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Can you really game on a Surface Book? Let's find out!

I do the vast majority of my gaming on Xbox One, but with Xbox Play Anywhere on the horizon, I find myself increasingly interested in laptop gaming. And at least for now, Surface Book gaming.

Of course, gaming on a laptop is sub-optimal when compared to desktop rigs designed for more effective cooling, but presumably, eventually, the technology that powers these experiences will gradually become smaller, enabling low energy consumption, high mobility gaming.

Surface Book

With Xbox Play Anywhere, Microsoft is already gearing up for a future where your content travels with you, regardless of what device you're using. Xbox Play Anywhere titles are buy-once, play-anywhere, providing that device runs Windows 10 and the appropriate hardware. Not only that but your content, save files, achievements and more will also roam between devices, leveraging the power of the cloud.

With more and more multiplayer games on the horizon, I began to wonder how viable the Surface Book would be to check out Xbox Play Anywhere co-operative play in upcoming titles like Gears of War 4, State of Decay 2 and Scalebound. Here's what I learned.

First, the hardware

I have a high-end Surface Book with an Intel Core i7-6600U dual-core CPU. The GPU in the Surface Book is a custom Nvidia GPU that benchmarks similarly to the GeForce 940M with 1GB of VRAM, based on the Maxwell architecture. As far as gaming is concerned, these are modest specs at best, low-end at worst. The Surface Book isn't designed to power high-end PC gaming experiences, but instead provide a highly mobile solution for creative industries working in video production or photo editing. The specs are more than suitable for Adobe Premier, Photoshop, and the like, but you should never expect to do anything other than light gaming on this thing, or at least not without substantial compromises in your game's visual settings.

The full specs on my Surface Book are as follows:

  • OS: Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
  • CPU: Intel Core i7-6600U dual-core @ 2.60 GHz
  • RAM: 16GB dual-channel DDR3
  • d-GPU: 1GB Nvidia GeForce (Custom)
  • Storage: 512 GB SSD

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition

The first test is obvious. Microsoft used the third-person shooter Gears of War: Ultimate Edition to demonstrate how the Surface Book could handle modern PC games on UWP at the laptop's reveal, but how does it stack up in practice?

Even with all the latest updates to the game and UWP, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, as you might expect, doesn't run tremendously well on the Surface Book. But it is playable.

Gears of War - Low-quality settings, 25 to 35 frames per second.

Initially, I ran the game on the lowest settings. Anti-aliasing disabled, texture quality on low, lowest resolution and so on. I was disappointed by the performance, which hovered at around 25-35 FPS according to the in-game frame rate counter. With the texture quality turned low as you can see above, the game looks almost obnoxiously bad, like the product of the original Xbox era.

I decided to try and boost the visuals a bit to see how much it hampered performance. I moved up to medium texture quality, turned on FXAA and found that performance wasn't really hindered in any way, but now the game looked far better. Also thankfully, the recent updates to UWP allowed games to disable V-sync, which made Gears of War: Ultimate Edition far, far more playable by reducing input lag.

Gears of War - Medium quality settings, 20 to 35 frames per second.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is perfectly viable on the Surface Book with V-sync disabled with mid-range settings. It's a tad strange that I couldn't get any performance boost out of Gears by lowering the settings further. I'm reluctant to point the finger at UWP without knowing for certain, but the effects of lowering the visuals on Win32 titles seems far more pronounced.

While Gears of War was never going to look as gorgeous or run as smoothly as it does on Xbox One or a high-end PC, being able to play Gears on the go is a welcome plus to one of the most portable Windows 10 laptops on the market.

See Gears of War Ultimate Edition on the Windows Store (opens in new tab)

Killer Instinct

I simply had to test out Killer Instinct, due to the fact it was one of the first titles to be part of the Xbox Play Anywhere program. Killer Instinct is a free-to-play fighting game based on the classic Rare fighter of the 90s. It launched initially for Xbox One and eventually made its way across to the Windows 10 Store, complete with DLC purchase and progression synchronization.

Killer Instinct - Low settings, 50 to 60 frames per second.

Killer Instinct's settings were slightly easier to tweak because it has a performance testing mode. As a fighting game, maintaining high frame rates and razor-sharp responsiveness is pretty crucial to enable quality play, and I wasn't optimistic the Surface Book would achieve that with Killer Instinct. I was, however, quite wrong!

Killer Instinct on my Surface Book just about scraped the minimum required score for online play on low settings and resolution. On minimum settings it easily maintained a frame rate in the 50 to 60 range, and still looked fairly decent to boot.

Killer Instinct - RAAM vs. Gargos!

Killer Instinct suffers immeasurably when the frame rate isn't smooth, due to the nature of its responsive combo-breaker gameplay, making the trade-off more than worth it for portable play. While the visuals and effects suffer a little, Killer Instinct is impressively optimized for play on the Surface Book's d-GPU.

See Killer Instinct on the Windows Store (opens in new tab)

Overwatch

Moving away from the Universal Windows Platform, I decided to give one of my favorite games of this generation a try: Overwatch. It might not be the most graphically intensive game out there, but it is current.

Overwatch features 6v6 battles taking place in closed, stylized arenas. Blizzard Entertainment is known for their quality PC games, and Overwatch is incredibly well optimized.

On maximum "Epic" settings, Overwatch struggled to maintain 20 FPS on my Surface Book, but it was still vaguely playable. Intensive moments with lots of players on screen force the game down to a crawl, however, making it clunky during crucial moments.

Overwatch on Surface Book

Overwatch - Medium settings, fullscreen mode, 50 to 60 frames per second.

As you might expect, running Overwatch on a lower resolution than the Surface Book's 3000x2000 elicited massively positive results. Reducing texture quality and other effects help as well, but the trade-offs weren't particularly worth it. Another awesome aspect about Overwatch is that it supports the Surface Book's aspect ratio, allowing the game to fill up the screen while still on a reduced resolution.

While lowering the resolution to 1400x900 caused a performance boost by itself, running Overwatch in fullscreen exclusive mode allowed the game to run at a fairly stable 60 FPS, which is absolutely ideal for a shooter. Turning V-sync off induced some screen tearing, but it wasn't as bad as the input lag I was getting while keeping it switched on. While this is by no means the full story, Overwatch ran far better at a much higher resolution than Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Killer Instinct, but only in fullscreen exclusive mode.

Overwatch - Medium settings, fullscreen mode, 50 to 60 frames per second.

The Surface Book is more than capable at providing a quality experience for Overwatch, albeit less pretty than its Xbox One counterpart.

3DMark

3DMark is a benchmarking tool that runs some Win32 3D scenes on your computer while monitoring how your computer's hardware meets the challenge. I ran 3D Mark's test for mid-range PCs, high-end PCs, and high-end PCs with DX12, and the results were interesting when stacked up against a Nvidia GeForce 960M and a Nvidia GTX 1080.

3DMark Sky Diver - 1920x1080, around 30 FPS

3DMark Sky Diver - 1920x1080, around 30 FPS

As you might expect, the Surface Book didn't fare too well on the high-end benchmarks, but competed adequately against the 960M on the mid-range. To say that the GTX 1080 makes a difference would be a gross, almost offensive understatement.

Sky Diver is the mid-range laptop test, Fire Strike is for high-end gaming PCs, and Time Spy is for high-end PCs running DX12. These tallies are by no means the full story (benchmarks never are), but here's a breakdown of the benchmark scores across each device.

3DMark TestSurface BookGeForce 960 MGTX 1080
Sky Diver6620686737152
Fire Strike1929344216886
Time Spy25313156428

The tests weren't under fully controlled conditions by any means, but it at least gives us a picture of how the Surface Book stacks up against other contemporary systems. Running at 1920x1080 resolution across each device, the Surface Book managed vaguely comparable results against the GeForce 960M laptop used by Windows Central's Richard Devine. During more intensive moments, the Surface Book lost stability and frames, but overall it ran competently.

Sky Diver is probably best compared to previous-generation games like Deus Ex Human Revolution and The Witcher 2. Fire Strike, which would be more comparable to modern games like Quantum Break and Gears of War: Ultimate Edition on high settings, didn't fare so well on the Surface Book when compared to the more modern systems. Frame rates struggled between 15 and 20 FPS, but it shows that with settings tweaks, most well-optimized modern games would become playable.

Time Spy is designed for DX12 ultra high-end systems, and as you can see from the score tally, intensive games with advanced visual features are definitively a no-go for the Surface Book.

Final thoughts

To take full advantage of Xbox Play Anywhere, the Surface Book needs to be able to run games coming out of the Windows 10 Store. Games from the Windows Store are packaged under the Universal Windows Platform, which differs from the classic Win32 functionality typically found on platforms like Steam.

Lighter and older titles like Ori and the Blind Forest, Bioshock Infinite and World of Warcraft run like a treat on the Surface Book, but you'll have to compromise to get newer games running well.

UWP games have been the subject of controversy, not only from critics claiming that Microsoft is attempting to lock down the PC gaming market, but also because UWP games were previously unable to take advantage of certain higher-level GPU features, such as SLI and unlocked frame rates. Also, UWP doesn't support full-screen exclusive mode, which traditionally provides a performance boost. Microsoft says that games with DX12 don't need full-screen exclusive mode to perform correctly, and can allow users to multi-task and alt-tab more easily than games that are running with exclusive control over the screen. However, this doesn't help with games that are stuck in DX11 or under, or games that are simply poorly optimized.

Reducing the settings to minimum on UWP games like Gears of War Ultimate Edition, Quantum Break and Shadow Complex: Remastered barely impacted how well those games ran on my Surface Book. Whereas reducing the visuals on Win32 titles like DOOM, Overwatch and The Witcher 3 had a very pronounced effect. These comparisons ignore a lot of factors, of course, but at least in practice, it doesn't feel like UWP can best Win32 on the low end right now.

Less intensive titles like Ori and the Blind Forest, or older previous-gen Win32 titles like Bioshock Infinite and World of Warcraft run like a treat on the Surface Book, but you're looking at a lot of compromises to get newer games running well on this device. It's just not intended for gaming. Its features flow towards productivity and mobility, with light gaming as a consequence of its decent hardware.

For $2,699, I would have liked to have seen at least a quad core processor in this thing, maybe a GPU based on at least the 950M rather than the 940M, but the Surface Book price factors in more than its internals. Its build quality, rich display, unique 2-in-1 configuration and pressure sensitive screen all contribute to the laptop's versatility. If gaming is your central use-case for a PC, look elsewhere. But if you find the features attractive, and you're looking for a capable, highly mobile workhorse that can hold its own in gaming, especially with Win32's sizable back catalog, then the Surface Book might be ideal.

See the Surface Book on the Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Jez Corden
Jez Corden

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

63 Comments
  • Personally, I'd spend money on a Razer Blade if you actually want to game and have a highly portable machine. Jez, however, thinks the Microsoft logo adds at least 10FPS ;-)
  • For pure gaming your right. But it doesnt come with a detachable screen to take notes during meetings. So look at the flexible busines use here. Work horse when needed and a casual game while you are in between meetings. But the real games not that mobile stuff :) As a work machine I would love the surface book over my current surface pro 4. All the advantages of the Pro 4 with the added power to actuall play some real games casually.
  • For the price of the Surface Book, personally, the screen coming off isn't enough to make me pay that much for it at all. I get what you're saying, but it's an insanely expensive piece of equipment. My point is if you want to play games, don't buy a Surface Book. If you want a Surface Book, buy a Surface Book!
  • True. The Surface Book and the Razer Blade were made for different people with different needs.
  • I very seldom take my screen off, in part because taking it on and off a couple of times can result in the need to close programs and restart. I do use the sb for video, and I am glad I chose the sb over the pro 4. It's a very portable laptop with a beautiful screen. It's a better fit for my use than the pro was, especially with photoshop, where you really want a keyboard while you are drawing on the screen. That said, you pay one hell of a premium for the ability to remove the screen. It might be cheaper to buy a gaming laptop woth a good graphics card and an entry level pro 4 for when you want a tablet.
  • Artists, Architects, Designers, Business magnets and the kind would very much want Surface Book for the design that captures their profession. This isn't just about having it cool (money), this is for certain ppl who wants to strike the right balance between profession and light gaming as well as general use.
  • This device doesn't do justice to gaming. Not for this price. But it's ok. It wasn't build to play games. Just accept that and move on. Honestly, I get it is good to get information out there. But seeing the specifications on that kind of resolution? It doesn't surprise me this doesn't run smooth and you have to scale resolution down. The conclusion of the article was good. But the specifications already made it clear.
  • The Razer Blade is great, but can't say it's great for portable gaming, correct me if I'm wrong but you need the external gpu to really game on it right? Also I feel this is how Microsoft will appeal to gamers with the next Surface model, external gpu is such a great idea. All said the Surface still get very warm when playing games, you could even say hot, it worrys me so I hardly do on it. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • I play this on my SP4 actually...
  • Nice. It performs quite well. Not too good if you take into account that it costs an arm and a leg, but I guess it makes up for it on other fronts. I just don't understand why havent they put atleast a bit better graphics card since it costs that much.
  • Well GPU's generate a lot of warmth when performance increases. So that is a thing. Also although the GPU's have improved massively over the past few years, they still require a lot of power to function. Most gaming laptops also have a dual GPU set-up to save battery and are still very thick with big fans. Considering MS made a custom GPU with such specs in such a form-factor is commendable. It must have been designed especially to fit into that chassis. So yes the device has a hefty price. But if you consider all the specs I still don't think it is overpriced. Just consider what you buy it for.
  • It could be used for graphic-intensive, non-realtime use, such as rendering 3D objects or 4K video (Intel HD just wouldn't be usable for that). They have to count for power consumption and heat too, although for the next generation, I won't be surprised if they can cram a GTX 1060 in there for decent gaming experience.
  • Well that could be the mobile GTX 1060, but even then since it's aimed at the professional market a Quadro card seems perhaps more likely. Also I expect them to create a new custom GPU based on the Pascal architecture. Otherwise the card would fit into a design like this. It would need to be bulkier I am afraid. And I think MS will try to avoid that at all cost.
  • Great article. Informative. Plus now I know what games to plan for.
  • Thanks for reading matey.
  • I'm really hoping when they refresh the Surface Book they put an upgraded GPU in it and allow us 1st Gen Surface Book owners to only purchase the keyboard base with the upgraded GPU as opposed to purchasing an entire new unit.
  • if, and I'm only saying if because i don't know what's up their sleeves, they did get rid of the hole some how from the hinge, they might make it so you'd have to buy a new one... which would be sad, hopefully they will sell just the base as an upgrade
  • But.... Does it play Crysis?
  • no brainer...
  • All the setting adjustment talk gave me a headache. That's why I game on console. It just works.
  • It just works with less than 30 fps on most new games...
  • you need to retire that game cube.
  • Agree, lol
  • It's not too strange that lowering the graphics settings had minimal impact; this usually indicates the graphics card isn't the issue. What's strange about it is you would think, on the surface book, the graphics card IS the issue. Lol
  • Yeah good point, Surface Book CPU really isn't that great.
  • It sounds like CPU bottleneck. Probably UWP use more CPU resources than Win32 app.
  • I was gaming on a GT 630M untill 2015 came and destroyed the FPS
  • Interesting. I'd say it's a good performance for everything that's not the latest game or a very demanding title. I don't think it's fair though to ask of the SB performance on par with gaming laptops, or gaming PCs.
  • Of course not, but it's interesting to try :)
  • i hope the tablet part can last longer than it does now, would be nice to get 4-5 hours from it.
  • How is that related to gaming? Just curious, or was it just a general statement?
  • Subtlety, may be. He might have mentioned the Intel graphics sported by the tablet part where its usage with the supported gaming would have its toll in battery life.
  • I've gotten nearly 16 hours from mine.
  • What a stupid stupid article! Just because it's not marketed as a gaming machine doesn't render it unfit to be a gaming machine. Perhaps you meant a serious gaming rig replacement? Fair enough.... But also the choice of Surface Book matters, if you get the biggest one, yeah it can game. It's a PC with powerful dedicated graphics, but.... still not the best! Sure!
  • Did we read the same article? He never claimed it was unfit to be a gaming machine. He simply gave an honest assessment of it's capabilities. How does that make it a stupid article?
  • People keep asking "does xxx run on Surface Book?" So Jez did some research to answer such questions on how capable the Surface Book is.
  • Surface Book's graphics is definitelly not a powerfull graphics at all. Compare the 3DMark results with GeForce GTX 1080 (in the article) where we can what GPU can do. It's not bound by most bottlenecks we may face in real world AAA games. SB graphics is OK to run older games (doubt it will run even first Crysis from 2007 with decent FPS though) and some indie games without intense graphics. But main reason for SB graphics to exist is to power 2D and 3D editing software on the go. It was never meant for gaming. Weak GPU and shitloads of pixels on screen do their nasty jobs
  • @baandoptager Try reading the article.
  • This (sort of) answers my question on Surface Book's capability to render (architectural visualization) at a decent quality. This article's long overdue IMO (at least you've made it now), I mean there are a lot of ppl with the Surface Book wants to strike the right balance between profession/gaming and general use. WC should be doing this more often (testing varied hardware and software, giving score, reviews and stuff). Who would do if not you guys...after all, this is the best site for all things Windows.
  • I'll be doing more Surface Book graphics tests soon. Sorry it took a while for us to get this up. What would you like to see me test?
  • I prefer custom rigs for heavy gaming than on laptops, light gaming should do fine for me. Msft has been marketing the Surface Book for Architects and Designers as well. From what I know, 2Gb of GPU memory as the minimum requirement and the geforce 940m gives a base level score for the latest version of Lumion (visualization software). 3DS Max on the other hand would crave for more power than what Surface Book can handle, I guess (I'm pretty puzzled to know how Hololens' holographic beats traditional visualization with low end specifications onboard in comparison to pc hardware. I'm no expert in tech, just curious and I hope this part will become clear when the consumer version arrives). It would be very useful for a lot of ppl like me if you do some research on rendering and visualization for architectural drawings in the Surface Book. You could post it in bits here and there in your gaming review. I think ppl would love to see how Surface Book handles different things - visualization, video editing, gaming, etc.
    Thanks for asking, I hope this isn't long :) and excuse me if my English is bad.
  • Your English is awesome. I will certainly review Surface Book editing capabilities if I can. I do a lot of video editing on this thing, but I don't have a great frame of reference. I'm going to pick up a quad core GTX 1080 PC eventually, will provide a better means for comparison. Thanks for reading. :)
  • Can you tell me if you had the windows/xbox overlay (win key + g) turned on during your play testing? Disabling this feature gives me a performance boost on my original surface (10-20fps). Does it do the same for you?
  • I tried with both. I captured Overwatch gameplay using the Gamebar, but also disabled it completely. Didn't seem to have much of an impact on the performance overall.
  • How about playing csgo?
  • How about playing csgo?
  • I play cs go with lowest settings at 1024x768 or 800 x 600 res. Matchmaking 5on5 at 64tick you will get 150 frames on dust2. But: After a while the CPU will throttle cause power limit of 15 watts. Solution: Untervolt the CPU by 79 mV using Intel XTU and set fps_max 120. Then you can play CS GO competitive at solid 120 frames without the CPU getting throttled. Problem: To use Intel XTU you will have to disable secure boot in the uefi setting - this is necessary since redstone update. Running solo through the map will give you 150-300 fps. +You have to disable "connected standy" in the registry to enable "high perfomance power mode". +you have to use nvidia inspector to set the GPU at high perfomance mode. Otherwise you can not play cs go on competitive matchmaking servers.          
  • For $2,699, I would have liked to have seen at least a quad core processor in this thing, maybe a GPU based on at least the 950M rather than the 940M, but the Surface Book price factors in more than its internals. Its build quality, rich display, unique 2-in-1 configuration and pressure sensitive screen all contribute to the laptop's versatility.
      All of which had already been matched and surpassed at half that price.
  • :( yeah.
  • I game on my surface book all the time and we even have a thread here about it. You never mention important specs like what resolution you're playing at and what power option the surface book is set at. It makes a huge difference.
  • My bad, will add more technical details in the future.
  • If you want to have a pen, detachable screen and play games you're better off with a Surface Pro 4 and an Xbox One or PS4 with game streaming. With a usb ethernet adapter I can't really tell the difference between streaming a game and playing natively on my Xbox One.
  • It's not fun carting the Xbox One around while on business travel though.
    ​This is one of the scenarios where a gaming-capable laptop would be nice. Hotel rooms tend to get boring rather quickly. The Razer is just too much of a gaming laptop. Luckily I have no problems running LoL, WoW, HoTS, and similar games on the SP4 i5, which is enough for me. It even runs Skyrim with an acceptable FPS. Then I have the Xbox One S at home for entertainment. Game streaming from the Xbox One via the internet would be cool though, but completely glitchy mostly everywhere probably!
  • You can stream from Xbox One over the internet with some simple network config adjustments, just Google it.
  • Well here is one question that I have not seen asked, how hot does it get when playing those types of games? Is it a warm heat or a heat that you are afraid might cause some damage to the SB?
  • Pretty good question. I have a friend who owns one, he never played a game on it. Surface Book tends to get mighty hot under data downloading and system updating conditions and sometimes it's doesn't. It could be a problem with the firmware, an update should fix it. I believe gaming on SB would take some heat but it won't affect the laptop.
  • I have to say my Surface Book didn't get hot at all, which is why I didn't even think to include it in the article. always runs cool as a cucumber, even if the fans are spinning up.
  • Though the GPU is in the keyboard/base, when I game, the back of my SB gets pretty darn hot...
  • Gaming has been "better than expected" for me. I am not all paniced by low frame rates and the like and everything I've thrown at my SB has fan just fine for me (ALIEN: Isolation, Fallout 4, Obduction.) It is "good enough" for my lifestyle right now. When time allows me to get back into gaming, I'm sure I'll build a good desktop. 
  • Bioshock has always run really well on pc, I remember being amazed at dusting off my like 12 year old computer, downloaded bioshock 1, and could play it on max settings...this was like 4 years ago, so its very old computer now. Bioshock can run off of a calculator
  • Wonder if the author went into Control Panel and forced dgpu...
  • He wouldn't have been playing Overwatch and Gears on integrated graphics.
  • The Surface series is not supposed to be all things to all people.  It is supposed to be an example of what a Windows machine can be.  Of course you can put in a higher power GPU, at the expense of battery life, size, and weight.   Finding different compromise points along the spectrum is something for the hardware partners to tackle. For a 3 lb machine, this is a pretty cool thing.  I've been loving mine since the day they were released.