Microsoft Surface Book 3 (13.5”) Review: It’s An Upgrade, But NOT Really What We Wanted
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
We have with us the Microsoft Surface Book 3, the 13.5-inch model. If we didn’t mention that, you might not even know it’s the new model.
That’s because nothing about the design has changed since the previous generation. The physical dimensions are the same, the hinge design remains unchanged, and everything else, down to even the ports.
The main difference with the Surface Book 3 is the internals, so let’s start with that. Our unit right here is basically the most specced out model, with the SSD being the only exception.
It runs an Intel Core i7-1065G7, 32GB of RAM running at 3733Mhz, a 512GB SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 for dedicated graphics.
Oh and of course, just to put it upfront, this configuration will set you back a whopping S$3,768.
Not exactly that affordable.
First up, the design. As mentioned, almost nothing has changed. Now is it all bad? Not necessarily.
The entire device is made of magnesium and Microsoft has really refined the use of the material down to a T. The finish and texture is pretty iconic of Surface products, and even when you’re simply using the Surface Book 3, or even just holding it in your hand, you can tell it’s really well-built.
You still get that same hinge design that’s unique to the Surface Book 3, that whether you like it or not, will still leave a gap between the display and the keyboard when closed.
In short, if you have or tried the Surface Book 2, you’ll feel right at home with the Surface Book 3. Now I do have gripes about it, but my list of dislikes is pretty long, so I’ll talk about each and every one of them later on in the video.
For now, let’s move on to the display.
You get almost the exact same 13.5-inch display as the previous generation. It is of course in a 3 by 2 aspect ratio, that sports a resolution of 3,000 by 2,000, covers 100% sRGB and can hit a max brightness of almost 500 nits.
Needless to say, the display is great. Colours are rich and vibrant, viewing angles are great, and you’ll definitely enjoy using it, be it for YouTube, or simply just browsing the web. Though do note that you have to tweak Windows Scaling to get the best out of it. Personally, I use it at 150%, which I find gives a good balance between actual screen real estate while still being able to read text at a comfortable distance.
Of course, this is a Surface Book 3, and you can detach the display from the base of the laptop, and use it as a tablet. In fact, most of the components are housed within the display, like the CPU, RAM and storage, while the base actually only contains the extended battery and the dedicated graphics card.
Now, the webcam. Microsoft puts the exact same webcam in all their Surface products, so as expected, you get a Full HD webcam that has really good image quality, great white balance and even a pretty decent microphone to boot. It’s more than sufficient for casual video calls with friends and family, all the way to executive business meetings. It’s that good.
Like always, you also do get facial recognition with Windows Hello for unlocking your device.
Round the back, you also get an 8-megapixel rear camera that is good enough for snapshots or perhaps to use as a second feed in your video call.
Next are the speakers, which are actually flanking both sides of the display. The speakers are decent, but they are nothing amazing. Far from it. In fact, my first-generation Surface Laptop sounds better, and also, much louder, almost twice as loud at max volume.
The speakers on the Surface Book 3 are really quiet in comparison. It’s good enough for your personal use in a quiet environment, but even then, it’ll fail to fill a small room.
We then come to the keyboard, and without a doubt, it’s a great keyboard. The keys have a good response, quite a bit of key travel, and it just has a good layout, with all your important keys enlarged and easy to reach.
It really offers a great typing experience, and to be honest, it’s not just because the keyboard feels great, but the amount of space that’s allocated for your palms to rest on while typing, thanks to that 3 by 2 aspect ratio for the display. It’s a great keyboard.
But, let’s move on to the trackpad.
It’s the exact same trackpad as the previous generation. It has a smooth glass surface, tracks really well, and of course, runs Precision with all the gestures and whatnot.
In short, great to use, but I can’t say I have no qualms about it. More on that later. The same can be said for the ports.
On the left, you get two standard USB 3.1 ports and a full-size SD card reader. On the right, you get your Surface Connect port and a Type-C port which supports data transfer, display output and power delivery.
If you detach the tablet, you also do get another Surface Connect port on the bottom, so you can just charge it separately. Last but not least, you do also get a 3.5mm headphone jack, that’s actually on the side of the display or tablet, and not the base of the laptop itself.
Something of note for those who are wondering what’s the difference between the 13.5-inch model and the 15-inch model, it’s mainly just two things.
You, of course, get a bigger display, but also slightly better graphics in the flavour of the GTX 1660Ti Max-Q. Everything else like the CPU, RAM and SSD options are actually pretty much the same.
We then come to performance. In Cinebench R20, the 1065G7 scored about 1302 in the Multi Core and 461 on the Single Core, which is pretty much in line with all the other 1065G7 based laptops I’ve tested, with the Razer Blade Stealth being the sole exception.
For DaVinci Resolve, the 10 minute 1080p edit took about 25 minutes to complete while the 15 minute 4K edit took over an hour to finish the render. Again, it’s pretty much in line with the other 1065G7 I’ve tested, with the exception being, of course, the Razer Blade Stealth.
As for the 512GB SSD that I have yet in this model, it has good read speeds, but the write speeds are a little lacking. But of course, it’s still an SSD, so it’s going to feel plenty fast.
Overall, editing on the Surface Book 3 was actually an overall great experience. I could edit multiple layers, place in numerous effects, and it’ll still run great. If you’re more towards photo editing, this will run Lightroom and Photoshop, no issues at all. It has the horsepower to power these applications with ease, and that’s also thanks to the CUDA support from the Nvidia card.
But if say, you prefer a more hands-on experience with your photos, feel free to detach the tablet and use it that way. You do lose the CUDA support, but it’ll still be fast enough to handle simple photo edits.
As you know, I usually focus on the more creative stuff, and I do also feel that this is what the Surface Book 3 is mainly catered towards, productivity and creativity.
But well, it has a GTX 1650 Max-Q, so I threw some games at it.
In general, you can pretty much play lighter titles like CS:GO, or even triple-A titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Though you’ll want to play at 1080p and drop the graphic settings a little for much better frame rates.
Battery life, in general, was great. Though I did not manage to get the number of hours which Microsoft claimed, I could still get about 9 hours or so in a real-world setting, so that’s great.
With all that said and done, I’m now going touch on everything that I didn’t really like on the Surface Book 3.
First, the display. While I do like the resolution, and the 13.5-inch form factor, I found it weird that Microsoft did not reduce the size of the bezels. The bezels are still really chunky, and it just doesn’t look great. Oddly enough, even the bezels on my first-generation Surface Laptop 3 is thinner than the Book 3, and they have the same size display, so what gives?
Now yes, this has a computer inside the display unit, but no, that’s not good enough of a reason.
Next, the hinge.
This is probably the heart and soul of the Surface Book series, and it’s honestly not that great. The gap that’s created when it’s closed, I can close one eye, I’ve come to accept it as the design. My issue is that it doesn’t tilt back far enough, but more importantly when you do detach the tablet, that hinge is left protruding.
So let’s say you’re a student, and you just want to use the tablet, and slot the base into your bag. You might be putting unnecessary pressure on that bit of the hinge if you sandwich it between files and books.
I would’ve liked to see the hinge be able to tilt all the way down to a full 180, and that would’ve made it more versatile.
On to the third, the trackpad.
As mentioned, the trackpad is great. But with the Surface Laptop 3 featuring larger trackpads, I fail to see why the Surface Book 3 did not get the same treatment.
Next are the ports.
The Surface Book 3 has essentially the same ports as the Surface Book 2. While it is by no means little, there are no upgrades at all. I would’ve liked to see Thunderbolt 3 being implemented for the Type-C port, and perhaps add another Thunderbolt 3 port on the display unit itself, so it’ll make using the Surface Book 3 as a tablet a little more useful. But then again, Microsoft did share their concerns over Thunderbolt 3, so there’s that.
Lastly, perhaps the base unit could use some extra speakers as well, considering the somewhat lacklustre speakers. It would’ve been a nice touch.
Long story short, just like the title, the Microsoft Surface Book 3 is an upgrade, but not really what I wanted. However, if you’re looking for a device that has an amazing build quality, a superb display, plenty of performance for both creative and gaming, but most importantly, that you can also use as a tablet, the Surface Book might just be the only device that fits those needs.
Oh, and for those of you who are looking at it with the Surface Pen in mind, it might be a great option for you too.
But remember, there are quite a number of trade-offs and you need quite a bit of cash.
Content by Soon Kai Hong