Ok before we start.
This is a long intro and review Part I, don’t expect the other parts to be this long, but I like to do reviews slightly different from others.
The Laptop I have here is NOT mine.
Microsoft send it to me for review, I’ve been playing with the idea for some time now but never took the plunge for the simple reason I was happy with my Dell, but times change and also my demands and at the moment there is too much on the Surface Book 2 that I think would greatly benefit me and people like me so I borrowed this laptop for an extended period of time to really test it out.
This however doesn’t mean that I’m biased, actually far from.
EVERY review I do I do from my own personal perspective, if a company doesn’t like what I type or think that’s their problem, I will never ever lie, or color a review because I get something for review.
At the moment there is no cooperation between “learning with Frank” and “Microsoft” There is no contract or ambassadorship, so this review is written 100% with in mind that when I buy this laptop I will probably pay full retail (or slightly less… let’s hope that last one). That being said, over the last 2-3 years I’ve become very fond of Microsoft and fully support Windows 10 as an operating system for creatives.
Creativity strikes everywhere.
It’s not that you go to the office at 8:00AM and start working and go home at 5:00PM and call it a day. You could literally be in the middle of a walk and get an idea that you have to write down…. People that are working in the creative branch know all about this, creativity strikes whenever.
Over the years the market for creatives has grown explosively and the options are endless. I myself love to be creative with Photography and video but also with music. When I compare today with my youth there is a huge difference.
When I was 17 I played the guitar (a lot) I had to be home to record something on a tape deck (4 track) where you could only hear track 1-2 but could record 1-2-3-4. It was awesome and opened up so many options, no need for a studio anymore… well if 4 tracks was enough. Today I carry around a Boss BR80 which is much smaller than my old 4 track, runs for ever on a battery and doubles as a location recorder and when you connect a guitar you have a band to play along with and a gazillion different sounds, amps, effects etc. It’s insane. And if your demands are a bit lower you can even use your phone with apps to record and even to play guitar, one could say the options are endless.
So one would expect that with photography, which in essence is a lot easier than recording music one would also have limitless options. And in a fact you have….. if your demands are not that high. On most tablets and phones you can run Lightroom CC (which I love) but in all honesty… it’s pretty limiting when you want more and…. well….. you can’t really use it professionally. You’re still editing on a non calibrated (and far from accurate) display and delivering an image to a client for a portrait session is pretty problematic or takes a lot of time. It’s doable don’t get me wrong but it’s just so much faster when you export to Photoshop and do all the work there and save it for delivery in sRGB and for storage in TIFF 16 bits ARGB. for this we really need a calibrated display and a full blown version of Photoshop.
Same goes for video.
Editing a fun video is no problem at all, look at the new Adobe video editor on iOS/Mac/Windows (Rush) it’s absolutely a step towards being able to do a lot on the road. But…… it doesn’t do everything you need for a more elaborate project. For that you need…. well you guessed it… the full blown version and maybe some plugins (depending on what you need).
So it all boils down to being able to run the full versions of Photoshop/Premiere (or any other software you run) to really maximize your options. Now let me be 100% frank (got the joke?) this is of course HIGHLY depending on what you need and want. I can have loads of fun with Lightroom CC on the road and editing with snapseed it just a blast and for social media this is already probably overkill. So we do have to make the distinction between creatives and professional creatives. I’m in that second part.
The real problem
The real problem for a lot of professional creatives is that we often travel, or don’t really have something one could label as a fixed workspace. If I take myself for example. I have a studio with a workspace but I don’t want to spend all the time in the studio so I also have a workspace at home, this is also where I create my music and actually edit almost 99% of the videos you see.
I can of course use one desktop in the studio and one at home, and now a days that’s not really a problem, you can use dropbox to sync between computers for settings like presets in Alien Skin, Capture One etc. and now that we have fiber (YEAH) I can also finally use Lightroom CC to it’s fullest potential. I still need however several licenses for Capture One, Alien Skin, Topaz, Imagenomic etc. and when something new comes out I have to update two machines. One huge advantage, when something goes wrong on one machine….. I can continue working almost straight away on the laptop (or visa versa). So I’m not a big fan of skipping my machine in the studio for one machine for everything but… let’s say you don’t have a lot of budget and you can invest in a cheaper PC and a cheaper Laptop I would advise to actually look at a very fast and specked out laptop and use that with a USB-C dock for both home/studio and location work. It’s a blast to have a machine that’s always the same.
So let’s say the studio is a fixed machine, like in my case.
It’s a specked out super fast PC with a 27″ Wacom Cintiq, 3 monitor setup and enough storage to last me a few years.
So what do I use on location?
Well my location demands are actually much higher (believe it or not), as mentioned before most video I edit on my laptop, when I teach I shoot tethered to a laptop, when I teach I edit on my laptop and when I travel I have to be able to continue my work just like I’m able to be at home.
Now tethering is a huge thing.
If it’s just for examples you can use an Adroid/iOs tablet or phone with most cameras to shoot images for “preview” think about solutions like the Case Air from Tethertools or for example the build in WiFi/BT options on cameras like the Sony.
But in my case, just showing images is not enough in at least 80% of the cases, I also have to be able to retouch them, plus I need a device that can run for hours on the brightest setting and that can handle extreme cold and extreme heat, but also will function in high and low humidity. Now don’t think I mean the arctic and the middle of death valley kind of stuff, but I’ve taught in the field in pretty hot places but also in very cold places and I expect my device to not crash or break down.
So for years my solution was an almost specked out MacBook Pro and an external battery solution plus a Wacom Intous small for editing. Overall a pretty standard setup for people like me.
The Apple story
Now don’t worry Apple fans, I’m not going to bash Apple, heck I still love the company although I don’t own any Apple products anymore. Fact is however that for years Apple was THE brand for creatives, if you visited tradeshows all instructors, booths etc. were using Apple and MacBooks, if you wanted to use certain software for music in the past…. well use Apple because there simply wasn’t a solid alternative. Apple for me was always linked to creativity. However things change.
Over the years I was looking at alternatives, especially tablets that you can draw on, in fact I bought a windows tablet a few years ago while visiting the states and brought it back 2 days later because it was literally laughable, no pen response, terribly slow, crashed a lot and the battery died after 2 hours… yeah that was bad, but somehow that design just stuck with me. I don’t actually remember the brand but you could take the screen and twist it around (you couldn’t take it off)
So I stuck with Apple.
But the more we traveled the more I started to be frustrated by having to bring a laptop, a tablet, a wacom etc. But the alternatives weren’t that good. Microsoft released the Surface which I loved and tested but send back for the simple reason it was too limiting with ports and I felt the screen was just a bit too small for a full laptop replacement, and editing video…. well ok it was not meant for that.
When Apple started to go “crazy” by removing all the legacy ports, adding a weird keyboard and taking away the card reader I knew this was going to end for me. When I teach I had to bring a MBP, Wacom tablet, dongles to connect my wacom and HDMI projector/screen, a dongle to shoot tethered (at that time there were no USB-c tethering solutions that worked stable) plus the pricing….. well ok I think you know what I mean.
Now I have to say… don’t get me wrong I have absolutely no problem with paying a premium price for a premium product, I do have a huge problem by being forced to pay a high premium price and be stuck with a laptop that is slightly lighter but a whole bag with accessories and dongles to make it work.
The Dell story
So exit Apple, enter Dell.
I choose the XPS series from Dell, gorgeous laptops with an amazing screen, HDMI, Legacy ports, USBc, cardreader etc.
PLUS…. on site service (which I needed twice in 2 years and both times was a delight), my Apple was repaired under warranty three times and all those times I was without a laptop for 1-2 weeks, which is a disaster over here.
The Dell was a delight to work with, it edited 4K video pretty good, although final cut proX is still the king in my opinion, but with the latest updates to Premiere and the free Resolve it’s now not really that I miss FCPx anymore (but still it is a great piece of software).
The thing I didn’t really like about the Dell was the screen…. ok I loved the screen but it’s a touch screen and in all honesty…. well I did use it for browsing and zooming in on images etc. but….. well it didn’t have a digitizer so editing on the screen was a no go. And after years and years with Apple I did miss the touchpad sometimes, the Dell is ok, but it’s not a macbook pro touchpad. And finally…. opening the lid with one hand is still very nice.
But I was very satisfied and bought the new Dell 9570. Now some people will think “why buy a new laptop when the old one is still great”… yeah I understand that question, but realize that I use a laptop several hours on daily basis, and when travelling it’s my workhorse, if I can shave off a total of 30 minutes a day due to slightly faster rendering, editing, etc. it means I can actually sleep 30 minutes longer, during travel I never ever have the time to just relax in front of a tv or outside, I have to edit the images, do my social media, edit video, upload it etc. so every minute saved is welcome, plus a 1 year old laptop is always worth more than a 2 year old when selling it, so I always upgrade.
The Microsoft story
After almost 2 years with Dell laptops there are a few things I love and a few things I would love to see.
I’ve always told people when the iPad pro was released that I would love to see apple creating a powerbase running MacOs, a solid keyboard where you click in the iPad pro and it would function as a display and take it off and function as a tablet. Now this has many disadvantages but for me while travelling it would mean I could just leave my laptop at home and only bring an iPad pro and powerbase.
I wasn’t that far off it seemed with my ideas, however Microsoft actually created my dream machine.
A very powerful base machine with keyboard and touchpad and powerful 1060 GPU, and a very powerful tablet with an onboard videocard. And the cool thing…. they belong together. Not like the previous surface products where you have a keyboard that connects to a tablet (like the iPad pro, only than running full windows) no…. this is in essence a 100% laptop powerhouse, but… you can detach the screen and when disconnected it just continues to run what you’re doing on it’s own battery and GPU. And you can even put the display back on the base reversed to have a solid stand for consuming video or giving presentations etc. But hey you know the concept, the device has been out for a while, so let’s dive in to my personal opion.
It all falls down with keyboards and touch pads
Let’s be honest you can have the best laptop in the world but if the keyboard and touch-pad is bad you can literally throw it out. When I travel I type a LOT, and I edit a lot with the touch pad, so both have to be preferably the best on the market.
Let’s start with the keyboard.
The keyboard is very nice, I like the travel, and have typed on it now for a few hours and still feel it’s very solid and just types great, on the Dell I sometimes miss type on the Surface book 2 it hardly happens. Compare this to the NEW macbook pro keyboard and it’s a night and day difference (I just hate that keyboard).
The touch-pad is a little bit reverse.
I still feel absolutely nothing on the market can beats the multi-touch touch-pads on the NEW mac book pros, but that being said, the Surface book 2 touch pad is without a doubt the next best thing, the touch pad is simply amazing, it’s very responsive, an where with the Dell I sometimes by accident (yes even after two years) deselect text instead of just letting go, on the surface book 2 after the first minutes I felt right back at “home” with the Mac Book pro. Multi-gestures I still feel Apple wins, but for everyday normal use (and heavy use for that) the Surface book 2 and NEW MacBookPro are very close.
But there is more
Another really vital thing is of course weight.
No-one wants to be carrying around a piece of wall in a large bag. Now I’m always a bit different from other reviewers. I don’t really care if a laptop is 100 grams lighter or more heavy, but I do care if it fits in my bag, the bag is already heavy so having 100 grams more or less…… pffff doesn’t matter. I love the MacBook and Dell for the simple reason it fits my bag, and also the Surface Book 2 fits the bag but that being said….. the Dell has a 15.6″ screen with almost no bezels, the Surface book 2 has a 15″ screen with normal bezels but still the Dell is smaller than the Surface book 2, but as said before they all fit my bag so I’m fine with that.
Also battery life is vital.
I don’t trust specs at all, working in the field is totally different, I can run down a Dell XPS9570 in less than 60 minutes while according to the specs I can run it for at least 15 hours under load…. yeah sure and Santa is inside the box ok?
Now in most cases we of course have power you might thing… but in reality this is not the case. When we travel with the RV for workshop tours we do have power on some locations, but on most locations we don’t have 230 only 12 V and that 12 V is more than enough to watch TV, and run the whole RV for 1-2 days without sun (we do have solar), but when you run a laptop that’s rendering…. well forget about watching TV after 2-3 hours. So that’s not an option, so the laptop has to be able to at least make it possible for me to edit the vlog, that has to be uploaded daily when we travel. And both the Surface book 2 and Dell (and also the Macbook) can do that, but all three are out of breath after that. Watching videos and playing patience… well nice on paper but with me the machines work.
Which brings me to the next part.
What if we really run out of steam?
For the Macbook we used an external battery which worked great, for the Dell we used an external Dell battery which worked….. well nah it’s ok but it gave me only about 60% more headroom. For the Surface book 2 I’m going to test some batteries we have here and see how long they will keep the machine running, this is for a later review. But in all honesty, most machines now charge via USBc so I don’t expect any problems.
Long story shorter
Thanks if you’re still reading, I know it’s a long piece but I like to be precise in my reviews. I don’t really like the reviews that just talk about specs for the simple reason that a machine can have killer specs but if the CPU and GPU are throttling all the time you can better use a machine with less specs and you’re faster.
And this actually proofed to be the case yesterday.
It was the first vlog I edited on the surface book 2. At first it went totally wrong, video even on 1/4th resolution was not fluid, it was doable but…. well not really for speed. The problem was very quickly discovered… just install the original Nvidia drivers for the 1060 and it went off….
My Dell is an i9 6 core CPU with a 1050GPU.
One would expect that an i7 4 core would not be as fast…. well there is one more thing… (yeah I know inside joke)…. the GPU on the Surface book 2 is the much more powerful 1060GPU, I was very curious to see what that difference would be, and in all honesty I was a bit surprised and maybe even dissapointed…. the Surface book 2 during editing on the time line was on par with the Dell 9570 i9, sometimes I had the feeling the Dell was slightly faster, but on other things the Surface Book 2 was faster so I think that was just my mind playing tricks. Where I really was surprised was the rendering time. Yesterdays vlog was shot on 4K50 with the DJI Osmo Pocket, I used several color corrections on scenes, a few speedups and the total length of the vlog was just over 20 minutes…. rendering time….. just under 30 minutes. This is freaking fast and much faster than I expected from an i7, and it proofs the point that the GPU is very vital for this. Now I did know this but seeing it in a laptop (where a lot of people claim that the 1060 is not being used to it’s full potential) it’s pretty cool.
Now one could say, did you do both projects on both machines?
No. And that doesn’t have to be done.
Look that’s nice for a youtube video or review to draw people in that will discuss if every setting and driver version was also the same. Not really my thing, I just want to know if the machine does what I do on a daily basis.
But Frank…. before in the review you stated that every minute saved was a minute that’s important… you lost me…
Yeah I expected that one.
Speed is not everything, but it is
Confusing title right?
Well not really
The speed of a machine can be measured in many different ways. One could say that machine 1 renders a video in 20 minutes and machine 2 renders the same project in only 19. Yeah go for machine 2.
However… for me there are some more reasons I’m actually seriously considering the Surface Book 2 for myself.
And this is actually I think the most important part of the review.
There are a few points I absolutely love about the Surface Book 2 over the Dell.
First there is the pen.
For some people a gadget, for others vital.
I fall somewhere in the middle. Yes I can edit almost everything with a GOOD touch-pad, most of my street and travel photography images are edited with the touch pad on the Dell. But… with the Pen I’m much faster, this saves me a lot of time. On the Dell this would mean that I have to attach my Wacom tablet, and in some cases I simply don’t have the room for that. The RV is large enough but a laptop with a tablet does take up some space on the table. And this means that often you just don’t even connect it and just decide to do it quickly with the touch pad.
Same for video editing.
On the Dell I always brought a mouse for the simple reason that working in premiere is very slow with the touch pad, it’s not bad as in BAD, but it is just much faster with a mouse. Which means…. well I have to sit at the table. The touch ped and pen combination on the Surface book 2 makes editing without mouse much easier so that also saves me some time and I take up less space.
Secondly the detachable screen.
I love to work on the coach in the RV, or on the bed in a hotel. Using a laptop with touch-pad is double but it’s far from ergonomic or even comfortable, using a 15″ detachable screen with a proper touch interface combined with a pen…. well time will tell but what I tried now it’s very nice, although still not super comfortable…. it’s more than doable.
And finally time is also saved by setting up.
With the Dell (or MacBook) it’s a matter of getting the lapop, connecting the Wacom, taking out the mousepad and mouse and done. With the Surface book 2 it’s… well taking out the laptop or screen.
Now this might not seem like a big deal, but trust me when the speaker in front of you is running 10 minutes over time and you have to be setting up in less than 5 minutes in a space that can barely hold a bottle of water and a laptop you’re very happy you only have to set up your laptop.
Plus it happened to me countless times that I was not planning on teaching retouching but ended up doing a full session on retouching. And with the surface book 2 you’re always able to do so because you have the pen and screen with you (unless you forget the pen).
So those seconds or minutes lost by slightly faster rendering are won back with ease of use and mostly the pen and touch interface on the detachable screen.
Ok lets go through the negatives
Screen format is one of them. The Dell has a slightly wider and less high screen. For Photoshop I actually still have to test but I think I would give half a point more for the slightly wider screen, you have the menus just a bit more to the side leaving more real estate for landscape shot images, if you mostly shoot portraits it’s the Surface book 2’s screenformat.
For video editing I can be short.
I LOVE the more height, it makes it all a bit more easy to manage.
In essence however it’s mostly taste, both laptops are very close to each other in resolution and if you work with them next to each other like I do now you feel and see the difference, but if you don’t you probably wonder what I’m talking about.
The one REAL negative thing for me personally is however that I miss the HDMI port. I teach a lot on location and I always have to connect to projectors or screens and having on board HDMI is just so easy, now I have to carry around at least 2 dongles to make sure I always have a working solution (over the years we found out that sometimes there can one dongle that works, and one that doesn’t on SOME screens, do realize I connect to a LOT of screens)
Than finally one that does have me worried A LOT.
Now don’t get me wrong, warranty is warranty, if something happens you are by law covered. But when I look at Dell with their onsite service that really is something that has a huge appeal on me. When I use my laptop occasionally or as a hobby/semi pro device I would not really be worried, if you can be without your laptop for a week, don’t even consider this an option, but if you work 24/7 on your laptop and really can’t be without it…. well …. let’s hope Microsoft will offer something similar to Dell with for example a 2 day return warranty or whatever.
Can the Surface book 2 be improved?
yeah of course, it would be ridiculous if I said it was perfect.
I would love to see a Surface book 2 with the new CPUs (which will undoubtedly be released this or next year).
For a real workhorse approach I would love to see a real TB3 port instead of just USB-C, this makes it possible to attach external GPUs and that’s really where the market is going to. Laptops on the road that are fast, connect them in the studio to an external GPU and they are insanely fast.
Now the first thing people tell me….
“Man that thing is expensive, the XXXX is much cheaper and has the same or better specs”
Yep you are right, the Surface Book 2 is not cheap.
On the other hand……
Add to your laptop the price of a Wacom Intous small, and if you want to do it fair a 15″ cintiq or an alternative, the cheapest touch display pen displays add 399.00 to your price. Now I know this is not really fair because you can do proper retouching with a 70.00 pen tablet but still you have to add this, and this also adds bulk and weight when travelling.
Pricing however is also fair I think for the fact that you get two machines in one, a tablet PC and a full blown laptop. PLUS of course the design, it’s build like a rock and the machine just breathes quality. From the touchpad to the keyboard and the case it all feels like it withstand anything a MacBookPro or Dell could withstand, in fact I think it’s a class above the build quality of the Dell. Let alone most other PC laptops.
The Surface book 2 is NOT a machine for the hobbyist, although feel free to get it, you’ll love it.
The Surface book 2 is a dream machine for people like me. Educators that travel a lot, but also love to be able to work in any location without sacrificing quality or speed. Add to this the versatility of the pen, touch and detachable screen and you can quickly see that although it’s not a steal, Microsoft actually has a very solid solution for a very reasonable price.
Quality is something you pay for.
Being able to do anything with just one machine is absolutely priceless for me, and with the progress being made with Windows 10 (ok the last release was kind of a disaster, that’s why you never upgrade a production machine) the market for creatives will find more and more solutions that simply work better on the Windows platform than on the competitors.
Microsoft is working very hard to integrate phone communication into the OS and in all honesty with the last upgrade it works pretty awesome with my Android phone, I actually do more than I can do with an iPhone (although Apples solutions still look sleeker, they are much more limited)
Seeing the progress made with Android phones for video and Photography and the fact that Microsoft actually calls their operating system “Creators update” and are heavily investing in making that seamless connection between phones and their OS work better every single release, gives me great hope for the future.
Add to this their own releases of the Surface series and the absolutely breathtaking Studio computers makes it more and more clear that Microsoft is going for the creators, because let’s be honest… being able to create when YOU want is the final piece in the creative process. You don’t want to be limited in any way.
The Surface book 2 in my opinion is the best companion someone like me could have.