Microsoft released a slew of new Surface products in 2017, including the 5th-generation Surface Pro, the Surface Laptop, and the Surface Book 2. Much to my delight, all 3 of these products offered at least 1 silent, fanless configuration option.
The timing was perfect as well, since I wanted an upgrade to my notebook computer. Ultimately, I decided on the Surface Book 2, but both the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop are viable alternatives.
Surface Pro (2017)
The Surface Pro (2017), or what have otherwise been the Surface Pro 5, brought with it new CPU options. The most significant change is that the Core i5 processor configuration is now completely fanless! That makes 3 fanless offerings now (note that the keyboard type cover will cost extra):
- Core m3, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD for $799
- Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD for $999
- Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD for $1299
Previously, the Surface Pro 4 was the first to introduce a fanless Surface Pro, but only with the somewhat underpowered Core m3. It is in fact the Surface Pro 4 with Core m3 that I decided to upgrade from, for several reasons.
Firstly, I found that I mainly used the device with the keyboard attached like a notebook rather than a tablet. While Windows works as a tablet, it just isn’t as pleasant as an experience for my tablet needs as, say, an iPad Pro.
Secondly, while the Core m3 was sufficient to do everyday tasks like web browsing and document editing, there was still more lag on the user interface than I would have liked.
For these reasons, the new fanless Core i5 offerings this year drew me to the Surface line-up, but pushed me away from considering the Surface Pro (2017) and toward either the Surface Laptop or the Surface Book 2, both of which also feature the more powerful CPU without fans.
The Surface Laptop differs from the other Surface products in that it cannot be used as a tablet, since the keyboard is neither detachable nor convertible. It does still come with a touchscreen, so the device would be suitable for someone who doesn’t ever intend on using it as a tablet.
Some people dislike the Surface Laptop running Windows 10 S, a stripped down version of Windows 10 that can only run apps from the Windows Store. However, since Microsoft lets you upgrade to the full-featured Windows 10 Pro for free (at least for the time being), this is not really an issue.
The fanless configurations of the Surface Laptop are almost identical to the Surface Pro and at similar price points: a Core m3 at $799 (newly introduced in Feb 2018), and two Core i5 options with 4GB RAM & 128GB SSD for $999, or 8GB RAM & 256GB SSD for $1299. These seem to be the same prices as the Surface Pro, but you won’t need to shell out for a type cover keyboard with the Surface Laptop, so it is actually cheaper. The screen size of 13.5 inches is also larger than the 12.3-inch Surface Pro, so if you only need a laptop, it isn’t a bad choice.
I considered getting the Surface Laptop, and it would have likely worked fine. However, I had one key use case that made the Surface Book 2 my ultimate choice.
Surface Book 2
The 2nd-generation Surface Book looks similar to the 1st-gen, but with several key differences. The most immediate is that there are now 2 screen sizes: 13.5-inch and 15-inch. The 15-inch version is not only much more expensive, but it also does not have any fanless configurations. Ruling it out.
Compared to the Surface Laptop, the 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 has a similar screen size, but higher resolution (3000×2000 vs 2256×1504). In addition, the Core i5 processor is a slightly faster model (i5-7300U vs i5-7200U).
The really interesting part, however, is that the 13.5-inch tablet portion (housing the main computer components and screen) is completely fanless, for both the i5 and i7 CPU options. This is quite surprising as the i7 configuration actually uses the new 8th-generation CPUs from Intel with 4 cores, instead of the 2 cores in the 7th-generation i5.
However, the i7 also comes with a discrete GPU, the nVidia GTX 1050, in the keyboard base, which causes it to have a fan. So even though the tablet is fanless, there can still be fan noise from the base. Although I suppose if you had a need for two 13.5” Surface Book 2s, you could get 1 i5 and 1 i7, and potentially pair the Core i7 tablet with the no-GPU base (not sure if that would even work, though) to create the most powerful fanless notebook in existence! If you have tried this, please let us know in the comments!
For the the rest of us sane people, that leaves only the base Core i5 models as the only completely fanless choices:
- Core i5, 8GB RAM, and 128GB SSD for $1199 (new in Feb 2018)
- Core i5, 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSD for $1499
The one I decided to go with is the $1499 model, but only because the $1199 model did not exist yet. At $300 cheaper for the only difference of slightly less storage space, the best bang for the buck is undoubtedly the new base model. This configuration even makes the Surface Book 2 that much more appealing versus the Surface Pro and Laptop, which require an extra $100 to get 8GB of RAM (you’ll want at least 8GB for a smooth user experience these days).
Although the model I purchased cost $200 more than the equivalent Surface Laptop, I wanted the ability to use it as a large tablet for watching video, even though primary use of it for everything else would be as a laptop. The design of the Surface Book 2 fits my use case better than the Surface Pro or Laptop.
Compared to other notebook computers, the edge that the Surface line has is really the screen aspect ratio. Surface computers use a 3:2 aspect ratio, allowing for additional vertical screen height compared to the common 16:9. Vertical screen real-estate is typically a big problem with most notebook computers, so having that added height really helps.
Surface computers are not the most inexpensive, but if you can spare the extra cash and want a premium fanless portable computing experience, they are hard to beat.