Microsoft’s 13.5-inch Surface Book 3 puts modern guts in a dated design

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I’ve been a 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 owner since 2018. I love the thing because it has a combination of unique advantages, such as its 3:2 aspect ratio, discrete GPU options, and unique detachable screen, that you won’t find in any other laptop on the market. But those features brought with them a number of small (but glaring) flaws: a large and wobbly hinge, a limited port selection, and very visible bezels. If Microsoft fixed those, I thought the new Surface Book 3 could be a nearly perfect device.

Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn’t done that. The 13.5-inch Book 3 looks and feels identical to the 13.5-inch Book 2 in all but a few small ways. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great computer; the Book 2 is a great computer, and Microsoft hasn’t fixed what wasn’t broken. But it does mean that the dated design is even more dated now than it was in 2017.

If you’re familiar with the Surface Book 2, here’s what you need to know: everything that makes a Surface Book a Surface Book is still here. Detachable display: check. 3:2 aspect ratio: check. Touchscreen with Surface Pen support: check. Excellent battery life: check. The stuff everyone complained about has also not gone away: it hasn’t gotten any lighter, the screen still wobbles, there’s still no Thunderbolt 3, and the bezels are still about as chunky as anything you’ll find at this price point.

The price also hasn’t changed. Our review unit, which includes a Core i7, 32GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and a GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q GPU, is $2,499. That’s the same price as the Surface Book 2 with comparable specs. (You can also get the Book without discrete graphics; the base 13.5-inch model still starts at a hefty $1,599.) That keeps the Book 3 in a fairly niche purchasing category at the highest end of the laptop market. It’s not competing with most mainstream Windows laptops. It’s Microsoft’s potshot at the MacBook Pro.

Editor’s note: This review is focused on the 13.5-inch version of the Surface Book 3. If you are interested in the 15-inch model, we have a full review of that here.

The Book 3’s most significant upgrades are on the inside. It has a new 10th Gen processor, Intel’s quad-core Core i7-1065G7 (the same chip that powers the superstar i7 model of the 2020 Dell XPS 13). Microsoft has also bumped up the graphics with a GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q GPU. (The higher-end configuration of the Book 2 had a GTX 1050.) There’s also a higher RAM cap. The last model topped out at 16GB.

Surface Book 3 keyboard

The keyboard is great.

Surface Book 3 headphone jack

There’s a headphone jack on the display.

The new processor is snappy. If you use the Book 3 and the Book 2 side by side, there is a slight difference in browsing speed. The Book 3 loads webpages a teensy bit faster, and scrolling is smoother if you’re looking for it. Of course, the Book 2’s performance was already plenty fast for my Reddit-scrolling and Netflix-watching purposes. So credit to Microsoft where it’s due, but the upgrade won’t impact your experience much if you’re an everyday browser user like me.

Where the difference may come into play is in more demanding tasks, like gaming, high-end productivity, and the like, that make use of the newer GPU.

I ran Overwatch, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Civilization VI, and the Book 3 handled all three decently considering it’s not a dedicated gaming laptop. It maintained a consistent 68–69fps on Overwatch’s highest settings, never dipping below 60. It averaged 36fps on Civ VI (high settings), 22fps on Tomb Raider (medium settings), and 34fps on Tomb Raider (low settings). (Vsync and anti-aliasing were off during all tests.) Those wouldn’t be great numbers for a gaming rig, but they’re about what we’d expect at the Book 3’s native 3000 x 2000 resolution. If you want better results, you’ll want to turn the resolution down. But if you’re going to be doing that a lot, you may be better off just going for a laptop with a 1080p screen.

This is all to say that the GTX 1650 enables the Book 3 to run popular titles at more playable frame rates than its predecessor could. But it’s certainly not powerful enough to catapult the Book 3 into gaming laptop territory. And it’s not VR material — for that, you’ll want at least a 1660 Ti.

Results are similar on the productivity side: the Book 3 is better but not the best. The device took nine minutes and 52 seconds to export a 5-minute, 33-second 4K video in Adobe Premiere Pro, which is quite a bit slower than higher-powered “creator” machines, such as the 15-inch Surface Book 3 with a GTX 1660 Ti Max Q, or Gigabyte’s Aero 15 with an RTX 2070 Super Max Q. Again, it gets the job done, but video editors have better options at this price.

I also did once experience an issue some Book 2 owners have had where the Book 3 stopped recognizing its GPU, and I was unable to run games as a result. Popping the screen on and off fixed the problem. I’m disappointed to see the Book 3 shipping with that issue, but I hope future driver updates will address it.

The next few paragraphs will be a crash course in the Book 3’s design and form factor. None of this will be new to Surface enthusiasts, so you have permission to skim.

If you’re buying the Surface Book 3, you’re almost certainly buying it for the screen. It has two standout features that you won’t find on many competing devices. The first is the 3000 x 2000 resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio. It’s hard to explain why 3:2 is so much better than 16:9 or 16:10; if you try it for yourself, you’ll see. You have a lot more room on the Surface Book’s screen to swap between multiple apps and tabs; as someone who’s been using it for two years, any other aspect ratio feels quite cramped.

The downside here is that the screen-to-body ratio isn’t particularly high; all of the bezels are visible and quite chunky compared to other Windows laptops in this category. I don’t particularly mind this: there’s still plenty of screen room, there’s also an excellent Windows Hello-enabled webcam, and you have a bit more space to put your fingers when you’re holding the thing in tablet mode. But given that Dell has managed to disappear bezels on its XPS computers for five years and many other makers have followed suit, I would have liked to see Microsoft modernize the Book’s design.

The display’s second notable feature is that it detaches from the Book 3’s keyboard with the push of a button and becomes a 13.5-inch tablet. It pops out about a second faster than the Book 2’s display did. This is another addition that I have trouble seeing as anything more than a neat trick that Microsoft did. It’s a concrete improvement, but not one that really impacted my user experience.

Surface Book 3 hinge

The fulcrum hinge.

It’s fair to complain that the 15-inch Surface Book is too large to feasibly use as a tablet. I think the 13.5-inch model is more practical. It’s around a pound and a half, and it’s comfortable to hold. Whether you’ll actually make use of the functionality depends on what type of user you are, though. I use it largely for reading ebooks and taking notes at conferences. But I am sympathetic to naysayers who claim the feature is a gimmick because the Book 3’s limited tablet battery life (you won’t get more than a couple of hours) and lack of a kickstand make it impractical for many traditional tablet-y tasks like binging hours of Netflix or following along with recipes in the kitchen. The closest you can get to a kickstand is attaching the screen backwards to the base (facing away from the keyboard). Preferences may vary on this; I’ve never found it much better than the normal, front-facing arrangement.

In addition, though Microsoft’s “Tablet Mode” (which the screen swaps to automatically when detached) is more touch-navigable than Windows 10’s regular interface, it still feels nascent compared to UIs on other tablets. There’s not a ton in the way of gesture support, nor is there an impressive ecosystem for tablet-specific apps. Again, I do find the function handy — but you shouldn’t expect it to replace an iPad.

The unique form factor also comes at a bit of a cost. Specifically, it requires a wonky-looking “fulcrum hinge” to hold the heavy screen in place. The hinge isn’t as stable as I’d like. When the Book 3 is open, the display wobbles when you touch it — another common complaint about the Book 2 that I was hoping Microsoft would fix.

Surface Book 3, closed.

Yeah, that’s a gap. You’ll probably get used to it.

Meanwhile, when the laptop is folded, it has a very round rear, and there’s a sizable gap between the bottom of the screen and the back of the deck that never fully closes. I’ve been told that this makes it hard to fit Surface Books into some tight sleeves and bags (though I’ve never had that issue myself). More importantly, it’s another design choice that makes the Book 3 look a bit clunky, particularly as the competition gets slimmer and sleeker each year. It was an oddity in 2017; it looks even more out of place this year.

Ports are another aspect of the chassis that’s a bit out of date. In addition to two proprietary charging ports, there’s a USB-C port (still no Thunderbolt 3), two USB-A, and an SD card slot, as well as a headphone jack on the display. It’s nice to have the option to charge by USB-C, but the lack of Thunderbolt 3 is frustrating. Microsoft has said this choice is intentional, claiming that Thunderbolt 3’s status as a direct memory access port can leave a device open to vulnerabilities. Plenty of business-oriented laptops do support the standard, though, and Windows 10 has kernel-level protection against those sorts of attacks. The fact remains that this is a 2017 set of ports, and I wish we’d gotten one for 2020.

Everything else about the Book 3 (like the Book 2) is excellent, and it should be at this price. The keyboard is clicky, and it flies; I consistently achieve faster and more accurate typing than I do with just about any other laptop keys. The touchpad is smooth, accurate, and comfortable to click. The battery life is stellar; I got around nine hours and 45 minutes of a typical workday in Battery Saver, consisting of a mix of Chrome tabs, Slack, and Spotify with the occasional Zoom call at roughly 200 nits brightness with no gaming involved. The slider makes a difference, though: in Better Battery, which is Microsoft’s recommended profile when the laptop is plugged in, I only got six hours and 45 minutes. Cooling is good. I only heard the fans during gaming, but they did keep the heat down; only the bottom got toasty, while the keyboard, touchpad, and wrist rests stayed cold.

The Surface Book 3’s screen disconnected from the keyboard.

It makes a decent tablet, provided you don’t need it to last.

Back when we reviewed the 15-inch Surface Book 2, we experienced some issues with its power supply. Specifically, it was easy for the system’s GPU to exceed the wattage of the 102W adapter Microsoft shipped, so the laptop would sometimes drain power even when plugged in. That was never a huge issue with the 13.5-inch configuration due to the lower-powered GPU, and I didn’t see this model drain under heavy loads either. (This configuration also ships with a 102W brick.)

At the end of the day, I really like the Surface Book 3. But I also really like the Surface Book 2. And if you didn’t want the Surface Book 2, I doubt the chipset upgrades will be enough to sway you to Microsoft’s side.

Surface Book 3

A 2015 design in a 2020 world.

If you asked me (and other Book 2 owners I know) what we wanted out of the Surface Book 3, “slightly faster video export times” and “the ability to play Civ VI on High instead of Medium” would not have topped any of our lists. The biggest qualms that reviewers had with the Book 2 — the limited ports, the massive bezels, the wobbly display, the weight, the hinge — have not been addressed. Maybe those things just can’t be fixed. Maybe the Surface Book’s form factor requires those drawbacks. If that’s the case, I think it’s a sign that that form factor might be a dead end.

I loved so many things about the Surface Book 2 that I was willing to forgive those faults. There’s enough I love about the Book 3 that I’m still willing to give Microsoft another pass. But as the competition continues to innovate and redesign, the sillier those bezels look. The more we normalize Thunderbolt 3, the more of a pain this port selection becomes.

I hope that Microsoft comes out swinging with a Surface Book 4 featuring a slim hinge, USB-C ports galore, a screen that matches its premium competitors, and a Tablet Mode that’s a joy to use. If not, I’m not sure where else this line can go.

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