To plant a '3' on the end of the 2020 Surface Book release is Microsoft being a little bit brazen. Because, really and truly, the third-generation Surface Book is a spitting image of its predecessor with some new internals. That's your lot.
That's a rather cynical way of looking at it though. Because in many ways the Surface Book 3 represents the very best 2-in-1 device you can buy. Its detachable screen is great, its keyboard is lovely, it's got plenty of high-end workhorse appeal too.
Those are the two sides of the coin. So on which side does the Surface Book 3 fall?
Surface Book 3: What's New?
- Dimensions (13.5in): 312 x 232 x 13-23mm / Weight: 1.53kg
- Magnesium casing with 'Platinum' colour finish
- 1x USB-C (10Gbps), 2x USB-A (3.1), 1x SD
- 1x 3.5mm headphone output
- Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge
First up, let's dig into what's new about the Surface Book 3. Visually there's nothing at all; gen two and three look identical, have the same ports - two full-size USB, one USB-C (which still isn't Thunderbolt 3 - so no 40Gbps transfer, it's 10Gbps), a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a full-size SD card slot (a rarity that we love to see) - with that premium-looking 'platinum' finish exterior.
It's inside where things shift around. We'll come to it in more detail later, but the Surface Book 3 extends to 10th Gen Intel Core processors - there's an i5 and an i7 (of the 'G' series format) - along with updated discrete Nvidia graphics, should you fork out and pay the extra.
The thing that makes the Surface Book stand out from its Surface family is its 'dynamic fulcrum hinge'. This distinctive hinge - you'll see that the laptop's two halves can't sit flush when the device is shut - is designed to ensure the battery-laden tablet screen doesn't tilt the balance of the laptop. That means it will always sit upright whatever its selected position, no fear of toppling over - but it also means you can't angle the screen very far back.
Within that hinge is a 'muscle wire' mechanism - this holds tense when power runs through it to keep the two main parts connected - which can be quick-released by the press of a button (F13) so that the screen separates to become an individual tablet, kind of like a Surface minus the built-in kickstand. This release process happens three times faster than its predecessor - so that's another small change for the better.
The mechanism is also software controlled because the Surface Book's screen houses the CPU, while the base houses the GPU. If you go ripping those apart when an intense application is using both it's not going to end well. Indeed, if both are being used in tandem then this button's alert LED glows red to deny the separation - you'll have to close the relevant processes/apps and wait for the green light (literally).
A nifty thing about this hinge is that the screen can be repositioned for multiple usage scenarios. Go with a standard laptop position. Flip the screen around by 180 degrees into a stand mode, useful for presenting. Fold the panel to almost flat for an easel-like setup. Or simply detach it to have a large-scale, touch-sensitive tablet. That's what the Surface Book is is all about.
Surface Book 3: Screen
- Detachable 13.5-inch PixelSense Display
- 3000 x 2000 resolution (267ppi)
- 3:2 aspect ratio
The main event of the Surface Book 3 is its screen - or what Microsoft likes to call a PixelSense Display. It sports a 3:2 aspect ratio - so more document friendly than the widescreen laptops that make up the majority of the market today - and is indeed densely packed with pixels, the 3000 x 2000 making up a full six million of them (it's not quite 4K, but at this 13.5-inch scale that doesn't matter really).
However, while the clarity of this screen is second to none, it's effectively the same as the very first Surface Book. So the bezel proportion looks more 2016 than 2020; there's far more black-bar to the edges than other current up-to-date laptops, such as the Dell XPS 13.
The bezel isn't necessarily a major bother though. It's dense black and part of the screen, rather than a raised surround like Apple's older MacBooks - so you'll barely notice it after some use.
That said, the opportunity should have been grabbed by the horns to bring the Surface Book into the here and now - so smaller bezel next time please Microsoft, even if that means the same laptop footprint but with additional screen real-estate (or, as we said way back when we reviewed the first Surface Book, just a smaller and lighter device overall).
The Surface Book 3's screen is touch controllable, of course, because it can be detached and used as a tablet. Or you can go to town with a Surface Pen, sold separately, which is a great stylus control that magnetically clips onto the side of the device.
So the screen has got all the resolution and vibrancy that you're likely to need - although it's not signed-off to support the very widest of colour gamuts, such as DCI-P3 or beyond, which some creators might wish to have.
Just like its predecessor the screen's finish is somewhat glossy too. This does help content to look more contrasty, but also pronounces reflections a little more than we'd like - so outdoors use in the sun, or even just by a large windo, is hindered.
Keyboard & Trackpad
- Surface Pen & Surface Mouse each sold separately
- Full-size backlit keyboard, glass-topped trackpad
The Surface Book 3's keyboard has become our best friend over our period reviewing this device. It's just so great to use.
In recent years many makers have gone with various shallow key forms. Not so with the Surface Book: it's got all the click, clack, resistance and response that you could want from a keyboard. Everything is spaced out perfectly, there's no nonsense from additional buttons or bizarrely shaped keys, while the backlight is subtle and uniform.
The trackpad is also a dream. Its smooth-topped surface feels super in use, delivering great responsiveness. It is on the small side, though, which is more pronounced given the theme of these enlarging over recent years. Again, it's one of those older design traits that Microsoft should have refreshed by now.
It's worth pointing out that the Surface Pen stylus doesn't come included in the Surface Book 3's box. Neither does the Surface Mouse. Or the Surface Dial - if you'd really need to use one of those. Sure, each of these adds to the potential expense of a fully kitted out device, but it leaves the ball in your court when it comes to choice. It's a great list of accessories to consider if you want to use this device in more creative ways, you'll just have to adjust your budget accordingly.
Performance & Battery
- From 10th Gen Intel Core i5-1035G7 processor, up to 32GB RAM (as reviewed: i7-1065G7, 32GB)
- Optional discrete graphics up to Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti with Max Q (as reviewed: GTX 1650, 8GB)
- Battery: 22.2Wh in screen; 59.7Wh in base; 81.9Wh total
- 2x Surface Connect ports (one per section) for charging
- Wi-Fi 6 (802.11 ax), Bluetooth 5.0
While the third-gen Surface Book brings updated 10th Gen Intel Core processors into the frame, these aren't the higher-spec 'U' designated ones. That doesn't mean poor results by any means though - we believe Microsoft has selected this line to balance out battery life and avoid additional cooling heft.
Besides, the Surface Book 3 is still very powerful. But that is largely down to the optional discrete graphics available. In this machine we've got an Nvidia GTX 1650 with Max-Q, plus 8GB dedicated RAM. That, in essence, turn this device into a gaming laptop (well, at 1080p30/60 rather than 2K or beyond).
The thing is how much you want to pay out for. At its base level the Surface Book has a loadout that's similar to a 2020 Dell XPS. We think that's fair enough - as the Microsoft delivers its unique hinge offering and is only a couple of hundred extra. If you want the flexibility, the stylus control, the variety of ports, then there's an obvious logic in plumping for the Surface Book.
It's when you start cranking out the Core i7 processor choice, with 32GB RAM, along with Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q, that the price skyrockets. But perhaps you need that kind of setup. Those pushing 3D models, data-rich 4K video, and such like, can ensure their workloads remain swift as possible.
Your choice of specification will of course impact battery life. Microsoft claims the Surface Book 3 can last for 17.5 hours - the "on base" model anyway. We managed nothing like that with this "not base" model. That said, a 4K YouTube stream at 75 per cent brightness pushed on for just over a full 9 hours - which is pretty good going in the order of things.
With a mixture of Photoshop work (nothing too heavy) and our usual array of personal and work-related emails and documents, the Surface Book 3 can push into double-digit use. So long as both parts are connected anyway: as there's a battery in the screen and another in the base, the two function in tandem to ensure the screen portion can run independently as needed.
The Surface Book 3 is a tale of two halves. On the one hand there's the distinctive design, unique hinge, crisp screen, and lovely keyboard - which help make for the best 2-in-1 you could want. On the other hand this device looks nigh on identical to the original, there's excess bezel by today's standards, and the trackpad hasn't grown through the iterations - while the price has done nothing but increase.
So where does that leave us? In many respects that Microsoft Surface Book still remains a professional's workhorse; a device more versatile than just a laptop. It's wonderfully made, but it could just be even more wonderfully specified in the future - by adding in Thunderbolt 3 speeds, doing away with the proprietary connector for more USB-C connections, enhancing the screen's gamut capabilities and trimming the bezel.
If you're in the market for an all-powerful pro-spec 2-in-1 then the Surface Book 3 is hard to beat. But we know Microsoft has the potential to turn things up to 11 for a fourth-gen model - so if you're not in a rush you might want to wait for the goodness that brings.
Dell XPS 13
No, the Dell isn't a 2-in-1 device. But if you want similar base level performance and wouldn't plump for a boosted Surface Book with discrete graphics then here you're getting a more portable laptop package here instead.