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Microsoft Surface Book 3 – more of the same (thank goodness)
4.4Overall Score
Name: Microsoft Surface Book 3, i5/i7 in 13.5 and 15",
Price (RRP): $from 2649-4795

I love reviewing Microsoft Surface products – you can take the last model review and simply update the specs. The same is largely true of the Microsoft Surface Book 3 although this one threw me a couple of welcome curveballs.

To be fair to Microsoft, I am not decrying the lack of innovation in the Microsoft Surface Book 3. It is just that at the time the Microsoft Surface Book 1 and 2 were equally ahead of the curve and to this day no others compare with its separate Clipboard and Power Base. It is hard to improve on perfection.

Let’s start by a comparison of Microsoft Surface Book 3 with its predecessor. The changes include

  • 10th Gen Intel CPU i5-1035G7 or i7-1065G7
  • Later NVIDIA GeForce GTXZ 1650/1660Ti Max-Q GPU (i5/i7)
  • Faster LPDDRX4 RAM up to 32GB
  • Faster SSD and a 2TB option for i7
  • Wi-Fi 6 AC and BT 5.0
  • 2 x USB-A and 1 x USB-C 3.1/2 Gen 2 10Gbps ports
  • 102W i7 and 65W i5 charger and 127W for 15”
  • And the price has jumped quite a lot

Externally – nothing has really changed – the alterations are under the hood! What that means is that Surface Book 2 owners need not commit hari-kari until we get to oh, say Surface Book 5!

Microsoft Surface Book 3

Australian review: Microsoft Surface Book 3, 15″

The review unit is a 15”, i7, 32/512GB and GeForce GTX 1660Ti 6GB GPU. We will generalise about the i5/i7 13.5” versions.

  • Australian website here
  • Price:
    • 13.5” i5 8/256 $2649 and i7 16/256 $3,399, 32/512Gb $4,149 and 32/1TB $4,499
    • 15” I7 16/256 $3699, 32/512GB $4439 and 32/1TB $4795
  • Warranty: 12-months ACL with a 2-year extension at extra cost
  • Country of Manufacture: China
  • Microsoft Corporation is an American multinational technology company with headquarters in Redmond, Washington. It develops, manufactures, licenses, supports, and sells computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers, and related services.

Surface Book 2 issues solved

Under normal use the Surface Book 2 was superb. But under heavy use, it had some wider issues.

  • It could draw more power than the charger provided – dipping into the battery (Surface Book 3 has a higher capacity charger).
  • It could overheat. The 10th Generation CPU and later GeForce fix that.
  • Had HDCP 1.4 so would not play 4K content from Netflix (now HDCP 2.2/HDMI 2.0)
  • Dock 1 would not support 2 x [email protected] monitors. Dock 2 does, but better still it has USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 10Gbps, so it works with any later USB-C dock. But we cannot understand why the Surface Book 3 does not have Thunderbolt 3, so that loses it points.
  • And Microsoft’s own Windows updates were screwing the NVIDIA GPU

Don’t let any past issues put you off – from our extensive tests, the Microsoft Surface Book 3 works a treat.

What is the Surface ethos and design credos?

You immediately recognise a Surface device by its matte Mag-alloy chassis, squarish edges, build quality and the now-famous 3:2 ratio display. But deeper down it’s a product of what Microsoft calls Inclusive Design. This encompasses things like accessibility, ergonomics, usability, context, and much more.

The Surface design has stood the test of time, and our retail spies say it is the least returned ‘PC’ item of all and the most satisfying device/format – although they are referring to the entire Surface range.

The Microsoft Surface Book 3 fills the niche for CPU and GPU performance in a portable 13.5 or 15” format. To do that it has a Power Base housing an NVIDIA GPU and a Clipboard (tablet) that operates independently of the base. That also means two batteries for extended 17+ hour use. 

Who uses it?

A lot depends on whether you want 13.5” or 15”, portability versus well a little less portability.

  • 13.5” 312 x 232 x 13-23 mm x 1.534/1.642kg
  • 15” 343 mm x 251 mm x 15 mm-23 mm x 1.905kg
  • Both plus a charger at 465g extra
Microsoft Surface Book 3 hinge

Size and weight are an issue because there is a growing range of Intel 10th Generation Project Athena-based notebooks at around 1kg. These are just as powerful and lot lighter and probably a lot lower-cost.

So, the answer is obviously, those who can afford it and have deep pockets – well backpacks. And Microsoft have other versions in the Surface for Business range that are even more powerful/

But more than that the Microsoft Surface Book 3 is ideally suited to

  • Creative types who can use a pen/dial and develop artwork, design, fashion, cartoons etc
  • Engineering/drafters who can use the pen/dial as a portable digitiser replacement
  • Mixed Reality support in the field for training and use by mechanics to visualise repairs
  • It has one of the best, if not the best, keyboard/trackpad/pen experiences that make it ideal for journalists to travel with. I also have a Surface Pro 7, and while it is best for travel due to its size, I take the Surface Book 1 for the keyboard
  • An enormous number end up on CEO desks if only as a status symbol
  • And being cheeky it has attracted many MacBook Pro users that want touch screen – come on Apple!

It predominately sells to creatives designers, artists, CAD users, and those that need this specific tablet/base combo.

Microsoft Surface Book 3

If you use Adobe’s Creative Cloud (Premiere Pro, Photoshop, etc.) and CPU/GPU intensive apps.

It also has a following with code developers (Visual Studio) for quick compiles and well-heeled gamers.

It is also the best Windows alternative to a MacBook Pro.

Sorry, but it is not for Joe and Jane Average that will gag at nearly $2500-5000 for a laptop. The Surface Go 2 (review here 4.5/5), Surface Laptop 2 (review here 4.2/5) and Surface Pro 7 (review here 4.5/5) are their domain.

In the not insubstantial box

You get the Clipboard section, the appropriate Power Base and a Surface Ribbon charger. These are 65W for the i5, 102W for the i7 and 127W for the 15” i7. All include a USB-A 5V/1A (i5) or 5V/1.4A (i7) port.

Nothing is cheap. The Surface Pen will set you back another $139.95 (and I do recommend it) and the Surface Dock 2 at $419.95 (for up to 2 x [email protected] monitors but it has a 127W spare power supply).

There is a USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 Travel Hub for $159, but you may get better value from third-party devices from Kensington, ATEN, ALOGIC, Plugable, OWC etc.

While the mag-alloy chassis is reasonably scratch-resistant get a laptop tote bag to carry it and your charger.

Processor – Intel 10th Generation Ice Lake – EXCEED

The i5-1035G7 is a four-core/eight-thread 10nm SoC 1.2/3.7Ghz and thermal design of 12/25W. Passmark is 8553 which puts it in the realm of the AMD Ryzen 7 3750H.

The i7- 1065G7 is a four-core/eight-thread 10nm SoC 1.3/3.9Ghz and thermal design of 12/25W. Passmark is 8999 – not much faster than the i5 variant. But don’t let benchmarks fool you. It is faster at graphics, 3D/VR/AR throughput.

A more telling stat is GeekBench 5. Single-core/multi-core results are

  • i5 1144/4269
  • i7 1306/4552

It’s a lot faster than the Book 2 with LPDDR4x ram, Intel Iris Plus graphics and NVIDIA GeForce 1660Ti MaxQ.

The maximum temperature under load is 81° (CPU) and 40° underneath and at the top of the deck. Fan noise varied from 30dB to 45dB under 100% load. There was no significant throttling on mains power and the expected 80% on battery (unless you set it to 100%).

It is not a gaming laptop. It will play most current games at around 30fps.

RAM/Storage – PASS (not user upgradable)

The test unit has a Toshiba KBG40ZNS512G SSD – a PCIe MVMe 3.0 x 4 lane. It recorded decent sequential read/write speeds of 2370/1525MBps and excellent large file speeds. It is not user-replaceable – as is anything inside the tablet, so it loses some points here.

Screen – EXCEED

  • 13.5” Pixel Sense, 3000 x 2000, 267 PPI, 3:2, 1600:1
  • 15” – It is one of the best you can get with the same Book 2 Pixel Sense LG Philips LP150QD112604 WLED, TFT/IPS, 3230 x 2160, 260PPI display.
  • Brightness: 450 nits
  • Contrast: 1600:1 (we measured 1700:1 – high contrast means blacker blacks)
  • G-T-G: 37ms
  • Gamma: 93% sRGB, 70% DCI-p3 and 59% Adobe RGB and Delta E 1.7
  • Supports: Windows Stream HDR, HDR games and Windows HD colour
  • Ambient light sensor to adjust to room brightness

Now I mentioned artists, designers, photographers. As it is not 100% DCI-P3 or Adobe RGB, you won’t get the full-colour palette, but it is almost 100% sRGB, so you get the full web palette. And an ‘Improved’ setting allows you to beef up saturation – at the expense of accuracy.

The Clipboard is detachable and connects to the Power Base vai a fulcrum hinge using muscle wire locks. The Power Base perfectly balances the tablet – no wobble at all. But it is heavy at 710g and lacks any stand mechanism like a Surface Pro.

You can reverse the tablet to make a tent display.

The 13.5” uses a very similarly specified display.

Comms – EXCEED

  • Wi-Fi 6 AX is superb measuring a full 1.2Gbps at five metres from our reference NETGEAR AX12 router. It uses the Intel AX201 2×2 MU-MIMO VHT160 adapter which full implements OFDMA, and if I had a different router up to 2.4Gbps.
  • BT 5.1 (3Mbps) supports
  • USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) with PD 3.0
  • 2 x USB-A 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps)
  • 2 x Surface Connect Ribbon Ports
  • 1 x 3.5mm combo audio
  • 1 x Full-size SDXC card reader


Sound – EXCEED but not overly loud

Dual array tracking mics are effective and offer a good Skype experience.

Dolby Atmos is for both for built-in speaker and headphones.

It has Dolby Audio 2.0 channel processing but no equaliser or pre-sets. That means it will play Dolby encoded content (movies) with low total harmonic distortion. It is a step up from the included Realtek drivers.

Output to Bluetooth and via a 3.5mm jack had a noise-free signal. Frequency response was from 20Hz-20kHz.

The two forward-facing speakers do a good job as a personal music and movie player. Frequency response had bass kicking in at 100Hz and a relatively flat response (good) to around 16kHz. Maximum volume was a lowish but acceptable 74dB – like a vacuum cleaner at close quarters. Watching an action movie hovered around 60-70dB.

Sound signature is Mid (bass recessed, mids boosted, treble recessed). It was flat from 160Hz to 15Hz – almost no bass.

Small speakers simply don’t have the diaphragm movement to punch out bass, so it is best for vocals like Skype. It is not unpleasant when listening to movies – just lacking bass and sometimes a little harsh.

The internal speakers are fit for purpose, but we recommend using a cabled or BT headphones or speaker.

Keyboard

Key throw is 1.5mm. This is about the minimum you should expect and around 70g actuation force. Key presses are firm but not tiresome with a good tactile feel. There is no bounce of neighbouring keys either.

Three levels of backlight and the light coloured mag-alloy keys need it. There is a light leakage from under the keys – no big deal.

The 109 x 70mm glass touchpad is Microsoft Precision certified – that means it supports four-finger swipes as well as 100% cursor movement from top right to bottom left in one swipe. It is accurate and a joy to use.

The 4096-pressure level Active pen (needs batteries) at A$139.95 has pen tilt for thicker lines. A low 9g actuation force makes it as easy to use on the glass as a rollerball pen on paper! The Bluetooth Pen comes in Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, Aqua, Black and Platinum barrel colours.

I did not try the A$149.95 Surface Dial that adds dial controls to many drawing tools.

Battery – EXCEED

The 15” has two batteries – 22.3Wh in the tablet and 59.7Wh in the base. These combine to give it 82Wh. Microsoft says 17.5 hours typical use is achievable. The 13.5” has two batteries and gets about 15.5 hours.

But a lot depends on the battery setting. At 100% performance screen on, battery life is about 8 hours. And in Battery saving mode it is significantly longer.

The USB-C port supports PD 3.0 charging – that is up to 100W upstream and 15W downstream. That means if you have a 100W USB-C PD 3.0 charger, you can use it. PD means it negotiates a charge up to its maximum – so a higher rated charger will work too.

There is a catch, however – make sure you have a PD 3.0 capable USB-C cable (read about USB PD here), or it will drop to a maximum 5V/3A/15W.

In our test, the Microsoft 127W charger took just over two hours for a full charge.

It worked quite well with my 65W PD 3.0 Moshi charging in a little over 4 hours, but under load tests, it was clear that the 127W was needed. Apple, Dell, HP and other bands make 100W chargers. Make sure you order an AU plug.

Tests

  • 720p video loop, 50%C brightness, aeroplane mode – 16 hours
  • 1080p video loop at 50% brightness, aeroplane mode – 12 hours. The same test on the tablet section only achieved four hours.
  • Typical office use (Office and web) – 13 hours
  • Heavy use with NVIDIA GPU – just over six hours.
  • 100% load – 3 hours

Camera – PASS++

8MP 1080p rear. With autofocus and digital stabilisation, it produces clear pictures with good colour under day (1000+ lumens) office lighting (400-500 lumens). It is great for whiteboard photography. It will also record video up to [email protected]

5MP front for Windows Hello and Skype. 2560 x 1440, (16:9 3.7MP) or up to 2560×1706 (3:2, 4.4MP). With fixed-focus, it does a good job of selfies. It will record up to [email protected] in 16:9.

The Windows Camera app is surprisingly flexible, and you can download third-party apps from Windows Store for things like picture in picture, as a security camera, various filters and effects etc.

GadgetGuy’s take – The Microsoft Book 3 edges closer to perfection

I like it a lot, but then I own and still use an original Microsoft Surface Book 1 and know what to expect. When it came time to upgrade it or a Surface Pro 4 – well the winner was the Surface Pro 7.

Why? because the Book 1 circa late 2015 still does what I want it to, and its dual batteries have held up pretty well although they are showing less than 80% capacity now. And I suspect that this is one Surface device that can use a real refresh – not just new innards.

Microsoft says it is for high-end use, but I think that is a little ambitious. Sure, it can render video edits on the fly, but its 12-25W TPD is not for prolonged 100% use. It is for prosumer use.

We rate it as a high-end consumer or business device capable of being a full desktop replacement with an appropriate dock. So, it scores well on performance, expandability, ease of use and design and a little less on value. There are some mighty impressive non-surfacex360 devices out there.

In summary the Microsoft Book 3

  • Gains points for Surface credos
  • Uniqueness – ditto
  • Close to perfect – ditto
  • Superb 3:2 and Pen support
  • Tablet is fine as a standalone device, but no stand loses points
  • USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 PD 3.0 (5/9/15/20V) gains points bit not as much as Thunderbolt 3 would
  • Loses a few points as 15/i7 are for battery life, not powerhouse performance
  • Repairability loses points – no ram or storage upgrade
Microsoft Surface Book 3 – more of the same (thank goodness)
Name: Microsoft Surface Book 3, i5/i7 in 13.5 and 15", Price (RRP): $from 2649-4795
Best portable keyboard everIt’s a tablet and a clamshellBest 3:2 screen for productivityGeForce GPU there when you need itGood-to-great battery life Heaps of power on both the i5 and i7 models – more for the prosumer than the professionalSDXC slot UHS-II at 230/160MB/s read/write is great for photographers Now with USB-C/A, 3.1 Gen 2 10Gbps opening new dock optionsQuality build but almost unrepairable
No Pen supplied The screen cannot lay flat (minor)Only the 15” supports Xbox Wireless and controllers to make it a mini Xbox One
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
4.4Overall Score
Reader Rating 1 Vote