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Microsoft Surface Book 2 review: A laptop that will make Apple sweat

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor

When it comes to high-powered laptops, Apple’s (AAPL) MacBook Pro is among the best. It’s become the go-to device for professionals ranging from video editors to graphic designers on the go.

And that doesn’t sit well with Microsoft (MSFT). So to change that narrative, the company is rolling out its new 13.5-inch Surface Book 2. The follow-up to 2015’s Surface Book, the Surface Book 2 is a laptop-tablet hybrid designed not only to take on the MacBook Pro 13-inch, but also crush to it entirely.

Microsoft isn’t just targeting Apple’s 13-inch machine, though. It’s also taking aim at the company’s beastly 15-inch Macbook Pro with its first 15-inch Surface Book.

And while the Book 2 doesn’t completely knock Apple out of the race for the best power laptop for professionals, it will likely give even the most ardent Mac addicts reason to make the switch.

Here are the main things you need to know about the Surface Book 2:

  • Starts at $1,399, but can reach $3,299

  • Big-time performance

  • Lightweight tablet portion

  • No Thunderbolt 3

Fixing past mistakes

The original Surface Book was an impressive device, but suffered from software problems including driver crashes that resulted in a high initial return rate. In announcing the Book 2, Microsoft Vice President Panos Panay addressed those issues and said that Book users ended up using their devices for longer stretches of time than any other Surface product.

The Surface Book 2 13-inch and 15-inch models.
The Surface Book 2 13-inch and 15-inch models.

The Book 2 uses the same design of the first-generation system. Its industrial design features a sleek, silver magnesium chassis and the line’s unique fulcrum-style hinge that allows you to use the book like a laptop, but completely detach the display via a dedicated keyboard button.

I was a fan of the original Book’s design, and I liked the Book 2’s look just as much. Microsoft did, however, work to remove the vents and fans from the Book 2 to ensure it is not only lighter than its predecessor, but quieter. Not every Book 2 goes fanless, though. Models equipped with Intel’s Core i7 processor simply generate too much heat to not use fans.

Taking the screen with you

The Surface Book 2’s biggest selling point, outside of its power, is that you can detach its display and use it as an independent tablet. And thanks to Microsoft’s Windows 10 and Universal Windows Apps, there are a number of touch-friendly apps at your fingertips. It’s not nearly as much as Apple’s enormous App Store, but you’ve got the basics like Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu, as well as Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR).

Microsoft managed to make the Book 2’s tablet portion both thin and light enough to use on its own with ease. But at 13.5 inches, it’s just a bit too wide for my liking, which means the 15-inch version would be far too large to comfortably use for long stretches or while lying in bed.

Still, if you’re on a plane and want to watch a movie, or want to handwrite notes using the $100 Surface Pen, tablet mode is a joy.

The Surface Book 2 has a gorgeous display.
The Surface Book 2 has a gorgeous display.

In the short time Microsoft has been creating its own devices, it has quickly become known for offering some of the best displays you can find on a laptop or tablet. And the Book 2 is no different in that regard. Whether you’re using the 13.5-inch model or the 15-inch, you’ll get a gorgeous PixelSense panel.

Apple’s MacBook Pro displays are no slouches, either. They make text look crisp and offer vivid colors. And while Microsoft’s displays offer higher resolutions — by about 47 pixels per inch on the 13.5-inch model and 40 pixels per inch on the 15-inch model — you’re not likely to notice the difference.

It’s all about the power

The base 13.5-inch Book 2 includes a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive for $1,399. If you go all out, you get the 13.5-inch model with an either-generation Core i7 chip, 16GB of RAM, an Nvidia Geforce GTX 1050 graphics chip with 2GB of RAm and a 1TB SSD for … deep breath … $2,999.

Microsoft wants you to know the Book 2 doesn’t just use that power for video processing, either. That’s because the hybrid also does a decent job of handling PC gaming. I was able to run “Overwatch” and “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” on the Book 2 without much issue. Don’t expect to run “PUBG” on its highest settings, though.

Games look great on the Surface Book 2, but you’ll sacrifice battery life to play.
Games look great on the Surface Book 2, but you’ll sacrifice battery life to play.

If you’re hoping to do that, you’ll need to opt for the 15-inch Book 2, which is a different beast entirely. The base model starts at $2,499 and gets you a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a Geforce GTX 1060 with 6GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. With that kind of power you can play recent big-name titles like “Forza Motorsport 7.” It doesn’t hurt that Microsoft also equipped the 15-inch Book 2 with a wireless receiver for the company’s Xbox One controller. The 13-inch doesn’t get that feature.

In addition to raw power, Microsoft is promising that both versions of the Surface Book 2 will get a ridiculous 17 hours of battery life.

I got nearly a full day’s worth of work out of my review unit, which included web browsing and music streaming. I was also using Microsoft’s Edge browser rather than Google’s Chrome, which is designed to get the most out of the Surface’s battery.

Gaming will kill your battery much faster, though. And as The Verge points out, the battery will even drain during intense gaming sessions when the hybrid is plugged in, which is a bummer.

For a performance device, the Surface Book 2 is an impressive piece of hardware. But it comes up short in one area: ports. The Book 2 comes with two standard USB slots and a USB C port. The problem, though, is that that USB C slot doesn’t use Thunderbolt 3.

This won’t matter to many consumers, but for people working with large files, or using external graphics cards, Thunderbolt 3 is a must, as it’s faster and more capable than standard USB C. For the average person, that’s not much of an issue, but for professionals who are spending $3,000 on a laptop, it can be a problem.

Apple’s MacBook Pro 13-inch offers Thunderbolt 3 on its two USB C ports, while the 15-inch version provides four USB C slots that are Thunderbolt 3-capable. Neither, though, has standard USB ports.

Should you get it?

The Surface Book 2 is a powerhouse of a machine. Its display is fantastic, its components are top-notch and its battery life is long enough to get you through your work day. The ability to use the Book 2 as a tablet is just icing on the cake.

But, it’s expensive, and that Thunderbolt 3 issue could turn off some professionals. If you’re in the market for a versatile laptop with an impressive amount of power and don’t care much about Thunderbolt 3, this is absolutely the machine to get. If you can’t live without Thunderbolt 3, though, you’ll likely want to opt for the MacBook Pro.

Either way, Microsoft has once again proven that when it comes to making machines that can take Apple to task, it’s the best.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley .