MICROSOFT SURFACE LAPTOP REVIEW: WORTH THE WAIT
Finally. It’s a word that’s famously overused in tech, and it’s understandable. As we use products every day, we can imagine that if just one or two small things changed, it would be perfect. But tech companies aren’t just interested in iteration, even if those changes seem obvious to us. Instead, we often get offered half-baked ideas that are meant to be the start of new wave of innovation.
So when Microsoft started making Windows hardware, it felt like it was obstinately refusing to make the obvious thing. It made tablets with kickstands, laptops with detachable tabletscreens, and desktops crafted for designers with too much money. Microsoft tried everything it could try to convince us to use a new kind of computer.
But now, finally, Microsoft made a device that’s not trying to be something new and weird, it’s just trying to be the thing you want. It’s a laptop that’s powerful enough to run all your apps, but thin enough to carry around — something with a high-resolution screen, a good keyboard, and a reasonable price. It’s the obvious thing to make, and so Microsoft gave it the obvious name: the Surface Laptop.
There are three things that most people who’ve heard of the Surface laptop are likely to remember. First, it looks a lot like the MacBook Air. Second, it has fabric on it. Third, it runs a new, limited version of Windows called Windows 10 S.
All of these things are true and I’ll get into them, but none of them matter. What matters is that Microsoft has built a computer that doesn’t overextend itself with any gimmicks.
It’s not entirely fair to say the Surface Laptop looks like an Air. It comes in different colors! It has that fabric! But it’s also totally fair: two of the three physical dimensions of the machine are nearly identical to the classic wedge shape we associate with the Air. But where the Air and most other laptops try to soften their lines with gentle curves, the Surface Laptop goes for angularity. It’s more Lamborghini than Porsche, and that gives it a unique aesthetic.
To me, though, it doesn’t matter that the Surface Laptop sort of looks like the Air. Their resemblance matters because the Surface Laptop achieves in 2017 what the second-generation Air did in 2010: strike precisely the right balance of power, utility, portability, and battery life that the majority of regular consumers actually want. When you want to include a good Intel Core processor (and the fans it still unfortunately requires), a big battery, a few ports, and a good keyboard and trackpad, you end up with this shape.
The biggest hardware difference between the two, of course, is that the Surface Laptop has a big, bright, beautiful, pixel-dense, 13.5-inch touchscreen. It has a 3:2 aspect ratio, something Microsoft likes to do on its devices, and I like it, too. The taller screen means that you don’t have to scroll as much on webpages and apps. Microsoft will talk your ear off about the technical qualities of this screen, but all I can tell you is that it looks great, gets very bright, and is super responsive.
It’s also compatible with the Surface Pen (sold separately), and I really like how Microsoft has evolved those features so they feel like they’re part of the core OS instead of something that locks you into OneNote. The screen doesn’t fold flat either, so you’ll really only want to use it for quick things, as the screen wobbles a bit when you write on it.
Finding the right balance for the hinge must have been tricky, though, and I do think that Microsoft might have made the hinge a little too tight to accommodate those Surface Pen users. It’s a little too difficult to open the laptop one-handed when it’s sitting flat on a table.
The Surface Laptop starts at $999, but I feel that exists more so that people will spend the extra $300 for the model I’m testing here, a Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It’s the model I recommend if you decide to get this laptop.
That combination of features means that unless you venture into serious gaming or video editing, you won’t experience any regular slowdowns or hiccups. I certainly haven’t in the past week, despite using upwards of 10 apps at a time paired with a browser running a dozen tabs. But gamers beware: I got all sorts of stutters and frame drops playing ReCore with a few apps running in the background.
I also have no qualms about battery life. Under very heavy use, I still got up over seven hours, and more regular use got me beyond eight. I suspect that if I were very careful about which apps I ran and how I tuned the battery settings I could push that over nine or maybe even approach 10. One important note: pay no attention to Microsoft’s claim of 14.5 hours of video — that’s full-screen local video playback only, which bears no relation to how people actually use computers.
Setting aside the colors and the fabric, Microsoft fundamentally made conservative decisions with the design. It doesn’t have a screen that rotates around to become a tablet and it doesn’t have the USB-C ports that the rest of the industry is trying to move everybody toward. As a person who dreams of a single cable, that bums me out. As a person who isn’t fond of dongles, I get the decision. But because there’s no SD card slot, I still have to carry a dongle around for my camera. Annoying. For the record, there’s a single traditional USB port (plus another on the power brick for charging a phone or tablet), a mini DisplayPort, a headphone jack, and Microsoft’s magnetic Surface Connector for power.
But again, choosing to go conservative with the design means that more people won’t have to think through convoluted trade-offs when they’re looking for a computer. It’s powerful enough for most, it’s light enough for most, and it doesn’t ask you to buy a bunch of new cables.
ABOUT THAT ALCANTARA FABRIC
Of course, the one design element that’s not conservative at all is the Alcantara fabric that surrounds the keys and covers the palm rests. In fact, every person who has seen this laptop asks about it first. Most think it feels nice but is still a little weird. Most also think it’s a bad idea because it will wear down after months and years of use. Or that it will get easily stained. Or, at minimum, it’ll get grimy and nasty.
So yeah, about that: I am no expert on this stuff, and I certainly haven’t had this laptop long enough to render final judgment. And Microsoft definitely didn’t do itself any favors when it said users should treat it like a luxury product. Nor is it reassuring when the company says that Alcantara “ages beautifully, growing richer and darker over time, and is wonderfully soft to touch.”
Even so, I think it’s going to end up not being a very big problem for most people. Microsoft uses the same material on its Signature Type Covers for the Surface Pro tablet and there aren’t that many reports of problems on it. It does pick up crumbs and lint sometimes. Also, I dutifully smeared some Caesar salad dressing on the palm rests of my Surface Laptop and it wiped off completely with a damp cloth.
The big question is why Microsoft used this fabric in the first place. As far as I know, it’s simply an aesthetic thing and makes the laptop feel nicer. It certainly makes the laptop stand out and gives you something to talk about when you open it up. That’s reason enough, I suppose, and I admit I like the feel of it. But I don’t hate the feel of bare aluminum, either. As my colleague Tom Warren says, it would be much easier to just wipe aluminum clean.
A small thing: the way that the fabric gets attached to the laptop means that there needs to be a small indentation around the edge of the laptop deck. That, in turn, means that there’s a tiny gap that runs around the seam of the laptop when it’s closed.
I’ll say this: I think using this fabric is an unforced error. It allows all these jokes about carpet on a laptop. It drives a conversation about the Surface Laptop, sure, but probably not the one Microsoft was hoping for.
WINDOWS 10 S
The last thing everybody should know about the Surface Laptop: it ships with a new operating system called Windows 10 S. I say it’s “new” but that’s not really true at all, because the only new thing here is that 10 S is locked down so it can only run apps downloaded from the official Microsoft Windows Store.
That limitation has a ton of benefits: it means that Microsoft can vet every app that goes on your machine for malware. It means that those apps will follow new rules inside Windows that can keep them from chewing up your battery or hogging your system resources. It means that Microsoft can more confidently push out security updates and new features.
But the trade-off for all those benefits isn’t worth it because the Windows Store is an app desert. Many of the apps you expect are either not in the store or — if they are there — are worse than what you can get on iPads, Mac, the full version of Windows, or even on the web.
In addition to all this, you cannot change the default browser in Windows 10 S away from Edge. Even if Chrome and Firefox were available in the store (they’re not), you’d have to copy and paste links into them just like you do when you use them on iOS. (You can set other default apps, like email, to whatever you like.)
Everybody will hit the wall on different things. For me it was 1Password and SimpleNote. Both have good Windows apps, but neither are in the store. And the video conferencing solution we use, Zoom, is also unavailable in the store and its web-based equivalent doesn’t work in Microsoft’s browser, Edge.
When you download and try to install an app from the web, instead of letting you run the .exe, Windows will pop up a box offering to search for it in the store, where there’s a very good chance you won’t find it. For some apps, Microsoft says it will pop up a custom dialog pointing you directly to the app (or an equivalent) in the store.
Presumably, Microsoft is shipping Windows 10 S by default in an attempt to juice developers to get their apps into the store. Maybe that strategy will work, but I am not optimistic. Switching from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro is free through the end of the year (and perhaps beyond) and takes only a few minutes to do.
When I said up top that it doesn’t matter that the Surface Laptop ships with Windows 10 S, this was what I meant. The first or second time that the pop-up to switch to Pro appears, most regular users are just going to go ahead and click it. (Students and other users in managed settings: sorry for your luck.)
Be warned, however, that for now there’s no going back to Windows 10 S without completely reformatting your machine.
One small note for potential Mac switchers: even though I find many of the third-party apps on Windows deficient compared to their Mac equivalents, the gap is closing. And Microsoft’s own apps like Mail and Calendar are quite good. Most of all, Windows 10 just feels modern and well-thought-out in a way that macOS Sierra sometimes doesn’t: Cortana works equally well from a keyboard or with your voice, for example, and settings and notifications are much easier to find now. I also really love the Windows Hello feature, which uses facial recognition to log you in nearly instantly.
The Surface Laptop totally lives up to expectations.
I think it’s the new de facto Windows laptop that most people who want a Windows laptop should get — provided they can afford to spend $1,300 for the step-up model. It strikes exactly the right balance of power, portability, utility, and design for most people; albeit at a slightly higher price than its direct competitors.
To tell the truth, I don’t know that there’s some sort of incredible technical achievement here. It’s thin but not that thin, powerful but not wildly so. Microsoft just chose to do the obvious and correct thing with this laptop over and over, even if that thing is a little boring. Then it slapped a piece of carpet on top to spice it up. I expected Microsoft to do a good job on this hardware, and it did.
But the other expectation I had for the Surface Laptop is that I’d be unable to actually get the apps I need from the Windows Store, and I was right. If you buy this laptop, you’re going to end up taking the upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
There are thinner Windows laptops. There are cheaper Windows laptops. There are more powerful Windows laptops. But all those laptops ask you to make more uncomfortable compromises than the Surface Laptop.