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Surface Book review roundup: great GPU performance and battery life, but it doesn't come cheap

Microsoft and Apple have pursued very different strategies for their new platform refreshes this year. Apple opted to make the MacBook Pro thinner, lighter, and to use just a single set of ports (Thunderbolt 3 via USB-C) for all peripherals. Microsoft, on the other hand, made its new Surface Book slightly thicker, slightly heavier, and added a new Performance Base option that dramatically improves GPU performance over last year’s model. We’ve rounded up reviews from Ars Technica, CNET, PC Mag, and PC World, to get a sense of how reviewers think the new hardware fares.

First, the basics. All of the Core i5 models from last year are still on sale, at least for now, so you can still jump into the Surface Book ecosystem at $1,500. All of the new Surface Books start at $2,000+ ($2,099 for the cheapest variant), and they pack Core i7 processors and new discrete GPUs from Nvidia. The new design isn’t quite as svelte as the old, but the added horsepower makes up for it.

SurfaceBookSpecs

I normally keep review roundups free from commentary, since the point here is talk about what other reviewers think, but I’m going to say just one thing here. Dear Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and whatever other manufacturers are considering adopting this consumer-hostile policy: Stop refusing to disclose which CPUs you use. It is utterly absurd that in 2016 I can pull up an entire list of detailed specifications on every other aspect of the system, but you want to hide the chip. It’s bullshit, it’s asinine, and consumers deserve to know the specifications on the hardware they are purchasing from the manufacturer, on the manufacturer’s own website. If you’re too embarrassed to disclose even the clock speeds of the chips you use, get out of the hardware manufacturing business. Apple at least publishes clock speeds, from which their processor models can be derived.

For the record: The Surface Book With Performance Base uses a Core i7-6600U with a 2.6GHz base clock and a 3.4GHz Turbo. Last years’ Core i5-6300U had a 2.4GHz base frequency and a 3GHz top clock.

The general review consensus on the Surface Book With Performance Base is that this update dramatically improves GPU performance, but offers comparatively little improvement in CPU performance. Not much changes much about the styling or design at all. Ports are still the same (two USB 3.0 and an SD slot on the left, mini-DisplayPort on the right). The hinge, outer styling, and screen are all identical.

Surface Book

The limited improvement to CPU performance is presumably because the system is already running close to thermal thresholds already. The Core i7 CPU included in the new systems may offer higher burst performance, but it likely can’t sustain its frequencies over long periods of time. And the problem with the new Performance Base Microsoft designed is you can’t buy one separately from the rest of the system. The fact that the two base generations are perfectly backwards and forwards compatible only makes this more frustrating. If you want a faster Surface Book for the GPU, you have to buy the entire system — despite how the CPU doesn’t get a performance upgrade in any sustained tests.

This data, from PC World, shows that the Surface Book’s new GeForce GPU is more than capable of delivering basic gaming performance, though it can’t drive titles at the 3000×2000 resolution (well, it can’t drive modern titles; you could probably play Quake 3 just fine). But where the Surface Book excels is battery life; PC Mag reports 19 hours, 16 minutes, compared with 15 hours, 41 minutes for the previous model. This suggests that power management has improved substantially, and is particularly impressive given that the GeForce 965M is a substantial upgrade compared with previous chips.

Surface Book

Multiple reviewers were less than thrilled with Microsoft’s decision to re-use Skylake instead of Kaby Lake, and several thought the system could have offered at least one USB-C port. Consensus seems to be that Microsoft wanted a quick refresh cycle without making changes to the underlying hardware, and multiple reviewers noted that Microsoft had so many problems fixing hinge-and-docking related problems on last year’s Surface Book, it may actually be a blessing that the company stuck with what worked rather than trying to rollout a new design.

Finally, be advised that the new hardware prices aren’t remotely in line with what you can buy from other laptop manufacturers. You’re paying a huge premium for a detachable 2-in-1 and a nice GPU with great battery life. Some will find that premium attractive, and the new Surface Book’s 19 hour run time is amazing. Others will find better value in a more conventional machine from a different manufacturer.

Now read: The best laptops for engineers and engineering students: when work requires a real workstation

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