It was more by chance, than planning, that I ended up in Jeff Stewart’s session at Autodesk University 2017 (AU2017) last November. I was talking to some Microsoft representatives in the exhibit hall and they mentioned it was on the following day. Somehow, I had overlooked it while setting up my schedule but that was soon rectified. Jeff started his career as an electrical engineer, in avionics, and is now the Senior Director, Product Line Manager for Surface Book at Microsoft. The chance to learn more about the Surface line was not to be missed!
Surface & Me
At work I use a Surface Pro 3 (for mobile/meetings) alongside an HP CAD desktop workstation. I had also recently tested the, mostly impressive, Surface Studio for a week. I had seriously considered buying an earlier Surface Book for home use as it got close to being “My perfect PC”.
I was curious to evaluate the Surface Studio for CAD use as had mostly seen it demonstrated by graphic artists. The screen is gorgeous, both the stunning resolution and the way it glides, at the touch of a finger, between ‘drawing board and upright’ modes.
Surface Studio Photo from Microsoft
However I found even the top spec was a bit underpowered for CAD. It was interesting that it struggled more with AutoCAD (with models, not 2D) more than Revit. I suspect that was down to the comparatively modest, for a desktop, GeForce GTX 980M 4GB graphics. The Surface Studio shared a similar hardware specification to the first-generation Surface book, itself recently subject to a significant update, and really needs a hardware refresh to give it the power to match the stunning display and form factor.
First look at the latest Surface Book 2
Before AU2017 I stopped by the Las Vegas Microsoft Store, in nearby Fashion Show Mall, to check out the (then) recently released Surface Book 2. It was only just available in the larger 15-inch form factor in the US, a size not released in New Zealand until early 2018.
The Surface Book 2 doesn't look very different from previous versions, retaining the distinctive hinge and detachable clipboard tablet, but is all new. Both the mechanical and digital spec have been greatly refined. The i7 versions have 8th Gen quad-core processors, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 (13.5”)/1060(15”) graphics, a more rigid hinge and screen lock (for the larger screen) and still offer all-day battery life. I seriously considered getting one to take home but concerns about international warranty support and modest, if any with sales tax + duty, cost saving from home meant I didn't bother. A nice machine though!
Surface Book Photo from Microsoft
Meeting the Surface Design Team
Although the Surface team make technology Jeff Stewart’s talk was more about how they built the Surface team and design philosophy. Surface has a mandate ‘to innovate [within] or create product categories’ and ‘showcase the best of Microsoft’.
He spoke of the team culture of empathy and trust and how it fostered exploration of design. That results in innovative solutions from the multiple mode interaction (keyboard, touch screen/pad, voice, dial and pen) to hardware configurations like the transforming Surface Studio (desktop to drawing ‘board’) and Surface Pro/Book hybrid devices.
They also explore new materials and manufacturing techniques, like applying the Alcantara® fabric (often used in vehicle interiors) to the keyboard of the Surface Laptop and, recently launched, baby Surface Go keyboard cover.
I was interested to hear the Surface Book form factor was inspired by a paper folio spotted in Japan (photo below) and five years later it became a truly powerful digital folio.
The “Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge” is not just styling. It was created to shift the centre of mass as the top opens to better balance the screen (full of hardware and touch/pen display) in laptop mode. It combines with the “Muscle Wire Lock” to unite the tablet and base into a high-quality laptop.
The hinge/lock is best seen in the original (1 minute) launch video below which showcases some of the engineering common to all Surface Book models. I was glad to see this retained for the updated model as it is a distinctive part of the Surface Book look and function.
The Surface Book 2 built on that adding more power, refined design and USB C support (without losing the SD Card or USB port compatibility). It still charges/connects to docks via a magnetic Surface port, on both base and Clipboard, but can also charge via the USB C port if needed. Video out is from the USB C port rather than the display port other Surface products use. A sign of the future I suspect.
They had a partially dissected Surface Book 2 on display revealing how it packs the primary hardware (processor, memory, integrated graphics, storage and cooling) and about 1/3 of its ~10+ hour battery into the display clipboard/tablet portion. The keyboard base holds the second NVIDIA graphics card (with its own cooling fans) and the balance of the battery. It was interesting to see how much of the screen portion, remembering it’s a powerful i7 PC, is devoted to battery and cooling rather than hardware.
Living with a Surface Book 2
Earlier this year the SB2 15 was released in NZ and I decided it was time to upgrade my 5 year old Samsung ATIV Smart PC which was showing its age. It was a secondary device to a (then) workstation spec desktop machine which itself has had less and less use over the years. I wanted a machine to replace both; something I could use for general computing, blogging (writing & image editing), hobby photographic and design work but also capable of running CAD software if needed. The i7 15” Surface Book 2 fit the bill perfectly and price plus the ability to offload archive storage to OneDrive (1TB thanks to Office 365 Home Sub) meant the 512GB SSD option was sufficient.
I got the pen as use it quite a bit (for notes with MindManager, OneNote and some drawing) and added the Surface Dial as an experiment. The pen has strong magnets to dock it to either side of the screen. I’d like to see another added to allow it to dock up on top as like using the tablet portion in landscape mode. You can flip it ‘upside down’ and dock the pen to the base lock magnets but there is a tendency to knock the power switch (which is now on the bottom) off if you do that.
I expected to use the Dial with creative apps (Corel/Adobe apps now support it) but have found it surprisingly useful for media consumption. If there is no custom Dial function in an app the system Volume, Scroll, Zoom, Undo and Screen Brightness controls are available on the Dial. For scrolling interfaces, like Facebook and Twitter, the dial is a nice alternative to touchpad, keyboard or touch screen.
It feels like a high quality video edit jog dial from the days when I used to edit video. Sadly it lacks a finger dimple on top so you tend to turn it more like a HiFi volume control with two or more fingers.
The machine runs CAD fine (AutoCAD Architecture and Revit in the photo below) within the limitations of 16GB ram. As I would only be working with relatively modest size models, experimenting with Dynamo scripts or building content that is not really a problem. Not sure how earlier versions of CAD would get on with the stunning, but unusual, 3240x2160 3:2 format display which I run at the recommended 200% display scale but 2018+ are fine.
While I don't game much it runs those I have tried ok. I have used it with Flight Simulator X (yes the old one with a Orbix North & South Island NZ scenery pack). One advantage of running old games on such powerful hardware is you can crank all the settings up to max detail and still get good frame rates!
Quite a compliment to Windows 10 that it runs software from about a decade ago!
Even a more modern Formula 1 game (F1 2015) runs fine, the limitation being my driving skill and lack of familiarity with an Xbox controller. I guess you could connect a wheel but it seems a bit overkill for laptop gaming!
I have also tried using it with Windows Mixed Reality using a loan HP Headset and found it performed well with one caveat. You need to use the right adaptor to get video from the USB C video out to the HDMI headset and support the 90hz framerate good VR demands. The official Surface USB-C to HDMI Adapter was fine. In addition to exploring the Windows VR ‘house’, which is pretty impressive in itself, I tried a few other experiences. It was fun to explore Nefertari’s Tomb In VR and I found Google Earth VR impressive, spending over an hour revisiting the Himalayan cycle route I did for real a few years ago. It was an impressive way to relive past adventures.
What I love
The screen is lovely, sharp and bright but the best aspect is its ratio (pun intended). It’s more paper proportioned at 3:2 than the 16:9 video format of most laptops. This is far better for both working and reading as you get more vertical workspace in applications, more paper’like display for documents and graphics.
Windows Hello makes a great first impression by unlocking the machine at a glance. Although you can have password or PIN it is hardly ever needed. The keyboard is nice, good key travel and quiet. The glass ‘precision’ trackpad is said to be one of the best Windows ones, even challenging Mac. I don't know about that but it is great to use and does not pick up errant touches while typing. Then you have pen, again improved and very responsive, and Dial input which most other laptops don't support.
Considering the hardware inside the Clipboard/Tablet portion is remarkably light and useable. For reading it is comparable to holding a similar sized glossy magazine.
Given it is a consumer laptop performance is impressive. While dedicated CAD mobile workstations do that better the compromise between power, versatility, style and weight is hard to match. The screen shot below shows about 500MB of Revit and a 5GB Recap Point Cloud file loaded and this file is fine to work in.
Nice touches abound:
- Both base and clipboard are machined from magnesium with a nice matt finish. Two anti-skid strips extend across the base, rather than feet, to stop it slipping on smooth surfaces.
- Nice to have legacy USB, USB C ports and an SD card slot as my SLR uses them. You can also get a third party “BaseQi Aluminum Micro SD Adapter Stealth Drive Adaptor” which allows a Micro SD card to fit in the SD slot without protruding. Useful if you want to use it for permanent storage
- When the base is working hard (VR, Gaming or Rendering) the fans work hard to cool it. It vents from a raised vent facing back towards the screen rather than through base or side vents. It helps keep heat away from the user.
- The hinge is firm, better than the original Surface Book, and the detach/attach is positive. You press a button on the keyboard or taskbar icon to initiate the disconnect. If an application is using the external card the process is halted and you are prompted to close it down. When the base detaches Windows changes into Tablet mode, with a more touch oriented UI. On reattaching there is a brief delay until the external graphics card becomes available and Windows switches back to the desktop mode more optimised for mouse.
What could be better?
After a few months with the Surface Book 2 there are a few changes I would like to see:
Expose the NVIDIA Controls in Windows Settings
If you want to change Graphics settings there is a panel in the Windows 10 Settings but it only offers three basic options. You can force applications to use “High Performance” mode, favouring the GTX 1060 card but that is about it. I guess this reflects the more general audience for the Surface Book.
It wasn't obvious there was more until I saw this post on the Support Forum. For more control go to the old Control Panel > Hardware and Sound > NVIDIA Control Panel. It is still stripped down compared to what I have seen on workstations but has a bit more control which applications use the external card.
Cure the occasional base graphics card disconnect
Forcing applications to use the GTX card seems to help the occasional tendency for it to disappear. Running un-forced sometimes the GTX card seems to sleep, disappearing and only reappearing if you undock/redock the clipboard. It runs Intel 620 integrated graphics when undocked, itself a surprisingly powerful system and well up to tablet mode use.
Interesting that it seems AutoCAD handles this setup better, locking the tablet as it uses the GTX card. Revit is stroppier sometimes causing the GTX card to disconnect irrespective of the override settings. Seems odd but launching AutoCAD to force the card use, then starting Revit can help with this.
Update: I have found sliding the power mode slider back to “Balanced” (when running on battery) seems to make this more stable.
Recharge the Clipboard from the base!
The clipboard tablet has a useful life of about three or four hours when not docked. That is fine, for reading etc, but the catch is it doesn't recharge from the base until you connect back to mains power. It would be better if the base could boost itself back to maximum from the battery in the base when mains power is not present. However, the system does do a good job of balancing battery use between base and clipboard reporting each capacity separately in the power monitor panel.
Bevel the front edge
The other change I’d like is physical. The trackpad, one of the best I have used, has a bevelled edge on the case to help locate it. I would prefer that bevel to run the full width of the front (red) as find it more comfortable than the square edges. I’m tempted to fix it myself, with a file, but suspect that would void any warranty!
A Surface Screen!
Take that lovely Surface Studio screen and sell it as:
- A simple monitor (no touch/pen but same size)
- A touch screen that can leverage the Surface Book’s hardware while docked.
I suspect that second part is harder to achieve but there would be a huge market for that monitor alone.
The Surface Book 2 is not inexpensive but is also good value for money. It does a remarkable job of combining the capability of a power laptop, digital sketch board and tablet in one elegant machine. I’m happy I got one and look forward to seeing what they come up with for Surface Book 3!