Laptops that convert into tablets are like flying cars. Flying cars don’t exist, because the gap between what makes a good car and what makes a good plane is insurmountably vast. There are great cars; there are great planes. No one has come up with a way to make a great car that’s also a great plane.
Similarly, there’s no such thing as a great laptop that’s also a great tablet. The design differences, and user expectations for each, are too vast to pack into a single device. Microsoft knows this, and you can see it in the Surface lineup. The new Surface Book 3 is both a laptop and tablet, but it is very much a laptop that converts into a tablet. The Surface Go 2 is a tablet that can be used as a laptop. Neither are equally great in each category.
The Awkward Big Brother
The Surface Book 3 feels very much like its predecessor, which my colleague David Pierce called “a serious computer for serious business.” It’s Microsoft’s enterprise version to the consumer-facing Surface Go 2 and “prosumer” Surface Pro. The differences between the three machines come down to portability versus power, with the Surface Book 3 erring on the side of power.
The design is largely unchanged—the same awkward-looking but functional hinge is still present. Microsoft says the huge hinge makes it possible to put the battery and processor in the screen without the whole thing flopping over, but the whole laptop is still quite top-heavy. This is precisely the sort of compromise hybrid devices must make.
The Surface Book 3 makes a wonderful laptop. The keyboard is one of the best I’ve used (Microsoft’s keyboard design across the Surface line is second to none), and the trackpad is one of the best you’ll find outside of the ones on Apple’s MacBooks. The 13.5-inch screen is another highlight. It’s wonderfully sharp and bright with excellent color rendering in both the sRBG space and “enhanced” RGB.
Detach the screen, though, and new problems arise. Most notable is that there’s no stand. Unlike the Surface Go 2 and other tablets, there’s no included cover or kickstand here to help you prop up the screen. If you want to watch Netflix on the couch, you’re going to have to get creative with pillows to balance the Surface Book 3 upright.
Battery life is something of a conundrum with the Surface Book 3. In addition to the usual “it depends” on what you’re doing with it, the same can be said based on which part you’re using. In laptop mode, with brightness dialed down to about 75 percent, I was able to get 12 hours while playing a video on repeat. As a tablet, it managed only about 4.5 hours.
These numbers aren’t entirely reflective of real-world use. In laptop mode, this machine will easily last you a full work day, because it relies on two batteries—one inside the display and one in the keyboard. And it’s not as quick to die in tablet mode as our video-playback test suggests; after two hours of watching Netflix, I was only down about 30 percent.
Speaking of tablet mode, it’s best for drawing, which is to say it’s still a lap- or desk-bound device even without the keyboard. It’s a great plane. It is not a great car. Microsoft does not include a Surface Pen, which will set you back another $100 on top of the Surface Book 3’s already steep starting price of $1,600.
Power at a Price
While the lack of a stand limits tablet mode somewhat, the far bigger compromise is with power. You’d think that $1,600 would get you a pretty powerful machine, but it doesn’t. That’s the base Intel Core i5 model. There is power to be had in the Surface Book 3, but you’ll have to spend at least $2,000 to get it. And even then you’ll get Ice Lake series chips rather than the more powerful H-class chips found in other premium, $2,000 laptops.
The good news is you can now get a Surface Book with a discrete graphics card (GPU). It’s in the base model and only available when you’re in full laptop mode, but presumably that’s when most people would need the extra power anyway. The version I tested features the Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 graphics processor, which is no slouch. Discrete graphics and an option to get up to 32-gigabytes of DDR4 RAM mean the Surface Book 3 can be plenty capable, whether you’re gaming or video editing.
There’s also support for Wi-Fi 6, which really does seem to improve reception and speed, provided you have a router that supports it.
Unfortunately, to get all that power you’re going to have to shell out well over $2,000. That’s not outrageous for a flagship machine, but it’s a lot for a machine that makes as many comprises as the Surface Book 3.
When the first Surface Book arrived, it was ambitions and innovative. In many ways it still is, but in terms of sheer computing power for the price, it no longer stands on its own. It also no longer has the best screen around. The Dell XPS line, the 16-inch MacBook, and others have better screens and more power at similar prices, albeit without the tablet features.
If you need your laptop to convert into a tablet, the Surface Book 3 is as close to true hybrid nirvana as you’re likely going to get. But it’s not the best tablet, the best laptop, or the best 2-in-1.