Microsoft Surface Book 3 15-inch review: Still unique, still expensive

Patrick
Microsoft Surface Book 3 facing front on table

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

When I purchased a Surface Book 2 in November 2017, it was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought. It was an upgrade to my stolen Surface Book 1, which I’d picked up second-hand from a seller on Reddit. After using that first Surface Book, I was so into the laptop that I had to have the second generation. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting for Microsoft to update the line once again.

Now, Microsoft has finally released the Surface Book 3. But after so much time, is there enough new here to make me buy this laptop a third time?

This is Android Authority’s Surface Book 3 review.

What is the Microsoft Surface Book 3?

Microsoft Surface Book 3 back of tablet on table

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The Surface Book 3 is a hybrid laptop/tablet computer, but it’s different from the hybrids you’re probably used to. Instead of slapping a rubberized keyboard on the bottom or folding the display 360 degrees to become a tablet, the Surface Book 3 comes in two powerful parts. First there’s the main tablet part, which houses the display, CPU, RAM, and a battery. Then there’s the beefy keyboard dock, which hides an extra battery and a dedicated GPU. This combination allows you to use the Surface Book 3 as a tablet, laptop, or flip the screen around to use it as a digital art workstation.

The fulcrum hinge on the Surface Book 3 is the most unique feature from the line. It curls like a spine, and will only do so while the tablet screen is attached. This makes it feel a bit like the spine of a book and is where the Surface Book 3 gets its name. It looks more fashionable and makes carrying the laptop more comfortable, though it has been criticized for leaving a bit of a gap above the keyboard where dust might sneak in.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 USB A ports and SD card reader

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The tablet portion of the laptop only has a charging port, so you’ll need to dock into the base if you want to use ports. Fortunately, the keyboard base doesn’t disappoint with port selection. There are two USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type A ports, one USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type C port, a Surface Connect power port, and an SD card reader. As a creative professional, I’m very happy Microsoft included that SD card slot, although I wish it had given the USB-C port Thunderbolt capabilities. Microsoft blames security for this limitation.

What is it like using the Microsoft Surface Book 3?

Microsoft Surface Book 3 keyboard below screen

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The entire system is made of magnesium alloy, which gives it a smooth and industrial look and feel. Most often, I used the Surface Book 3 in laptop mode. I’m just too attached to that keyboard and, when detached, the 15-inch slate portion is simply massive. I occasionally used the tablet in standalone format when reading, but it’s quite unwieldy on its own. It can be nice to use the screen flipped around while watching movies, and using the screen flipped and laid atop the keyboard is useful when making digital art.

The thickness required for the battery and GPU means the Surface Book 3 has ample key travel, bottoming out at 1.55mm, up from the 1.2mm of travel on the Surface Book 2. While the keyboard on the Surface Book 2 was already one of my favorite of any laptop, the extra depth of the Surface Book 3 improves the typing experience. The touchpad underneath the keyboard is great, but it feels a bit small by today’s standards, especially when compared to the massive touchpad on the MacBook Pro 16. Still, it’s got great glide for your fingers and is plenty clicky.

See also: Best keyboards for work and play

The Surface Book 3 is one of the most unique and well-built laptops on the market.

The overall experience of using the Surface Book 3 is great. First party hardware often has some of the cleanest software, and that’s true here as well. This means you’re free to install what you want and ignore what you don’t, and you won’t get random popups asking you to renew your anti-viral software.

I did notice one issue where the connection between the tablet and keyboard could become unstable. This usually happened soon after attaching the tablet to the keyboard. The screen turned black, and while the display would sometimes come back after a few seconds, sometimes the computer locked up and restarted. Hopefully this issue gets ironed out in a future update.

How’s the screen?

Microsoft Surface Book 3 separated screen 1

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The screen of the Microsoft Surface Book 3 is a gorgeous 3,240 x 2,160 display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. It’s quite sharp, but unfortunately it doesn’t get bright enough. When working outside, I often had trouble reading the screen. The contrast ratio comes in at 1600:1, which is quite a bit lower than newer OLED panels. Microsoft has been using this display for years, and I would have loved to see an OLED on the Surface Book 3.

Microsoft carried over the bezels from the Surface Book 2. While I can understand why Microsoft needed to keep the bezels this size to make the tablet easier to handle, I would have appreciated at least a small reduction in thickness. It’s been almost three years since the Surface Book 2 launched, and laptops such as the new Dell XPS series are starting to arrive with nearly no bezels at all.

That being said, I love the 3:2 aspect ratio. It makes it easy to work with multiple windows or documents. When writing, it’s often useful for me to have reference material on the right side of the display while my primary writing window sits on the left. While a lot of laptops, including the Asus Zenbook Pro Duo, are opting for 16:9 displays, I’m really happy Microsoft retained the 3:2 aspect ratio on the Surface Book 3.

What is performance like?

Microsoft Surface Book 3 gaming on display

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

Most of the Surface Book 3’s improvements are on the inside. While the exterior chassis design remains mostly unchanged, the laptop has new CPU and GPU options, and the potential for 32GB of RAM vs the 16GB cap on the Surface Book 2.

The Surface Book 3 15-inch uses the Intel Core i7 Processor, part of Intel’s recently-released 10th generation line. This is a quad-core chip based on a 10nm process, which has some pretty big performance and power improvements from Intel’s 9th generation processors. It is a 15W chip, meaning that it performs much slower than the 45W chips you’ll find in higher-end gaming laptops and desktops. Microsoft had to stick with the 15W chip to keep the thermal envelope in check since the bulk of the computer exists behind the screen. As a tablet it’s incredibly powerful, but compared to a lot of laptops its size, it is a bit lacking.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 fps while gaming

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

Fortunately, Microsoft included a couple of impressive GPU options in the 15-inch Surface Book 3. The default option is the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Max Q, which is an incredibly powerful chip in its own right. This led to some impressive performance in games. I got 72fps on high settings in DotA 2, something that can’t be said of the Surface Book 2.

Microsoft also offers the 15-inch Surface Book 3 with an Nvidia Quadro GPU, but only for enterprise customers. If your business uses a lot of 3D software, it could be worth springing for this option.

The GTX 1660 Ti in our unit also aided in video editing. Adobe Premiere recently released an update that allows the GPU to assist in both playback and rendering. This cut down my editing and export times by a considerable amount. However, it still can’t compete with the likes of the Asus Zenbook Pro Duo, which uses a 45W CPU and RTX 2060 GPU. The 15W chip had a lot of trouble playing back 4k video, and it was a lot easier to make lower-resolution proxies while editing. Unfortunately, I’ll continue to use a different computer for video production.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 base fans

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

Still, the 32GB RAM option is a huge step up for the Surface Book 3. When using multiple Adobe programs at once RAM can fill up quickly. Moving from 16GB to 32GB gives you a lot of headroom, especially in applications like Photoshop.

If you’re looking to do video editing or other work that requires processing power, you’ll be better served by a laptop with a 45W CPU. The 15W chip in the Surface Book 3 is fine for lightweight tasks, but it struggles with heavier work.

What’s the battery life like?

Microsoft Surface Book 3 left side ports new

Battery life has always been a strong point of the Surface Book series. This is primarily because it hides two batteries in the chassis. I easily got over 10 hours in a general day’s use, which is comparable to many ultrabooks. Considering the Surface Book 3 only uses a 15W CPU, though, this makes sense.

If you want to use the tablet portion by itself, you’ll get just over 3 hours. This is a bit disappointing if you’re into using the tablet more often, but Microsoft included a Surface Connect port in the tablet itself in case you want to charge it separately from the battery base.

Speaking of the Surface Connect port, it’s nice to see it’s still around. I love magnetic chargers, as they help to keep the laptop safe if something or someone collides with the cord. The charger also has a USB-A port built into it, which is great if you want to charge your phone or headphones while using the laptop.

The Surface Book 2 sometimes drained battery power while playing intensive games, even while plugged in. This was due to the 102W power supply. Microsoft rectified this issue by including a 127W power adapter with the Surface Book 3.

What I like about the Microsoft Surface Book 3

Microsoft Surface Book 3 front camera sensors

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The keyboard is one of my favorite things about the Surface Book 3. While some beefier laptops now have room for thicker, more mechanical keyboards, I still adore the keyboard on the Surface Book 3. It has great travel and actuation and feels very rigid due to the magnesium construction. I could type on this thing all day.

Build quality of the Surface Book 3 is hard to beat. Microsoft’s industrial design of the Surface line is so unique, it’s hard to find anything else quite like it. It gives the laptop incredible amounts of style and makes it feel like a premium device. Combined with the fulcrum hinge, the Surface Book 3 is unlike any other laptop on the market, even 5 years after the release of the original.

This is some of the best industrial design you’ll find in a laptop.

Battery life on the Surface Book series has also always been a strong point. Because the laptop has two separate batteries, it lasts for a really long time in laptop mode.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 back camera

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

Lastly, the cameras on the Surface Book 3 are fantastic. While many laptop webcams are terrible, Microsoft used a 1080p-capable 5MP webcam for the front camera and an 8MP camera on the back. I had multiple people ask me why my video looked so good during video calls.

What I don’t like about the Surface Book 3

Microsoft Surface Book 3 keyboard and hinge

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

While I can appreciate the novelty of a detachable screen on a laptop, I rarely used it. Moreover, because Microsoft designed the Surface Book this way, it’s unable to take advantage of a higher-wattage CPU. This is disappointing because it forced me to default to my more powerful laptop for video editing when I’d love to use the Surface Book 3 for everything. Microsoft engineered themselves into a thermal corner with this design.

The speakers on the Surface Book 3 are too quiet. I love that they face out of the front of the tablet, but they lack both volume and separation. Considering the advantage they have pointing directly at your face, a louder speaker would have been nice, especially now that Apple offers some of the best laptop speakers around with the MacBook Pro 16.

Microsoft Surface Book 3 display close up

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

I would have liked to see an updated display on the Surface Book 3. Many high-end laptops are starting to use bright OLED screens with great contrast ratios. Microsoft isn’t there yet.

The last thing I would have liked to see on the Surface Book 3 is Thunderbolt 3 support. Thunderbolt 3 is a great way to add more horsepower when you need it with an external GPU. Microsoft cites security concerns for omitting this capability, but it also sells a $260 Surface Connect Dock to attach screens and peripherals. I would assume it simply wants to sell more of those.

Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Book 3?

Microsoft Surface Book 3 back attached option 2

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 is a device based on certain priorities. It sacrifices raw power for great battery life and industrial design. It’s great for digital creatives, especially those who want to use the Surface Pen.

If you need horsepower for intense tasks like video editing, you may want to look elsewhere. It’s hard to switch back to a 15W CPU when you’re used to editing on a 45W processor.

The Microsoft Surface Book 3 is also a very expensive laptop for its specs. The model I have, with 512GB of storage and 32GB of RAM, costs $2,799, which is pricey for a laptop with an ultrabook CPU. But you don’t buy a Surface Book for power. You buy it for its incredible industrial design and unique functionality — which is nearly impossible to find in any other laptop.

If you’re a digital artist that can make use of the Surface Pen or you love the idea of a laptop that transforms into a tablet, the Surface Book 3 is incredible. But if you seek a Windows machine that gives you the best bang for your buck, you may be better off looking elsewhere.

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