Does the 15-inch Surface Book 2 really have battery-drain issues? That depends ...

What happens when I leave my laptop plugged in?
What happens when I leave my laptop plugged in?

Microsoft's Surface Book 2 has been on the market for a few weeks now, letting potential issues and limitations be discovered. While reviews for Surface Book 2, especially the 15-inch version (limited just to the U.S. market so far) have been overwhelmingly positive, it wouldn't be a Surface launch without at least some controversy.

In my review, I noted that in certain more extreme conditions, the 15-inch Surface Book 2 with its powerful NVIDIA GTX 1060 graphics card could drain the battery even when plugged into an outlet. The problem was first spotted by The Verge's Tom Warren before our review went to press, letting us verify the claim.

Since then, a lot of discussion around the topic has sprouted up on the internet, and today and I'll break down what seems to be happening and whether it's a big deal.

What exactly is happening?

When the Surface Book 2 15 is plugged in using the included Surface Connect power supply with the power plan slider is set to "Best Performance" (versus the default "Recommended") the battery may drain instead of recharging during intense activities. This drainage only occurs when pushing the CPU and GPU to the max for an extended duration in certain circumstances.

The problem becomes evident for some with a subset of high-end video games.

Microsoft says that after a few hours of drainage the GPU will throttle down letting the battery charge back up. In theory, the Surface Book 2 15 should never completely discharge at this stage leaving the user with a dead battery.

What is Best performance mode?

Best Performance is one of four settings found on modern Surface devices (the others being Battery saver, Recommended, and Better Performance). The settings have separate conditions, so you can set, for example, Battery saver when on battery, and Best Performance when plugged into an external power supply.

It was initially introduced in January 2017 to Windows Insiders and is part of the larger "Power Throttling" and "Power Slider" feature found in Windows 10.

From Microsoft:

With "Power Throttling," when background work is running, Windows places the CPU in its most energy efficient operating modes – work gets done, but the minimal possible battery is spent on that work.

When a user forces the slider to Best performance, this energy saving feature is disabled letting the processor max out.

Additionally, power throttling does not apply when the Surface is plugged into external power.

You can read more about Microsoft's Power Throttling and Power Slider in its detailed blog post on the subject.

What games are affected?

The answer to this one can be difficult, as it depends on the game's display settings.

Destiny 2 is cited as the most common example, but it's not across the board. Destiny 2 defaults to a weird 1282 x 728 resolution, instead of something at, or near, the native 3240 x 2160. Users cannot manually change that resolution either in the game settings – which is odd. Anti-aliasing, texture anisotropy, and texture quality are either on or set to near-max settings.

At these settings, with Best performance enabled and plugged in with the display brightness set to maximum, the Surface Book 2 15's battery can drain between five and 10 percent per hour.

Destiny 2 at native resolution on the Surface Book 2.

The Destiny 2 issue, however, is complicated. You can change the game settings, including its resolution, and even make them better while not getting battery drain.

In a related Reddit thread, I asked users to submit other games and scenarios where battery drain occurred.

One user noted that Fornite at "epic settings" drained around 10 percent over an hour. World of Tanks also reportedly drained around five percent an hour as did Middle Earth: Shadow of War at high settings with anti-aliasing configured to TAA.

Other games like LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2, Assassin's Creed Origins, PUBG, DOOM, and Overwatch, reportedly did not have any problems.

Why is this happening?

The included 102W AC adapter may not be large enough given extreme situations. Only about 95W goes to the Surface Book 2 as the remaining seven watts is used for the USB Type-A port for external charging.

In most cases – whether apps or even high-end games – the AC power is more than enough to run the Surface Book 2 and actively charge it. Most situations do not put the CPU and GPU at 100 percent usage at a constant pace for hours or even minutes at a time. However, when a user turns on Best performance, the system goes into a turbo-like mode, letting the Surface Book 2 15 drain more than it can pull from AC.

To be clear, you do not need to game while using Best performance, but obviously, gamers will want to try and max out the process and graphics cards for the best look and frames-per-second (FPS) performance. Likewise, even draining at 10 percent an hour, it would take five hours to deplete the system to 50 percent – which is a lot of gaming for one session.

Intel XTU shows how under duress Intel's CPU can down-regulate wattage to control for heat and reduce power draw.

There are other factors, too. If the room you are gaming is cold (below 70 degrees F, or 21 degrees C) there is less Power Limit throttling (PL1) from Intel. PL1 throttling reflects how hot the computer chassis gets. To prevent discomfort and burns, the wattage of the CPU is briefly reduced to let the system cool. Therefore, despite starting at 20 watts for the Core i7 processor, it cuts to between 12 watts and 15 watts over 20 minutes or more when running at 100 percent consistently.

By this logic, the colder the system is, the more power the CPU can draw (and get better long-term performance in a single session). Gaming in a warmer room will cause the thermal-design-point (TDP) to drop more rapidly, causing less power drain.

Again, this issue is complicated.

NVIDIA GeForce Experience is a must-have for gamers

One interesting solution is to use the NVIDIA GeForce Experience app for Windows.

Microsoft does not include the GeForce Experience app with any of its Surface devices. Instead, it pushes out new GeForce drivers through Windows Update after vetting them for issues. Users can bypass this with the Surface Book 2 by installing the GeForce Experience app. The risk is NVIDIA's drivers may cause problems or performance issues. Newer is not always better, so choose wisely if you install a new driver.

However, one significant benefit of the NVIDIA GeForce Experience app is that it automatically detects your hardware and games installed. After a quick analysis, it provides recommended graphics settings for your games when on AC power and battery. Users can then modify those settings even more in case they want to override them.

Using the GeForce Experience, users can alter Destiny 2 to run at higher resolutions including 2560 x 1600, or even native the native 3240 x 2160, instead of the paltry default 1282 x 728. Playing at 2560 x 1600 with anti-aliasing disabled and texture quality lower, Destiny 2 can still play at 60 FPS and look better. These settings can also make it, so the battery doesn't drain when plugged into the wall.

Any users who are looking to use the Surface Book 2 15 for gaming actively should install GeForce Experience. Not only does it allow you to improve the graphics, but it may very well address the battery drain problem.

Download NVIDIA GeForce Experience for Windows (opens in new tab)

The Surface Dock is not a good option

Another confounding issue is the optional Surface Dock. Unfortunately, the Surface Dock is a few years old now and supplies less power to the Surface Book 2 partially because it allocates some of the power for the other ports (four USB Type-A, Ethernet, and two DisplayPorts).

Microsoft Surface Dock

Microsoft Surface Dock (Image credit: Windows Central)

In other words, having multiple devices and displays connected to the Surface Dock may reduce the overall power to the Surface Book 2, which is usually fine for everyday computing, but when in Best performance, may not be enough.

Two power supplies at once is not possible

Users cannot use both the Type-C port for Surface Book 2 and a Surface Connect for charging at the same time. In all cases, the Surface Connect power supply will override the USB Type-C.

This practice is standard on all laptops, because various currents flowing to the computer board could be dangerous.

USB Type-C chargers also do not go over 100 watts, meaning they are not a viable solution (though you are free to use it as an alternative charger).

Conclusion and what should be done

The Surface Book 2 15 can drain the battery even when plugged into AC when certain conditions are met:

  • Best performance slider is enabled, overriding default Recommended.
  • Display brightness is 50 percent or higher.
  • Certain games when graphics are not set to match the hardware profile.
  • Cooler environments that let the CPU and GPU draw more power.
  • Using a Surface Dock with multiple devices connected.

The Surface Book 2.

The Surface Book 2. (Image credit: Windows Central)

To be clear, all or most of those conditions must be met – not just one – for the drainage to occur.

In my testing, and asking users for feedback, the overwhelming majority of video games do not have this problem. Those that do, like Destiny 2, can have their graphics settings changed (even improved) to prevent this from happening by using the GeForce Experience app.

As to what Microsoft can or should do two solutions come to mind:

  • Release an optional, larger power supply (AC charger).
  • Release a firmware update that reduces power draw from the GPU.

The first option seems the most obvious, but it's not without some issues. First, it will take months for a new AC charger to be designed, tested, approved, and pushed to retail.

Second, it doesn't make sense to ship a bulkier charger with Surface Book 2 since when using it as a standard PC – even under heavy duress – this drainage problem is a non-issue. Making consumers carry a bigger AC charger because some people use the Surface Book 2 as a heavy gaming laptop seems wrong.

Destiny 2 looks and plays great on the Surface Book 2 15.

A new charger likely won't be cheap either. Microsoft currently sells the 102W power supply for $73. A larger one in the 150W range will fetch more than that.

Microsoft could just patch the Surface Book 2 15 so that even when set to Best performance it can never draw more power than is coming into the system. But patching it now will likely anger many users. Given a choice to run the Surface Book 2 15 at max mode, power drainage be damned, or not, most power users would opt for the former choice. From Microsoft's perspective, however, capping the GPU's power drain would solve any customer complaints.

Update: The Surface Connect port can only accept up to 120W of power. While that is still below most gaming laptops with beefier 45W processors and 150W power supplies, it does provide some potential room for more overhead with a larger charger, were Microsoft to make one.

For now, Microsoft is giving users the option to run the Surface Book 2 15 without hindrance. While an optional more substantial power supply would be welcome, there is not much evidence that most users are experiencing this problem.

I game every day on the Surface Book 2 15, playing Destiny 2 and DOOM. Frankly, I'm still blown away playing a high-end AAA game at 2K resolution with vertical sync at 60 FPS on a Surface in 2017. It's awesome.

If you feel Surface Book 2 15 should never drain the battery under any circumstances (even when user-initiated), spend your cash elsewhere.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • It’s ridiculous we are still talking about this. I really hope Microsoft doesn’t patch this baby and slow it down.
  • Yeah, I agreed that MS should not slow this thing down. This is not a unique problem with Book 2 15. It happens with other premium laptops too.
    Anyway, no one should game on this thing for 5 hours a day. That is not the purpose of this machine.
    Being thin and light, heavy gaming may cause problem in the long run no matter how good the thermal system is.
  • What laptop, I have never once ever heard of a laptop that couldn’t offer the power needed when plugged in. Certainly not an ultra premium system. This is simply MS putting aesthetics first even if it cripples a users machine. But MS apologists will defend them just like Apple fanboys do.  Both are pathetic.
  • I've never heard of a Razr or HP Omen laptops having this issue, maybe they have and I'm just not privy. Regardless if this issue is significant or not, MS doesn't need another controversy relating to the Surface brand.
  • By now, it's catch-22 however Microsoft try to fix this. Why they didn't put a limiter ('throttle') the GPU in the first place so it doesn't draw more power than the adaptor can provide is surely an oversight, but I don't think it's a cripple. Put it this way: let's say I have a mid-end urban sedan that has a 30mpg fuel economy. It's fully intended for city traffic, not for high speed racing, although the engine is capable of it. I took it to the local racetrack and it performs fairly well at time trial, but it went from 30mpg to 10mpg. Now I can complain to the manufacturer that the engine is way too powerful for the car and asked for it to be tuned down, or I can just suck it up and stop using it for racing.
  • ān'tē-ā'lē-ə-sĭng
  • WAY overblown.   This device is 110% awesome...if you want to game 24/7,  buy a freaking gaming deivce...
  • You sound like Microsoft PR rep.
  • How so.  If I said,  IF YOU WANT TO GAME THIS IS PERFECT......I said BUY SOMETHING ELSE IF YOU WANT TO GAME....Jesus fanboys.
  • Perhaps it's because they're both saying something that makes perfect sense.
  • Yeah, and if you want to render your home video, buy a dedicated machine. And if you want to import/index/reindex large databases, buy a more powerful charger etc. etc.
    No, with a price tag like this it's a fail, once again!
  • No, it is NOT a fail. Finding a very specific use and circumstance in which a device might engage a protective mode is actually a discovery of responsible product design. I credit Tom Warren for finding this circumstance, but not his rather breathless reporting of this being a big flaw. If Microsoft had pitched the Surface Book 2 15 as the "ultimate gaming laptop" you would have a point about a "fail." They did not do that. They demoed gaming on the machine, but they have done that on every Surface device they have released just as they have demoed CAD, Photoshop, video editing and Word.
  • The solution would be simple: to rename the performance modes of the device. The last two should be named "best performance" and "unlimited performance" or whatever manages to warn users.
  • Dan,  the solution to this "problem" is very simple...Stop wackjobs from posting bullshit here!
  • I'm more interested in this new Surface dock. Dan tell us more!!!
  • Same I want to know more about this supposed New Surface Dock! I really hope it has HDMI instead of Display ports. I also hope it has more USB 3.0 and let's add some Type-C ports :D 
  • Dan, you gave % drain per hr figures. But what really happens when you keep gaming for 5-10hrs+? I don't game on PC, but some out there will. No one seems to say they tested it in those situations. Does the game become noticeably worse, etc. MS said it will throttle down and battery will never be drained completely. Can you add this test? I think this is a non issue for most, including me. It's on AC and the machine will keep going.
  • I may look into it, but honestly...gaming for 5 hours or more seems like a lot of work lol.
  • I don't think this is overblown like someone said on top. If I'm paying that much money, I expect it to work like it's supposed to work. It's customers like you that lower the bar for Microsoft that result in failed products like W10M. 
  • Engineers,  it does work like it supposed to work...It's not aFUCKINGGAMING machine.  
  • As an engineer, I'd have to agree.  They gave the option to maximize performance, and doing so would basically require 10 hours of non-stop effort be an issue.  A really, REALLY minor issue.  They basically put 'overclocked' on the performance slider and people are actually complaining that they have this option.
  • Microsoft's own marketing material calls it "A gaming powerhouse" (not enough power, though, it seems). It also has a built in Xbox wireless receiver. Stop accepting crap, just because it's Microsoft serving it up.  They need to address this beyond "oh it's working as designed".
  •  It's ONE GAME....set on ONE SETTING.....whackjob!
  • Is this also an issue with the 13" SB2?
  • No, at least not demonstrated to be. I suppose in theory it could happen but would be difficult.
  • It could be capped with an addtional option "Max out the perfermance even if battery may drain".
  • Let’s all just admit that the included power supply is inadequate to power the machine.  If you can drain the battery while it is plugged in, then Hello?   Captain Obvious is on the phone.  
  • "Let’s all just admit that the included power supply is inadequate to power the machine."
    We can admit that, and we basically do. But that's far from the whole story, as the situation and criteria for that to happen is very unique and specific. Personally, everyone here should make up their OWN mind on the topic. I'm just presenting the context and explanation of what IS happening and when. I game and use SB2 15 every day. This is not an issue for me. I love the thing, hard for me to tell people "it's bad, don't buy" then I go off and use it as one of my main PCs, loving every minute of it. I can see the headline now "Daniel Rubino shames Surface Book 2 15, says 'don't buy'; also, he uses it every day and love the hell out of it" lol
  • It does not matter how unique and specific the situation is.   If we were talking about a desktop computer, and in certain “unique and specific situations” the power supply was overloaded resulting in the computer shutting down due to insufficient power, what would the conclusion be?  Incorrect control panel settings?    Or a weak power supply that is not enough to power the machine? Again, Captain Obvious is calling.  In both cases, you need  a bigger power supply.  If you are going to have a high power CPU and GPU, then you need power supply that can handle it. 
  • Try with another PSU. I have one that at 15v@4.0A the LED is a dot. Your must have one that is 12V@2.58A.
  • Lol.... isn't obvious what Microsoft's real solution is for this? Just buy an Xbox One X. I know it doesn't make sense, but that's what Microsoft basically is.
  • I don't see any problem with it. If I want a Surface Book for gaming either I'm a Microsoft fanboy or I appreciate having a lighter laptop and not having to carry around a gynormous power brick like most gaming and workstation-class laptops have. Heck, the fact it can use the battery to reach max power while not making my electric bill grow sounds awesome, and having regular charge cycles it's also healthy for the battery. Also, even in my desktop PC I don't use the Best Performance settings all of the time. It is reserved for when I really (and I mean REALLY like it's a matter of life and death) need it.
  • When you get down to the basics it's just poor engineering and/or ignorance on Microsoft's part. Any decent hardware engineer out there knows that when designing a power supply, you look at the total wattage (max) pulled by the various components and then design a power supply capable of delivering that power *plus* a bit extra. Mr. Scott would never have let this stand... ;-)
  • Except the vast majority of SB2 15 users have no interest in carrying around such a power brick just so some idiots can game for hours at a time without buying a computer built for the purpose. If they actually did as you suggest then they'd be alienating the people who the SB2 is actually aimed at.
  • This is a complete non issue, except for the endless bad publicity. It is the same as similar laptops and it effects a use case of only a tiny number of people. Also how long till the battery drains from 100% to 0% when plugged in under load? Is it greater than 5hrs complete non stop pushing the laptop to it's limits? Also my iphone drains battery when plugged into a 2A USB when using GPS navigation (maybe 5%+ an hour??), why is that not a big issue with heaps of articles about it?  
  • I was very excited to test drive Destiny 2 on this baby. I tinkered with the battery options and GeForce Experience recommendations and my gameplay is beautiful... except one thing, within a few minutes everything starts to lag severely and I've chalked it up to the fact that my SB2 starts to "overheat". Anyone having or had this issue? Any suggestions? Much thanks, in advance.