5MP, which can also do 1080p HD video. The rear is an 8.0MP autofocus camera with 1080p HD video. There are dual far-field Studio Mics, and front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos.

Wireless connections include Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax compatible), and Bluetooth Wireless 5.0, while the 15” model also has Xbox Wireless built-in.

With the emphasis on security, manageability, ease of deployment and versatility, from the enterprise perspective, the Surface Book 3 can also be a decent gaming device, for those down time hours too.

The 3D Mark demo TimeSpy test scored a respectable 1726, which would be improved for the GeForce Quadro options, available only in 15” models, to business customers.

All the improvements over the Surface Book 2 are incremental, but significant nonetheless. In outright performance, for example, Microsoft says that the 13” model 3 is around 50% faster than the model 2, with the 15” being 30% faster than predecessors. In graphics performance the 13” version is 40% faster in graphics processing that its predecessor.

The screen detach feature is up to three times faster from version 2 to 3, and audio and input capabilities with the dual field mics is also improved.

With the overall chassis layout remaining the same, but the latest technologies being squeezed in, the Surface Book 3 still delivers its unique set of capabilities, while also keeping up with the market in terms of overall performance.

TechPro spoke to Stephen Eustace, teacher, technologist and Microsoft customer success manager, about the fact that the Surface Book allows him the freedom to roam the classroom while controlling the likes of an interactive whiteboard or other large screen. All the while, said Eustace, with full access to apps and information in the hand that supports, but never gets in the way of, delivering engaging lessons for today’s classrooms. He emphasised the ability to do simple things, such as change backgrounds, colour contrasts and fonts in apps to options that facilitate those with dyslexia, dyspraxia and other learning difficulties, only enhances the versatility and strength for the educator.

And to return to an earlier point, that is where the Surface line, and the Surface Book in particular, shines. That first time detaching a screen to hand it across a conference table, sharing a document with others while live editing and collaborating, is an eye- opening experience.

With the Surface Book 3, Microsoft has modernised the device line to bring that versatility into line with market demands and future proof it for tomorrow’s usage. Tweaking every element along the way, it is more secure, manageable, flexible and versatile than ever before.

Despite some flaws, the Surface Book 3 is still a unique value proposition that is now competitive for the current generation.

TechCentral Reporters

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