Microsoft Surface Book 3 review: The 'ultimate laptop' needs new ideas

It aims for broad appeal, but specialized laptops or tablets can deliver more for less.

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Surface Book 3: Productivity performance

You should expect Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 to perform admirably as a productivity machine, where its keyboard and display will really shine. In general, the Surface Book performed up to our expectations.

One odd bug we noticed was in playing back 4K videos at 60Hz over YouTube. (Typically, most video is encoded at 1080p at 30Hz. A 4K/60 video demands more bandwidth.) We loaded up a 4K/60 video of a walking tour of New York City’s Times Square, with an ad blocker enabled and the video buffered. While the comparison Surface Pro 7 dropped frames intermittently (174 out of 10,037), the Surface Book 3 (with 32GB of memory and a discrete GPU) dropped 602 frames out of 10,019—a constant drip-drip of about two frames dropped per every 30. We have queried Microsoft.

Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 flash speed Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Book 3’s CrystalDiskMark score for SSD performance. It’s very good, and this isn’t even the fastest SSD of the family.

In our first series of benchmarks, we compare the Surface Book 3 against our stable of productivity notebooks, some of which would also work for content creation and gaming. HP’s Spectre x360 15 falls nicely into that category, though unfortunately we’ve seen only the older 2019 model. Other laptops that do well here are the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390, the larger Dell XPS 15 7390, and the Acer Swift 3 SF314-42-R9YN. We’ve saved gaming-specific tests for a second round of benchmarks, below.

We use PCMark 8’s Work tests to determine how a laptop will do with general office apps, and the additional Creative test to assess performance in photo editing, video manipulation, and the like. We’ve added the Microsoft Surface Book 2 (shown in orange) for comparison. The Work test is pretty easy for high-end laptops, so the differences aren’t as profound as you might expect.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 pcmark work Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Book 2 and the Surface Book 3 track closely in our easier productivity tests.

There’s a slightly sharper jump between the Surface Book 2 and Surface Book 3 in the Creative test, though it still uses the integrated GPU, which dampens the gaming portion of the scores. The use of IGP also explains why the Surface Laptop 3 outperforms the Book 3, as it has fewer pixels to push. We'll see results for the discrete GPU in the gaming tests.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 pcmark creative Mark Hachman / IDG

The PCMark 8 Creative test shows a slightly wider gap. The Surface Laptop 3's lower-resolution display helps it outperform the Surface Book 3.

Maxon’s Cinebench stresses the entire system, specifically the CPU and all of its threads. It's no surprise to see performance comparable to the Surface Laptop 3, because the CPU is the same.

Note that the Surface Book 3’s default Windows’ power/performance setting is “best battery life,” which typically means lower performance. Though we also ran tests at higher performance settings, we didn’t see meaningful differences in most tests except this one. The higher performance setting is represented by an outlined red bar.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 cinebench Mark Hachman / IDG

We tested the Surface Book 3’s in its default Windows power/performance setting of “best battery life” (plain red bar) as well as higher performance settings (outlined red bar), with meaningful difference only in this test.

It’s a slightly different story with our HandBrake test. This open-source tool stresses the system over a prolonged period, testing CPU stamina as well as thermal limits while transcoding a feature-length Hollywood film for an Android tablet.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Book 3's HandBrake performance was nearly the same in its default "best battery life" setting (shown here) compared to higher performance settings. 

We take a harder look at the discrete GPU using UL’s 3DMark test, which provides several benchmarks, shown in the following charts. First up is Sky Diver, against other productivity machines, where only the tricked-out Dell XPS 15 surpasses the Surface Book 3.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 3dmark sky diver productivity Mark Hachman / IDG

In 3DMark Sky Diver, the Microsoft Surface Book 3 soars nearly to the top.

Surface Book 3: Gaming tests

We’ve used some of 3DMark’s more powerful graphics benchmarks to compare it to several gaming PCs, from boutique builders to more mainstream names. The gist: While the Surface Book 3 can be used for gaming, dedicated gaming machines generally outperform it. Keep in mind that those machines use Nvidia GeForce GTX and RTX hardware that is much more powerful than the GeForce GTX 1660Ti (Max-Q) in the Surface Book 3. Gaming laptops can also take advantage of the gaming-centric Core chips from Intel’s “H” family, including the mighty Core i9.

First up, the Sky Diver benchmark again. While the Surface Book 3 posted high marks against productivity laptops, it falls to the bottom when pitted against gaming machines.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 3dmark sky diver gaming Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Book 3 falls to the bottom of the gaming heap in this synthetic benchmark.

The 3DMark Fire Strike, Fire Strike Extreme and Fire Strike Ultra are older benchmarks designed to test Direct 11 performance on gaming PCs, at progressively higher resolutions and visual quality. We’ve compiled them all in one chart. The Surface Book 3 gets a passing grade here.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 3dmark fire strike Mark Hachman / IDG

In 3DMark Fire Strike 1.1, the Surface Book 3 leads the back of the pack, ahead of high-end Lenovo and Dell productivity systems.

The pattern continued in the 3DMark Time Spy benchmark, optimized for DirectX 12 performance on gaming PCs. The Surface Book 3 leads the back of the pack, behind all gaming laptops but ahead of a few other high-end productivity laptops. 

Microsoft Surface Book 3 3dmark time spy Mark Hachman / IDG

Again, the Surface Book 3 shows that it can serve as a lower-tier gaming PC, but can’t hold a candle to dedicated rigs.

We also tested real-world gaming performance. Both games—Rise of the Tomb Raider and Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor—are a couple of years old, accurately pinpointing that the Surface Book 3 can serve as a gaming laptop, but with limitations. 

Microsoft Surface Book 3 rise of the tomb raider Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Book 3 is an also-ran in Rise of the Tomb Raised. Anything above 60Hz is suitable for gameplay. (The Surface Book 3’s built-in display only operates at 60Hz.)

Microsoft Surface Book 3 middleearth shadow of mordor Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Book 3 nudges above its low-end rivals here. Shadow of Mordor is playable on the Surface Book 3 at 1080p resolution.

Anecdotally, we ran PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds at 1080p (Ultra graphical settings) for 45 minutes or so, with 50 to 58 frames per second as measured by Windows’ Xbox Game Bar.

Bottom line, don't buy the Surface Book 3 just for gaming, as there are gaming-specific laptops to be had (like the $1,699 MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 9SD) for far less. 

Surface Book 3 battery life

Our final test is battery life, a traditional strength of the Surface Book line. With a smaller 22Wh battery in the tablet and a larger 59Wh battery in the base, this dual setup once outstripped all other comers. Now, you have a number of single-battery laptops that surpass it, and that doesn’t include devices that use Qualcomm’s power-efficient Snapdragon processor. Still, almost 12 hours of battery is great, as shown by our standard video rundown test. The Surface Book 3 charged to 53 percent in an hour’s time.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft claims that the Surface Book 3 offers more battery life than the Surface Book 2, but our tests don’t indicate that.

Conclusion: A strong niche player

Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 attempts to be all things for all people: the PC you create with during the day, and the laptop you relax with at night. Honestly, Microsoft’s vision of a big, beautiful workstation/tablet/gaming PC/productivity machine has always deeply resonated with me. It's hard to find a gaming PC with such an excellent keyboard, or a productivity laptop with such a powerful GPU inside. All of this is elegantly wrapped, with the Surface bow on top. This is Microsoft’s premier PC experience.

And yet, the goal of the "ultimate laptop" seems more out of reach than ever. If you want a dedicated productivity machine, you can do better. If you want a dedicated gaming laptop, you can do better. If you want a dedicated tablet, you can do better. Why Microsoft hasn’t built in a kickstand, making it a full-fledged tablet? Why exclude GeForce RTX hardware, disappointing the gaming community? Has Microsoft overcome its legacy of hardware bugs?

What Microsoft has to realize is that specialized, competing devices now achieve more in productivity, gaming, power efficiency, and price than one device can ever accomplish. Microsoft’s do-it-all Surface Book 3 fills its own unique niche. But it is still a niche.

Updated on July 2 with additional details.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Surface Book 3 upgrades the CPU and GPU options, while leaving the rest of this convertible 2-in-1 largely unchanged. In a rapidly changing and improving landscape, that stability's a bit of a liability.

    Pros

    • Solid performance
    • Surprisingly quiet most of the time
    • Very good battery life
    • Detachable tablet is still unique in the industry

    Cons

    • Extremely pricey
    • A history of hardware bugs
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