Design

When Microsoft first launched the Surface lineup, the design team was very much about bringing new form factors to the PC space. The original Surface RT and Surface Pro introduced the kickstand to the convertible tablet, and with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft adopted the 3:2 aspect ratio which they have carried onto all their products since. Surface Book was a unique take on a convertible laptop, thanks to the detachable tablet, putting a dGPU in the keyboard base, and especially the dynamic fulcrum hinge which gives the Surface Book its very distinctive appearance.

But, as with all devices, there are some compromises with each design decision. For convertible devices like the Surface Book, it generally means some design trade-offs when compared to a more traditional clamshell laptop, just as how a traditional clamshell laptop gives up some of the extra functionality of a convertible.

One of the biggest things you will notice comparing the Surface Book 3 to other high-end laptops is one of the first compromises, and that is the display bezels. As the industry has moved to thinner and thinner display bezels to maximize display real estate in smaller and smaller devices, the Surface Book 3 features the same large bezels as it has always had. Since the Surface Book 3 has a detachable display for use as a tablet, some extra bezel is required as somewhere to hold on to, but even so, Microsoft has managed to shrink the bezels on other Surface products to make them a bit less obvious. Unfortunately, since the Surface Book 3 is not getting any design refresh with this update, it has lost some ground compared to the rest of the industry.

Having a detachable display also means the PC components must be behind the display. This results in a trade-off of its own, with the Surface Book being required to use Intel's 15-Watt range of processors. It's a notable distinction, as much of the competition, especially in the larger 15-inch range we are reviewing today, leverages more powerful 45-Watt SoCs. The upside for Surface Book is that this leaves a lot of thermal capacity in the keyboard base, allowing it to be outfitted with much more powerful GPU options than you would normally see in a 15-inch productivity device.

Even though the exterior is more or less unchanged from the Surface Book 2, Microsoft has still tweaked the design a bit, with an upgraded hinge offering more support. There have been some welcome changes to the detach of the tablet as well: the speed of the detach process has been improved, offering two times faster unlock on the 13-inch and three times faster unlock on the 15-inch over the outgoing model. There is also a new feature called Safe Detach, which leverages a new ability in DirectX 12 to move an active workload from the discrete GPU to the integrated GPU, allowing the tablet to be detached even when the discrete GPU is in use. Unfortunately, this does require developers to explicitly support the feature, and Microsoft offered up an example of World of Warcraft as an application which already takes advantage of this technology.

Another area that appears unchanged but got some significant upgrades is the Surface Connect port. On the Surface Book 2, the Surface Connect port, which is used for both charging and docking to the Surface Dock, had some serious limitations, particularly compared to what USB Type-C has been doing. The charging capabilities of the port were limited to 100 Watts, and the Surface Book 2 15-inch when under a very heavy load could sometimes draw slightly more than that. This would cause the battery drain while connected to power in some circumstances, such as gaming. Microsoft has beefed up the relative power pins now, and the Surface Book 3 now ships with a 127-Watt adapter, removing that issue.

The second major upgrade with the new Surface Connect port is how much data can be transferred through it. The port, which was first introduced on Surface Pro 3, was effectively a precursor to the USB-C that we know and love today, with Microsoft using a proprietary connector that combined both USB and DisplayPort into a single cable. The previous Surface Connect port carried USB 3.0 (3.2 Gen 1) and 4 lanes of DisplayPort 1.2, which limited it to 5 Gbps on the USB side, and on the display side there was enough bandwidth for a 4K@60Hz display, but only one of them.

The Surface Book 3, in turn bumps the port up to USB 3.2 Gen 2 and DisplayPort 1.4. The means that the port now carries a 10 Gbps USB connection for data, and the faster DisplayPort connection can handle dual UHD displays at 60 Hz when connected to the new Surface Dock 2. The updated connector, in turn, remains pin-compatible with the previous connector, meaning that prior docks will work, albeit without being able to run at the higher speeds the newer Surface Connect port supports. Meanwhile Microsoft still has not embraced Thunderbolt 3, so the Surface lineup remains stuck to the proprietary dock, but the new Surface Dock 2 does at least address most of the concerns over the previous version.

Surface Connect Port Specifications
  Ver. 1 Ver. 2
Connector Type 40-pin "Surflink" 40-pin "Surflink"
USB USB 3.x Gen 1
(5 Gbps)
USB 3.x Gen 2
(10 Gbps)
Display DisplayPort 1.2
4 Lanes
DisplayPort 1.4
4 Lanes
Max Power 100W 127W

Other than those minor design changes, the rest of the Surface Book 3 chassis is relatively unchanged from the Surface Book 2. The Surface Book continues to offer one of the best keyboards on any notebook. The trackpad is wonderfully implemented, and although some competitors have stretched the size of the trackpad, the Surface Book 3 still offers one that is generously sized. The chassis continues to be made out of a magnesium alloy, offering a fantastic feel.

The Surface Book 2 was one of the best notebooks available, and although the design is now starting to show its age, the Surface Book 3 still works well. The nature of convertible devices is that of compromise though, as they try to fill multiple roles. The Surface Book’s take, with a detachable display and dynamic fulcrum hinge continues to embrace that difference rather than do its best to hide it. For ease of use, a convertible with a 360° hinge is still less complicated, and quicker to switch modes. The 15-inch version especially is too large to use as a tablet most of the time, whereas the 13.5-inch version is a bit easier to handle in that regard. But, the removable display is the defining design feature of the Surface Book, and although most of the time the display will be attached, there are certainly some scenarios where it is very handy to be able to pop off the display. Three generations in though, and it has lost a bit of its wow factor.

Introduction System Performance
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  • Icehawk - Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - link

    And don’t forget if they drain the battery you can’t plug them into a dock to turn it on, you need to use a standalone charger to get it up to 10% or so first. Ugh I am not a Surface fan AT ALL. I’ve supported almost all of the models. Reply
  • pjcamp - Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - link

    I don't give a crap about bezels and I doubt anyone else does either, beyond tech pundits and reviewers who need something trendy to criticize. In fact, for devices to be held in the hands, like phones and tablets, bezels are a feature, not a bug, as they limit accidental activations.

    I own an original Surface Book, and I have a few observations about its durability.

    In the end, the detachable form factor is not a good idea. It means if you want to get inside, you have to pry off the screen, a dicey proposition. It is fussy and fumbly to switch back and forth, which you really need to do if you need to change between drawing and typing as drawing in laptop mode is made quite difficult by the screen wobbling back and forth. It's best to think of this as a pure laptop.

    The build quality is suspect. I've actually owned three of these things due to warranty replacements. Each of the previous ones had a power button that got stuck in the on position.

    Also, I don't detach the screen very much, but the connection on all three computers became wonky. Suddenly it no longer sees the keyboard any more and announces that it is in tablet mode.

    The memory wire attachment mechanism is clever, but it has gotten to the point that it doesn't work consistently. And the only recourse then is to find the one and only vent hole on the side that allows you to push a paper clip in at a 45 degree angle to force a manual release. That is clearly designed to prevent you from using it.

    Batteries are not eternal but at this point my battery life with keyboard attached is down to less than two hours. That seems like an awfully quick degradation, as these things go.

    The only thing that is an unmitigated good about these device, and it is a big thing, is the hi res 3:2 screen. If only Microsoft could make Windows scale appropriately instead of relying on each app to do it independently.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Thursday, June 4, 2020 - link

    This pretty much summarises my understanding of the devices, from a support perspective... they're just fussy. Over-engineered would be another way of putting it. Impossible to repair, fragile, and generally not suited to regular use "in anger".

    A damn shame, really, as I like the concept.
    Reply
  • Deicidium369 - Friday, June 5, 2020 - link

    I am not sure about them being fragile - have had 10 or 11 deployed in the field, and they can at times take a beating - no failures in ~2 years - I have had my older model for going on 4, although doesn't get used that much anymore... still no issues. Reply
  • Spunjji - Friday, June 5, 2020 - link

    Your ~11 beats my 2, but of those 2 both failed - and one had intermittent GPU driver issues even when it was working. Reply
  • amb9800 - Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - link

    The GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q seems to be delivering better performance than expected (especially given it's a 65W part, vs. the 80W GTX 1060 Max-P in the Surface Book 2 15"), so it's not a completely worthless spec bump.

    That said, this would've been the perfect use case for the Ryzen 4000 U-series CPUs. Equipping the Surface Book 3 with a Ryzen 7 4800U would've allowed for performance on par with 45W 6/8-core Intel-based 15" competitors but within the Surface's 15-25W TDP budget.

    Intel Ice Lake U-series is by far the biggest disappointment on this machine -- it (along with every other premium Intel-powered ultrabook) gets destroyed by the 4700U-powered $650 Acer Swift 3. The performance picture gets even worse when you look at, say, the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, which ups the ante with the desktop-killing Ryzen 9 4900HS for under $1,500 -- with a 14" screen, solid battery life, and lower weight than even the 13" Surface Book 3.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Thursday, June 4, 2020 - link

    It's completely idiotic to compare a part that fits in a tablet form factor with a laptop sporting a 35W CPU. Whether the form factor is dumb or not is a different question.

    Worth remembering that Intel has delivered a "true SoC" platform for quite some time now. AMD's past CPUs, by comparison, weren't "true SoC" platforms and weren't even candidates to fit on this size of board. Ryzen 2x00U had an idle power bug across the platform, further removing it from candidacy.

    That means the first AMD SoC the Surface Book team might've had the chance to integrate is the 3x00U. Based on how long it took for MS to integrate Ice Lake, the Surface Book 3 wouldn't get the 4700U until Christmas or later. Possibly longer considering that the 4700U is a more substantial change than Ice Lake vs past Intel SoCs.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Thursday, June 4, 2020 - link

    Yea just found this from the Renoir intro:

    "AMD’s latest Ryzen mobile product is the first design the company has done that combines CPU, GPU, and IO all on a monolithic die in TSMC’s 7nm process."

    Indicating that IO wasn't entirely on-board before. Surface Book 4 could theoretically have a Ryzen design.
    Reply
  • Deicidium369 - Friday, June 5, 2020 - link

    Would imagine that the 1 AMD design they have would be sporting the 4000 series - wonder how much of a new design was needed to support it. Thermals would be better on the 4000 vs the older design Reply
  • Spunjji - Friday, June 5, 2020 - link

    I think you've misinterpreted that - Renoir is the first AMD SoC that combines all of that *on 7nm*. I'm fairly sure Raven ridge included USB, SATA etc on-die - that's how the A300 Promontory "chipset" in the ASRock A300 does its thing.

    Wouldn't surprise me if the SoC had a larger package area than the Intel competitors, though. Intel have been working hard on that aspect for a few generations now.
    Reply

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