Surface Book i7 Review: One for the pros

Going into Microsoft’s fall Windows 10 event in New York City on October 26th, the company was not expected to announce a new Surface Book or Surface Pro. However, in something of a surprise announcement, Panos Panay, corporate vice president of devices at Microsoft and head of the Surface team, unveiled the Surface Book i7, a new high-end version of the company’s existing Surface Book two-in-one.

On the surface (ahem), the new laptop, available in Canada starting today, looks exactly like the Surface Book Microsoft announced more than a year ago. Inside, however, it features a number of improvements over its predecessor. Most notably, it adds a sixth generation Intel Skylake Core i7 processor, discrete Nvidia Geforce GTX 965M GPU, up to 1TB of internal storage, a higher capacity battery and a more efficient cooling system.

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Microsoft sent MobileSyrup a Surface Book i7 to review. Given that we’ve had our review unit for less than a week and the fact that the Surface Book i7 represents, at best, a minor refresh of the Surface Book lineup, we thought it best to keep our thoughts on the device brief. We’ll have a lot more to say when Microsoft releases the Surface Book 2 and Surface Pro 5.

Specs

  • Windows 10 Pro
  • Sixth generation Intel Core i7 processor
  • 256GB, 512GB or 1TB SSD
  • 8GB or 16GB of RAM
  • 13.5-inch PixelSense Display, 3000 x 2000 resolution
  • Nvidia GeForce 965M GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 RAM
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless
  • Two full-size USB 3.0 ports, as well as a SD card reader and headset jack
  • Surface Pen included

When the usually charismatic Panos Panay unveiled the Surface Book i7, he was more sarcastic than his usual self. Speaking to the two-in-one’s more capable Nvidia GPU, he said, “Gamers, they want more frame rates… I don’t really get it, but they want it.” Later, talking about mechanical engineers and their needs, he stated, “Engineers, they want to spin more parts in CAD and they don’t want any lag. I don’t get that either, but they do.”

In hindsight, I think he was trying to say Surface Book i7 has far more computing hardware than the average person will ever need.

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Panay called Surface Book i7 “the most performative” 2-in-1 on the market, and while I haven’t had an opportunity to test it against the field, I can say it’s overkill for most computing tasks — though it’s overkill in the best way possible.

Surface Book i7 makes using apps like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom a pleasure. It’s also able to play modern games like Overwatch with relative ease — though given the amount of heat generated by the computer when playing said games, it’s probably best to look to a desktop solution for more serious gaming.

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All that performance comes at a significant cost, however.

In Canada, the Surface Book i7 starts at $3,129. The most expensive model, which comes with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, costs a staggering $4,379. Moreover, despite their expensive price tag, Surface Book i7 models do not come Intel’s new Kaby Lake processors nor one of Nvidia’s 1000 series GPUs.

Both these components are a significant improvement over their predecessors. Nvidia’s new graphics cards, in particular, deliver the best price-per-performance ratio of any 3D cards on the market. Taken together, it feels like the Surface Book i7 is a something of missed opportunity in this respect.

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It’s also a disappointment in terms of battery life. Microsoft boasted about the computer’s improved battery life, touting up to 16 hours of up time. While it may be possible to get 16 hours of battery life out of the Surface Book i7 by aggressively managing its power consumption, at best I was able to get four to five hours of battery life while doing things like surfing the web, listening to music on Spotify and editing photos in Lightroom.

That said, its less than stellar battery life performance is at least understandable given its many high-end components.

One other issue I will note — and its a minor one at that — is that while the Surface Book i7 possess an excellent display, with brilliant colour reproduction, its 60Hz refresh rate can be a bit jarring. Surface Book i7 is a powerful machine and yet switching between virtual desktops and windows can feel sluggish. That said, I’m attuned to these difference because I own and use a 144Hz monitor at home. Most consumers, having not used a 120Hz or 144Hz monitor before, will be happy with the Surface Book i7’s display.

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Performance aside, this is the same laptop Microsoft released more than a year ago. While nowhere near as divisive as Apple’s new MacBook Pro lineup, the Surface Book does have its detractors, thanks to its unique hinge mechanism.

Microsoft didn’t mention this during its keynote, but the Surface design team was able to narrow the gap between the top of the device and its base. It’s still there, but based on what I’ve seen with my unit, the Surface Book i7 should be better at keeping dust and dirt away while closed.

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Surface Book i7 on top; 2015 Surface Book on the bottom. Notice the thicker base of the Surface Book i7.

Look closely and you’ll also notice that the Surface Book i7 features a slightly thicker base than the 2015 Surface Book. The former is also heavier than the latter: 3.63 pounds compared to the original’s 3.48 pounds.

Expensive price tag and minor issues aside, the Surface Book i7 is a phenomenal computer.

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If you find yourself in its target market and are in desperate need of a new machine, then you could do far worse than the Surface Book i7. However, if you can wait about a year, then it’s probably you bide your time. Given just how much the Surface Pro has improved in the short time it’s been on the market, I imagine the Surface Book 2 will improve upon the Surface Book in a number of significant ways.

Indeed, for everyone else this computer is most exciting for the engineering feat it represents. Using almost exactly the same frame as the 2015 Surface Book, the Surface team was able to cram several new components. It’s likely that experience will help inform the team’s future products, devices that will be more affordable to the average consumer.

Pros

  • Great typing experience
  • Beautiful display
  • Monster performance

Cons

  • Average battery life
  • Very expensive

Comments

  • Ipse

    THREE -FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS….I only have 2 kidneys.

  • MXM4K

    Way too expensive for my blood. But it’s a very premium device aimed at businesses and professionals who need a lot of power and reliability on the go. I’m just not the target market for said device. Moving right along.

    • Alex

      ya, definitely not your average consumer device. I’d love to get either new macbook pro or surface, but oh well.

  • 01shade10

    Arent good Windows machines cheaper than Macs? Thats what I keep hearing.

    • Alex

      if you compare it to other products, or just build the thing from parts you buy individually, yes. But atm, people are comparing microsoft surfaces to apple macbooks. In this specific case, they aren’t really cheaper, and are spec’d differently to make it worth ‘that’ much.
      But if you build yourself a desktop with their top of the line spec costs, you can get yourself a lot of nice stuff. at $4,000, u can get yourself 2x 4k screens and still have money left to build yourself a beastly machine. Hell, slap 2 monitor mounts, sit/stand table, and still have money left to build a machine still VERY capable. If u need a laptop still, just sacrifice a 4k monitor and get yourself a decent ultrabook, or budget a little and get a capable chromebook if u just need basic productivity on the go.

      so yes, good windows machines are still cheaper than macs, but its also cheaper than microsoft’s surfaces.

  • The Iceman Cometh

    And people think the new MacBook Pro is overpriced. lol! Well its acknowledged this device is aimed at a specific demographic that needs the kind of power this outputs but for everyone else its overkill.
    It’s also hardly surprising the battery life is average. This kind of equipment is going to suck a lot dry in much less than 16 hours which sounds more like standby time than based on average to heavy usage. Gaming and watching videos will almost certainly serve a big drain here but if you keep it plugged in for the more intensive tasks its a moot point.

  • Mr Dog

    They should have gone Quad Core for that price range.

  • Croc Ography

    Might be the same price as a MacBook but at least you get a removable tablet, a touch screen (not just a strip above the keyboard) and stylus input. Maybe not that expensive after all — I guess you would have to compare apples to apples.

    • ciderrules

      The MacBook fully loaded is $40 less and it gives you:

      – Larger 15″ screen with DCI-P3 color gamut support.
      – Fastest SSD in any laptop around.
      – 4GB GDDR5 video memory vs 2GB in the Surface.
      – Faster version of the i7 processor (save $240 if you get the slower i7 like the Surface).
      – 4 USB-C ports (Surface doesn’t even have one).

      To me the big one is the DCI-P3 screen. How can anyone reliably do photo/video/graphics work on a device where you’re not sure if the colors are accurate?

    • Mr Dog

      Not just faster!!
      The Surface uses the U i7 processors that are only 2 cores.

      Macbooks use the HQ which are 4 cores.

    • Brad Fortin

      Depends on screen size. The 13″ MBP is limited to dual-core, only the 15″ gets quad-core.

    • Mr Dog

      Yeah but the Surface book price is in the 15in range

    • Croc Ography

      “To me the big one is the DCI-P3 screen. How can anyone reliably do photo/video/graphics work on a device where you’re not sure if the colors are accurate?” — not without a proper colorimeter, in which both look too similar to the naked eye!

      And yes the macbooks are faster (and MS should have made them quad core!!!) but it is the functionality which is key here; the stylus , touchscreen and detachable tablet for presentations just ever so easily outweigh your points. And truly if I wanted the things that you are referring to I would probably look at Dell or HP for something similar.

      One last point, since I am in the business you describe, I would easily not buy a laptop anyway and stick with my desktop and multiple 30 inch screens with an input tablet from Wacom.

    • Mr Dog

      GUESS WHAT! We all have different preferences making the other product perfect for us. AMAZING, who would have thought.

      You like the Touch Screen? I like the bigger screen!
      You like the 16hrs battery? I like the Quad Core.

  • jndvrk

    16GB on a Pro machine. LOLOLOL.

    …oh wait, this isn’t the Macbook Pro review. Carry on.

    • Mr Dog

      16GB is more than enough for a Pro portable workstation. This will be even more so as SSD’s are approaching RAM speeds faster every year.

      I would much rather have something that is easy to carry than 32GB of ram in most cases.

    • Will Maitner

      I’d rather have 4gb Mac than a 32gb Surface any day of the week. Windows is a hot mess of an operating system. And Surface machines have 20x the issues that a similarly spec’d Dell or Lenovo have. I deal with hundreds of machines daily, I have the numbers to prove it.

    • brent

      another iSheep here, the new macbook pro is a piece of garbage, an utter and complete failure by Apple. probably the worst product they have release in recent memory.. get a clue man

    • Mr Dog

      Care to elaborate?

      Regardless of the Hardware he was speaking from a software perpective

    • alphs22

      I’m sure you’ve used it for a reasonable amount of time to come up with said conclusion.

    • Me Ted

      I’ve spoken to others in similar positions and they have similar complaints. It’s not so much the OS but the Surface Book itself. One issue in particular is that when you remove the tablet portion from the dock it blue screens like 2/10 times. Look, I love many OS’s including Windows but MS really needs to address the Surface Book’s issues with current and/or future iterations.

    • EChid

      I have 4GBs of RAM on my Mac (becoming 8GB today), and 8GB on my work Windows 10 computer. The Mac is a disaster, the Windows computer deals with basically anything I throw at is. You’re just not right.

    • alphs22

      He’s talking trends based on his experience with hundreds of machines. You’re talking about your experience with two.

  • Raj Singh

    Love the form factor of this device. I wish the display was 16:9 or 16:10 rather than 4:3… and I wouldn’t mind if it was a bit lighter.

    • Docservlet

      It’s a piece of junk

    • Alex

      i actually really like the display being 4:3. Because this laptop can also pop out to be a tablet, having a 16:9/10 looks very odd when you have it in portrait mode. I do have an Ipad, but before i went for the ipad, i went through numerous android tablets using 16:9 ratio, and it just looked unusable in portrait mode. ANd yes, there are times you use it, like reading PDF’s, or some other stuff.
      of course, watching movies on it sucks, but thats why you can plug in an external monitor.

  • Rockwell

    Awesome machine! I’m so glad Microsoft with their new Surface line of machines has now “leap frogged” Apple and their iMac and MacBook Pros. I got my order in! Can’t wait!

  • Brad Fortin

    Based on similar articles in the past I think I can summarize what to expect from the comments on this article (should MobileSyrup commenters be as vocal about non-Apple stuff as they are about Apple stuff):

    – Hey [author], how much did [OEM] pay you to write this?

    – [Price]?! [Scathing remarks about the price]!

    – How is this “innovation”?

    – It looks the same as last year’s model. [OEM] post-[former CEO] has lost its way.

    – I suspect my [previous iteration of product being reviewed] is going to be my last from [OEM].

    – I think [competing machine] is much better for the price.

    – Only Skylake? What a joke that they didn’t use Kaby Lake chips [that haven’t been released in this TDP tier].

    – Only 16 GB of RAM? That’s not a “Pro” machine! (despite 16 GB of RAM being a limit of Skylake and Kaby Lake) They should have included 32 GB or 64 GB of [desktop-class, battery-killing DDR4] RAM, minimum!

    • Well done fellow Macrumors browser, well done!

    • Brad Fortin

      MacRumors? No, that was all on MobileSyrup.

    • Peter

      you forgot the part where people point out typos. that’s key.

  • p_lindsay

    So nice. So expensive.

  • kirfer

    Dat battery life, tho… Yech!

    It’s not as if “surfing the web, listening to Spotify, and editing photos in Lightroom” is exactly stretching the machine. It’s actually quite shameful if they’re claiming 16 hours but you’re seeing around 5 hours under that miserable load. That is, “Average Battery Life” is not even close: “Appalling battery life” would be more appropriate.

  • Got mine 3 weeks ago and I have MUCH better battery life than you claim. And it’s my main machine, I do everything with it. I ran the battery report from Windows 10. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/07c8639f0eb2c12f96520c17db83f9ad498fe2b98399f3694330abb53f3ffcac.png

    (You can run “powercfg /batteryreport” from a cmd prompt to get theses results)

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