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Last year when the iPhone 11 Pro came out with three lenses, we heard listened to lot of chatter babble photographers digital photographers regarding the iPhone apple iphone pictures so good that no one would want to hire a pro professional photographer. I pointed out above that it was challenging to shoot the”E”on the cake with the iPhone in Portrait mode. There’s this strange thing where when you’re regularly shooting with an apple iphone for 8 hours you realize that you do not stand normal when taking a photo with an apple iphone.
I like the Microsoft Surface Book 3. In fact, I like it a lot. The build quality is great, and the design is both useful and pretty much unique right now. But it’s also flawed… critically flawed by the selfsame design that makes it a unique product, which is why I can’t recommend it to most working photographers.
Intro and Specs
When we reached out to Microsoft for a review unit of the Surface Book 3, they initially planned to send the 15-inch model. But, knowing the limitations inherent to the Surface Book’s design, I asked to review the 13.5-inch model instead. There’s no way the 15-inch Surface Book 3 can keep up with the 6- and 8-core laptops in its size/price bracket, but with its dedicated GPU, 32GB of RAM, and quad-core i7 processor, I wanted to compare the 13.5-inch model to the new 13-inch MacBook Pro that we recently put to the test.
Apple’s latest computer really surprised me, and I wondered if the Surface Book 3 would be able to keep up in terms of either usability or performance. Would its unique design, high-quality touchscreen, pen compatibility, and the option for a dedicated GPU make this the better choice for some photographers?
The answer is… sort of, but only for a specific kind of photographer. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a look at the specs. As usual, the review unit we received wasn’t the base model, but one of the higher-end (and higher-priced) variants that you can buy:
Microsoft Surface Book 3, 13.5-Inch
- CPU: 1.3GHz Quad-Core i7-1065G7, 3.9GHz Max Boost
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q with 4GB GDDR5 memory
- Storage: 512GB SSD
- RAM: 32GB 3733Mhz LPDDR4x
- Display: 3000 x 2000 PixelSense Touchscreen Display
- Price: $2,500
In most regards, this is the MacBook’s equal: reasonably fast SSD storage, 32GB of the same really fast 3733MHz RAM, beautiful high-quality display that also happens to be a touchscreen (point Microsoft), and the base comes with a proper NVIDIA GPU (again, point Microsoft).
Where it falls short should be immediately obvious: the CPU. The 15W 1.3GHz Quad-Core chip in this model is the Surface Book’s Achilles heel. This low-power CPU was chosen by necessity, because it sits behind the display inside the “tablet” portion of the computer, and without robust active cooling it simply can’t keep up with more traditional 13-inch laptops under heavy load.
But we’ll get to all that in the “Performance” section. First, let’s touch on what’s great about this computer.
I love almost everything about how the Surface Book 3 is built. The balance is a little bit off because the tablet/screen is necessarily heavier than a traditional laptop display, but the aluminum finish is both extremely rigid and surprisingly soft to the touch.
The keyboard and trackpad are phenomenal. The keys come with 1.55mm of travel–which feels perfect when compared to shallower implementations like the keys you get on a MacBook Pro–and the glass-topped trackpad is exceptionally smooth and accurate. In fact, it might be my new favorite, beating Apple for “king of trackpads” on feel alone.
My only complaint is that the trackpad could be a bit bigger than it is, and the keyboard has one annoying quirk… the Menu key on the right-hand side:
Sort of like the old Razer computers that had the up arrow right next to the right shift key, I’ve never hit this key on purpose, always by accident. It should just be another CTRL key without having to go in and re-map it manually.
Getting back to the positives, the display is fantastic. Its 3:2 aspect ratio should really appeal to photographers, it’s bright, colors are accurate, and the pen experience is solid. The bezels are, admittedly, pretty chunky for the year 2020, but they feel appropriate since you have to handle this screen by the edges when you use it as a tablet.
In terms of I/O, you get a full-sized SD card slot (thank you!), a headphone jack, a couple of USB-A ports, one USB-C (3.1 Gen 2, with Power Delivery, but NOT Thunderbolt), and the magnetic surface connector port, which can be used to hook up to the Surface Dock (sold separately) if you need Thunderbolt or more ports.
It’s a bummer that Microsoft chose not to include Thunderbolt on the laptop itself, and the security flaw they’re worried about feels more like an excuse than a legitimate reason to leave such a useful port out, but c’est la vie…
Finally, the webcam on this thing is actually good. There’s a 5MP 1080p camera on the front of the display instead of the awful 720p modules built into pretty much every other laptop, and there’s also an 8MP rear camera in case you want to take pictures in tablet mode… which you shouldn’t.
The most unique thing about the Surface Book 3 is its design, which still hasn’t been replicated. There are computers like HP’s ZBook X2 and the Acer has the ConceptD Ezel laptops, but neither try to strike the balance that Microsoft is going for with the Surface Book. All other laptops that are built for pen support either put everything in the display housing, or they put everything in the base unit.
This is one of the big pros and cons of the Surface Book 3: you can remove the screen and use it as a proper Windows 10 machine without sacrificing that much performance, especially when it comes to photo editing; but, because of this design choice, Microsoft had to use an under-powered CPU. They traded performance for usability.
In the pros column you have usability.
Under normal load you can move between tasks quickly, and the ability to detach and remount the screen backwards is great for retouching. If you really want to lounge, you can just remove the screen entirely and go hang out on the couch–you lose your GPU and the larger of the two batteries, but it’s great for the occasional escape from your desk chair, and you can plug the tablet directly into the wall to charge when it’s detached.
The dual-battery system also means that the 13.5-inch computer delivered solid battery life. In battery saver, with a bunch of Chrome tabs open, Slack, Spotify, and the occasional trip to Photoshop, the computer got me about 7-8 hours on one battery. In a more normal setting with the screen set a bit brighter, I’d usually be plugging up around the 5-hour mark.
Finally, I really love the pen integration. It’s a dream for photo editing, making it possible to skip buying that Wacom tablet and just edit directly on the 3000 x 2000 pixel display. It’s not quite Wacom pen quality, but the Surface Pen feels natural to use, unlike the dinky active stylus pens you find in some PC laptops.
In the cons column is the performance.
This is where things get ugly. For short bursts of intense work, the laptop keeps up well; but as soon as you load it up with a task that takes more than a minute or two, and the CPU hits 100% utilization, the whole system slows to a crawl.
Using Intel Power Gadget during our testing, the story becomes pretty clear. Under lighter load, the processor is regularly allowed to spike to 80 and even 90 degrees for short bursts while pulling 20 – 25W of power and boosting way beyond the base clock. But once it sits at 100% on all cores for any length of time, the wattage is capped between 12 and 13W, and the CPU can only manage a measly 1.5GHz. This keeps temps at a steady 69 degrees C, preventing the system from overheating, but it means that the results of our longer export tests were particularly hard to stomach.
We ran our standard suite of tests: 110 61MP Sony a7R IV files and 150 100MP PhaseOne XF files were imported, edited heavily, and exported in various formats, and we ran Puget System’s PugetBench benchmark for Photoshop. Each test was run at least three times in quick succession, and we timed the results as we went.
For all of the charts below, we’re showing the results from the Surface Book 3, the new top-of-the-line 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the base model 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Importing is a shorter task, so it didn’t fall as far behind the competition here. That said, if you’re importing a lot of images, really large images, or you run multiple imports one after the other, the computer will start noticeably slowing down after the first run.
All images were imported with Standard Previews, without Smart Previews, and each import was run at least three times. We removed the images, cleared the Camera RAW cache, and restarted Lightroom between each run to get the average times below. For this test, shorter is better:
Export is where things look really bad. To be fair, this is exactly the kind of thing the Surface Book 3 is NOT meant to handle. The GPU isn’t used at all, and whether you’re exporting 61MP Sony files or 100MP PhaseOne files, at full resolution that’s a lot to put on a 15W chip without proper cooling.
As usual, we made heavy global edits to both sets of images, and exported each as 100% JPEGs (sRGB), 16-bit TIFFs (Adobe RGB), and DNGs with Medium previews. Each export was run three times in quick succession, and what you see below is the average time it took for each export, so shorter is better:
Thanks to the more significant GPU acceleration available in Photoshop, the Surface Book 3 did much better in PugetBench than in the CPU-heavy Lightroom tests above. The GTX 1650 Max-Q smashed the MacBooks’ integrated graphics scores and helped the laptop to almost close the overall performance gap.
The good news here is that the Surface Book 3 does much better at GPU accelerated tasks—certain features in Adobe Photoshop and the huge improvements recently made to Adobe Premiere, for example. But, as usual, we’re focusing on stills here, so we aren’t going to touch on video editing performance.
Here are the Overall scores. Higher is better:
And the category scores for General, GPU, Filter, and Photomerge. Again, higher is better:
The main thing holding this computer back isn’t actually the CPU. I mean, that is the main thing holding it back in a literal, performance sense, but that’s not what I’m talking about right now. The main thing holding it back is Microsoft’s own marketing, and the expectations it creates.
As the most powerful portable computer in the Surface lineup, the company insists on saying that the Surface Book 3 delivers “Powerhouse Performance.” It’s right there at the top of the landing page and all their marketing materials:
Problem is, that’s simply not the case for photographers. Anything that leans heavily on the CPU–which is to say: many, many things–will suffer from this low wattage chip that slows to a stagger under heavy load. Keep in mind that our review unit uses the same exact CPU Microsoft put in the 15-inch variant… and that laptop needs to compete against even more capable machines with even more powerful 45W 6- and 8-core processors.
There’s no way around it: when it comes to most performance tasks that are relevant to working photographers, the Surface Book 3 will fall short of its rivals.
But this isn’t a case of the company overpricing or under-powering a laptop for no reason. It was a conscious choice that was made to maintain the Surface Book 3’s unique design. The ability to create an extremely capable tablet computer that runs full Windows, and pair it with a proper keyboard base that includes plenty of I/O, a separate battery, and the option for a dedicated GPU.
So, who is this computer for? Who should buy a Surface Book 3?
This computer is for the enthusiast photographer who edits a few photos at a time. It’s for the creative who will take full advantage of the pen and touch display, while using the computer for less intense productivity tasks most of the time. In other words: it’s for the photographer who has a day job.
If you’re out shooting 1,200 photos in a session, uploading them all, and then culling out 100 that you’ll need to edit and export for a client, you’ll run up against this computer’s limitations in a big and frustrating way. But if you–like me–primarily do a different job, shoot maybe 100-200 images per session and only edit and export 10-20 of those, you will love the versatility that the Surface Book 3 gives you. If you do a little video editing and light gaming on the side, even better.
The question many of the early = Surface Book 3 reviews have been asking is: does this product even make sense anymore? And I will go out on a limb and say that it does. Maybe not for power users. Definitely not for professional photographers. But for the millions of us whose creative pursuits are an escape, rather than a career. For those of us who spend more time typing than photo editing, but still love photography and want a machine to match.
Those people will find a lot to love here.
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Since the announcement of the new Nikon D6, it’s been a long wait till the camera was available in the market. Here in Singapore, we finally received the first batch, and I was very fortunate to be invited by Nikon Singapore to have a hand-on experience with the new camera.
Like its predecessor the D5, the D6 is built to a high standard of “ruggedness” that professionals expect, and there’s no doubt that the D6 will continue the legacy of producing high-quality images in challenging situations.
Compared to the D5, the D6 has mainly improved its AF system: pairing a new, higher-density of 105-points sensor (the D5’s has 153 points) with a brand new EXPEED 6 image-processing engine. But new DSLR is also equipped with faster image output and workflow enhancements, as well as some better customization options.
In this hands-on, I wanted to cover some of the lesser-known and less flashy improvements that could have an impact on a professional’s workflow.
Wired ethernet connection is an important tool for professional sports photographers working under tight timeline who need a fast and reliable way to upload images. Although the new D6 is using the same 1000 Base-T standard as the D5, it features a 15% improvement in speed.
Another piece of good news is that the D6 has upgraded its micro B USB port to a USB Type-C port. With the faster USB-C connection, you can expected faster transfer speeds if, say, you’re using Camera Control Pro 2.0, shooting with live view mode, and transferring images at the same time to your computer.
Previously on the D5, in order to use the WiFi function you needed a wireless transmitter like WT-6, which was sold separately. With the new built-in WiFi, transferring images wirelessly is far easier.
For close range transfer, the built-in WiFi performed flawlessly and the speed was almost on-par with the D5’s transfer rate over an ethernet connection. From further away, I’d still recommend picking up a transmitter like the WT-6, since it offers a much greater range (up to 200m).
The D6 now also features built-in bluetooth like the D780 and the new Z-series cameras. This allows you to connect the D6 to a smart devices like an iPhone, android phone, tablets, etc. and download images or control your camera remotely via the SnapBridge app.
Just like with wireless data transmission, the D5 required an external GPS module if you wanted to do geotagging. Now with the D6, a GPS module has been integrated into the system, making it much easier to geotag images on-the-go.
I was really impressed with the camera’s GPS performance: it locked on to my geographical location even when the camera was sitting near a window. If you own a Garmin watch or even a smartphone with GPS, you will know that it’s not easy for smart devices to detect GPS location when you are partially indoors. On top of that, I also checked the accuracy of the location using the Adobe Lightroom map function, and found that the geotagging location was pretty accurate every time.
This might not seem like a huge perk, but GPS can come in really handy for a photo agency when they have multiple photographers deployed at an outdoor venue. Their backend photo editor will be able to pick up key images fast by filtering them by geographical location instead of going through all the mixed images sorted by time or filename.
Using Card Slot #2
Having two card slots obviously isn’t new. What is new is an enhancement that Nikon made to the second slot. The D6 has added a new mode called [JPEG Slot 1 – JPEG Slot 2], which lets you record two different quality settings for each slot. Slot 1 will record the image quality set via QUAL button, while Slot 2 records [JPEG Basic] in either the medium or small file size.
Again, this is very beneficial for photographers working with photo agencies where they mostly shoot JPEG images and need to send their work to a photo editor as fast as possible. Photographers now will be able to send out the medium or small JPEG first from Slot 2 for publication; then, if they need the higher quality image, they still have the high resolution image in Slot 1.
Another improvement is the ability to delete image copies when using both card slots. Previously in D5, deleting images only happened for the selected card slot, and the backup image on the other card slot remained. For the D6, you can choose to delete either both copies or only the image on the current card slot.
Integrated time-lapse shooting modes might not be a new feature for Nikon cameras, but it’s definitely new for their flagship DSLR.
For those who only do time-lapse occasionally, this feature is extreme useful and time saving. The in-camera time-lapse feature is able to set the shooting duration and automatically calculate the video output duration for you. On top of that, you don’t have to deal with the large amount of raw/jpeg images or combine them manually in post—the camera does all that work for you.
Interval Timer Shooting
The Interval timer shooting mode has added a new option to create AE bracketing and time-lapse movies.
You might be wondering how this this time-lapse function differs from the other time-lapse function I literally just mentioned… the main different is that, in the interval timer shooting mode, the camera will store the raw/jpeg images while also generating a time-lapse movie at the same time, whereas the other time-lapse feature doesn’t.
AE bracketing also seems to be a new feature that I have not seen before in the Interval Timer. In AE bracketing mode, the camera create an exposure bracket of each shot captured, which can come in really handy for tricky lighting situations.
The focus shift shooting feature was first introduced in the D850 and has finally been added to the D6. There is no doubt that the D6 is speed demon meant for shooting fast action, but this is still a nice feature to have for the occasional bit of product photography.
Following in the footsteps of the mirrorless Z-Series, the ‘i’ button is now able to set 12 shortcuts for advance customized setting. Some of the useful setting that I personally set were Wi-Fi connection, autofocus mode, AF-area mode, focus tracking with lock-on, etc.
It helps to have quick access to all those settings without having to dive deep into the menu system.
This is an interesting new workflow feature added to the D6 and which I absolutely love. When I’m shooting sports, fast upload of images to the media is critical. With this flick operation feature, I can cut down the time it takes me to rate images, protect, and send them to computer.
Something that usually takes me 2-4 clicks can be accomplished in just one simple flick motion.
Full Touch Screen
The D5 was already equipped with a touch screen feature, but it could only be used during image playback mode and I rarely used it. The D6, by comparison, is able to use the touch screen function to navigate the menu system, which is extremely useful when you need to key in alphabet letters in folder naming/copyrights/IPTC functions, etc.
The D6 uses the same EN-EL 6 battery as the D5, with the same battery capacity of 2500mah. What’s interesting is that Nikon has managed to fine tune the D6 into a more energy-efficiency camera, even with the new built-in WiFi and GPS module that could potentially drain the battery faster.
Above, you can see an example of one of the shoots I did with GPS module on—I clocked 1858 shots with 78% battery life left. This tracks with Nikon’s website, which says that the battery is able to shoot 8670 shots in CH mode… double the lifespan of what the D5 can clock on a single battery.
The battery efficiency really impressed me. In the past, my D5 would easily clocked 3000 or more shots per battery in one day, which was more than enough for me. With the energy efficiency improvement now, even if I somehow forgot to charge the battery the night before, I reckon the same battery could still last me for another day of shooting.
Kensington Anti-Theft Lock
Okay, last and probably least: the new Kensington lock.
This is one is really beneficial for any photographer who needs to set up the camera for remote shooting. Cameras are often left unsecured and prone to theft. Now, the D6 provides an added sense of security since you have a Kensington slot available.
Another advantage is that, during a major sporting event where many photographers are setting up the same camera in the same spot, it’s easy to accidentally mistake another photographer’s set up for your own. With the lock in place, you can be sure you’re grabbing the right setup and not accidentally stealing someone else’s gear.
About the author: Andy Chua is a professional photographer based in a Singapore. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Chua’s portfolio is 70% sports, and he has covered both local and overseas international meets. His sports work also won several awards in IPA over the years and has been published in different platforms. In addition to sports, he also shoots underwater photography, automotive, products, interior, etc.
You can find more of Chua’s work on his website or by following him on Instagram. This article was also published here.
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