Surface Laptop Two Week Review: Microsoft's Stunning First Notebook Great For Today's Use Cases
Patrick Moorhead, Contributor
In May, Microsoft announced their very first ‘conventional’ laptop, the Surface Laptop. This laptop was one of the most recent Surface products Microsoft launched as part of the Surface line and the most conventional in terms of form factor. All the previous Surface devices were more unique in form or function that helped set apart the Surface brand from other OEM brands. With the Surface Laptop, Microsoft had to make the conventional seem unconventional and to give educators, students and consumers a reason to consider a Surface Laptop. Microsoft recently sent me one of their new Surface Laptops to try out and I used it as my primary device for two weeks. In short, I’m very impressed and want to tell you about my experience.
Specifications and configuration
For my use, I loaded up the Surface Laptop with a mixture of desktop applications and Microsoft Store applications. For desktop software, which was mostly for productivity, I used Office 365, OneNote, WhatsApp, Google Chrome, Edge and OneDrive. The Microsoft Store applications I used were Skype, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Photos, Camera, OneDrive, Mail, Calendar, Weather and News. Additionally, I used accessories like the Surface Dock for charging and to simultaneously connect both a 3K and a 4K display.
The model Microsoft lent to me for testing was the Intel Core i5 7200U variant with 256 GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Microsoft offers a Core i7 variant as well with storage capacities of up to 512GB and RAM up to 16GB. The graphics on the Core i5 version is Intel integrated HD 620 graphics while the Core i7 model gets the dedicated Intel Iris Plus 640 graphics chip for higher performance. Unlike previous Surface products, there is no option for discrete 3rd party graphics, which I believe is a pricing, power and space consideration.
Even though design is highly subjective, I personally enjoyed the clamshell design of this device. For lack of a better word, this PC really is sexy. Its minimalistic and the aluminum body really caught my eye. It was a very light 2.76 pounds which made it very portable and hand-carry friendly. I like that Microsoft decided to offer the Surface Laptop in four assorted colors (burgundy, blue, silver and gold) that allow it to help them differentiate from the MacBooks. It fit very well in my backpack and was a joy to travel with. Overall, this is a modern device that will work perfectly for college applications and consumer use cases.
The 13.5” 2,256 x 1,504 resolution PixelSense display with its 3:2 aspect ratio is ultra-thin at 14mm thick with a very responsive touchscreen with support for up to 10 multi-point touch like the Surface Pro. The display colors were vibrant and very sharp. It’s a beautiful display. While 3K or 4K resolution would have been preferred, Microsoft balanced resolution with all the other features.
The Surface Laptop supports Windows Hello face login. It may be my imagination, but as I’ve tested face login on about 20 devices, this seemed the quickest. I mean, literally, I would open the laptop and I’d be in, no password required. This is a great example of where the smartphone and tablet need to catch up with the laptop.
When it came to the keyboard, I really liked that it was the perfect size for my hands. The keys were deep and punchy which was great for conducting and writing research papers and briefs. The trackpad was large and responsive which surprised me because it was just as large as the Surface Book’s trackpad which is a much larger PC. The power button was conveniently placed on the keyboard which frees up the display of any buttons on it and any accidental presses while being carried. I liked that simple attention to detail feature a lot more than I imagined.
A new addition to this keyboard was the Alcantara fabric, and when liquid got on the fabric it was easy to wipe off. I loved that my palms didn’t slip all over the place as they do with all aluminum keyboard decks. Since this laptop is aimed at college students and consumers for now, the ability to pick from four different Alcantara fabric feels great. It gives students and consumers a lot more color options unlike other laptops that have one. This allows owners to have a great looking machine, but also to have some sort of uniqueness that Apple doesn’t offer in that size. Students will like the ability to customize their device to make it more personal to them. I also thoroughly enjoyed the color-matched mouse that can be flattened to put in my back pocket. Microsoft makes great mice and their newest one is the best I’ve used so far in such a compact and versatile form factor.
The Core i5 system I tested is great for the business applications that I threw at it. It worked great for me in a multi-monitor configuration using Office 365 applications and running many browser tabs. The device’s processor performance is great especially considering how thin the device is. I did not feel at any point during my testing that there was a need for greater performance, however, I did not do any creative development or light gaming on this laptop and I would likely recommend the Core i7 for those applications. The device is also priced very competitively for a premium product at $999, which puts it squarely in MacBook Air territory.
When it came to battery life, Microsoft quoted a battery life of 14 ½ hours, but in my experience, I was getting anywhere from 9 to 10 hours per charge. My battery life was accomplished with web browsing, college applications, Office 365 applications and streaming video. Microsoft’s battery life figures consider video playback in Windows 10 S for the Surface Laptop, which could explain the battery life disparity. I wish the whole industry would come clean on battery life benchmarks as consumers don’t believe them as they’ve been stretched for so long. Apple does a great job explaining battery life under multiple use cases.
Considerations for your specific use case
The Surface Laptop delivered many great experiences, but there are a few features that some may want to consider for their unique use cases.
The Windows 10 S operating system has some plusses and minuses. Windows 10 S is architected to be more secure and deliver a more consistent experience with better battery life, all great things. The tradeoff is that it will not run apps outside of the Windows app store. I use many Microsoft Store apps including Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram and Messenger, and love how it gives me notifications like my smartphone. Many consumers likely won’t miss Windows 10 as they use the included device browser and built-in PDF readers, but I am personally particular with my browser and PDF reader, Google Chrome and Adobe Acrobat. Also, I needed full Windows 10 to run my version of Office 365 that connects to my G Suite back-end as it uses a desktop connector app. I upgraded in the Microsoft Store to full Windows 10 Pro in 10 minutes- quick, easy, and free, until the end of December, until it becomes a $49.99 charge.
I found the Alcantara covered keyboard unique and it felt great, and when I spilled some things on it quickly cleaned up. I wish Microsoft had talked more about its durability as it’s used in car and stylish purse interiors, but if you work in a dirty environment, you need to consider that the deck is a synthetic fabric. Also, because of the seamless design and no visible stitch lines or seams, the laptop itself is held together with a lot of adhesive. While iFixit is in the business of selling repair kits so you must question their motives, they gave the Surface Laptop a reparability score of 0/10. If you plan on getting a Surface Laptop, I would recommend getting the Microsoft Service plan. I personally have seen no frays anywhere and mine has held up great after multiple business trips. Also consider that consumers have no problem buying a $1,000 smartphone with glass fronts and backs and get the additional warranty for that. This is the same deal- if you want to guarantee Alcantera beauty and longevity, you need to pay to keep it beautiful.
Surface Laptop is an exceptional device, but as I have always, said, there are no perfect devices. Microsoft optimized the Surface Laptop for a balanced, premium experience, for today. For the next iteration of the Surface Laptop, I’d like for Microsoft to consider a few minor changes that would make the notebook even better for the future. The first thing that comes to mind to me is that the laptop could use more than one USB port, have at least one Type-C port and have one port support ThunderBolt 3. Standard USB 3.0 is timeless and flawless as is the Surface Dock experience, all things that users today will appreciate today. Thousands of peripherals exist that support that USB-3.0 standard, no dongles required. The future is ThunderBolt over USB-C, enabling a single cable to support power, displays, and high-bandwidth peripherals.
Display-wise, the 2K display is nice, but 3K and 4K are even better if they can achieve the same battery life. Finally, as I’m a wireless, stickler, I’d like to see an LTE option and support for WiFi AC. Our primary research suggests connectivity at college campuses are a top 3 college technology issue.
My own experiences over two weeks with the Surface Laptop were very positive and it is a great device for today’s student and consumer use cases. The Surface Laptop was fast, affordable (as a premium notebook), thin and aesthetically pleasing. Battery life was good, but not the best I’ve seen. The Alcantara material feels great to the touch and I recommend getting the extended warranty if you beat up your laptops like you do your smartphone. All in all, I enjoyed my time with the device and think it will be a great mid-sized notebook to consider, especially for college students and consumers, Microsoft’s primary target market. If you are considering a MacBook, I would also consider the Surface Laptop.