Surface Book i7 with Performance Base hands-on: neat, but a missed opportunity

Surface Book i7 with Performance Base hands-on: neat, but a missed opportunity

While the Surface Studio was the star of the show, the Surface Book had a brief moment in the limelight as Microsoft announced it had bumped up the graphics and battery with a new and improved Surface Book configuration.

First off, keep in mind Microsoft apparently doesn’t know what to call  the updated Surface Book. Microsoft called it the ‘Surface Book i7’ during its presentation (which was confusing, because the old version also came in i7 configurationa), but the Store page and press assets call it the Surface Book ‘with Performance Base’ an . In any case, the Performance Base only comes in i7 configurations, starting at $2,399.

As a recap, Microsoft has outfitted the laptop with an Nvidia 965M – up from the previous custom 940M – which should provide “two times” the graphics performance. Meanwhile a 30% larger battery is said to provide a boost from a max of 12 to 16 hours of use. 
The innards of the new base
The innards of the new base

That should give the Surface Book some crazy numbers for its category. This is a laptop that is only slightly larger and negligibly heavier than the current (about-to-be-replaced) MacBook Pro.

The improved specs come at only a tiny expense in weight, at 3.63 lb vs 3.48 for the old GPU model, 0r 3.34 for the one with integrated graphics. The base is also a bit thicker, but the laptop remains the same size when closed – the base largely fills up a chunk of the gap at the hinge of the older Surface Book.

The obvious question for anyone who cares about graphics performance in the first place: Why didn’t Microsoft go with one of Nvidia’s new 1000-series cards, with the much improved Pascal architecture?


Microsoft basically said “we ran out of time.” The company had certain performance goals that were met with the 965M, and implementing something like a 1060 – or even the lower end 1050, which is still officially compatible with Oculus’ new minimum VR specs – didn’t fit the company’s timeline.

Fair enough, I suppose. Still, certified VR gaming would have been very much welcome. Perhaps you can maybe eke out playable performance from the 965M with some tweaking, but benchmarks show the card performs a fair bit worse than the minimum of a desktop class 960 recommended for Oculus’ VR platform.

Who knows, maybe Microsoft has done some special optimization, but I wouldn’t count on it, given the company didn’t advertise VR performance at all.

Surface Book Performance Base i7

But again, let’s not get too greedy. This is still a very lightweight, 13.5-inch laptop with excellent battery life, and there isn’t anything else quite like it. The 965M should more than suffice for 1080p gaming at high-ish settings, depending on what your frame-rate goals are.
For comparison, the current 15-inch MacBook Pro comes with a much weaker AMD R9 M370X (although that’s probably getting updated tomorrow), and Dell’s powerhouse XPS 15 ‘only’ comes with a 960M. The Surface Book is much lighter than either of these, with allegedly better battery life to boot.
Microsoft also confirmed that you could in theory update your Surface Book by simply plopping the new base onto an older top segment. Unfortunately, there are no plans to sell the base separately.
That’s a darn shame if you ask me. A rep suggested the company doesn’t really see people owning two bases, and that they could just sell their old Surface Book to pay for a new one. But that’s no different than upgrading any computer components. I can see a good number of people being perfectly happy paying up a hefty chunk of money for a more powerful graphics card and better battery life in a body that’s essentially the same size.

Moreover, I can’t help but feel that Microsoft is undermining the Surface Book’s modular concept by cutting down its potential for upgrades. Virtually the only thing I care about updating on my laptop nowadays are graphics and battery, because CPU performance has been ‘good enough’ for a while now.

The Surface Book originally gave me hope I could keep my laptop around for a year or two longer by simply getting a new base.  Now it seems updating it will just be like any other laptop: buy a new one.

Still, if you are looking at buying a new Surface Book, there’s never been a better time. For those of us who already use one though, lets hope Microsoft actually does something more with the concept in years to come.

The Surface Book i7 with Performance Base is available for pre-order today in three configurations ranging from $2,399 to $3,299 and will arrive on November 10.

For all of our coverage on Microsoft’s Windows 10 event, check out our event page here.

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