Why the Surface Book 2 ?

Recently, I felt the urge to draw, and really wanted to play around with an active pen. I wanted to use some good tools like Photoshop on the go, without having to carry a Wacom tablet. There were many different choices available to me:

  • The new iPad pro (3rd gen, 2018) (11 / 13 inches)
  • The HP Spectre x360 (13 / 15 inches)
  • The Dell XPS 9575 2-in-1 (13 / 15 inches)
  • The Samsung Notebook 9 (13 / 15 inches)
  • And, of course, the surface book 2 (13 / 15 inches). I didn't consider the surface pro, as the 6th version is still not out in France to date.

All those devices have pros and cons. While iPads have an extremely low pen latency, they are also fragile, and they run on a mobile OS, which isn't great for classic tools. Also, I'm not fond of standard consumer laptops from brands like Samsung and HP (amongst others), as they tend to make more and more disposable electronics. Of course, all of those statements are subjective, and everyone here will have its own opinion.

This brings us to the XPS versus Surface Book fight. The XPS has plenty of advantages, like its lower price point, higher resolution, strong build quality, the Dell d+1 not-that-expensive warranty, and doesn't have everything glued together, meaning you can swap out the SSD quite easily. Still, there are some reasons why I've chosen the Surface Book 2 over the XPS:

  • The aspect ratio, 3:2 means more code on screen (hey, i'm a developer)
  • The fact that it's completely integrated with the surface pen, and everything has been engineered to work together flawlessly.
  • The GTX 1060 graphics card. I won't be using it often, but that's always good to have nearby.
  • And finally, you can detach the screen and use it autonomously.

How much does it cost ?

It really depends on what options you choose. It starts at 1399€ with a 13.5 inches screen, an Intel i5, 8gb or ram and 128gb of SSD, all the way up to 3799€ for the top-of-the-line model with a 15 inches screen, and intel i7, 16gb of ram and 1tb of SSD. The version I bought, the 15 inches, Intel i7, 16gb RAM and 512gb SSD costs around 3300€. Hopefully I got a nice discount and paid around 2700€.

I find these prices to be a bit high. Microsoft doesn't have the pricing power of Apple , and even with the discount, I still find it really expensive. Actually, at least least for the 15 inches model, Microsoft aligned its prices with Apple's MacBook Pro. If you select the same components on both sites, you'll end-up with the same price.

Note: the CPU and RAM are soldered onto the motherboard, and thus, you won't be able to upgrade later. The SSD is a standard Samsung NVMe 2280 drive, and can be replaced. Well, only with a lot of hard work, as it involves removing the strongly glued front panel.

Let's unbox it !

The Surface Book 2 box
The Surface Book 2 is nicely seated in the box
There it is, after waiting all those days and removing the plastic protection, it's finally here, open.
What's also in the box: the 102W proprietary charger

After running it for the first time, I spent nearly a full day trying to update it. It was shipped with Windows 1709, and it tried to install the 1803 version. At some moment in the process it would just put a high read pressure on the SSD, and continue to do that for hours. I left it work overnight and by the morning it had finally finished.

For the geeks: I tried to understand what was going on there. It seems like as a part of the upgrade plan, it must take some ESD files and process them. One for each language (there were around 15 of them), and each one was just painfully slow. The dism process would just spend it's whole time unpacking tens of thousands of tiny files and then work on them.

My first impressions

My biggest fear was that, due to the weight of the tablet versus the weight of the base, that it wasn't really "lapable". But to my greatest pleasure, it doesn't fall on the back easily, even at the maximum screen inclination.

The screen

It's amazing. The colors are great, the aspect ratio is really comfortable, and the resolution is perfect. The laptop is shipped with a 200% UI scaling, which I reduced to 175% and it now feels perfect. The brightness is automatically adjusted following ambient light changes, like our phones do. (I knew this feature existed before, but I've never seen it working on a windows laptop.)

Some tests mentioned that the screen's response time is high, but i didn't really experience this in a significant way myself. I've been used to 60 fps standard screens, so I'm not the best to judge on this particular problem.

The pen

You can start using it directly without pairing anything or whatsoever. You just put the tip over the screen and you'll see the cursor move. That's it. It just works. Now for other features like the "eraser button" to work, you need to pair it via Bluetooth. The manual says you can just put the tip on the screen for ten seconds, but it didn't work for me, I had to pair it manually.

The actual pen.

The pen is not rechargeable. However, there's a tiny battery inside that can easily be replaced. The advertised battery life is about 1 year, but I used it for the first time yesterday so I can't really talk about this.

The three components of the pen.

It's also really balanced. This makes it a pleasure to use. It's not too light, and not too heavy, meaning you won't mind using it for hours, while still feeling it in your hands.

DIY balance test, very accurate, much balanced.

The pen has 2 buttons, one located in the eraser, and one on the side, which acts as a right click. It's also worth noting that the pen has magnets and is made to stay on the side of the screen, so you don't lose it.

Note: To pair it manually you have to press the eraser button for long enough to see the little green led show up and blink. At first I was too soft with this button and waited like 1 minute with my finger on it, but you really have to hear a "click" when pressing it, which requires some additional pressure. I think they wanted to avoid false clicks when erasing on the screen (and randomly triggering the ink workspace).

The keyboard

The keyboard is also really amazing, it feels great to use, and I'm actually using it to write this review. The pressure that's needed to activate the keys is just right, which means that it's hard enough to feel it, but light enough not to make your fingers tired. It doesn't make much noise like other laptop keyboards. Last but not least, it's backlit, and you have 3 levels of lighting available.

The whole palmrest, with the keyboard

I miss the media keys from this keyboard. There's no "previous track" and "next track" key, which is quite annoying as a huge Spotify user. I also needed some time to adapt to the Fn key, because it acts as a toggle button. You click once on it, then click on your favorite function key, and finally click again on the Fn key to get back to the normal behavior. I have to say that it's a bit too much to just refresh a browser (F5).

There's still room for improvement

While I was super happy with this device, I've also discovered some little downsides.

The screen/keyboard connection

If the tablet wobbles too much, then it may disconnect from the base, requiring you to detach and attach again to get some functionality back. Its a little frustrating when using in bed for example, because if you move a bit too much inadvertently, then you have to do the whole process. Well, at least, we don't have to reboot.

The plastic strap on the top

There's piece of plastic on the top of the screen, where there are the power and volume buttons. Well, for the volume button, the little strap is not attached and quite long. This is a problem because if your finger moves out of the glass panel at this place, you end up bending it.

The part of the plastic strap that bends easily.

The magnetic surface connector

The surface connector is great, don't get me wrong. It's a fantastic piece of technology that allows you to connect magnetically a whole docking station, with all its wires and complexity. But, it's round.

The round connector

It happened to me that it just escapes the connection while still being magnetically attached to the laptop. Which gives us something like this :

Nope, not charging today.

TL;DR

This is an amazing piece of technology. We really feel all the engineering that has been put in this laptop. The build quality is great, and there are many little details that haven't been left off. For a second generation product, the downsides are not that important and we may easily deal with them. But i still feel like the price I paid for this, even with the discount, is still a bit too much. I would have wanted 1tb of storage at this price point to be happy.