Microsoft Surface Book 3 (13-inch) review: A portable powerhouse
"The Surface Book 3 13-inch does an excellent job of supporting its unique design."
Good battery life
Excellent input options
Sharp, high-contrast display
The Surface Book 3 is said to be the performance-oriented laptop from Microsoft. This can sometimes be a problem for the 15-inch model, which has to compete with powerhouses like the Dell XPS 15 and the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch. These laptops use powerful eight-core Intel Core i9 processors that promise excellent performance.
However, a powerful 13-inch laptop is rarer. This smaller Surface Book 3 has the chance to shine here. My test configuration consisted of a 10th generation Intel Core i7 CPU, a discrete Nvidia GTX 1650 Ti graphics card and a whopping 32 GB of RAM.
The price of $ 2,500 is undoubtedly high, but based on the specs alone, this could be the most powerful 13-inch laptop ever made.
The surface book 3 is a contradiction. On the one hand, it remains the most futuristic laptop on the market today, despite a design that is identical to the Surface Book 2 released at the end of 2017. Pressing a button and tearing off the display is as satisfactory as ever – no other 2-in-1 is pretty cool.
The build quality is excellent and competes with the MacBook line for elegance and solidity. There is no creaking, bending or groaning of the laptop, no matter how you handle it, in the lid, in the keyboard deck or in the case bottom. The Surface line is generally well made, and the Surface Book 3 offers perhaps the most impressive build quality of all.
At the same time, the Surface Book 3 feels a bit old. The bezels are relatively large, and the same goes for the bulky case. While other laptops are squeezed into tiny frames thanks to tiny bezels, the Surface Book 3 feels like a relapse when the machines were thick and chunky.
Using it on the tray table of a commercial aircraft is not easy.
As a 13-inch laptop, it competes with the incredibly slim HP Specter x360 13 and the Dell XPS 13, both of which are significantly smaller (for example, more than 1.5 inches less deep). The Surface Book 3 is 0.59 inches thick at its thinnest point at the front, which seems to be thin enough, but then it is expanded to a massive 0.91 inches at the back due to the rounded pivot hinge. The Specter x360 13 is 0.67 inches and the XPS 13 is 0.58 inches, and both feel a bit thinner. The Surface Book 3 also weighs 3.62 pounds compared to the HP at 2.88 pounds and the Dell at 2.65 pounds.
You won't find it easy to use the Surface Book 3, for example, on the tray table of a commercial aircraft, especially given the fact that the display is more recessed than most other models. Like the thickness, this is due to the pivot hinge, which balances the heavier display than usual. You can flip the display easily enough and use it in media mode, but the same goes for other 2-in-1 devices. And smaller laptops like the Specter x360 13 and the XPS 13 fit well in the same limited spaces.
An advantage of the design of the Surface Book 3 is that the keyboard base stays cool thanks to the heat-generating components in the display, unless you press the discrete GPU.
As a tablet, however, the Surface Book 3 is very comfortable and has only one major disadvantage. First of all, it's thin and light, surprisingly for its 13.5-inch size. Thanks to the 3: 2 aspect ratio, which is closer to a sheet of paper, and the excellent support for the active Surface Pen from Microsoft, it is ideal for coloring. It could be an older design, but it remains pretty functional.
The only problem with using the Surface Book 3 as a tablet is that, unlike the Surface Pro 7, there is no stand and it is therefore not easy to use it to watch media, for example. The best way to bend Netflix is to flip the tablet around the pivot hinge and use the keyboard base to support things. It's not an easy solution, but it works well.
Connectivity is another area where Microsoft has not fully adopted modern computing. The Surface Book 3 has two USB-A 3.1 ports, an SD card reader, a USB-C 3.1 port and the Microsoft Surface Connect port, which enables fast charging, as well as a connection to the company's new Surface Dock 2 . These ports are all on the keyboard dock, while the tablet has a Surface Connect port for charging.
Thunderbolt 3 is missing, which limits the number and performance of the connected devices. This also means that the Surface Book 3 cannot connect to external GPUs. According to internal reports, Thunderbolt 3 poses a security risk. For this reason, it has been excluded from Surface devices.
Yes, the Surface Book 3 is big for a 13-inch laptop. There is a reason, however: most of the computer components, including the CPU and most of the electronics, are on the display. The discrete GPU (on the Core i7 models) and a number of battery capacities are located on the keyboard base. That's why the laptop is so thick overall and the tablet area is so bulky compared to a simple display.
During my tests, the Surface Book 3 was very fast in my test configuration with a 10th generation Intel Core i7-1065G7 and 32 GB RAM (unusual for 13-inch laptops). It has passed our benchmarks and performed better than many of its 13-inch competitors. In Geekbench 5, for example, the HP Specter x360 13 was beaten and adapted to the Dell XPS 13. It was even faster than our test configuration of the Surface Book 3 15 with less memory.
The Surface Book 3 is a leading provider of 13-inch laptops.
In our real handbrake test, in which a 420 MB video was encoded as H.265, the Surface Book 3 was completed in one second over 3 minutes, which in turn corresponds almost exactly to the very fast Dell XPS 13 and the Specter x360 13 um surpasses almost a minute.
This makes the Surface Book 3 a leading provider of 13-inch laptops. The MacBook Pro is the only 13-inch laptop that outperforms the CPU thanks to its custom 25-watt processor.
When you use the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q graphics, you have a laptop that becomes even more competitive for any creative application that the GPU can use. This isn't the fastest GPU, but it's a lot faster than the built-in Intel graphics that almost every 13-inch laptop relies on. The only other outlier is the Razer Blade Stealth 13, which uses the GTX 1650 Ti. This laptop doesn't have the unique design of the Surface Book, which doesn't force the GPU and CPU to share the same space.
You may want to put the GTX 1650 Max-Q through its paces and use the Surface Book 3 13 as a gaming laptop for beginners. And for the most part, you can do that – as long as you ease your expectations. I guided the laptop through our gaming tests and was a little underwhelmed. The laptop isn't quite as fast as some other laptops with similar GPUs, although most of them are larger 15-inch laptops.
For example, the Surface Book 3 was far behind the previous Dell XPS 15 with the GTX 1650 and even further behind the latest XPS 15 with the GTX 1650 Ti in all of our benchmarks. This includes the synthetic 3DMark suite, in which the older XPS 15 more than 10% faster and the newer model was almost 20% faster. Civilization VI was a game in which the Surface Book 3 was a little more competitive, probably thanks to the strong CPU performance, at 68 frames per second (FPS) in 1080p and medium graphics compared to the older XPS 15 with 56 FPS and the newer 114 FPS model. In Assassins Creed: Odyssey, however, the Surface Book 3 only managed 25 FPS in 1080p and high settings, compared to the older XPS 15 with 42 FPS and the newer model with 47 FPS. The trend continued in Battlefield V: The Surface Book 3 reached 41 FPS compared to 54 FPS with the older XPS and 60 FPS with the newer model.
The Surface Book 3 couldn't reach 60 FPS in Fortnite, a lighter game that serves as a benchmark for starter games. The older XPS 15 achieved 67 FPS and the newer model reached 74 FPS. If you reject graphic details, you can get playable frame rates of 1080p with the Surface Book 3. This is great for a 13-inch laptop. Just don't expect it to replace a real gaming laptop anytime soon.
Of course, the discrete graphics are not standard. The base model starts at $ 1,600 and you'll have to pay $ 500 more to get this extra graphics performance. The larger 15-inch version offers the option for the more powerful GTX 1660 Ti.
The Surface Book 3 has an IPS display in a productivity-friendly 3: 2 aspect ratio and a high resolution of 3,000 x 2,000. It's not quite 4K, but both text and image details are sharp. As with all Surface devices, all configurations of the Surface Book 3 contain the same high-resolution display.
According to my colorimeter, the display has its advantages and disadvantages. First of all, it is bright with 422 nits and has an excellent contrast of 1,420: 1 (we like displays with 1000: 1 or higher). That is the good thing. However, the color gamut is not particularly large at 94% sRGB and 73% AdobeRGB, and at 2.10 they're not the most accurate (1.0 or less is considered excellent). You get better displays on 13-inch laptops like the OLED display of the HP Specter x360 13 and the excellent 4K display of the Dell XPS 13. Both offer wider and more accurate colors, as well as equivalent or better brightness and contrast.
The display of the Surface Book 3 is a real pleasure. The aspect ratio gives you more vertical space for a more expansive work area. Although this results in some letterboxing when watching videos, the images are sharp and bright.
However, audio is not that impressive. There are two front-facing speakers on the display that offer enough volume to watch YouTube videos occasionally. However, the bass is missing and you should have a pair of headphones at hand if you want high quality sound.
One of the most famous claims of the Surface Book 2 was its battery life, as it is one of the longest-lasting 13-inch laptops ever. The Surface Book 3 takes a step back and offers a strong, but not quite class-leading longevity – this is another area in which the competition has overtaken and surpassed Microsoft's offer.
The Surface Book 3 took 5 hours in our demanding Basemark web benchmark test. This is a good result and surpasses the 15-inch Surface Book 3 and the Dell XPS 13 with a full HD display. In our web browser test, the Surface Book 3 managed almost 10 hours, a good but not great score that the XPS 13 beat by 100 minutes. In our video loop test, the Surface Book 3 lasted just over 13.5 hours, which was almost an hour less than the XPS 13. Of course, given the XPS 13's Full HD display, this is not a completely fair test. Compared to the HP Specter x360 13 with OLED display, the Surface Book 3 lasted for hours while surfing the Internet and watching videos. Note that the Surface Book 2 took 20.6 hours to go through our test video and 15.5 hours to surf the web.
However, most of the battery capacity is in the keyboard base. If you remove the display and use it as a tablet, the battery life will be significantly reduced. In this mode, the Surface Book 3 lasted just under 1.5 hours in the Basemark test, less than 2.5 hours when surfing the Internet and only 3.5 hours when playing our test video. This is disappointing, especially when compared to other tablets that last for hours, like the Surface Pro 7.
Keyboard and touchpad
The Surface Book 3 has always had one of the best keyboards. It has a lot of travel with a snappy feel that ensures a precise and comfortable typing experience. It's also pretty quiet, which is a plus for work without bothering anyone around you. I like the Magic keyboard better on the latest MacBooks, but the Surface Book 3 is almost as good as my second favorite, the Specter x360 13 keyboard.
The touchpad also works well. It is based on Microsoft Precision touchpad drivers and offers a smooth and consistent Windows 10 multi-touch experience. It's as good a touchpad as a Windows laptop, although it's smaller than it could be on the keyboard deck. However, the size did not hold me back.
The display is of course touch sensitive and reacts just as well as all surface displays. It supports Microsoft's superb Surface Pen, which offers tilt, 4,096 pressure sensitivity levels and one of the best Windows color experiences. As already mentioned, the display has an aspect ratio of 3: 2, which makes it look much more like a normal 8.5 x 11-sheet paper. It's just unfortunate that the $ 100 surface pen isn't included in such an expensive laptop.
Finally, the Surface Book 3 supports password-free Windows 10 Hello login via an infrared camera and face recognition. It's fast, reliable, and better than a fingerprint reader on the keyboard deck because it only works in tablet mode.
The Microsoft Surface Book 3 is a unique 13-inch laptop. It's a bit bigger than its competition, but it offsets this with a strong performance that you will find in few other machines of similar size. Compared to the Surface Book 2, the latest model is simply a faster iteration of a proven design.
It is also very expensive as my test configuration is $ 2,500. The unique design makes it difficult to compare it to other laptops, but it's only worth the cost if you're convinced of the usefulness of the tablet elements.
Are there alternatives?
You can choose from the other Surface devices if you're just excited about the brand. The Surface Pro 7 and X give you better tablet experiences, and the Surface Laptop 3 is a more traditional clamshell offering. However, none of them offer the same level of performance.
The only 13-inch laptop with similar graphics performance is the Razer Blade Stealth. The stealth is a little cheaper, and you can purchase the GTX 1650 Ti model with options for a 144Hz refresh rate display or a 4K touchscreen.
How long it will take?
The Surface Book 3 is built like a tank and uses current components (apart from the lack of Thunderbolt 3). You get years of productive service. When you shop in a local Microsoft store, you also get the 60-day return policy and the year of in-store technical support. This is a real plus. However, the 1 year warranty is standard and less impressive.
Should you buy it
Yes. The 2-in-1 design and powerful graphics make it a unique laptop.