Nearly three years after the launch of the Surface Book 2, Microsoft started shipping its new Surface Book 3 in select markets yesterday. The new hybrid laptop starts at $1,599 and comes with updated specs, though the overall design remains the same.
Microsoft says that the Surface Book 3 is its most powerful Surface laptop, and that’s certainly true thanks to the 10th gen Intel Core i5/i7 processors, up to 32GB of RAM, and optional Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650/1660 Ti GPUs. The business version of the Surface Laptop 3 can also be configured with a more powerful Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 GPU, though that will raise the price to $3,499.
Overall, there are very minor design changes in the Surface Book 3, but two are worth mentioning: The proprietary Surface Connect port now supports 120-watt power delivery, fixing the battery drain issues on the Surface Book 2 when using demanding apps or playing games. Moreover, Microsoft has also revamped the hinge’s detachable mechanism to make it up to two times faster compared to previous models.
Still, it’s safe to say that the Surface Book 3 may not be the perfect laptop for everyone, including Surface fans. While the design and build quality is top-notch, the hinge makes the Surface Book 3 much thicker than other ultrabooks, and the detachable screen has also been a bit wobbly on previous generations. With this top-heavy design, the Surface Book 3 may also not feel that great on your lap compared to regular laptops.
To be clear, I have yet to use the Surface Book 3 myself, but I can’t stop thinking that this is not the best laptop Microsoft could create. It's pretty clear to me that the 2-in-1 design leads to some unfortunate compromises, and I’m probably not the only one to think that a “Pro” version of the Surface Laptop may be much more appealing as a mobile Surface workstation.
The Surface Book 3’s detachable design is holding it back
Microsoft deserves credit for creating something pretty unique with the Surface Book line, but the detachable design prevents the company from including top of the line specs. As the detachable tablet includes the motherboard and CPU, Microsoft has to manage heat dissipation very carefully. Indeed, the Surface Book 3 is restricted to quad-core processors, while other pro laptops such as the 16” MacBook Pro or the new Dell XPS 15 can be configured with a much beefier eight-core Intel Core i9 CPU.
Having a screen that can also be used as a tablet also leads to bezels that look pretty big in 2020. It’s also not clear if many Surface Book owners really use the detachable screen as a tablet: It’s a pretty massive tablet, especially on the 15” model, but it has a sub-par battery compared to a Surface Pro, and it has no built-in kickstand. The detachable mechanism also had some reliability issues on previous generations, and overall the advantages are still unclear compared to a 360° hinge like on Lenovo’s Yoga laptops, or even Microsoft’s upcoming Surface Duo.
According to Microsoft, the detachable screen on the Surface Book 3 enables a “Studio mode” when you detach the screen, flip it over and then reattach it so the screen will be on the outside when you close the hinge. That sounds like a really awkward and cumbersome process, and again I really doubt many Surface Book owners use this “Studio mode” that often. With its built-in adjustable kickstand, the Surface Pro just does it better.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a powerful Surface laptop with no gimmicks, you’re still out of luck. Because yes, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop line, which continues to rank pretty low in AdDuplex's usage stats, is also kind of a mixed bag for "prosumers."
Microsoft missed an opportunity with the Surface Laptop 3
Last fall, Microsoft released for the first time a 15” version of its Surface Laptop powered by custom-designed AMD processors. This 15” Surface Laptop 3 was the first Surface device to use AMD chips, but the quad-core AMD Ryzen 5 and 7 CPUs coupled with Radeon Vega GPUs offered lackluster performance compared to the Intel-powered business version of the 15” Surface Laptop 3. But again, Microsoft only offered quad-core Intel 10th gen Core i5/i7 chips, with no options for six or eight-core CPUs with a dedicated GPU.
In addition to the AMD bet that didn’t really pay off, the Surface Laptop 3 was a disappointment on many other levels. Despite the addition of a USB-C port, the selection of ports is still pretty limited with just one USB-A port, a Surface Connect port for charging, and no SD Card slot. The 15” version had no additional ports, and it also had the same 45.8 Wh battery than the 13” model, which was quite surprising.
I wish the 15” Surface Laptop 3 was Microsoft’s laptop for pros, but it’s currently much less pro than the Surface Book 3. In the end, there’s definitely a missing piece between the Surface Laptop line and the Surface Book Line, and I really hope to see a "Surface Laptop Pro” fill that gap one day.
Microsoft slowly iterates
Just like Apple, Microsoft's Surface team iterates pretty slowly. The Surface Pro 7 doesn't look that different from the Surface Pro 3 released back in 2014, and I think most consumers wouldn't be able to differentiate the Surface Book 3 from the original Surface Book either. These iterative updates didn't prevent Microsoft from manually Surface into a billion dollar business, but the company is still leaving money on the table by not offering a true Surface workstation. Surface devices have never been a showcase for top of the line specs, but I do think that a "Surface Laptop Pro" with options for eight-core CPUs, dedicated Nvidia GPUs, and plenty of RAM and storage would be more successful than existing Surface Book and Surface Laptop products.
Unfortunately, that may never happen. The Surface brand remains associated to category-defining products such as the Surface Pro, the Surface Book, the Surface Hub and the Surface Studio. The Surface Laptop doesn't really qualify as a forward-thinking device, even though the ultrabook form-factor is here to stay. Actually, the covid-19 pandemic probably proved that laptops and PCs are more essential than ever when you're working from home.
A 'Surface Laptop Pro' currently sounds much more appealing than an experiment like the dual-screen Surface Neo and its new Windows 10X OS, but again, Microsoft will likely continue to release iterative updates for the Surface Laptop line, as it has been the case for other Surface products in recent years. Do you think this is a missed opportunity for the company, or do you think there are already better "Pro" laptops from competing manufacturers? Let us know in the comments below.