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Surface Book 2 hands-on review

Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference kicked off in London today, showcasing the newest iteration in its hybrid laptop range, the Surface Book 2. The company faces the challenge of improving on a winning design, and with that in mind, don’t expect anything mind blowing when it comes to differences between the first and second-generation Surface Book.

In order to tempt users towards the Surface Book 2, Microsoft has leant into one of the things that the Surface range is celebrated for; customer choice. Not only has the Surface Book 2 received a hardware upgrade, it’s now available as both a 13in and 15in model, which Microsoft believes will appease both those customers looking for something that’s easier to carry, and those looking for a bigger screen to work from at a desk.

It fits comfortably into Microsoft’s wider strategy for creating premium devices that cater for every type of user. Unlike the oddly-positioned Surface Laptop, which Microsoft admits has received a mixed response, the Surface Book has genuine appeal as a device that offers a more powerful alternative to the Surface Pro.

The most obvious change with the Surface Book 2 is the choice of sizes. The 13in version has near identical dimensions to the previous generation, while the new 15in model offers a larger screen to work with. However, other than the larger size, the screens have more or less been left untouched. Interestingly the contrast ratio has been knocked down a touch to 1600:1, but this is unlikely to make much of a difference.

In fact, very little has changed on the exterior, and if you’re a Surface Book owner, you’ll struggle to find many differences. The keyboard keys still sit flush with its base, rather than having an indented outline, which gives it a gorgeous effect of being one solid chunk of matte aluminium. The typing experience is just as pleasant and accurate as it is on the first generation, and, true to Microsoft form, the touchpad is superb.

The fulcrum hinge, which has become arguably its most recognisable feature, makes a return, although Microsoft confirmed it had been reinforced on the 15in model to support the extra weight. Unfortunately, you’re still required to let the device know when you plan to detach the screen from its keyboard, otherwise you risk forcing some incompatible apps into an error state. It’s a niggling problem that will remain jarring for those used to the fluid transition between tablet and laptop found on the Surface Pro.

Interestingly, Microsoft appears to have buckled under the weight of demands for USB-C, which now replaces the mini DisplayPort of the Surface Book. Microsoft has typically been reluctant to embrace USB-C, and according to Microsoft’s marketing team, this will remain a policy until the technology sees greater regulation. It’s a confusing message given that USB-C was missing from the recently launched 5th-gen Surface Pro, and it’s likely Microsoft is simply testing the waters.

It’s also important to note that the Surface Book 2’s USB-C ports use the plain old USB 3.1 connection standard, rather than Thunderbolt 3. This means that they can’t be used to connect an external monitor and the data transfer rate is capped at 5Gbps, although it can be used to charge the laptop.

It’s biggest problem remains its weight. At just over 1.5kg in its laptop form, it’s fractionally heavier than its predecessor and therefore still a little uncomfortable to carry around. The good news is that the tablet screen is incredibly light, which is understandable given that most of the battery capacity, and its dedicated Nvidia GPU, are located in the keyboard.

Its processor, on the other hand, is built into the screen. The top end configuration uses an 8th-gen Intel quad-core i7-8650U, which makes it one of the most powerful devices of its form factor on the market.

What was slightly concerning was the reported battery life for the Surface Book 2 in tablet form. The majority of the battery capacity has been built into the keyboard, along with the dedicated Nvidia GPU, which means you get a reported 17 hours of battery life. However, once detached, Microsoft estimates you’ll get just 5 hours of video playback. Admittedly this is still almost double the performance of its predecessor’s tablet form, but it’s still a little disappointing.

Alongside the Surface Book 2, Microsoft is also releasing a new mouse - and this thing is truly gorgeous. Unlike the angled shape that inspired the Surface Pro mouse, Microsoft has opted for a familiar ergonomic design that’s proved incredibly popular among gaming companies. This shape, along with a wonderfully smooth surface texture, means it sits beautifully in the hand - it’s by far the best mouse to come out of Redmond in recent years. It also features multiple function buttons and the nifty ability to sync with up to three devices, meaning you can swap between screens without having to screen-share.

If first impressions are correct, this is arguably Microsoft’s finest Surface device. It builds on everything that made the original Surface Book a stellar machine, but creates added choice for users who want a slightly larger display. We will of course need to put the device through rigorous benchmarking before we can make a full assessment, but if Microsoft’s claims are correct, you’re getting 17 hours of battery life from a seriously powerful machine.

Microsoft is on a roll with its hardware, and the Surface Book 2 looks set to continue that. There’s simply very little on the market that can come close to the mobility, power, and functionality that the Surface Book promises to provide.

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