April 1 Update: This review (originally published 11/23/17) has been updated per Microsoft upgrading the processor in the entry-level Surface Book.
Windows 10 is a desktop operating system. Or maybe it's a tablet operating system. In Microsoft's eyes, the OS has always been both, and there's no machine that displays that perspective better than the Surface Book 2. The new, 13-inch model ($1,499 to start, $1,999 as reviewed) continues that tradition, showing off your work above all else, with a screen that pops off of the keyboard to become a tablet.
It has the same modern, innovative design as the last version, but with an 8th Gen Intel CPU and optional Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU. Just imagine using a device that's powerful enough to edit video in laptop mode and versatile enough to let you draw or take notes in tablet mode. Sure, the Surface Book 2 is expensive, particularly when compared to other high-end ultraportables, but there's no other device on the market that gives you this much performance and battery life in a detachable form factor.
You might not notice by looking at it, but yes, this is a brand-new laptop. From the outside, the Surface Book 2 hasn't changed much from its prior iteration, and it maintains its greatest trick: detaching from the keyboard to turn into a tablet. It's still gray magnesium with a reflective Windows logo stamped on the lid. And, in Surface Book tradition, it doesn't close, prevented from doing so by its fulcrum hinge.
Lifting the lid reveals the 3:2, 13.5-inch, 3000 x 2000 PixelSense display. While Microsoft told us the hinge is stronger than the one on the first-gen Surface Book, the part still would flop a bit while on my lap. The deck and keyboard are made of the same, clean, gray plastic that, while attractive, draws your attention toward the screen more than anything else.
At 3.6 pounds and 12.3 x 9.1 x 0.9 inches, the Surface Book 2 is significantly larger than other 13-inch laptops. The HP Spectre x360 is 2.9 pounds and 12 x 8.6 x 0.5 inches, while the Dell XPS 13 is 2.8 pounds and 12 x 7.9 x 0.6 inches. The Lenovo Miix 720 is easily the lightest, at 2.6 pounds with the keyboard, and is 11.5 x 8.5 x 0.6 inches. However, none of these competitors features a detachable screen.
The Surface Book 2 is a bit slight on ports compared to its competitors. On its left side are a pair of USB 3.1 ports and an SD card reader, and the right side boasts a USB Type-C port and a proprietary Surface Connect port. There's another Surface Connect port on the bottom of the tablet, so you can charge that independently. The headphone jack is on the right side of the tablet, which is awkward because you'll have some cable slack. But it's a necessary evil if you want to be able to use headphones when you remove the tablet from the base.
USB Type-C is a big addition, as Microsoft has been steadfast that this port wasn't ready for prime time, famously skipping it over and over again on the Surface Pro and earlier this year on the Surface Laptop. At this price, though, Microsoft really ought to take it one step further and include Thunderbolt 3, for faster data-transfer speeds.
The display on the Surface Book 2 is still best-in-class. The 13.5-inch, 3:2, 3000 x 2000 display is crisp, brilliant and oh-so-colorful. When I watched the 4K open-source movie Tears of Steel, blue, orange, green and purple holograms shined brightly in a black lab, and I could see individual ivy leaves on columns.
The screen covers an awesome 130 percent of the sRGB color gamut, tied only by the Miix. The ultraportable average is lower, at 103 percent, while the XPS 13 reproduces 112 percent of the sRGB gamut and the Spectre covers 109 percent.
The Surface Book 2 measured 374 nits of brightness, far higher than the average of 289 nits, as well as scores from the XPS 13 (368 nits), Miix (361 nits) and Spectre (313 nits).
Keyboard, Touchpad and Stylus
The Surface Book 2's keyboard is on the shallow side, with just 1.2 millimeters of travel and a required 70g to press. Despite that, the keys feel great, with an appropriate clickiness that makes them satisfying to type on. Case in point: I reached a blazing 119 words per minute on the 10fastfingers.com typing test (beyond my usual 107- to 116-wpm range), with just a 1 percent error rate (half my usual rate of mistakes).
Microsoft's 4.1 x 2.7 touchpad is smooth and uses the Precision Drivers the company designed for Windows, so it's no surprise that this touchpad recognizes gestures instantly. Whether I was scrolling through the web browser or tapping to summon Cortana, it worked the first time, every time.
The Surface Pen ($99.99, sold separately) is still the best stylus on the market. It's almost lag-free, has 4,096 degrees of pressure sensitivity and registers tilts for shading. It is supposed to attach magnetically to only the left side of the Surface Book 2's tablet (though it can attach to either side on the 15-inch model), but I found that it sometimes connected to magnets in the base when I put the stylus on my desk.
The speakers on the Surface Book 2 are adequate for most multimedia, though I wouldn't mind if they were just a smidge louder. When I listened to Camila Cabello's "Havana," the vocals, drum snaps and keyboards were clear, but the song only just filled our midsize conference room. If it were a little louder, the sound would be truly great.
With an Intel Core i7-8650U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU with 2GB of VRAM, the Surface Book 2 has plenty of power for multitasking. I had 25 tabs open in Chrome, including one streaming a 1080p clip from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah while also drawing in the Windows Ink Workspace's Sketchpad, and I didn't experience any lag.
On the Geekbench 4 overall performance test, the Surface Book 2 notched a score of 12,221, beating the ultraportable average (7,658) and the Miix 720's score (8,434, Core i7-7550U), but it lost to the Spectre (13,568, Core i7-8550U) and the XPS 13 (14,158, Core i7-8550U).
The Surface Book 2 transferred 4.97GB of files in 2 seconds, for a rate of 203.6MBps. That's tied with the Miix 720's showing but behind the average (230.66Mbps). The XPS 13 (508MBps) and Spectre x360 (565.5MBps) were both far speedier.
It took the Surface 3 minutes and 8 seconds to pair 20,000 names and addresses in our OpenOffice spreadsheet macro. That's faster than the average (5:40) as well as times from the Miix (3:34), Spectre x360 (3:23) and XPS 13 (3:09).
The machine's GTX 1050 GPU with 2GB of VRAM can play some games, just not on the highest settings. It ran Rise of the Tomb Raider on a mix of high and medium settings and SMAA anti-aliasing at 33 fps. That card will also give you a step up in Photoshop or other graphics-rendering programs.
On 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, the Surface Book 2 notched a score of 135,2777, easily surpassing the ultraportable average (59,950), as well as scores from the XPS 13 (81,837), Spectre x360 (79,528) and Miix 720 (49,088). All of the competitors use Intel's integrated HD 620 graphics.
With its base attached, the Surface Book 2 will run all day and then some. It endured for 13 hours and 7 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which browses the web continuously over Wi-Fi at fixed brightness. The Surface Book 2 was outlasted by only the XPS 13, which went for 16 hours and 5 minutes but doesn't have a touch screen. The ultraportable average is 8:24, and the Spectre lasted 8:26, but the Miix petered out after 5:37.
If you use the tablet on its own, you'll need to keep the charger nearby. On the same test, this laptop lasted for 3 hours and 4 minutes.
The two cameras on the Surface Book 2 are both excellent. When I took a selfie with the front-facing, 2560 x 1440 camera, my face was clear as day, I could make out individual hairs on my head and in my beard, and my blue eyes popped against my light skin.
The rear, 3254 x 1836 camera took an admirable photo of some plants in our office, accurately depicting every shade of green in the leaves (and some unfortunate brown spots).
Don't worry about the Surface Book 2 getting too hot to handle. After 15 minutes of streaming HD video from YouTube, the machine measured 84 degrees on the back of the tablet, which is below our 95-degree comfort threshold.
Software and Warranty
Perhaps the best part of buying one of Microsoft's Surface-branded computers is that there's not a ton of third-party junk built into it. Beyond the Surface app, which shows battery levels for Surface accessories and lets you update stylus settings, there's just the usual bloatware that appears in every copy of Windows 10. That includes Candy Crush Soda Saga, March of Empires: War of Lords, Bubble Witch 3 Saga, Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition and Keeper.
The Surface Book 2 we reviewed costs $1,999 and includes an Intel Core i7-8650U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU with 2GB of VRAM.
Thanks to a 2019 update, the Surface Book 2's base model (still $1,499) now comes with an 8th Gen Intel Core i5-8350U processor, as opposed to the older Intel Core i5-7300U CPU). This machine still features no discrete graphics, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. It costs an extra $500 to get the discrete graphics and 8th Gen Core i7 CPU.
You can boost the quad-core model we reviewed up to 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM for $2,499 or 1TB/16GB for $2,999.
Additionally, Microsoft sells several configurations of the 15-inch Surface Book 2.
The latest version of the Surface Book 2 isn't a radical departure from the last one. It's an update to the latest components, and, thank heavens, it now has USB Type-C. It's far pricier than some competitors, but you'll get amazing battery life, a beautiful design with a detachable tablet and a brilliant 3:2 PixelSense display. And if you use a stylus, you'll like that this 2-in-1 has the Surface Pen, because there's none better.
The price can be hard to swallow, starting at $1,499 for older specs and $1,999 for the cheapest configuration with the most recent Intel 8th Gen Core chip and discrete graphics. A big part of your decision is how much you're willing to pay.
If the answer is "not that much," choose between the XPS 13 (starting at $999 for new specs) and the Spectre x360 (starting at $1,149). Dell's laptop offers even better battery life (over 16 hours), a brilliant screen and a faster SSD, but it's not a 2-in-1. The Spectre x360 bends back into a tablet and has a great screen and faster speeds, though it gets less battery life (8:26) and doesn't have a detachable screen. But in either case, you're giving up the GTX 1050, so stick with the Surface if you need graphics might.
The Surface Book 2 continues to be the cleanest and purest way to use Windows 10, and other vendors should be ripping off its innovation. And for creative professionals who can afford it, this is the best 2-in-1 to get, making it one of the best Surface Pro alternatives around.