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Surface Book – Software and performance

By Alastair Stevenson



  • Recommended by TR


Our Score:


Surface Book – Stylus and Software

The so-so colour gamut coverage of the Surface Book's screen is particularly sad as Microsoft’s done a great job optimising Windows 10’s software to work with the Surface Book’s stylus.

Microsoft’s bundled the Surface Book with the same Surface Pen seen on the Pro 4. The pen magnetically attaches to the Surface Book tablet section's left side and offers a variety of notation and doodling features.

Surface Book

As a piece of hardware the pen is fairly impressive. The Surface Pen is based on N-Trig stylus technology and can recognise a staggering 1,024 pressure levels. Microsoft’s also loaded the screen with robust palm-detection software that instructs the Surface to ignore everything but the pen’s inputs when the stylus is near.

Artists can even swap out the pen's nibs. Options include the bundled all-round HB tip, sketching-focused B tip, the H tip for technical drawing, and the 2H tip for scrawling speed.

However, it’s the pen’s shortcut keys that make it truly great. The Surface Pen has a single, long select key that runs along the stylus’s side, with function control on its top. The top button is used to activate various shortcuts on the Surface Book. A single press will launch OneNote, a double tap will take a screen grab and a long press will activate Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana.

VIDEO: Trusted Explains: Everything you need to know about Windows 10

After a few days with the Surface Book I found myself taking advantage of the OneNote shortcut at least three or four times day. By the end of the week the Surface Book and pen had become my notation tools of choice.

The dock’s Nvidia GPU further improves the Surface Book’s design chops. The Surface Pro 4 was more than capable for small- to medium-sized digital painting or 3D modeling projects. But I found its Intel HD graphics would begin to struggle when faced with hardcore graphics work in things like AfterFX or 3D Studio Max.

With the Surface Book's GPU attached and running, however, I found these issues have generally been fixed. The Surface Book uses Nvidia’s Optimus technology to decide when to turn the GPU on. By default it activates automatically whenever power-intensive whitelisted applications, like games or graphics software, are powered up.

Surface Book

With popular programs, like Photoshop, Illustrator, Adobe Premiere and 3D Studio Max, I found the docking system worked a treat. When set up as a laptop the GPU raced into action and ran large video, digital painting and 3D modelling projects noticeably smoother than the Surface Pro 4.

However, issues began to creep in when started using freeware. When I worked on painting projects in GIMP and Krita a variety of problems arose.

In GIMP and Blender, latency issues crept in and there was an annoying millisecond delay between the pen touching the screen and my command registering. The pen’s pressure-sensitivity levels also became all but useless in GIMP, as the software hasn’t been optimised to work with touchscreens properly.

I also suffered massive issues when trying to use Krita. Due to driver issues Krita initially could only pull up a black, unresponsive screen – which obviously made painting or editing photos impossible.

Buy Now: Surface Book at Amazon.co.uk (£1,295) | Amazon.com ($1,349)

Surface Book – Performance

The Surface Book is available in a variety of configurations. You can pick it up with either a sixth-generation Intel i5 or i7 core CPU. The tablet section of either configuration will be powered by Intel HD graphics 520. From there you can load it with either 8GB or 16GB RAM. All but the most basic $1,300 i5 version will come with an optional Nvidia GeForce GPU in their dock. I tested the top specced i7 variant with 16GB of RAM.

Microsoft claims that when its Nvidia GPU is running the Surface Book will offer unparalleled performance. I’m not sure I’d call it unparalleled, but the Surface Book’s benchmark scores are impressive when you consider its small dimensions.

Benchmarked using the GPU-focused 3DMark FireStrike test the Surface Book scored 1,901 when docked and 865 as a tablet. The docked score makes the Surface Book over twice as fast as the Surface Pro 4 and competing i7 Ultrabooks such as the Lenovo Yoga 900, which scored 853 and 834 on FireStrike respectively.

Surface Book

The Surface Book also performed well on the CPU-focused Geekbench 3 benchmark, where it ran in with 3,522 single-core and 7,362 multi-core scores docked – being CPU-focused, the scores only changed by a hundred or so points when the device was set in tablet mode.

But those looking to play games on the Surface Book should be slightly wary. The GPU used in the Surface Book is a custom build that’s more akin to Nvidia’s GT 940M than any of its top-end parts. It has 1GB of VRAM, but it will struggle to render games at high resolutions.

I managed to get XCOM 2 to play in its minimal graphics setting at around 22-30 frames per second. But more demanding titles, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, are unplayable, even at their lowest graphics setting.

As an added air of annoyance, the Surface Book doesn’t feature Nvidia’s game-configuration software either. This means you’ll have to manually experiment to find just how far you can push games each time you play – which, let's face it, is a faff.


February 18, 2016, 6:32 pm

smells like another lustful apple victory

Prem Desai

February 18, 2016, 6:38 pm

Why on earth are you talking about Apple on a Microsoft product review - to which Apple has no competition.

It has not been pitched against ANY Apple product, so how could it be an Apple victory??

Something does smell - and it's you!


February 18, 2016, 6:41 pm

i see you edited.

good boy.

and everyday is a good day for apple, not even the fbi can **** with them


February 19, 2016, 8:55 am

He's an Apple troll. does it all the time


February 19, 2016, 5:33 pm

shut up shitty arse


February 20, 2016, 10:04 am

It's really funny to see people act like football supporters over large corporations whose only interest is taking as much of our money as they possibly can. Do you realise how ridiculous you sound?

Solomon Steve

March 25, 2016, 5:14 pm

Paul, infact u are a stupid fool


April 3, 2016, 11:45 pm

How did the touchpad only get a 8/10? Its the best touchpad I have used on a windows device. Its not far from the Macbooks if not its on par,


April 17, 2016, 5:13 am

The review mentions the screen's poor coverage of the Adobe RGB spectrum. It failed to point out that the Adobe RGB colour space is only useful for people dealing with print and that for professionals who work in TV, video, film or web graphics, the sRGB gamut is far more important, which is probably why the display covers most of it.

Matt Williams

July 29, 2016, 10:39 am

It is a good touchpad but my wife won't let me use it in bed because the left and right clicks wake her up.


July 29, 2016, 10:41 am

I can totally agree with you on that. Loud clicks no matter where you press it. You could always tap to select, but that defeats the purpose of having the ability to click it.

Alastair J. Archibald

August 24, 2016, 2:38 pm

Well, I've been looking for travelling laptop Nirvana for what seems like forever, I've tried iPads 1, 2, Mini and Air, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro 4. I thought for a while I'd reached it with the SP4, but the Type Pad keyboard wasn't fast enough for me (I write novels semi-professionally) and the touchpad left a bit to be desired.

Now with the Surface Book 1TB + GPU, I am there. The touchpad is the best I've ever met possibly apart from the MBP's version. The keyboard lets me type at my full speed for hour after hour. The visuals are gorgeous, much nicer than Apple's frankly outdated Retina display. Multitasking is great with 16GB of RAM, and the GPU is OK for XCOM 2 at reasonable frame rates when I am relaxing.

Peter Wright

January 23, 2017, 8:41 pm

I have had a love hate relationship with this machine for 6 months now. It is great when it works. That is less than when it does. The keyboard regularly stops working. bringing the Book back from standby often ends in hang up. This requires a hard reboot hanging on to the power and volume keys for 30, yes 30 seconds.
I wanted to use it for yacht race navigation and after it failed and I had to use my smartphone to keep a million pound superyacht off the rocks, I can no longer trust it. It stays ashore as we are not allowed useless weight aboard.
I spilt a couple of drops of water onto the keyboard. The ampersand and apostrophe keys (wouldnt it be great to save 15 keystrokes) stopped working. Mia culpa and on to the phone to Microsoft because no-one else can fix them. The want £500 yes FIVE HUNDRED FEKKIN QUID , half the cost of the machine to fix it. Well I now have half a laptop and a very expensive tablet.
Microsoft have an arrogant attitude to their customers and their over rated, overpriced equipment. I have gone back to my HP laptop and the next laptop will cost less than a Microsoft repair. Buy this at your peril.

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