Why did I put up with Microsoft’s Surface Book 2? Why did anyone? That’s the question I asked myself recently as I tried to convince the Surface Book 2 to recognize my 4K monitor, yet again.
Most laptops survive PCWorld’s review process without exposing major issues. But as I look around at the shelves housing our review units, I can see that the Surface Book 2 had a rough time of it. Here’s the 15-inch Surface Book 2 whose discrete GPU failed, possibly due to overheating. This 13-inch model’s battery was dead on arrival. A second 15-inch Surface Book 2, about a year ago, decided to output nothing better than HD resolution (1366x768) on an external display.
For its time, the Surface Book 2 perfectly represented the “do everything” concept that was the core mission of the Surface Book line: a laptop with a tablet, that could deliver outstanding performance and solid battery life. What I took from it in terms of productivity and performance, though, it stole back in frustration just trying to make it work.
The face of a larger problem
That should never happen. Microsoft’s premium PC asked buyers to pay $1,149, minimum, for a Surface Book 2, and up to a whopping $3,300 for a top-of-the-line model. At those prices, anyone who purchased a Surface Book 2 should have had close to a flawless experience.
Microsoft didn’t deliver. Almost immediately, reviewers figured out that the Surface Book 2 drew too much power for its AC adapter under load, such as in the middle of a game or a 3D CAD app that tapped the discrete GPU. In that scenario, the Surface Book 2 began pulling power from the battery, even while plugged in. A CPU issue slowed it to a crawl, and problems with the discrete GPU eventually held up the Windows 10 May 2019 Update. Users also complained that the Surface Book 2 had an overheating issue, where it would continue to operate while closed, and temperatures would climb to alarming levels (especially if you put the closed laptop into a bag).
That wasn't all. USB-C hubs weren’t nearly as prevalent several years ago as they are today, so Microsoft kept shipping the original Surface Dock, which it had launched with the original Surface Book in 2015. (The first Surface Book lacked a USB-C port, while the Surface Book 2 included one.)
Diplomatically, I’d call the Dock “flaky.” The first Microsoft Store review for the Surface Dock described it as “junk.” Users wondered why the Surface Book 2 attached to the Dock couldn’t support a pair of 4K monitors at 60Hz, when the 2017 model of the Surface Pro could. But the combination of the Surface Book 2 and first-gen Dock still failed on even a simpler level. Today, after updating its firmware (and yes, the Dock contains firmware) our Surface Book 2 failed to recognize my 4K display while connected to the Dock. The Surface Pro 7 did. So did the Surface Book 3. (The Surface Book 2’s USB-C port allows you to connect to a single 4K display, but only at 30Hz, a refresh rate that fatigues the eyes.)
To be fair, Microsoft probably didn’t anticipate in 2015, when it unveiled the original Surface Dock, that users would be asking it to support a pair of external 4K/60 monitors in 2020. Because Microsoft never updated the Dock until 2020, however, this limitation became more glaring as the years went by.
Equally frustrating was Microsoft's failure to make amends. Surface Book 2 owners can now buy an upgraded 127W Surface power supply that will solve the Book 2’s power problems—for another $125. It also appears the Surface Book 2 will never be able to output to a pair of 4K monitors at 60Hz. The $260 Surface Dock 2 ‘s product page confirms that the Surface Book 2 will only be able to output at 4K/30Hz. (At least the Surface Dock 2 supplies 199W of power, so you won’t have to buy the upgraded power supply, too.)
Just a short time ago, Microsoft began shipping the Surface Book 3, an updated version of the Book 2 with Intel’s 10th-gen processors inside. Though the design of the Surface Book 3 remains virtually unchanged from that of its predecessors, the Surface Dock 2 product page at least makes clear that the Surface Book 3 can power a pair of 4K monitors at 60Hz. More importantly, the Surface Book 3 just seems to work.
Look, bugs happen. Consumers will grumble about them. When a company acknowledges and then fixes a problem, it’s a sign customers are being listened to and appreciated. If I were Microsoft, I’d think of some way of making it up to users who stuck with the Surface Book 2 through thick and thin.
A good start would be to offer Surface Book 2 owners an upgraded 127W power supply—if not for free, then preferably at a hefty discount. A choice between a discounted power supply and a discounted Dock 2 would be even better.
The Surface Book 2’s miscues tarnished the Surface brand, but not irrevocably. Microsoft’s Surface Laptops are sound. The Surface Pro 7 is still the best Windows tablet on the market. Microsoft can't solve the Surface Book 2’s problems by shipping the Surface Book 3 and turning the page. It doesn’t fix what the Surface Book 2 broke: the trust of its customers. But it can still earn a shot at redemption.