Artist Review: Surface Book 2 for Graphic Design, Photo & Video Editing

Thanks to Microsoft Singapore for providing the review units for this review.

Let me give you the bottom line first. The Microsoft Surface Book 2 is one of the best Windows laptops in the market right now. It may not be the most powerful, may not the most affordable, but as a whole, the design and features it offers makes it a really attractive package.

As usual, my review is from the perspective of a visual content creator. More specifically, my review is written for digital artists, photographers and video editors. This review is for you if you create visual content.

Design

My first impression of the Surface Book 2 is that it's clunky, but in a good way. Both the 13.5 and 15 models feel big and substantial. I'm not a fan of companies that sacrifice functionality for the pursuit of thinness. You can make your laptop thick, but there must be a reason for the thickness. With the Surface Book 2, it's thick for many good reasons which you shall find out below.


The magnesium alloy body feels solid. The matte surface finishing on the body and keys are nice to touch. I definitely prefer this surface finishing compared to the Alcantara fabric on the Surface Laptop.


Keys on the keyboard are excellent. Surface Laptop has a good keyboard but the one on the Surface Book 2 is even better. It's even better than the Macbook Pro (2015) before Apple switched to the idiotic butterfly keys. The travel for the keys here are just right and there's a tactile feedback to each press. This keyboard is exceptionally satisfying to type on. It's back-lit too.


The only downside is there's no Control key on the right side. So if you're using a mouse, or the stylus, and want to access keyboard shortcuts on the right side with your left hand, it would be impossible to reach some shortcuts, e.g. Ctrl+= for zooming.


On the left, the Surface Book 2 has two full-sized USB 3 ports and a SD card slot.


On the right, there's the Surface connector and USB type C (not Thunderbolt 3). I still use a lot devices that use the full-size USB ports so I'm not upset at the lack of USB type C. The port that I miss though is a direct graphics port such as a mini Display or HDMI port. With the Surface Book 2, to connect to an external monitor, either to check colour or to work with a bigger screen, you now need an USB type C adapter.

Screen


The screen is as thick as a tablet because it is a tablet. It's like a larger Surface Pro 2017 and it's detachable from the keyboard.

The tablet is much lighter than I expected for the size. The 13.5-inch tablet weighs 719g and the 15-inch weighs 817g. Just for comparison, the 12.9-inch Apple iPad weighs 692g. The tablet may be light but the build quality is solid, just like the rest of the device.


To detach the screen, you have to press the detach button on the keyboard. Depending on the app you're using at any time, you may or may not be able to detach. For example, apps that use the graphics card in the keyboard area may prevent the tablet from detaching so you have to close the app before detaching.


With the Spyder5Pro colour calibrator, I measured sRGB 94%, 68% NTSC and 73% Adobe RGB.



Colour accuracy is good enough for graphic design and photo editing. Should you need 100% Adobe RGB, you'll have to connect to an external monitor.

The touchscreen supports all the usual finger gestures, such as pinch to zoom, pan, rotate. Whether your app can support finger gestures is another question. For example Adobe CS6 and older software do not support finger gestures.

Resolution on the 13.5-inch is 3000×2000 and on the 15-inch is 3240×2160. The aspect ratio is 3:2 so if you're watching 16:9 videos, there are going to be black bars at the top and bottom. For productivity, a 3:2 aspect ratio allows for, in my opinion, a better use of desktop space. For larger monitors or those with extra resolution, 16:9 aspect ratio is alright. For smaller screens, I prefer 3:2 or 16:10 aspect ratio. Also, 3:2 feels more suitable for tablet mode than a wide rectangle.

The resolution is high and makes everything looks sharp and crisp. If you're still running older software, their user interface may look tiny on high resolution screens. For example Adobe CS6 and older software has really small user interface elements such as menus, toolbars, icons and palettes. So small that it's difficult to click even with a fine tip Surface Pen.

Hinge


The hinge allows the screen to be tilted at a 45 degree angle.


You can detach the screen, flip it and attach, and fold the screen down to use the attached tablet mode. This give you a slightly tilted screen to draw on and extra battery life because the keyboard is connected. However, the keyboard is now covered by the screen, so you can't use keyboard shortcuts. This is where you may need to get another keyboard so that you can use those keyboard shortcuts. Microsoft should have made the their own keyboard wireless so that it can connect to the tablet instead.

When you close the screen, you can see a gap between the screen and keyboard area, and you can see the keys between. So that part at the connection area is much thicker compared to to the other edge, and also other laptops. The hinge is as thick as the screen (tablet) and the keyboard, and that is what makes the whole thing feel chunky.

Stylus support

This is a touchscreen tablet and it's compatible with the Surface Pen, which is not included by the way. The Microsoft Surface Pen cost US$99. If you want something cheaper, you can find many compatible Surface Pen alternatives selling at less than half price.

If you're using the Surface Pen, the tip has a rubber-like or felt-like material that provides the extra friction that prevents the pen from being too slippery on the glass surface. Drawing experience is good enough for me that installing a matte screen protector on the screen has never crossed my mind.

Both the 13.5 and 15-inch screens are larger compared to the 12.3-inch screen of the Surface Pro. It is more comfortable to draw and write on larger screens. The Surface Pen is extremely accurate. The cursor is always directly beneath the nib and is always responsive. Parallax is not noticeable because the glass surface is very close to the actual screen. There's pressure sensitivity and palm rejection is almost flawless.

The tablet also supports the Surface Dial but I did not have one to test though.

Performance of the stylus when it comes to drawing will depend on the app you use of course. Below are some sample strokes.


Medibang Paint Pro works well. Strokes appear the way I want them to.

When drawing diagonal lines slowly, there's some micro jitter but not really a major issue. If you're someone who draws really slowly, maybe you're drawing portraits, then the micro jitter could still be an issue. But for general drawing purposes, digital painting, inking comics, line art, those would definitely be no problem at all.

Many have complained about the misalignment issue with the Surface Pro when the hand touches the metal body. Thankfully that does not happen here.

Photoshop works fine but has slight lag. It's lag that I've been seeing in all other 2-in-1 tablets I've used. It's just not as responsive compared to the other graphic apps I've tested.


Pressure with Affinity Photo works as well.


Krita works wonderfully.


Sketchable is good.


No problems with Wacom Bamboo Paper too. This is the app I use to take notes. The tablet and stylus are able to capture my handwriting quite well. Writing or taking notes is more than satisfactory. There's still the micro-second lag with the letters appearing after the stroke but it's not irritating.

The only downside to the screen is not a hardware issue but something related to software. For some reason, even turning off the auto-brightness feature, the screen brightness would still flicker occasionally. I've went online to search for the reason and it comes down to the power saving mode of the driver for the Intel HD 620 integrated graphics card. This is a very silly problem, one that should be easy for Microsoft to solve so it's a bit disappointing to see that the brightness flicker problem still exist. That's actually my major gripe about the Surface Book 2.

RAM and storage

If you have the budget, definitely get at least 16GB of RAM.

With two graphics app and Google Chrome open, it already uses 5 to 6GB of memory. If you open files, have graphics with many layers, or open another graphics app, you can easily use more than 8GB. Once memory runs out, the system may start to slow down.

As for storage, get at least 256GB if you can. The actual storage space after formatting is as follows:
128GB = 119GB
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 quite fast but not as fast compared to other systems I've used. Overall SSD speed when it comes to booting Windows, launching apps, saving big files is more than satisfactory.

Graphics card

Unlike the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro, you can equip the Surface Book 2 with proper dedicated graphics card. The 13.5-inch model can run the GeForce GTX 1050 in addition to the Intel HD 620. The 15-inch model has the GeForce GTX 1060 in addition to the Intel HD 620. I don't game so I can't talk much about gaming or the benchmarks. Note that there's a 13.5-inch model that runs only the Intel HD 620

If you do 3D work, the graphics card should be able to display your high-polygon count scenes without much lag, unless you load lots of textures.

Having a proper graphics card does not help with the rendering time when you're exporting the 3D scene though.

Processor


This 2000 by 2000 pixel occlusion scene that I rendered with Maya 2016 (trial version) took 6 minutes on the Surface Book 2 with Intel Core i7-8650U (1.9 to 4.2 GHz).

Here are some results from other systems I've tested:

  • Surface Book 2 with Quad 1.9Ghz
  • Dell 5510 Quad 2.8Ghz with Maya 2016: 2min 20s
  • Mac Pro 2013 Quad 3.7Ghz: 2m
  • Office Quad 2.93Ghz with Maya 8.5: 13+ min

The Xeon processors in the Dell Precision 5510 is the clear winner here. And that 5510 model is from two generations ago. The current Dell Precision is 5530. If you want raw power, Dell Precision or the HP Zbook is the way to go.

The two base model 13.5-inch run the Intel Core i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz). The other models run Intel Core i7-8650U (1.9 to 4.2 GHz). The quad core may have a low clock speed of 1.9Ghz but for most purposes that is actually sufficient enough.

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 Core i7-8650U (1.9 to 4.2 GHz) - 3 min 49s
  • Lenovo Miix 520 i5-8250U (Quad 1.6 - 3.4Ghz) - 4min 40s
  • Surface Laptop Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5-3.1Ghz) - 8 min 26s
  • Surface Book 2 Intel Core i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz) - 8min 57s
  • Surface Pro 2017 i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz) - 12min 24s


Processor speed has never been the bottleneck for general graphic design work or photo editing. When it comes to rendering 3D or editing videos, that's when the processor clock speed matters. So if your work is primarily 3D or video editing, it may be better to look at other systems.

Strange performance

With the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro, when zooming in and out of large Photoshop files, there is the rectangular block screen redraw issues. The screen redraw still happens very fast but you can still see the redraw. With the Surface Book 2, when you are zooming in and out, panning, the screen updates instantly. The visual difference is obvious. You don't even need to have the Surface Book 2 side by side the other Surface devices to compare to see the difference.

This is strange because the 13.5-inch Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop and Surface Pro 2017 are using almost the same processors and integrated graphics card. Intel Core i5-7300U (dual 2.6Ghz) is on the SB2 and SP2017. Surface Laptop uses Intel Core i5-7200U (dual 2.5Ghz). All three use the Intel HD 620 graphics. I'm not sure why there's the screen redraw issue with the SB2017 and Surface Laptop though.

Battery life

It's difficult for me to test battery life because there's so many variables, and most of them depend on the app you use.

If your work involves 2D graphic design and the usual stuff, web browsing, watching videos, handling documents, you can get 9 - 10 hours. If your work involves rendering 3D, video editing, basically work that requires more processing power, battery life can be 7 - 8 hours, which is still decent.

Overall, the battery life is fantastic. At no point during my time with the Surface Book 2 am I unhappy with how the battery performed. Each time I look at the battery bar and percentage left, I'm always marveling at how long it can last.

In the tablet mode alone, battery life is around 5 hours. I guess they did not pack a battery larger compared to the Surface Pro 2017, which is why the SB2 in tablet mode feels surprisingly light. If you flip the tablet around and connect it to the keyboard, you get that long lasting battery life again.

Price

I've included price of Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop and Surface Pro 2017 for comparison. These are official retail price info taken from Wikipedia.

I want to bring your attention to the prices of these models:

8GB RAM and 256GB storage

  • 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 - US $1999
  • Surface Laptop - US $1299
  • Surface Pro 2017 - US $1299

The Surface Book 2 is significantly more expensive than the other two Surface products even though they have the same specifications simply for the fact that it has a detachable screen.

16GB RAM and 512GB storage

  • 15-inch Surface Book 2 - US $2899
  • Surface Laptop - US $2199
  • Surface Pro 2017 - US $2199

Say you want more RAM and storage. Both the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro 2017 are priced similarly at US $2199 while the Surface Book 2 is once again US$700 more.

So is the Surface Book 2 really worth the extra money?

Conclusion

The selling point is the ability to use the Surface Book 2 in tablet form as well as in laptop form.

If you need to use the tablet form often, then the decision to buy one is easier. There aren't many competing products at the same quality and functionality as the Surface Book 2.


Drawing on the large screen tablet is satisfying. The digital drawing performance is responsive and accurate. For digital artists who don't want two separate devices, getting a 2-in-1 like the Surface Book 2 makes more sense.

Surface Book 2 can also help save time with workflow. If you're someone who sketches, create drafts before scanning into the computer, you can now draw directly on the computer and save your work instantly.

If you just need a laptop rather than a 2-in-1, there are so many options out there. If you have the budget, there are the Dell XPS, Dell Precision and HP Zbook Studio.

While the Surface Book 2 is pricey, I don't think you'll regret buying it considering the quality and the features it offers.

Availability

Check our more reviews for the Surface Book 2 at
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