I have to admit, ever since Microsoft released the Surface Pro laptops, I have been a fan of these travel-friendly and light two-in-one machines. I have written about my experience with the Surface Pro 2 from a photographer’s perspective a while back, then we wrote a detailed Surface Pro 3 review and my experience with the first generation Surface Book pretty much sealed it for me as a very desirable machine for working on the go, thanks to its excellent performance, flexible design, a built-in memory card slot, superb touchscreen experience and plenty of connectivity options. Earlier this year Microsoft finally released the Surface Book 2, a second generation laptop specifically designed to challenge Apple’s MacBook Pro. Since it was about time to start replacing my aging Surface Pro 3, I wanted to evaluate both the new Surface Book 2 and Apple’s MacBook Pro to see which I would pick for my photography needs. So I bought both laptops and decided to run them side-by-side to see which one would be more suitable to use for traveling and post-processing images. In this article, we will take a look at both the Surface Book 2 and the MacBook Pro and see how they stack up against each other.
First, let’s take a look at how the two compare when it comes to specifications.
Surface Book 2 vs MacBook Pro Specifications Comparison
|Laptop Feature||Microsoft Surface Book 2||Apple MacBook Pro|
|Operating System||Windows 10 Creators Update||MacOS High Sierra|
|Top CPU||Intel Core i7-8650U 1.90 GHz (8th Generation)||Intel Core i7-7920HQ 2.7 Ghz (7th Generation)|
|CPU Cores / Threads||4 / 8||4 / 8|
|Top GPU||NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060||Radeon Pro 560|
|RAM||8 GB – 16 GB||8 GB – 16 GB|
|Storage||256 GB – 1 TB||256 GB – 2 TB|
|Screen Resolution||3240 x 2160||2880 x 1800|
|Ports||2 x USB Type-A, 1 x USB Type-C||4 x Thunderbolt 3 via USB Type-C|
|SD Card Slot||Yes||No|
|Battery Life||17 Hours||10 Hours|
|Cameras||5 MP Front, 8 MP Rear||720p Facetime HD|
|Dimensions||343mm x 251mm x 15-23mm||349mm x 241mm x 16mm|
|Weight||1.9 kg||1.83 kg|
|MSRP Price||$1,499 – $3,299||$2,399 – $4,179|
|Comparable Top Config Price||$3,299||$3,349|
At the moment, Apple does not have any laptops that use 8th generation CPUs from Intel. This means that they are not going to be directly comparable to Surface Book 2 laptops, especially when it comes to battery life, since the 8th generation Intel CPUs are more power efficient in comparison. Still, based on the above specifications, you can easily see that there are pretty noticeable differences between these laptops.
First of all, aside from the more power efficient and faster CPU, the Surface Book 2 has a better GPU on its top-end models. The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 is a pretty powerful GPU that outperforms the Radeon Pro 560, as can be seen in the comparisons below.
Second, unlike Apple that decided to throw away USB ports and an SD card port altogether, Microsoft kept two USB Type-A ports as well as an SD card slot and added a single USB Type-C port to make it easier for people to transition from older to newer technology. Unfortunately, Microsoft screwed up with its USB Type-C port by not incorporating Thunderbolt 3 capability – that’s something that should have been there, especially to help those Mac users that want to transition to the PC platform. Still, removal of the USB ports, as well as the SD card slot was a big mistake on behalf of Apple in my opinion, especially for us photographers who heavily rely on USB-powered equipment such as Wacom tablets and external hard drives, as well as SD cards for transferring media content to our computers. Thunderbolt is not mainstream yet to make such a rough transition, which means that one has to utilize extra connection gadgets on the MacBook Pro to be able to use existing equipment. And that’s more tools to carry in an already tight camera bag!
Third, the Surface Book 2 has two distinct advantages over the MacBook Pro that are very important for photography needs – and those are touchscreen capability, as well as being able to detach the screen from the keyboard. While for some people this might seem like a “nice to have” feature, once you get used to these capabilities, it is hard to go back to a traditional laptop. The touchscreen + pen combination eliminates the need to carry a Wacom device, which not only frees up space in a laptop bag, but also eliminates the need to carry more tools and cables when traveling. Couple that with the ability to detach the keyboard base from the main unit and you have the ability to use the Surface Book as a tablet, so it could work as an iPad replacement as well. In addition, the ability to detach the screen allows it to be reversed and used on top of the keyboard base to provide fast GPU and additional battery capabilities, so one could use the pen without fiddling with the keyboard.
Lastly, the keyboard area on the Surface Book 2 does not get nearly as hot as it does on the MacBook Pro, which is a pretty big deal for someone like me who often works with laptops on their lap. Since the CPU, memory, LCD screen, part of the laptop battery and other components are kept on the top base unit, most of the heat that is produced by heavy loads stays on the top. The only time the Surface Book 2 keyboard area can get warm is when the battery gets charged and the GPU is used a lot. Even then, the Surface Book 2 always stays noticeably cooler compared to the MacBook Pro at the base when in use.
While both laptops are priced somewhat similarly, considering the above, you simply get quite a lot more value out of the Surface Book 2 when compared to the MacBook Pro. While many Apple fans will defend their choice of Apple hardware due to OS superiority, they most likely have not experienced Windows 10 + Surface combination. We are not talking about Windows 98, ME or other Microsoft failures of the past – Windows 10 is a pretty strong OS, especially when it natively runs on Microsoft hardware.
Build Quality Comparison
I have been running Microsoft Surface Book 2 from the day it became publicly available and I have had the MacBook Pro for over a month now. When it comes to packaging, both companies go out of their way to make sure that their products are presentable – the laptops are packaged very nicely and the unboxing experience is a pure pleasure. The same goes for build quality – both laptops are built exceptionally well and should last a long time if they are properly taken care of.
MacBook Charger vs Surface Book Magnetic Charger
There are some things to like and not to like about the new Apple MacBook. On one hand, I love the fact that one can charge the MacBook Pro through any of the USB-C ports on either side of the machine. This is really cool, because you don’t have to worry about putting the cable around the laptop when the power source is on the wrong side. On the other hand, abandoning MagSafe and going with a cable that stays firmly attached once plugged in, is certainly not something Apple fans have been excited about. MagSafe has been an Apple standard for many years now and many MacBook Pro users have gotten used to not having to worry about their machines in case someone trips on the cable – the magnet would safely detach from the computer. Not anymore – one has to watch out and always make sure to detach the cable when there is a chance of tripping on it. Microsoft banked on Apple’s MagSafe idea ever since the Surface machines came out and it has been using the same magnetic power attachment on every Surface model now, including the Surface Book 2. That’s just one less issue to worry about.
Keyboard, Trackpad and Touch Bar
Both laptops have excellent keyboards, but they feel completely different when typing. The keys on the Surface Book stick out a bit more compared to those on the MacBook Pro, but pressing them does not make them feel harder in comparison. I personally prefer typing on the Surface Book 2, but that’s completely subjective – I would recommend to feel both and see which one you like better.
Trackpad, on the other hand, is a different animal. While Microsoft has done well with its latest generation trackpad, it just does not compete with the MacBook Pro’s monstrous trackpad. It is huge! Size-wise, you could fit more than two trackpads from the Surface Book 2 on the MacBook Pro! But it is not the size that matters. When it comes to tactile feel, gestures and overall responsiveness, Apple reigns supreme.
As for touch bar, while many Apple fans do not seem to like it, I personally don’t mind it. It is actually nice to be able to use such controls as volume up / down without having to remember different key combinations and it is certainly cool to be able to have controls that vary by application. I think the touch bar is a great idea in the long run and something that will gain popularity overtime. The biggest difficulty is for those who are very used to using function keys and the escape key in different software applications (especially programmers). For those folks, the older keyboard layout is going to be obviously preferable.
Performance Comparison: CPU, GPU and Storage Benchmarks
Let’s take a look at how the new Microsoft Surface Book 2 compares to the current generation MacBook Pro. I ran two different benchmarks on both – Cinebench and Novabench a total of three times and took the best score from both. We will start with Novabench:
Novabench provides a number of different benchmarks, which makes it very interesting to look at. As expected, the Surface Book 2 scores a bit higher due to having a newer and faster CPU. Its graphics (GPU) performance is also impressive – it managed to get 95 fps when rendering a 3D scene and scored significantly higher at 709 compared to 443 on the MacBook Pro. However, the right side of the chart is where Apple dominates. It not only has faster RAM, but its storage is twice faster, which is significant. I am not sure what type of storage Microsoft uses in its Surface Book 2, but it is nowhere as good as what’s inside the MacBook Pro. Faster storage is important for photography needs, because it makes a big difference when working with files in post-processing software like Lightroom. And as you will see below, the MacBook Pro is going to come out as a faster machine for generating previews and exporting files purely because of this. For other CPU or GPU-intensive tasks, the Surface Book 2 is a better machine, but considering that many post-processing software tools out there are not properly optimized to take advantage of dedicated GPU cards, the latter is not all that important.
Let’s now take a look at Cinebench, which specializes in CPU and GPU performance:
Here, we can see that the difference between the two is a bit different. While the Surface Book 2 scores higher in OpenGL performance, its CPU performance does not seem to be as good as on the MacBook Pro when rendering complex 3D images. Here, the MacBook Pro came out on top.
Overall, looks like both machines have their strengths and weaknesses. While the Surface Book 2 has solid CPU and GPU performance, it lags big time when it comes to storage performance, something the MacBook Pro truly excels at.
Performance Comparison: Lightroom Previews and Export
For this particular benchmark, I imported 50 images from the high resolution Fuji GFX 50S and ran two tests – one to generate 1:1 previews and one to export the same images in 2048 pixel wide resolution, with sharpening added. Below are the results for the generated previews:
Microsoft Surface Book 2: 6 minutes and 15 seconds
Apple MacBook Pro: 3 minutes and 45 seconds
That’s a pretty big difference in Lightroom preview generation performance! To be honest, I did not expect to see such a big difference while the two laptops were busy generating previews. But it was pretty clear – the progress bar on the MacBook Pro was going noticeably faster in comparison. If you are wondering why there is such a drastic difference, that’s purely because of much faster storage. As I have shown above, the MacBook Pro can read at over 2 GB/second, while the Surface Book 2 can only go at half of that speed. The same goes for write speed – the MacBook Pro was able to reach 358 MB/sec, while the best result from the Surface Book 2 generated around 240 MB/sec. These numbers matter when generating image previews, since the faster the machine can read and write the data, the faster the overall result will be. What about exporting images?
Microsoft Surface Book 2: 3 minutes 4 seconds
Apple MacBook Pro: 2 minutes 11 seconds
Once again, we see a similar result – the MacBook Pro can export data noticeably faster thanks to its much faster storage.
Running both Surface Book 2 and MacBook Pro side by side for a month has been a fun experiment. I have been wanting to upgrade my aging laptop for a while now and when Microsoft announced the Surface Book 2, I knew that I had to give it a try to see if it would fit my needs. And although I am not a heavy Mac user (only use an iMac, primarily for workshops), I knew that I had to check out the latest MacBook Pro models as well and compare them directly with the Surface Book 2 to see which one would win me over. While the MacBook Pro is a beautiful and powerful machine, especially when it comes to its storage and Lightroom performance, to me it feels like Apple jumped a bit too far ahead into the future with its decision to move to USB-C only ports. It also boggles me why the SD card slot was completely eliminated – considering that most creatives use SD cards for storing their images and video, it was clearly not a very smart move on behalf of Apple if it wants to continue marketing to photographers and videographers. During my testing, I caught myself in a situation where I could not even transfer RAW files into the MacBook Pro, because I did not have a Thunderbolt to USB-A adapter or a Thunderbolt SD card reader. Thankfully, I was able to use my wireless network to transfer all the images, but it was painfully slow when compared to a fast SSD drive that I used with the Surface Book 2. Add all the other reasons I pointed out in the “specifications comparison” section of this article and you can see why the Surface Book 2 was an easy choice to make.
While the Surface Book 2 is not perfect by any means (no Thunderbolt 3, inferior storage performance, high price tag, etc), it is a more practical solution for creatives at the moment. Unless Apple goes back and adds USB-A + SD card slots to the MacBook Pro (which is unlikely to happen), photographers and videographers will need to carry extra accessories with them to be able to connect their existing devices. So at the end of the day, it is not all about pure specs and benchmarks – efficiency and practicality are also equally important…