Surface Book 3 is the top-of-the-line 2-in-1 PC released by Microsoft in May 2020. This is the successor to the Surface Book 2 from November 2017. This review will let you know whether the SB3 is worth the wait and your money.
I'm in the art industry so my review will be from the perspective of a content creator, one who's into digital art, graphic design, photo and video editing.
This review unit I have was on loan from Microsoft Singapore. It comes with the following specifications:
- Intel Core i7-1065G7 (1.3 to 3.9 GHz)
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q
- 32GB RAM
- 512GB storage
Shown above is a table (sourced from Wikipedia) with the various configurations possible with prices in USD.
Prices in Singapore range from S$2,498 for the 13.5-inch with Intel Iris Plus to S$4,498 with the 15-inch with 32GB RAM, 1TB storage and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q.
The surface book is pricey. Many will no doubt say that you can get more power laptops with the same amount of money. But can those laptop screens be detached to be used as a tablet?
The main selling point of the Surface Book 3 is its ability to have the screen detach and use as a tablet. While the prices are on the higher side, it may not be a fair comparison to pit this against traditional laptops since laptop screens can't be detached.
The real questions are, who the Surface Book 3 is for, and is it worth the money?
RAM and storage
If you have the budget, definitely get at least 16GB of RAM. If you create visual content, edit photos and videos, I recommend 32GB. I loaded 5 minutes of 4K videos into Premiere Pro and almost 16GB of memory was used. If you're just into graphic design and digital art, 16GB is sufficient.
The actual storage space after formatting is as follows:
256GB = 238GB
512GB = 476GB
1TB = 0.9TB
A clean Windows 10 installation takes up 12GB, and apps maybe another 10GB. If you work with RAW photos and video, you can expect storage to fill up very quickly.
The SSD storage is fast. Booting Windows, launching apps and saving big files are fast.
The first Surface Book came out in 2015 so this design is almost five years old now. The design is dated but it still looks good. It's a clean, simple, elegant design. Build quality of the magnesium alloy body is excellent.
The palm rest has the matte textured surface that's really nice to touch. Trackpad is big, comfortable to use, and accurate.
The keyboard is excellent to type on. It's springy with good travel and feedback. This is one of the best laptop keyboards out there. There's no Control button on the right side so certain keyboard shortcuts on this side of the keyboard will be impossible to difficult to press with one hand, eg. Ctrl+O for open, Ctrl+I for import, Ctrl+0 for Fit-to-Screen, Ctrl++ and Ctrl+- for zoom.
I guess you could use some keyboard mapping software to map that button to the right side of Alt to Ctrl. The left and right arrow would work better as half height buttons.
13.5-inch model weighs 1.53kg and the 15-inch weighs 1.9kg. The thinner side is 1.5cm and goes to 2.3cm where the hinge is.
On the left are two USB 3 type A ports and a SD card reader (transfer speeds around 90MB/s).
On the right is the proprietary charging port which can be used with the Surface Dock if you need extra ports (Ethernet, USB-A, mini DisplayPort, Audio Out).
There's no Thunderbolt 3 but you get one USB-C which can be used to output video and audio when used with an adapter.
Whether TB 3 is essential will depend on whether you have existing TB3 devices, or planning on getting any TB3 devices in the future. USB-C has enough bandwidth for editing 4K videos. Note that TB3 devices are expensive so by not going the TB3 route, you can actually save significant money. Just look at your current workflow to see if you really need that TB3 speed.
Air vents point to the display and are hidden from view. Fans don't turn on with light usage, eg. surfing the web and writing documents.
When the hinge is pushed all the way back, it actually touches the table. The two long hard feet beneath aren't thick enough to prevent the hinge from touching the table. Don't slide the SB3 on the table or you'll heard the hinge against the table.
The tablet eject button is located near the top right. The tablet won't eject when you're using software that's using the graphics card. A dialogue box will appear to tell you to quit those software before you can eject.
After the eject button is pressed, it takes a quick second or two for the tablet to unlock.
This is the selling point of the Surface Book 3.
There is a battery in each part. When charging, the tablet will be giving priority for charging. During usage, battery for the base will be used first.
Battery life, unfortunately, is below expectations.
For general usage with auto-brightness, it's around 2 hours for the tablet, and 5 hours for tablet and keyboard combined. Battery life will of course depend on what you're doing. If you exporting videos, you can expect battery life to be even shorter.
What this means is the tablet is good for short period usage. If you're student who's going for lecture, then battery life could be enough to last until you rush back to charge. If you want to lay on the sofa and watch a movie, you may be able to finish a 2 hour movie, but if there are some processing going on in the background, then you may not.
What will be extremely cool is if Microsoft could add another USB-C to the tablet that allows charging. That way you could actually use an external battery.
In addition to charging with the included charger, you can also charge via the USB-C port, but you'll need a powerful enough USB-C charger to charge the SB3 at decent speed.
Microsoft could have remove their proprietary charging port and replace it with a USB-C which will make this device even more functional.
The tablet can be taken out, reversed and put back. This will allow you to get the longer battery life while drawing.
There's no locking mechanism for the hinge though. So to prop up the tablet, you'll need between the keyboard and tablet. Or just get some sort of laptop stand and make sure it's a sturdy one that has no chance of shake or wobble.
The SB3 tablet looks kinda similar to the Surface Pro except it's larger. This 13.5-inch display is of course larger than even the iPad Pro 12.9.
The resolution is 3000 by 2000 with a pixel density of 267PPI. The display is sharp. 15-inch model resolution is 3240 x 2160.
Aspect ratio is 3:2 which I find to be more conducive for work compared to 16:9 which is more suitable for watching videos since you won't get black bars at the top and bottom.
The front-facing stereo speakers are located at the top left and right. Audio quality is good. The audio really gets into your head space because they speakers are not just pointing at you, they are also higher above the table.
Power and volume buttons are located at the top left when the tablet is attached to the base.
Colours for the display look good out of the box. I did colour calibrate this to match my other monitors and measured 97% sRGB, 76% AdobeRGB, 73% NTSC and 77% P3. Colour accuracy is quite good.
The maximum brightness I measured was 302 nits.
Brightness can be adjusted in eight steps. These are the various brightness at different steps:
I'm only mentioning this because the drop from maximum brightness to the next steps are 60, 100 and 70 nits. It's easier to adjust for low than high brightness because increments are not as huge when display is dimmer.
You could use auto-brightness which works fine though. But sometimes the brightness can change quite significantly which gives the impression of a flicker.
The US$99 Surface Pen is not included. This is an essential buy if you are going to get the Surface Book 3.
There are many Surface Pen alternatives available but the Surface Pen still performs the best on Microsoft Surface products. The tip is this rubber-like material that provides some friction and control when drawing or writing on the glass.
There's a shortcut button on the back that also doubles as an eraser.
The display is laminated so there's no gap between the glass and LCD beneath. When drawing with the Surface Pen, it really looks like the lines are appearing directly beneath the pen tip.
Unfortunately when drawing slow diagonal lines, there's still slight wobble. The app I used above is Wacom Bamboo Paper.
How much wobble there is will also depend on the apps you use. Some apps will apply software correction to make lines smoother.
The Surface Pen is said to support up to 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity. In reality, the implementation or application is less than ideal. More specifically, the pressure transition is not smooth or gradual. And that's due to the initial activation force, basically the least amount of force needed to produce a line.
You do need to press a bit to get a line, but that's not the problem. The problem is when you press a bit more, the line becomes thicker than expected. You can adjust the pressure curve to get a thin line easier but then it's difficult to produce thick lines unless you press real hard.
Because of how pressure sensitivity is implemented, it's difficult to get lines to taper gradually with Photoshop.
With a good pressure sensitive stylus, you can choose a huge brush and still be able to produce really thin lines that can transition to the maximum size. With the Surface Pen, it's difficult to get that wide variation. Thin lines will be thicker than usual unless you pick a small brush to begin with.
And the lines still suffer for wobble occasionally as you can see in the simple line sketch above.
I wasn't able to get pressure to work with Adobe Illustrator.
This is Concepts, a digital drawing app designed for touchscreen devices. Pressure and tilt sensitivity works.
For tilt to work, it seems like I have to tilt the Surface Pen to the extent that the plastic side actually touches the glass. I'm apprehensive about that since I don't know if that will scratch the glass. Thankfully I don't use tilt often.
I don't have tilt brushes so I can't tell if tilt is working.
Pressure does not work by default with Krita. To enable pressure, you have to go into settings to change the Table Input API from Wintab to Windows 8+ Pointer Input, restart Krita, and pressure and tilt would then work.
Pressure works with Affinity Photo.
Pressure works with Affinity Designer.
Note taking works great. It was able to capture my handwriting quite accurately.
So out of all the drawing apps I've tested, Concepts, Clip Studio Paint and Sketchable work best without line wobble and pressure sensitivity is more predictable.
The Surface Book 3 is definitely more than capable for editing photos. The display has good colour support and processor powerful enough to handle edits with out lag. However, it took longer than I expected to launch Adobe Lightroom Classic CC. That's strange because my 2013 Mac Pro can launch Lightroom faster. But once Lightroom is running, everything is smooth.
Here are the timings when exporting 100 RAW files from Lightroom:
- Mac Pro 2013 Xeon quad core 3.7Ghz - 3 min 17s
- Macbook Pro 2015 Quad 2.5Ghz - 3min 21s
- Surface Book 2 Intel i7-8650U (Quad 1.9 to 4.2 GHz) - 3 min 49s
- Surface Book 3 Intel i7-1065G7 (Quad 1.3 - 3.9Ghz) - 3 min 50s to 4min 41s
- Lenovo Miix 520 Intel i5-8250U (Quad 1.6 - 3.4Ghz) - 4min 40s
- Surface Laptop 2 Intel i5-8250U (quad 1.6 to 3.4Ghz) - 4min 12s
- Surface Book 2 Intel i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz) - 8min 57s
- Surface Pro 6 (2018) Intel i5-8250U (Quad 1.6 - 3.4 Ghz) - 6min+ to 8min+
Photo export times are reasonably good. It takes less than 5 minutes to export 100 24MP RAWs into jpeg. Even though the SB3 Intel i7-1065G7 has lower clock speed than the SB2 Intel i7-8650U, export times are rather similar.
Export time varies depending on the processor throttling with heat.
Video editing performance is better than I expected.
SB3 can edit and play 8-bit or 10-bit 60FPS H264 videos without dropped frames. My 2013 Mac Pro will drop frames 3 seconds into playing a 60FPS video.
It took around 1min 55s to 2min 40s to export a 5min 4K project in H.264 with no effects using Adobe Premiere CC.
The processor speed boosted to over 3.2Ghz and was able to maintain that throughout for short (5min) exports.
When I exported a 10min video, it took 5min+ and the speed dropped from 3.2Ghz to around 2.2Ghz and remained there until the export completed.
Export times is almost half of the actual 4K video being exported. That is very good video editing performance considering it will take me several times longer to export the same video using Final Cut Pro with my old 2013 Mac Pro (quad 3.7GHz) which doesn't have Intel QuickSync.
This satisfying performance could be due to the NVIDIA Geforce GTX 1650 and Cuda.
It goes without saying that working with 1080P will be a breeze.
Working with videos requires lots of storage. For the unit that I have, it cost US$200 to upgrade from 512GB to 1TB. You could spend the US$200 instead to get a Samsung T7 1TB external SSD or Sandisk 1TB external SSD. I've been editing 4K videos off external SSD via USB3.1 for years and it works fine.
I don't really play games but I did try Two Point Hospital at maximum resolution with high textures and it was able to run without lag. Fans started turning almost instantly.
When doing processor intensive tasks, you can expect the SB3 to run hot.
The heat will come from the processor and graphics card. The base has fans so the keyboard and palm rests will still be cool.
The tablet has no fans and will be slightly warm with normal use, and warm when exporting photos and videos. If you want to draw comfortably, it's best to not use any other apps that uses processing power otherwise the tablet will get too warm.
I like the Surface Book line. It's a product that dares to be different. Many reviewers call this design dated but it still looks good to me. And the build quality is excellent. I like all the physical aspect of this product down to the port selection. Having the SD card slot is incredibly convenient.
Not having Thunderbolt 3 is not really a big deal unless you have lots of thunderbolt devices. USB-C is quite versatile too.
In terms of processing power, the Intel Core i7-1065G7 (1.3 to 3.9 GHz) may not be as fast or has as many cores compared to other laptops at the same price range, but it's definitely powerful enough for editing photos and 4K 60FPS. The video editing performance was better than I expected. Some of the art tutorial videos that I create are 30 minutes long and will take around 2-3 hours to export with my 2013 Mac Pro (quad 3.7Ghz). With the SB3, it takes less than 20 minutes. Wow.
Microsoft claims you can expect "powerhouse performance". Well, different people have different interpretation as to what powerhouse actually means. For me, when you can render a 4K video in less time than the length of the video, that's good enough for me. SB3 can do it in half the time.
And if SB3 can edit 4K videos, handling graphic design work is effortless by comparison.
Being able to detach the display to use as a tablet is quite convenient. It allows you to draw and write directly onto the screen, and save into the system.
If you're using a laptop and a tablet (iPad for example), you'll still have to transfer files.
Drawing performance could be better. More specifically, the Surface Pen could be better. There's still the wobble when drawing diagonal lines slowly. And the initial activation force is quite high which requires you to press harder to get a thin line. It's not as easy to draw thin lines compared to other styluses, eg. Samsung S Pen, Apple Pencil, Wacom styluses.
For writing and taking notes, the wobble is not noticeable because writing involves creating short quick strokes.
Another downside is battery life. The battery life for the tablet and based combined is just 5 hours, and for the tablet alone it's just 2 hours. And because the charging port is proprietary, it means you have to bring that big heavy charging brick and cable along all the time.
The estimated battery life remaining indicator with hours and minutes is just not accurate as all.
The Surface Book 3 comes with one year warranty. Microsoft Complete is their extended warranty program that adds one additional year of coverage for a total of two years. I wish Microsoft could give an option for two additional years too. It's a pricey product that's going to be expensive when it requires servicing. Paying for the warranty will provide a piece of mind especially when the SB3 doesn't look easy to repair.
The Surface Book 3 is a very capable 2-in-1 computer for visual content creation. My experience has been positive and the workflows are smooth. You just have to note the downsides, namely battery life and Surface Pen.
If you intend to buy this for editing photos, videos with the occasionally note taking, it's a good device to consider.
If you intend to buy this for drawing, it's still worth considering but do note the drawing performance is not as good compared to tablets like the iPad or Samsung tablets. And some drawing apps will perform better than others. The upside here is you have access to all the desktop software and the familiar file system.
Pros and cons at a glance
+ Dated but still beautiful design
+ Solid build quality
+ Excellent keyboard
+ Excellent trackpad
+ Detachable tablet display
+ USB A, USB C, Micro SD card slots
+ Good colour accuracy. 97% sRGB
+ Good brightness. 300+ nits
+ High resolution 3000 x 2000, sharp display
+ Able to handle 10-bit 60FPS 4K H264 videos without dropped frames
+ Tablet is large and enjoyable to draw on
+ Low fan noise
+ Front facing speakers with good audio quality
+ Face unlock works great
- Hinge touches the table when pulled all the way back
- Brightness adjustments could be more refined
- No Control button on the right
- Below average battery life
- Surface Pen could be more accurate
- Tablet can get hot
If you have limited budget, the only option is the US $1600 13.5-inch model with Intel Core i5-1035G7 (1.2 to 3.7 GHz) and Intel Iris Plus (GT2 @ 1.05GHz). This is good for light tasks, drawing, editing photos and 1080P videos.
If you have more budget, at least get the one with NVIDIA Geforce GTX 1650 since it improves video editing performance significantly. It's also better for 3D software and you can play some games. You can stick with the 256GB storage option, and save some money to get external SSD drives.
The price jump from the base model with 8GB RAM to the next model with 16GB RAM and GTX 1650 is US $400 (~S$600) is not too bad. The jump from 16GB RAM + 256GB storage to 32GB RAM and 512GB storage is US $500 (~S$670). That's a huge jump.
Of course if you have even more budget, consider the 15-inch mode with Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q.
I would also get the Microsoft Complete warranty, just in case.
Where to buy
You can get it direct from Microsoft's online store and selected online retailers. They are easy to find.
And if you're in Singapore, of course you can get it from Microsoft Singapore.
Below are direct links to the product on Amazon.
These are affiliate links which means I earn some commission if there's a sale but at no extra cost to you.