Microsoft's $2299 Surface Book, which launched in Australia at the same time as its flagship Sydney store, is a thin and light tablet with a keyboard dock that contains extra battery power. Uniquely, though, the Surface Book's lower half also contains a Nvidia GeForce graphics card, fueling some small hope that it might be adequate for a bit of weekend gaming.
After some mucking around with different Nvidia drivers and a bunch of testing over the weekend, I can say that adequate is the word -- the Surface Book certainly isn't a gaming powerhouse, but with a bit of software hacking, it's not terrible, and enough to enjoy a modern video game or two.
What *Is* The Surface Book's Nvidia GPU?
The Microsoft Surface Book's standalone Nvidia GeForce GPU is exactly that, if you look through the laptop's Device Manager -- the driver listing is literally called "Nvidia GeForce GPU". And that's a problem, because while it's fine when you're installing the 354.15 Nvidia device drivers that come pre-loaded with the Surface Book and its slightly-tweaked-but-still-Signature-Edition of Windows 10, they're quite old -- old enough that Star Wars: Battlefront won't run, since it requires drivers of at least 358.50 or newer.
As it turns out, the Surface Book's "Nvidia GeForce GPU" is extremely similar to a GeForce 940M. It has the same 384 CUDA cores, 16 ROPs, 32 TMUs, and runs at 954MHz boosting up to 993MHz under load. Its 1GB of GDDR5 memory runs at 1253MHz (5000MHz and change) over a 64-bit interface for a total memory bandwidth of 40.08GBps. It actually runs over PCI-E 3.0 rather than 2.0, but at 2x rather than 4x -- at the end of the day, it's basically a GeForce 940M with a different name stamped on it.
So How Do I Get It Working Properly, Then?
The problem with the Surface Book's GPU is that the official 354.15 WHQL Game Ready drivers are the only ones officially supported. If you download Nvidia's laptop drivers for GeForce, currently at version 359.00 WHQL, they simply won't install -- you'll get the message that there's no compatible hardware in the Surface Book. (Big problem for Battlefront, then.)
After a bit of hunting, I found a Reddit thread, where an enterprising soul had helpfully modded a couple of the INF files in the 359.00 driver package, replacing the GeForce 940M's driver ID with the Surface Book's Geforce GPU's. If you have a Surface Book, the process is pretty simple -- download the latest drivers, download those modded INF files, turn off Windows driver signing, and install them through Device Manager. It requires a few restarts and a troubleshooting boot-up, but it's worth it.
How Does It Perform With Modern Games?
Once you've installed those new drivers, you're set -- it's just like your Surface Book has a Nvidia Geforce 940M under the hood. Now, that's not an amazing thing -- like I said a while ago, it would have been nice if it was a 950M, the lowest-spec chip that Nvidia graces with the GTX name -- but it's significantly more powerful than the Intel HD Graphics 520 inside the Surface Pro and most of the Surface Book's thin-and-light competitors. With the updated/hacked driver package, you can install GeForce Experience, which adjusts game settings to suit your system's graphical grunt.
And, as it turns out, Battlefront runs surprisingly well. I used GeForce Experience to optimise the game's settings for a 940M, then changed the resolution to suit the Surface Book's native 3000x2000px and set rendering quality scaling to 50 per cent -- meaning everything is being spit out from the GPU at 1500x1000px and then just blown up by the display itself. Across a couple of different Survival missions (good luck finding a Supremacy game that's actually up and running!), FPS hovered at a comfortable 30-40FPS, even while the Surface Book was running hot and (presumably) throttling both CPU and GPU.
This is how it looks -- not amazing, but not terrible, and certainly playable for an hour on the weekend:
Unsurprisingly, all the game's graphics are set to low, although I feel like it could bear a little more:
So, for the casual gamer or weekend warrior that wants to use their Surface Book for a bit of multiplayer fragging, it'll do it -- with a bit of extra effort. To be honest, it's a little frustrating that it even required mucking around with modded driver files in the first place; if Nvidia and Microsoft had just agreed to call it a Geforce 940M, and had given it straightforward access to Nvidia's regular and important driver updates and GeForce Experience, I wouldn't have had to waste an hour of my weekend. But I did, and I'm glad that I did, because this makes me like the Surface Book even more.
Fallout 4? Well, that's another issue altogether. I haven't yet found a comfortable resolution and setting that makes the game scale properly to the Surface Book's 3:2 screen ratio, and then there's the matter of Bethesda's rather un-optimised Gamebryo engine running on underpowered graphics hardware -- time to dive into those .ini files. I'll let you know how I go. [Microsoft]