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Microsoft Surface Book 3 (15-inch) review: more power, more problems

The Surface Book 3 is still a unique machine for a unique audience

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I’ve been waiting for the Surface Book 3 for two and a half years. Microsoft’s 15-inch Surface Book 2 was largely just a refinement over the original model — released nearly five years ago — so I was really hoping the company was holding back some big changes for the Surface Book 3. Unfortunately, no big changes have arrived this time around. If you put it side by side with a Book 2, the Book 3 looks identical, and inside, there are a few modest upgrades that are expected in 2020: more powerful GPUs, the latest Intel processor, up to 32GB of RAM, and faster SSDs on some models.

I’ve spent the past week putting the 15-inch Surface Book 3 through its paces. The 15-inch model starts at $2,299.99, and the model I’ve been testing totals up to $2,799.99 with 32GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.

Microsoft says it has focused on power with this latest model and is aiming the device at developers and creatives who need the versatility of being able to detach the display and the power of a real GPU in the base. I’m not sure how many people actually need that functionality, and it feels like the hinge holds the Surface Book 3 back from being a powerful and great laptop. The Surface Book has always been a rather unique machine for a unique audience, and the Surface Book 3 does very little to change its niche appeal.

Editor’s note: This review focuses on the 15-inch version of the Surface Book 3. We also have a full review of the 13.5-inch model here.

The Surface Book 2 already looked identical to the original Surface Book, and nothing has changed on the Book 3 to alter those comparisons in any way. Microsoft is using the same nearly 4K display (3240 x 2160) from the Book 2 here, with the typical 3:2 aspect ratio found on Surface devices. It’s a great display for working on documents, videos, and photos, although the auto-brightness feature doesn’t always switch to the correct expected level. It attaches to the fulcrum hinge on the base unit, where the keyboard, trackpad, and discrete GPU are housed.

The already great typing experience hasn’t changed with the Surface Book 3, and I’m glad Microsoft hasn’t tried to experiment with butterfly keyboard switches or anything entirely new here. The keyboard works, and it works well. I am surprised that the trackpad still isn’t wider, though. Microsoft had an opportunity to make this trackpad far bigger, like Dell and Apple do on their 15-inch (or similar) machines. Still, it’s a glass trackpad and uses Windows precision drivers so I have no complaints about how it operates day to day. I just wish it was a little larger.

I was also hoping to see Thunderbolt 3 on the Surface Book 3, but it’s sadly missing. Microsoft hasn’t provided a good answer for its absence, other than that the company feels like Book 3 owners wouldn’t use Thunderbolt 3. A Microsoft employee did reveal last month that security concerns might be another reason Thunderbolt isn’t supported on Surface devices. Either way, it’s still not here, and it’s disappointing if you were hoping to use Thunderbolt peripherals or dock this to an even more powerful GPU.

Instead of Thunderbolt, there are two regular USB 3.1 ports, a single USB-C 3.1 port (with USB Power Delivery 3.0), a headphone jack, a full-size UHS-II SD card reader, and Microsoft’s Surface Connect port. The headphone jack is still on the top-right of the display, so you might end up with a cable dangling over the display depending on what headphones you use.

Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 has a 3:2 display.
Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 has a 3:2 display.
The Surface Book 3’s fulcrum hinge.
The Surface Book 3’s fulcrum hinge.
The USB-C and Surface Connect ports.
The USB-C and Surface Connect ports.

Most of the improvements on the Surface Book 3 are on the inside. You can configure the 15-inch model with up to 32GB of RAM and a faster M.2 2280 SSD on the 1TB and 2TB models. The 15-inch model ships with Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1660Ti Max-Q by default, and there’s even a Quadro RTX 3000 option. The extra RAM will make a big difference for developers working with virtual machines, but Microsoft’s CPU choice here feels like it holds the Surface Book 3 back.

Microsoft has picked Intel’s 10th Gen Core i7-1065G7 on the 15-inch Book 3, a quad-core 15W chip. Competitors like Apple and Dell are using 45W chips with six or even eight cores in similarly sized and priced laptops, which is significantly more power for CPU tasks. How this plays out in reality really depends on what apps you’re using on the Book 3.

We have a standard export in Adobe Premiere Pro we’ve been using on a variety of laptops. It’s a 5.5-minute 4K project, and it exported in four minutes and 28 seconds on the Book 3. That’s exactly six minutes faster than what we got from the 45W eight-core Core i9 and Radeon Pro 5500M combo found in the MacBook Pro 16 when we tested it late last year, and it’s twice as fast as the same test ran on the 13.5-inch Surface Book 3. Adobe’s recent boost to video encoding, using Nvidia GPU acceleration in Windows, and the 15-inch’s more powerful GPU has clearly helped here.

Other apps that render objects or work with large photos will be CPU heavy, but some might also be able to lean on the GPU to offset the weaker quad-core chip.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 (15-inch) specs:

  • Intel 10th Gen Core i7-1035G7 quad-core CPU
  • 32GB of RAM
  • 512GB SSD
  • 15-inch PixelSense display, 3240 x 2160 resolution, 260ppi
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q
  • Ports: two USB 3.1 Type-A ports, one USB 3.1 Type-C, one 3.5mm headphone jack, one UHS-II SD card reader, Surface Connect port  
  • 8-megapixel 1080p rear-facing camera, 5-megapixel 1080 front-facing camera
  • dual far-field studio mics
  • Wi-Fi 6

I had hoped that this CPU choice would at least lead to better battery life, but I’ve found the Surface Book 3 a little disappointing here. I get around seven hours of battery life on a single charge with a relatively light mix of apps and browser work, with the display at 200 nits. My colleague Monica Chin saw better results with the 13.5-inch model in similar scenarios. Battery really takes a bigger hit if you’re using a mixture of Discord or Zoom video calls throughout your day and apps like Premiere Pro or Photoshop. I’ve had the battery last just five hours with more CPU / GPU-intense apps mixed into my day-to-day use.

I’ve been mostly using the GPU for gaming during my testing. The Surface Book 2 had an issue where the power would drain during certain games even when you were plugged in and charging. Microsoft appears to have resolved that with the Book 3 with a higher-wattage charger, and I haven’t been able to replicate the drain issues I saw on the Book 2.

The Surface Book 3 display detaches from its base.
The Surface Book 3 display detaches from its base.
Microsoft has kept the full-size SD card reader.
Microsoft has kept the full-size SD card reader.

Microsoft ships the Surface Book 3 with an Nvidia Studio driver from back in February, and the company tells me Game Ready drivers won’t be available until June. That’s made it difficult to measure exact gaming performance on the Book 3, but I’ve been impressed even without optimized drivers. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s built-in benchmark averages out at 21fps at the Book 3’s native resolution, and even modern titles like Call of Duty: Warzone manage 25fps at near-native resolution if you adjust most settings to medium.

The best way to play games on the Surface Book 3 is to run them at 1080p or simply push the render resolution down in games that support that setting. I’ve managed to play Apex Legends at 100fps in 1080p, Overwatch at around 120fps at 1080p, and Destiny 2 at 40fps.

Naturally, playing games or rendering video in Premiere Pro is one of the few times I’ve heard the fans spin up on the Surface Book 3. They’re not too loud during gameplay, but like any fans, you may want to grab a headset if you plan on playing games or using CPU / GPU-intensive tasks for long periods of time.

You can switch the display to use the base as a kickstand.
You can switch the display to use the base as a kickstand.

So the GPU performs reasonably well on the Surface Book 3, but there are far better laptop options for CPU performance and even a combination of the two. If you’re coding in Visual Studio or using apps that take advantage of multicore workloads, then the Surface Book 3 might not be the laptop for you. Put simply, you’ll need to make a choice between needing better CPU performance or a removable tablet. That’s really the choice here with the Surface Book 3.

Microsoft has designed itself into a situation where it can’t, for thermal reasons, place a stronger 45W chip in the Surface Book 3 because all the guts are behind the screen. The Book 3 is essentially a very large tablet with stylus support that docks into a keyboard base that includes a powerful GPU and a second battery.

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

To use the Microsoft Surface Book 3, you have to agree to:

  • A request for your language, region, and keyboard layout
  • Windows 10 license agreement
  • Windows Hello PIN

The following agreements are optional:

  • Wi-Fi
  • A Microsoft account (you can bypass this if you don’t connect to Wi-Fi)
  • Windows Hello fingerprint  
  • Activity History 
  • Sync an Android phone 
  • OneDrive
  • Microsoft 365
  • Cortana
  • Privacy settings, including online speech recognition, location, find my device, diagnostic data, inking and typing, tailored experiences, advertising ID

Final tally: five mandatory agreements and 15 optional ones

I rarely used the tablet portion during my time with the Surface Book 3, but at just shy of two pounds, it’s surprisingly lightweight if not a little unwieldy. It’s hard to prop the tablet portion up for use on a couch, and there’s no kickstand built in, so you have to rely on the keyboard base if you want to angle it for drawing. On top of all that, you can expect just around three hours of battery life for the tablet portion. I feel like the Surface Pro design is far better if you’re interested in drawing / tablet functionality.

This Surface Book detachable design has also caused issues in the past, with the Surface Book 2 experiencing a problem where the GPU would disappear and stop working. Unfortunately, I’ve been experiencing the same issues with the Surface Book 3 throughout my testing. Sometimes, I’ve resumed the Book 3 out of sleep, and the Nvidia GPU is no longer listed in Device Manager. It’s hard to know if the issue has occurred until you try to play a game, and it’s using the built-in Intel Iris Pro graphics or it simply errors out.

I’ve found that detaching the display and reattaching it brings the Nvidia card back to life, but even the detach mechanism has had its own problems. On occasions, I’ve received a “latch failed to open” message when detaching, and yet, the screen still detaches.

The Surface Book 3 trackpad could be bigger.
The Surface Book 3 trackpad could be bigger.

Microsoft says it has improved the detach speed, but in practice, there’s still a delay where you have to wait until you can pull the screen off after pressing the detach button. It’s certainly shorter now, but you still have to wait a few seconds before the trackpad and keyboard come back to life when you dock. I also noticed if you’re in the middle of a Zoom call or watching YouTube when you detach, then the audio crackles for a few seconds while the mechanism is doing its magic.

These issues feel like they will likely be addressed with driver and firmware updates, and I’ve asked Microsoft for comment on when those will likely arrive. Still, if you’re spending at least $2,299 on a Surface Book 3, then it shouldn’t be shipping with these glitches.

I also still dislike the screen wobble on the Surface Book 3, or the way it still feels a little top-heavy on your lap. Microsoft has done a reasonable job at balancing both, but it’s yet another compromise. I feel like Microsoft could avoid a lot of the debate around CPU performance and the detachable display compromises if it built a pro version of the Surface Laptop instead. The Surface Book 3 ships with the same Intel Core i7 that’s found in the Surface Laptop 3.

A slightly thicker Surface Laptop 3 with a good GPU would appeal to most of the developers and creatives at which Microsoft is trying to aim this machine. The Surface Book 3 is certainly unique, as it’s always been, but the tablet functionality is aimed at such a small market that I’m not entirely sure who would pick this over Dell’s new XPS 15 or XPS 17 or a gaming laptop like Razer’s Blade 15. You’ll get more for your money elsewhere, unless you really want a detachable display. The Surface Book 3 is still the only solid choice for that.