When Microsoft announced its refreshed Surface Book 2 last week, it was quite clear about how it wanted to position the product. “This is a desktop,” Panos Panay, Microsoft’s corporate VP of devices, declared. “For many, this is likely the most performant desktop they have ever seen.” Apparently Panay was working with a different definition of “performant” than the rest of us, however, because the Surface Book 2’s true stand-out feature this time around isn’t the hinge, upgraded GPU, or its generally high performance: It’s that Microsoft’s latest and greatest literally can’t game on AC power without draining the battery.
That’s the word from Mark Hachman at PC World, who tested the “desktop” in a variety of conditions. With Windows 10 and the Fall Creators Update, users have a slider they can use to set their preferred battery optimization and performance level, from “Best Battery Life” to “Best Performance.”
By default, the Surface Book 2 is set to run in its lowest-power, lowest-performance state, even when plugged in. When you start moving the slider away from “Best Battery Life,” the system begins to ramp up its GPU clocks and performance level. At the “Best Performance” level, the system turns into a wind turbine — definitely a risk when putting a GTX 1060 into a 13-to-15-inch chassis, and not something I’m surprised to read. What is surprising is that Microsoft apparently built themselves a laptop that can’t supply enough battery power to operate. PCWorld reports that the charger MS provides is specced for 102W, while the system draws 101W measured at the wall in its highest-end operating mode.
The drain on the battery isn’t enormous, but after a 105-minute testing loop of Furmark and Prime95, battery charge had dropped 15 percent. (For the record, Furmark probably wasn’t the best app to use for testing, because Nvidia and AMD both detect it and cut GPU clocks and power automatically to avoid being damaged by what both companies view as a thermal virus.) Other reviews have reported issues with other tests, so it’s not limited to just this combination.
Microsoft claims this change is part of the company’s plan to offer peak performance when desired, but notes that it will never drain the battery completely. Testing bears this out; the Surface Book 2 eventually throttled back its GPU to 1GHz (from a previous 1.4GHz). Microsoft claims this is actually a feature, though it’s also backed off the idea that Surface Book should be considered as any kind of desktop or gaming system. A Microsoft spokesperson told PCWorld, “Surface Book 2 was designed to deliver unmatched power and performance for anyone who needs a powerful machine to work and create, making it a great option for STEM professionals (designers, developers, engineers).”
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One of my genuine pet peeves in computing is how often laptop manufacturers upsell consumers on performance promises their hardware never delivers. Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 isn’t an inexpensive piece of kit; the 15-inch GeForce GTX 1060-equipped systems being tested in these reviews start at $2,500 and run as high as $3,300.
The problem is obvious. Microsoft wanted to have SKUs it could upsell by emphasizing the Surface Book’s unique GPU options (putting the GPU in the base while keeping the rest of the system behind the tablet offers interesting cooling options). But instead of designing a power plug that could deliver more than 100W or using an Nvidia Max-Q design, Microsoft decided to roll its own fix. This problem shouldn’t affect the smaller, cheaper Surface Book 2s with GTX 1050s. But a GTX 1060 that downclocks to just 1GHz under load isn’t exactly winning any recommendations.
It would be particularly interesting to see how the larger Surface Book 2 performs under heavy load compared with the smaller variant with a GTX 1050. On paper and under normal operating conditions, any GTX 1060 laptop should crush a GTX 1050 — the 1060 is a 1280:80:48 configuration with a clock rate as high as 2GHz under Max Boost 3.0, while the 1050 is a 640:40:32 configuration at up to 1.8GHz under MB 3.0. But if the 1060 is hauling itself all the way back to 1GHz, while the 1050 maintains a 1.4-1.5GHz clock rate under load, the two GPUs could wind up scoring much closer to each other than one would otherwise expect. (This is conjecture, to be clear.)
Ars Technica goes into more detail on the Surface Book 2’s power configuration and theorizes Microsoft chose to maintain backwards compatibility with the Surface Connect port and Surface Dock rather than redesigning its own hardware. They think that was likely a mistake, and so do I. Anyone who buys a $2,500 to $3,300 laptop should be able to expect to use the laptop in their chosen configuration at full speed with no random performance drops because MS found it more agreeable to ship substandard, underpowered equipment.
I wasn’t sure the GTX 1060 was a good fit for the SB2, but I thought the problem would be limited to the GPU’s TDP and thermals, not a fundamental problem with the laptop’s charger. I’ve never recommended anyone buy hardware that throttles under reasonable load or a system that can’t keep its own battery charged. That includes the Surface Book 2 in a GTX 1060 configuration. If this is most “performant” desktop that Microsoft can ship, it ought to quit the PC hardware business and leave it to people that know what they’re doing.