Surface Book 3 15-inch review: Beautiful, yet limited

Surface Book 3 15-inch review: Beautiful, yet limited

That’s because it’s not like a normal laptop — it’s really a large tablet with a detachable keyboard. Most of its components — the CPU, RAM, storage and main motherboard — lie behind the screen. The keyboard base, meanwhile, holds a larger battery and dedicated graphics. It’s an ingenious way to craft a detachable PC, and Microsoft’s engineers deserve plenty of credit for going completely against the grain. But now, it’s beginning to seem like a liability.

Take the new hardware. The Surface Book 3 features Intel’s quad-core 10th generation Ice Lake CPUs, which max out at a 3.9GHz Turbo Boost speed. (Those chips also appear in the Surface Laptop 3, an ultraportable that doesn’t even pretend to handle heavy lifting). The MacBook Pro 16-inch, on the other hand, offers Intel’s recent six and eight-core CPUs, including the monstrously powerful 5GHz Core i9. Dell’s XPS 15 can also be configured with similar chips reaching up to 5.1GHz. You do the math. There’s just no way the Surface Book 3 can compete in a CPU fight.

At least Microsoft is competitive on the graphics front. You’ve got NVIDIA’s GTX 1650, GTX 1660 Ti and Quadro RTX 3000 as options, the latter of which is much faster than the MacBook Pro 16-inch’s Radeon GPUs. You’ll have to jump through a few more hoops to get that Quadro GPU though, as it’s only available to corporate customers.

I’m not saying the Surface Book 3 isn’t impressive. It still looks and feels like a high-quality machine, though the design hasn’t budged at all since the last model. There’s the same all-metal case, the unique bulbous hinge (that leaves a slight gap open when closed), and a large 15-inch screen. But since we last saw the Surface Book, most PC makers have started seriously slimming down their bezels to fit in larger displays and reduce weight. The Book 3, unfortunately, still has thick screen borders that make it look like a notebook from 4 or 5 years ago.

Surface Book 3

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Previously, I also knocked the 15-inch Surface Book for being heavier than its competitors at 4.2 pounds. But, ironically enough, Apple ended up making the MacBook Pro 16-inch a bit chunkier as well, so it now slightly outweighs the Book 3. But as you’ll see, I think Apple justifies its heft a bit more. And the MacBook Pro is also significantly slimmer — the Book 3 is up to 23 millimeters thick, while the MacBook Pro maxes out at 16.3 millimeters.  As usual, Microsoft’s curved hinge makes things stick out quite a bit.

One benefit of being so large, though, is that the Surface Book 3 is able to fit a wide keyboard and roomy touchpad. It’s all the same hardware we saw a few years ago, but they’re still excellent. The keys have plenty of depth and responsiveness, making them a dream to type on. And the smooth glass touchpad is among the best I’ve used on a Windows notebook.

So sure, there’s a lot to love about the Surface Book 3. But if you want to know why I’m being so critical of its new hardware, just look at the benchmarks. In PCMark 10, it scores a notch below Dell’s recent XPS 13. And even more damning, it scores only a few hundred points higher than HP’s Elite Dragonfly, a 2-pound PC whose performance we called “middling.” If you’re trying to be a powerhouse machine, this isn’t the company you should be keeping. Its Geekbench 5 multi-core speeds also fell behind the new MacBook Pro 13-inch, and it was once again bested by the XPS 13. The Surface Book 3 fared better in Geekbench 5’s Compute benchmark, where the NVIDIA GPU brought it in line with ASUS’s excellent Zephyrus G14 (a much cheaper machine with far better CPU scores).

The GTX 1660 Ti is clearly the lynchpin of the Surface Book 3’s performance, and it also means the notebook can finally handle some decent gaming. Running in 1080p, I clocked between 110 and 130 FPS in Overwatch with “epic” graphics settings. The Hitman 2 benchmark also delivered a solid 72 FPS with maxed out settings. To be clear, you can get similar performance from gaming notebooks that cost half as much. But at least Book 3 owners will be able to get some fragging done alongside their creative work.

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