Microsoft's Surface Book: Not Made For Gaming, But Not Terrible At It

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?

Microsoft Surface Book's Secret Nvidia GPU: What Is It?

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?

How Microsoft Kept The Surface Book's Coolest Feature A Secret

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?

Microsoft Surface Book: So Good, I Might Switch Back To Windows

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]

This post originally appeared on Gizmodo Australia


Comments

    I want one

      I don't. A 940m with 1GB RAM, that pretty much rules out any decent gaming.
      I'd rather get an ultra-light 15" laptop for that money.

        I play Guild Wars 2 on my SP1; it looks terrible (everything on low), but I'm able to game to some degree without lugging something heavier and more cumbersome. I'd love to have the book.

          Except that there isn't much of a performance gain if you are going from the integrated Intel graphics on the SP1 to this, which is what @poita is getting at.

            An even then, only if you have the clipped on keyboard base, which makes the thing as heavy and cumbersome as a 13" notebook.

    How does it compare with, say the Macbook Air? I use that for for gaming sometimes (mainly because I use it for work and it's all I have).

    The Air can handle at least borderlands 2 and Total War and most CRPGs or ARPGs. It'll also run essentially all the old games you buy from GOG (thank god for retro games...) ^_^

      Not great. Better, but not great. Borderlands will run at lower resolutions somewhat better than integrated graphics, but you'd be shelling out thousands of $$ for a very marginal performance gain. Some modern games don't run on the 940m at all.

      Edit: Also, old game are a mixed bag. Burnout paridice will run maxed out 1080p 60FPS but Star Wars BattleFront 2 or Republic commando (Star wars sale lol) wont run well maxed out.

      Last edited 27/11/15 1:09 pm

        Thinking you can run any game maxed out is pretty wishful thinking isn't it. I mean if anyone is buying this for its gaming prowess, they're probably an idiot. These laptops are great portable work laptops which for some of us who like to game can play alittle bit.

        My Macbook Air plays Borderlands 2 just fine with an integrated card (I run the game the native monitor resolution of 1440 x 900 and probably medium graphics...). I never even bother trying oblivion let alone fallot 4 lolz...

        When you buy these laptops and want to game. Your mind should be asking will this run at medium graphics at near native resolution and about 30-40 frames with the occasional drop during intense scenes. Thinking things like 1080p, 60FPS or "maxed out" ignores the purpose of the product in the first place doesn't it??

          I didn't say you should expect otherwise. When talking about maxing out games I was talking specifically about older titles, saying that even some old games don't run particularly well, wishful thinking to suggest otherwise.

          My point is that you should consider how much you are paying for entry level performance that is only marginally better than Intel's graphics. There are far cheaper ultrabooks that perform as well or better. For the price of this thing it's more economical to get a tablet/ ultra portable AND a gaming laptop with a 960m. (Edit: Heck, or even a desktop or console considering you have to dock this thing for the GPU to kick in anyway lol)

          The keyboard for performance gimmik is only really a selling feature if it has, well, performance.

          As I say, I have an ultrabook with a 940m, my gf has a macbook air. They are in very similar performance brackets. VERY. Why pay thousands of dollars for this, specifically for its gaming performance then?!

          EDIT: Let me just say: I don't think it's a bad laptop, just that, FOR THE PRICE, it's not going to be much of an upgrade for most people. The 940m already cant play some modern games at lowest settings and resolutions at above 20FPS. This tablet is perhaps better marketed to business folk or students looking for an ultra portable with some dedicated hardware for entry level encoding features etc.

          If you're looking to play old games at medium/ low settings anyway, then why weigh down an ultraportable with the nvidia gpu in the first place when an Intel GPU is in a very similar performance bracket? All you end up with is higher cost, heat output and lowered battery life.

          Last edited 27/11/15 9:43 pm

    Wish I could get my hands on one. My company preordered one for me through Staples about a month before release and just got wind that I won't be getting it until next year at the earliest.

    As a dude who's laptop does have a 940m... it's better than integrated intel graphics, but you really shouldn't be shelling out this type of dosh for 'just' a 940m. Most mainstream games, if they run, will be at low settings and resolutions. If Intel graphics cant run a game, there's a high chance this wont either (Or at least not well). This laptop was VERY over hyped compared to it's actual specs.

    Last edited 27/11/15 1:04 pm

      It isn't designed for gaming but CAD software and that is how the drivers behave. MSFT have said this when they presented it initially and have said it repeatedly, it is a workstation Ultra which from CAD reviews can process upwards of 2+ million poly's which is insane for its build type.

        Yes, but this article is about it's gaming performance, and is a follow up to their article where they speculated that it would have a 950m or more.

        Also, in my defense, I did say that this laptop looks like it's designed for more professional use cases (Encoding, CAD, etc) in one of my other comments on this page. :)

        EDIT:
        "This tablet is perhaps better marketed to business folk or students looking for an ultra portable with some dedicated hardware for entry level encoding features etc."

        - Me above.

        Last edited 30/11/15 5:58 pm

    but could i run fallout 4 on low during my half-hour commute?

      768p, low +- 30fps vs +- 20fps on intel graphics if that helps. Not much of an upgrade, and not going to keep playing games, even at low settings, in the coming year or two IMO.

      Last edited 27/11/15 1:23 pm

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