Microsoft's Surface Book 3 delivers high speed in a dated design

Key Points
  • The third version of Surface Book looks and feels the same as the model it replaces.
  • Modern chips and a bigger supply of memory have boosted performance.
  • This is Microsoft's third version of its most powerful laptop.

In this article

The Surface Book 3.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

Microsoft has barely changed the design of its Surface convertible tablet since introducing it in 2012.

Now the company is employing a similar strategy with the Surface Book, a laptop whose display you can lift off and use as a tablet. This month, the company is bringing out updated versions of the Surface Book, available with 13.5-inch and 15-inch displays, and they look just like the models that came out in 2017 — and the original one that debuted in 2015.

Microsoft could stand to get more experimental with this product. The company continues to ship fewer PCs than Dell, HP and Lenovo, and the Surface Book doesn't have the brand recognition that the Surface Pro tablet does. Sales of Microsoft devices are up less than 1% year over year in the three most recent quarters, according to the company's most recent earnings statement. Many other parts of the company's business have been growing faster.

But for now, Microsoft is opting to refine a good laptop, rather than rethink it.

Can you tell which one is the Surface Book 2 and which one is the Surface Book 3?
Jordan Novet | CNBC

The big changes Microsoft delivered in the Surface Book 3 are all inside. Microsoft is offering as much as 32GB of memory for the first time, longer battery life than in any prior Surface and the fastest solid-state storage drive it has ever stuck in a computer. Microsoft added powerful Intel Core chips inside, along with graphics cards using Nvidia's beefed-up technology.

The Surface Book 2 was already fast when I tested it in 2017. This time around, Microsoft sent me a 15-inch model of the Surface Book 3 featuring 32GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and a Core i7-1065G7 chip. A model with these specs would cost about $2,800, and it's clearly faster for tasks such as browsing the web, working on spreadsheets, playing games and watching videos.

What's good

Here's pretty much all the good news: Performance is excellent. The computer stays quiet and cool to the touch while handling workloads that can challenge lesser machines.

Also, it takes three seconds to detach the display, versus about four seconds on the Surface Book 2. That's nice if you frequently pull off the display to write or doodle with a stylus, or just read in a more comfortable position.

Web browsing can be more comfortable in tablet mode.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

If you liked the prior Surface Books, there's some more good news.

The case is still made out of the magnesium that's smooth like a river rock. The keyboard remains pleasant to type on. The display is just as bright and clear as before. The 1080p front and back cameras are the same, the weight is the same and the ports are the same as earlier versions.

What's bad

If you're into showing off your new purchases, then you probably won't appreciate that the Surface Book 3 looks and feels almost exactly the same as the products it's replacing. There's something to be said for an approach like Apple takes with the iPhone, where it updates the internals regularly, but also rolls out visually obvious new designs every couple of revisions, so people will always know who's carrying the latest model.

The Surface Book could use a little design refresh. The bezels around the display look a bit dated now, for example, as other Windows laptops from makers such as Dell have nearly eliminated screen borders.

I typically got around six and a half hours' worth of battery life on the Surface Book 3. That's disappointing because I got almost seven and a half hours on the previous model and because Microsoft touted battery gains with this update.

Microsoft rearranged the keys on the function row of the keyboard. Directly to the right of the escape key are the keyboard backlight and mute buttons, rather than the keys to lower and raise the screen brightness. If you want to upgrade to this model from an older version, you'll need some time to acclimate to the change.

New nubs on the F4 and F8 keys can help you quickly raise the volume or take a screenshot.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

You don't get all the software features out of the box that you did on the first and second Surface Books. Microsoft ships the Surface Book 3 with Windows 10 Home, not Windows 10 Pro, which includes features such as BitLocker encryption and Hyper-V for running virtual machines. An upgrade to Windows 10 Pro costs an extra $99.

As was the case with older Surface Books, this one isn't especially accommodating when it comes to hardware upgrades. A few months ago, Microsoft showed off refinements to the Surface Laptop that make it easier to change out the device's storage. The company made no such changes to the Surface Book.

Finally, the price for a Surface Book 3 can be high if you want a more powerful configuration. If you don't feel attached to the Surface Book's design, you might be happy with something less versatile. A Dell XPS 15 or Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme with similar specs to the Surface I got would cost less than $2,500.

Iterative is fine, but not exciting

Don't get me wrong. The Surface Book 3 isn't a bad PC. If you need a new PC, you could do worse.

It's just iterative, and no longer feels fresh. It's not a major leap forward for Microsoft's most powerful PC. When Microsoft redesigns the Surface Book and makes this otherwise very good laptop look modern again, then it'll be easier to justify the splurge.

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