Microsoft's Surface devices defy easy description. Even Microsoft itself has never quite known what to call them. It's the one device for everything in your life. It's a tablet that can replace your laptop. It's powerful as a laptop, lighter than air. It's powered by beautiful. In reality, the Surface is all those things—and none of them.
The Surface Book 2, on the other hand, is really only one thing: a laptop. A beefy, fast, get-shit-done laptop. Sure, the screen detaches in case you feel like carrying around a giant pane of glass. But this is no tablet. If anything, the Surface Book is closer to a hybrid of a laptop and a desktop PC, as Microsoft tries to pack as much power as possible into a (relatively) portable package.
This is a serious computer for serious business. It's for people who work in Photoshop and Premiere and CAD. It's for people doing computational photography, inventing the algorithms of the future, and making wacky augmented-reality apps. And Microsoft hopes that by letting you use it any way you want—with a keyboard, with a pen, even with your finger—you'll get even more done. Me? I've mostly just been using it to play games.
Business in the Front
The look of the Surface Book 2 hasn't changed much since last year's model. It's still the same silvery brushed metal, has the same curling hinge that leaves a small gap between the two parts when you close the laptop. It has a roomy keyboard and a glassy, smooth touchpad. It's a great-looking machine, right along the same lines as the MacBook Pro. I'm glad Microsoft didn't try to change it too much.
This year's model does come in a new 15-inch size, for the truly power-hungry power users. That model weighs 4.2 pounds, compared to about 3.5 for the smaller device (a little more or less depending on which internals you choose). Both have gorgeous, high-res displays, run Windows 10, support pen input, and the rest. Generally speaking, they're just the same device in two sizes. Both are big computers, but they're not so big or odd that they'd look out of place in a business meeting.
Microsoft imagines four different modes for the Surface Book 2: The first is laptop mode, which needs no explanation. The second is tablet mode, which you get by pressing the button and detaching the screen from the base. You lose some processing power, but still have a perfectly usable, humongous tablet. The third is "view" mode, where you flip the screen around and use it like a picture frame, which you'll probably never do. Last and maybe most interesting is what Microsoft calls "Studio" mode: flip the screen over, lay it down on top of the base, and use it like a drawing table. In that mode, you're still getting the full power of the Surface Book, but all in a touchscreen. It's the most fun digital drawing tool I've ever had, and I suspect there's a lot more developers can do with it.
Building a laptop that can do everything forces some tricky decisions. Which ports do people need? Where should buttons go? Microsoft got most things right, but not all. I like having two regular USB ports and an SD card slot, but for a machine I'm going to have for years one USB-C port (and zero Thunderbolt jacks) doesn't feel like enough. And why is there no place to store a pen?
To accommodate for the detachability, the headphone jack's located on the upper right corner of the screen, a bizarre spot when you're in laptop mode. Ditto the power button on the upper left, which I never find on the first try. Neither really make a difference, and both are eminently understandable given how many forms the Book 2 can take, but they're just a little annoying.
The review unit Microsoft sent me is the top-of-the-line Surface Book 2: 15-inch, 3240×2160 display. Inside, it has Intel's brand-new 8th generation Core i7 processor, 16 gigs of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 discrete graphics with 6 gigs of GDDR5 graphics memory, a terabyte of storage. Normally I wouldn't mention these specs, because normally spec lists don't really matter. Here, they're kind of the point. The Surface Book 2 starts at $1,500, and the rig I'm running costs $3,300.
I ran the Book 2 through a battery of benchmarks and tests, and it came out looking like… a high-end laptop. In most performance metrics it's roughly in line with the latest MacBook Pro, which is to say it's extremely fast and up to almost any task. That's hardly surprising: Most premium computers use similar parts to similar effect. Microsoft makes a lot of noise about how powerful the Book 2 is, but that's mostly about its versatility. It's not that it does things better than the MacBook Pro, but that thanks to the pen input and detachable screen, it can just do more things.
In practice, all that power means everything about the Book 2 runs super smoothly. Though not at first: when I first got the computer, it wasn't configured to take advantage of the beefy graphics card, so even when I played games it was trying to use the graphics integrated into the processor, and struggling. Once I updated Nvidia's drivers and told the Book 2 to use the chip, the thing screamed. I played Assassin's Creed: Origins at high settings with virtually no problems whatsoever, and ran my usual cadre of browser tabs, Photoshop windows, and Netflix sessions without so much as a hiccup. Amazingly, the Book 2 runs virtually silently through it all. Only once did I manage to get the fan really whirring, and that was while I was running benchmarks.
Microsoft likes to quote 17 hours of battery for the Book 2, but that's only if you're doing things that you don't need a Book 2 to do. For playing games, it's more like a few hours. During regular intensive work, the Book has easily lasted me through a workday, but I've never gotten anywhere near 17 hours out of this thing.
There's a lot happening inside the Surface Book 2, and Microsoft has a lot of ideas about what you might do with it. But fundamentally, it's a laptop—a powerful, pretty laptop with pen support and a detachable screen. Microsoft's big idea for gadgets is that it shouldn't tell you what to do, or how to do it. It should give you as many tools as possible, and just let you go to work. The Surface Book 2 is way too expensive and way too much for most people. It's a serious tool for serious work. And for serious Assassin's Creed sessions after work is over.