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How Microsoft's Surface Book compares to Apple's MacBook: Let's play CPU detective

Gordon Mah Ung | Oct. 7, 2015
On the Surface, Microsoft's Surface Book may look like hype, but here's why it's an engineering stunner.

I’m betting Microsoft is hanging its performance claims on the graphics acceleration offered by the GPU. One demo, for example, showed the Surface Book editing a video in Premiere Pro CC, which heavily leans on the GPU. That’s easily enough to justify Microsoft “2x” claims.

Realistically, though, unless Microsoft did stuff a quad-core chip inside the Surface Book, the MacBook Pro will perform pretty close to the Surface Book in more conventional CPU tests such as Cinebench R15.

That doesn’t mean Skylake or the Surface Book is a slouch. There’s a lot under the hood in Skylake that offers better performance than previous-generation processors. Skylake, for example, offers fixed-function encoding and decoding of 4K that would make a Broadwell or Haswell CPU plain choke. That includes Broadwell-based PCs and Macs. 

If Skylake runs cooler in the Surface Book, it also means it can run at higher frequencies for longer periods, and this too could help it outpace the MacBook Pro. But by a 2x margin? I’m very skeptical, and only testing will tell the whole story.

The upshot is the Surface Book with its discrete GPU and dual-core Skylake chip (probably, right?) is likely to be the fastest laptop when it arrives—depending on how you use it.

pcw 4831
The GPU in the base is essentially an external graphics setup. The array of batteries around it in the tablet section get the laptop to 12-hours of battery life.

Why the Surface Book is truly radical

But let’s not ignore the real engineering achievement here, as it can be easily overlooked. With the Surface Book, Microsoft puts the CPU, M.2 drive and system RAM in the tablet portion of the computer. Meanwhile, the Nvidia GPU is housed under the keyboard.

That means the Surface Book essentially uses external graphics. That’s not a huge deal as Alienware uses this in its laptops and you can hack a system like this together as well.

The real big deal with Surface Book is the ability to decouple the external keyboard (along with its GPU) and have it automatically switch over to the integrated graphics. None of the external graphics solutions I’ve seen allow you to do that. Instead, you must reboot.

Clearly, Microsoft has worked some special magic with Intel and Nvidia to enable a hot-swap of the running graphics. The good news is Microsoft usually shares the technology, so there’s a good chance this will bubble up in other, non-Microsoft hardware too. 

Microsoft also gets to explore improved thermals by stuffing the graphics in the keyboard instead of the tablet body. The GPU has its own dedicated cooling system separate from the CPU, so both parts can’t heat each other up. This should, in theory, let Microsoft run the CPU at higher temps than a design that has both a GPU and CPU in the same shell. 


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