Microsoft Surface Laptop Second Impressions

Posted on November 15, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Microsoft Surface with 32 Comments

Microsoft Surface Laptop Second Impressions

Back in June, I had my first several days of hands-on experience with Microsoft’s elegant Surface Laptop. Today, I’m finally ready to continue that relationship.

Yes, I’m more than a bit behind on this one. Sorry about that. But now that I have a new Surface Laptop—in a gorgeous and professional-looking graphite gold color—in for a long-term review, I’ll do right by it.

You know the basics: Microsoft announced Surface Laptop back in May and it began shipping the device to the first customers in June. The hardware design itself is not particularly controversial, but the inclusion of Windows 10 S on this device certainly is. So let’s start with the hardware.

Which is undeniably beautiful.

Surface Laptop is available in four color choices: Platinum, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Graphite Gold. Unlike other portable Surface devices, which are made from magnesium, Surface Laptop is made from anodized aluminum, which is what allows for these color choices. That’s the first differentiator.

The second is the Alcantara material that is applied to the surface of the keyboard deck. The long-term durability of this material remains an open question, and there are many debates online about whether Alcantara is even a luxury material or not. But I find this material to be attractive and nice to the touch, and as was the case with the Burgundy version I tested over the summer, the color matching between the Alcantara material, the keyboard keys, and the Surface Laptop body is excellent, with just the right amount of contrast.

Many have derided Microsoft for even making a laptop, which makes sense on a few levels. Microsoft has always pushed its ability to define new market categories, and laptops have literally been around for decades. But the central differentiator here is literally beauty. The combination of the unusual colors and the Alcantara covering isn’t just unique, it’s attractive. And it really helps set Surface Laptop apart from the competition. It is, I think, why most people would choose to buy this device over something else.

Surface Laptop occupies a new place in the Surface lineup between the larger and bulkier (and, now, far more powerful) Surface Book and the smaller, tablet-based Surface Pro. I previously noted that the Surface Pro is arguably the better device, in that it is better established, offers more choice, and is more versatile. But Surface Laptop is a more familiar and well-understood form factor. And that design. It’s hard to look away.

Like the MacBook Air and most PC-based Ultrabooks, the Surface Laptop is thin and light. But it is minimalist even by Apple standards with just a single full-sized USB 3.0 port, plus miniDisplayPort for video-out and Surface Connect for power. And a headphone jack, which is in a good location, unlike, say, on Surface Book.

The lack of expansion is going to be a non-starter for many, and I’ve certainly levied my share of criticism at the general expansion stinginess of most Surface devices. But looking at how I really use PCs when traveling or around the house, the truth is, this kind of limitation is rarely an issue. Would I like to see one more USB port? Obviously. But I rarely need to use two at once, and I do travel with a USB dock that includes an Ethernet port for those exceptional circumstances.

Put simply, this is a beautiful laptop. Just gorgeous.

Windows 10 S, alas, is a different story.

As I wrote shortly after the Surface Laptop announcement, this device is arguably the most important hardware product that Microsoft has ever released. And the reason is—wait for it—Windows 10 S. In this system, I see the future of Windows as a platform. A simpler, safer, and more consistently reliable Windows.

That is the future. Today, Windows 10 is frustrating to use. And I’ve probably written enough about that. Suffice to say that I’ll give it a shot for as long as I can. And then I’ll surely do what I advise actual Surface Laptop owners to do and just upgrade to Windows 10 Pro while it’s free.

Surface Laptop starts at $999, but that version is a bit stripped down with Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of solid-state storage. The review model, with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, is the sweet spot, at $1299. It’s the one I would buy with my own money.

Looking ahead, I will put Surface Laptop through the paces and see how well it matches up to Surface Pro and, if possible, the new Surface Book 2, which will be available soon. And then I’ll report back with a full review.


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Comments (32)

32 responses to “Microsoft Surface Laptop Second Impressions”

  1. JacobTheDev

    Been using a Surface Laptop since its launch in June, and I still love it. It's an amazing ultrabook, I don't regret the purchase in the slightest.

    • ErichK

      In reply to Jacob-Bearce:

      How's your experience with Windows 10 S, or did you upgrade to Pro?

    • cyloncat

      In reply to Jacob-Bearce:

      I've also had a Surface Laptop since June, and still love it. Windows 10 S was not an option for me, as the first apps I install on a new machine are SQL Server and Visual Studio. I upgraded to Pro before leaving the MS store. Wear and dirt on the Alcantara fabric is not an issue for me, as I don't rest my hands there - I'm an old pianist, and decades of habit keep my wrists elevated.

  2. hrlngrv

    It is, I think, why most people would choose to buy this device over something else.

    That'll have an objective gauge: sales. How's it doing so far, now that it's hit 6 months from debut?

    I like the 3:2 screen, but I don't like the keyboard layout.

  3. Ulf Tjerneld

    I like it. But it is sad to see some of the really angry comments here. Come on, it's just a computer!

    Besides, if you prefer some darn old version of Windows, Linux or whatever that's is not Win 10, this column is not for you!

  4. dhallman

    Why is it that only Apple designers know that a light colored laptop should have a matching bezel? And light colored phones should have a white bezel? (iPhone X being the exception). How much better looking would this laptop be with a bezel that matched the keys?

  5. zicoz

    If only they upgraded it to 8th gen CPU.....

  6. Bdsrev

    I have a Surface Laptop. It's beautiful and very high quality, but the default recommended 150% system scaling is laughable. My sister is an Optometrist and when I showed her that, she just shook her head. I use 175% system scaling and Chrome (Edge has some issues with 175% system scaling) and it's just a great experience. It's not *perfect* but it's great

  7. chrisrut

    I've been wanting to upgrade my Dell last-gen-pre-touch i7 Ultrabook for a while now but so far nothing has pushed me over the edge: the allure of "what's next" has offset the urge to click "pay-now" until... OK, This device tempts me; I'm a sucker for a pretty face. But after due consideration I concluded that one item on my "wish-list" is in fact, non-negotiable: "always connected" operation.

    Y'know, I think I'll be buying that next laptop quite soon.

  8. trevor_chdwck

    @Paul, you may want to update the line "Today, Windows 10 is frustrating to use." to "Today, Windows 10 S is frustrating to use". This clarification is important because full Windows 10 is a pleasure to use.

  9. eeisner

    the laptop looks gorgeous. I was very tempted to pick one up at launch, but couldn't justify it. But I will probably pick up a gen-2, if MS every releases one, to replace my Surface Book. I definitely will value the portability and, hopefully, minimal problems with a more traditional form factor over the huge amount of problems I've had with my Surface Book due to the detaching screen. I found a lot of value in the detaching screen when I was using Photoshop frequently for work, but now that I spend most of my time in Excel, it's fairly useless for me.

    I wonder how long MS will keep the Win10 Pro upgrade free, and how that alcantara will hold up. I also hope Panos gets smart enough to add true USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 in the Laptop upgrade.

  10. valisystem

    There's one more consideration for a consumer standing in the (virtual) store holding $1,299. On the shelf next to the Surface Laptop, there's the HP Spectre X360, Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, and Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Yoga. At that price, each one is equally gorgeous, each one comes with Windows 10 Pro, each one has specs similar to the Surface Laptop, and each one has a screen that can be folded back to use as a tablet or to display movies in tent mode on an airplane tray table. I can't figure out why a fully informed shopper would reach for the Surface Laptop. It's quite nice but it's not competitive at the price.

    • Jeffery Commaroto

      In reply to valisystem:

      Agreed I would pick any of the three you mentioned over the Surface Laptop any day of the week. All three are often available on sale throughout the year in configurations and price points that make it a no-brainer.

      I have a perfectly good laptop now but every time I pick up an XPS 13 in store I start making lists to try and justify the purchase. I still can't but the second I can that is likely where I am headed.

  11. MikeGalos

    Of course the thing about Windows 10 S is that any time you need features not in Windows 10 S you can upgrade to Windows 10 easily and cheaply with no loss of data or settings or installed apps.

    Let's see how that works for somebody wanting to upgrade their iPad Pro from iOS to macOS.

    Let's see how that works for somebody wanting to upgrade their Chromebook to a full operating system from Google.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to MikeGalos:

      Re Chromebook to Linux, since /home is on its own separate partition, as long as one remembers to save the encryption keys, shouldn't be a big deal. You seem to have no experience with non-Windows partition management.

      • MikeGalos

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        I said "upgrade ... with no loss of data or settings or installed apps." You know a way to upgrade a Chromebook to Linux and achieve that?

        How about "upgrade" an existing OS by using a separate partition. How's that work?

        Throwing out the exiting OS and installing a new one is not what you do with Windows 10 S to Windows 10. If you think it is, you missed the whole point.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to MikeGalos:

          Assuming you mean Chromebooks in standard mode, those would only have Chrome apps and perhaps a handful of utilities either from the Chrome app store or the Chromebook's OEM. All data files would be either under /home, which is on a separate partition from the kernel (/boot has its own partition) and rootfs (/ also has its own partition), or removable media which would perforce be on separate partitions as well.

          As long as one didn't blow away the /home partition or lose the encryption keys, one could replace everything on the kernel and rootfs partitions (and the secondary ones Chrome OS uses for updates) with a Linux distribution using Chromium as the default browser, modify /etc/fstab to mount the existing /home partition and add Chrome OS user accounts under Linux with the same passwords, log in with the same user accounts, then ALL DATA FILES AND CHROME APPS will still be available under Linux.

          OTOH, Chrome OS utilities would be replaced by more comprehensive Linux ones. Dunno about OEM utilities. If you kept the separate partition in which they should be stored, they might still work.

          Have I tried doing this? No. Would it be tedious? Probably, since it would likely require replacing the boot loader, and that's always tedious. But once the formerly Chrome OS machine's internal drive had a new boot loader and had been carefully repartitioned, sparing /home, most Linux distributions' installation processes make it easy to tell the new Linux system to use the existing /home partition, though it'd be necessary to identify it by /dev/[hs]d[a-z][0-9]+ and use /home as the mount point.

          You really don't know how current day Linux installation works, do you?

          FWIW, I've upgraded from Linux Mint Qiana (17) to Rachel (17.1) to Rosa (17.3) to Serena (18.1) via repartitioning and full reinstallation on the same machine, using the same /home partition throughout, and using Synaptic to backup and restore packages. I finally got lazy and used Mint Update to upgrade to Sonya (18.2). It really ain't that hard.

          Read Linux's Filesystem Hierarchy Standard. It may give you an idea about what's possible, what's wise, and what's reusable across Linux version/distribution replacements.

          Finally, I understand switching Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro is little more than changing a few registry settings. OTOH, reverting from Windows 10 Pro to Windows 10 S is more like Chrome OS's Powerwash, no?

    • Winner

      In reply to MikeGalos:

      So user friendly - "we'll give you a crippled OS that you have to go through an extra step to make fully functional"

      • trevor_chdwck

        In reply to Winner:

        Microsofts' message is: We gave you a safer, simpler, and more consistent OS, but locked away some content that could impact safety, simplicity or OS consistency, that said, we give you a free path to all content if you end up needing it. - There is nothing wrong with this, and you really should get over the "crippled OS" thing, it's a locked down OS like many, many PCs in the Enterprise Environment so that employees get a consistent and dependable experience, now brought to you by Microsoft and Windows 10S.

        • Winner

          In reply to trevor_chdwck:

          That's great in theory. But in reality Microsoft desperately WANTS to move to this model but it's OS and ecosystem is not there. So while they want to save their OS and make it modern, their customers aren't having it. The reality is that it is barely functional with much software if you use it as-is. And that's customer unfriendly.

      • Mestiphal

        In reply to Winner:

        and pay premium price for it

  12. pesos

    I'm curious how the alcantara holds up for you. I bought the new surface keyboard to replace my old surface erg keyboard (and get rid of the usb dongle it requires) but had to return the keyboard after 6 weeks as it had stained horribly where my right wrist rested - it uses the same material as the surface laptop. I guess my left wrist isn't as oily :-) This seems to be a common problem according to google...

  13. Winner

    Let's see:

    • Totally glued together, no repair or upgrade possibilities, no battery replacement
    • Hobbled OS
    • Cloth surface, guaranteed to stain and discolor with hand sweat/oils over time
    • Surface brand of devices shown as "not recommended" by CR due to low reliability

    I'll pass, big time.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to Winner:

      The fabric keyboard remains an open question. OTOH, glued together is a defect the Surface laptop shares with several other ultrabooks from several OEMs, so par for the course.

      From my perspective, the power connector uses up too much space which could have been used to provide at least one more USB port. Also, for someone who uses spreadsheets for much of the day every workday, needing to share the same keys for Home/End/PgUp/PgDn with [F9]..[F12] would be a royal PITA. For me, all the Surface keyboards have very inefficient layouts.

    • MutualCore

      In reply to Winner:

      Agreed. You have to be insane at this point to buy anything from Micro$oft.

  14. seapea

    I consider the msLaptop to be premium priced and for all premium priced laptops I feel that if the on device USB ports is going to be limited to one than a dock adapter should be included in the box.

    • MikeGalos

      In reply to seapea:

      That is kind of like saying that a Ferrari should come with a trailer because it doesn't have as much storage space as an old Ford Country Squire station wagon.

      The premium space is about quality and ability to do the target tasks. Any premium device should be optimized to be the best at what it's designed to do. And optimization always means trade-offs. In any product.

  15. MacLiam

    There is no question about the attractiveness of this model, but from a utilitarian viewpoint I don't understand who makes up the target market. The Book can function as a laptop while offering more power and additional configuration options -- though at the cost of increased bulkiness. The Surface Pro is more compact and an easier traveling device with no real penalty in power if you insist on comparable specs; the possible negative is that you'd need a dock or USB multiplier if you were going to hang things off it.

    I remember at the Laptop's release there were predictions that this would become the best-selling Surface model. Reliable production and sales stats are of course not available, but there have been usage reports that suggest it is not performing up to expectations. Whatever its inherent good qualities, it feels like a niche product whose niche is maybe a little smaller than the company hoped it would be.

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