Microsoft's Surface Book has always been a unique gadget — a great ultraportable laptop, with the extra appeal of a completely detachable tablet screen that contains all the smarts and processing to run proper Windows. The newest Performance Base variant of the Surface Book adds double the graphics power, without making any significant compromise on battery life — but it's also using tech that Microsoft's competitors have left behind.
What Is It?
The Surface Book is Microsoft's own laptop, a convertible 2-in-1 that can run double duty as a everyday laptop and then transform into a touchscreen tablet device for watching movies or editing photos or drawing using Microsoft's digitiser-friendly Surface Pen. It's first and foremost a laptop, but all of the non-graphics processing is done in the top half, which unclips entirely from the base and contains its own battery. The base contains the lion's share of battery power, but also has a standalone graphics card that vastly improves the laptop's 3D performance. The Performance Base variant of the existing Surface Book, itself now over a year old, swaps the existing low-end Nvidia GeForce GPU for a more powerful GeForce GTX 965M.
$3799 is the starting price you'll pay for a Performance Base variant of the Surface Book. That's a $1000 premium on top of the cheapest Surface Book, and gets you that discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M graphics card along with up to 16 hours of battery life during video playback. Every Performance Base variant of the Surface Book packs Intel's 6th-gen Core i7-6600U dual-core processor zipping along at up to 3.4GHz, and either 8GB of RAM on the 256GB storage model ($4399) or 16GB of RAM on the 512GB storage model ($5199).
What's It Good At?
Time has been good to the Surface Book. The design of a now-year-old laptop still doesn't look or feel outdated, and that's a testament to the amount of time and effort that Microsoft put into building it in the first place. The Performance Base variant is very slightly thicker than the initial iteration, although you wouldn't even realise it unless you had the two side by side to compare directly. The same open-sided design and articulated hinge design remains, of course — and while the Surface Book definitely looks a bit weird side-on, it's a good kind of weird.
The Performance Base actually has the very positive side effect of making the Surface Book more bottom-heavy, meaning it's easier to open with a single hand and easier to balance on your lap when you're not typing at a desk. The new Performance Base's keyboard tray is very slightly recessed compared to the older version, and still remains very enjoyable to type on for a laptop with no keyboard flex during heavy and fast typing even in the centre of the board. That excellent and large trackpad remains and while it's not up to comparison with Apple's Force Touch models, it's one of the best you'll find for navigating around Windows 10 and using the various swiping gestures that are a part of it.
And with the Performance Base, you get a laptop that has finally had all the kinks worked out of it. My first few months with Microsoft's debut Surface Book — which is actually getting to be really affordable now, starting at $2299 — were a little bit rocky. The mediocre magnetic charging connector that doesn't always clip in correctly at the first try remains, but the laptop itself has changed dramatically from the Windows software updates and the Surface firmware updates that have been applied since launch. The process of undocking and re-docking the tablet segment and Performance Base, for example, works perfectly consistently on the new model where on the original it had a slight percentage chance of either not detaching or of unexpectedly restarting the machine.
It's hard to talk about the Surface Book — in any of its variants, but doubly true of the Performance Base — without talking about its beautiful 13.5-inch 3000x2000 pixel, novel 3:2 ratio touchscreen display. It's nice. It's so nice. It's crisp and sharp and has amazing contrast, and excellent brightness that ranges from "low enough to type away on a dark overnight plane trip" to "bright enough to type away in a park in the middle of the day". The Performance Base means you can push the Surface Book to make use of that beautiful PixelSense display in more modern games and with higher-resolution files in processing-intensive applications, because you have more powerful graphics to run them with. Every Performance Base model uses the best of Intel's sixth-generation Core i7 mobile processor family, too.
What's It Not Good At?
The Performance Base version of the Surface Book is, at the end of the day, a moderate upgrade in graphical processing power over the original Surface Book. That model, released in late 2015, used a semi-custom graphics chip designed by Nvidia, which turned out to be based upon the GeForce 940M. The Performance Base hides a GeForce GTX 965M. It'll give a huge help to graphics-accelerated desktop applications like Photoshop, but with more demanding modern games like Titanfall 2 and Battlefield 1, it struggles at any resolution approaching the Surface Book's native 3000x2000px.
The biggest issue facing the Surface Book's Performance Base variant is that, in 2017, it's going up against competitors using Intel's newer and more efficient 7th generation Kaby Lake mobile processors, and competitors using Nvidia's newer and more efficient 10-Series GeForce mobile graphics chips, and more importantly competitors using both at the same time. The unique 2-in-1 detachable tablet proposition of the Surface Book — you can take the screen off and carry it with you to halve the weight and bulk of the system — remains unassailable, but for outright performance and price and therefore value for money the Performance Base finds itself in rough water.
Similarly, this was the mid-life update that I was hoping would see some I/O upgrades, most notably to the USB Type-C connector that Microsoft's odd-couple competitor Apple switched entirely to in the equally new MacBook Pro. A complete switch to Type-C would have been kinda annoying — that's why everyone's complaining about it on the MacBook! — but it would have been nice to see at least one native Type-C port with fast USB 3.1 transfer speeds on the new Performance Base, even if it had to take the place of both the miniDisplayPort connector and one of the existing full-size USB 3.0 ports. Native Type-C peripherals are starting to become widely available and this would have future-proofed Microsoft's flagship Windows device.
And, of course, the Surface Book remains an expensive proposition. In a world of sub-$2000 competitors with discrete graphics cards, the $3799 starting price of the 8GB/256GB variant of the performance Surface Book is a big ask; step up to the 512GB or 1TB storage models with the 16GB of RAM I'd almost suggest as a default these days for anyone working on any kind of performance application, and you're paying $4399 or $5199. That's not stupid money, but it's a lot, and it's a lot taking into account the fact that the Surface Book is using older tech than some of its competitors.
Should You Buy It?
Just like the original, identical Surface Book on which it is based, the $3799-plus Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base is a beautiful and unique piece of technology. It's unique in that it's equally well usable as a tablet and a laptop, thanks to Microsoft's end-to-end integration of the hardware with a (finally) mature version of Windows 10. This has taken just about a year for Microsoft to get right — the original Surface Book was plagued for some people with a series of bugs, most notably the laptop turning itself on whenever it was unplugged from a charger, despite being closed and shoved away in a bag — but the result is a refined hardware and software combo that works. (The best part of which still remains Windows Hello face-unlocking.)
There's no way to upgrade the hardware of an original Surface Book to get the advantages of the Performance Base, either. Here I am wishing you could buy the Performance Base as a standalone upgrade for the original Surface Book at a smaller outlay. That would address some of the complaints I've heard from early Surface Book adopters who are beginning to run into the performance barriers of the older first-generation discrete Nvidia GPU. It's not the biggest problem in the world — Surface Book owners are a small niche already, those with older discrete GPU bases more so, those wanting to upgrade even less so again — but even then, it would have been nice.
The Surface Book lives on its looks and design, and dies on its specifications. The upgrade in outright graphics grunt is significant — the 965M is powerful enough to get the GTX moniker that Nvidia denotes its gaming-ready chips with — but the entire Surface Book refresh comes at a difficult time in the mid-life upgrade cycle. There's an entire generation of newer and more powerful and more energy efficient hardware, and if you're buying a Surface Book you're investing in technology that (while still good) is outclassed by its competitors. It's definitely no slouch, but part of me wishes that Microsoft had held off to slot in 10-Series Nvidia graphics and 7th Gen Intel gear. Of course, I feel the same way about the Surface Studio, and I'd still buy one right now if I could.
Specifications (slightly) aside, the Surface Book with Performance Base will appeal very much to those that want to use it for a purpose that makes use of its combo of excellent general laptop performance and the extra utility of the detachable tablet portion and 2-in-1 switchable display setup. I find myself using the touchscreen and the tablet much less than the keyboard — I'm a writer, after all — but it does have its applications, like photo editing. And Lightroom is an absolute joy to use because of it. If you're a creative professional — if you want a professional laptop, or if you want to be creative — then the Surface Book makes that happen.