Microsoft Surface Laptop Review: When the Heart Rules the Mind

Posted on December 16, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 101 Comments

Microsoft Surface Laptop Review: When the Heart Rules the Mind

Released mid-year, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop is one of the most attractive and desirable portable PCs of 2017 despite its dated and minimal expansion and lack of 2-in-1 or even lay-flat capabilities.

Viewed within the context of Microsoft’s stated goals for its Surface lineup—which is to create new product categories—the Surface Laptop seems to come up short. It’s just a traditional laptop, after all, and doesn’t offer any 2-in-1 capabilities, as with all other Surface products.

But Surface Laptop is a paradox. The innovation here, which I feel will be very compelling for many users, is the design. Surface Laptop is gorgeous to look at, pleasant to the touch, and a joy to use. So let’s start there.

Design

Thin and light, Surface Laptop cuts a dashing and professional figure that I feel has cross-generational and cross-market appeal. And this is somewhat unique: Surface Laptop should find eager customers among both men and women, with professionals and students, and with the young and the old.

The general design is, of course, familiar. Surface Laptop, like every Ultrabook that’s shipped in the wake of Apple’s MacBook Air, is your basic traditional laptop in how it looks and how you’ll use it.

Surface Laptop is thinner, lighter, and smaller than MacBook Air

At roughly 2.8 pounds, Surface Laptop is lighter than the 3-pound MacBook Air. It’s also thinner, at .57 inches, compared to .68 for the Mac. That said, several PC Ultrabooks best Surface Laptop in each category. The new HP Spectre 13, for example, weighs just 2.45 pounds and is .41 inches thin.

So, what really sets it apart?

First, most Surface Laptop models are available in four color choices—Platinum, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Graphite Gold—a unique differentiator over competing products.

The review unit is an elegant Graphite Gold color

To achieve this feat, Microsoft switched from the magnesium material it uses with other portable Surface products to aluminum, which can be more easily anodized to create a colored seal. Yes, that coating can be scratched off, revealing the silver aluminum underneath. But in a month or so of normal usage around my home—I haven’t yet traveled with Surface Laptop, unfortunately—I see only one minor scratch, on a back corner near the hinge.

Microsoft also covers the keyboard deck in an even more unique Alcantara fabric. The firm also uses this material on some Surface Pro Type Covers, and while there were some initial concerns about its durability or resistance to stains, it has held up well so far on those devices.

More to the point, it looks great in each color choice—Microsoft color-matches the Alcantara fabric (like the keyboard and touchpad) to the body color—and feels great on your hands. It’s not a thick fabric, like a rug, but is rather a thin, pleasant-feeling material. As is common in today’s quick-to-criticize world, many will scoff at the need or desirability of such an addition. But I love it. You need to experience it in person and see and touch it for yourself.

Beyond this, there are thoughtful and attractive design touches throughout Surface Laptop. I often complain about the sharp and painful edges of many computers, especially portable Macs, but Microsoft handles the edges on Surface Laptop—especially where the Alcantara meets the keyboard deck ends—in a way that feels right and is not painful. In contrast, the display lid has a laser-like hard edge that looks like it came straight off an Apple product. It gives the device a nice professional look and does so in a place where it won’t hurt your hands as you use the device.

The hinge design is nice, too, and different—and much less complex—than that of Surface Book 2. It provides for a smooth, single-handed opening motion that is quite pleasant.

Of course, the unique Surface Laptop design also comes with some downsides. The key one being that the device is not particularly serviceable because the Alcantara fabric is securely glued to the device. Point being, if you need repairs, you’re probably going to get a refurbished replacement instead. Also, the display cannot lay flat, which is a curious deficiency.

That's as far back as it goes

Display

On the face of things, Surface Laptop seems like a thinner, lighter, and more elegant Surface Book, which is also a 13.5-inch laptop. But there are subtle differences between the components used in each device. And the Surface Laptop display, curiously, is not the same as the unit used in Surface Book (or the more recent Surface Book 2).

Yes, they are both 13.5-inch PixelSense displays with the 3:2 aspect ratio that I find ideal. Both are protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3, too. But “PixelSense” is just a marketing term—yes, just like Apple’s “Retina”—that doesn’t mean a specific resolution; it refers instead to the fact that the display offers a very high pixel count, or pixels-per-inch (PPI). The Surface Book 2 display, like its predecessor, provides a resolution of 3000 x 2000, or 267 PPI. But Surface Laptop is “just” 2256 x 1504, or 201 PPI.

This is very much not an issue. In fact, were I simply not aware of the resolution difference between the two devices, I would never have questioned that they were identical. The display is crisp, clear, and vibrant, and ideal for productivity work. The only possible complaint I could raise is that the taller 3:2 aspect ratio could make it a bit more awkward to use in cramped coach seat on a plane. (Were Surface Laptop a convertible, you could simply use it like a tablet in such situations.) I still prefer it.

The Surface Laptop display is also multi-touch capable and compatible with Surface Pen, Microsoft’s high-performance smart pen. The former capability is a requirement for any modern portable PC, I think, and it works as expected. But Surface Pen compatibility is a throwaway feature: No one will ever use a Surface Pen on a device whose screen cannot lay flat. It’s a non-starter.

Components and ports

Released in mid-2017, Surface Laptop ships with internal components that were common in mainstream portable PCs of that not-so-long-ago day. Which is to say, dual-core 7th-generation Core i5 and Core i7 U-series processors, 4, 8 or 16 GB of RAM, and 128 GB to 1 TB of speedy solid-state storage. (The review unit features a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage.)

Unfortunately for Microsoft, 2017 has been an unusual year for PC processors, and Intel did something unexpected when it released its 8th-generation Core processors in the Fall: It doubled the core count, from two to four, on the U-series chips, dramatically improving performance without really impacting battery life.

So Surface Laptop is disadvantaged, on paper, by this curiosity of timing: It features a less capable dual-core CPU. But this hasn’t been an issue in real-world use, and if performance was your primary concern, you were going to buy a Surface Book 2 or other portable workstation anyway. Surface Laptop performance, in productivity apps like Microsoft Word and Excel, and even in mainstream (non-3D) games like Cuphead, has been excellent.

Surface Laptop (top) is less capable than Surface Book 2, but it’s much more portable

Surface Laptop also doesn’t generate much noise or heat, though the familiar Surface fan noise—a cobra-like hissing sound—does kick in from time to time. I’m very sensitive to this kind of noise, but I never found Surface Laptop unpleasant to use.

Surface Laptop provides acceptable but not quite leading-edge connectivity options—802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE—and the Wi-Fi antennas are clearly visible on the outside edges of the keyboard deck to help avoid interference. The 720p front-facing camera is Windows Hello-compatible, of course.

Sound quality from the Surface Laptop’s dual speakers is surprisingly strong, which is especially impressive when you realize that they’re under the keyboard: Whether watching a movie, playing a game, or streaming music from Google Play Music, I was impressed by the crisp, spatial, and loud audio quality. In fact, they sound considerably better than the newer Surface Book 2’s speakers, which is surprising.

Expansion is less ideal. Surface Laptop inexplicably comes with only a single full-sized USB 3.0 port, plus a miniDisplayPort port for video-out, a combo mic/headphone jack, and a magnetic Surface Connect port for power (and, optionally, further expansion via a Surface Dock).

I’ve complained many times about Microsoft’s tone-deaf stance on the modern expansion capabilities of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. But I need to do it again. Yes, the typical Surface Laptop customer will suffer more from the single USB port than they will from a lack of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. But while few need to drive multiple 4K displays, a Thunderbolt 3-based external dock with GPU could turn Surface Laptop into a real gaming laptop, among other capabilities, and it would further future-proof the device. It’s a missed opportunity.

On the good news front, the headphone jack is in the correct location—near the bottom of the device—unlike with Surface Book 2, where it is inexplicably and awkwardly up by the top of the display.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Speaking of Surface Book 2, Microsoft’s larger laptop has always delivered what I feel is the single best typing experience of any portable PC. And Surface Laptop is very similar: The keys are plastic, as they are on Surface Book 2, but the typing feel and 1.5 mm key pitch are both ideal. The keyboard isn’t loud, like that of the MacBook Pro, but instead provides just the right amount of audible feedback.

The glass touchpad is likewise a success story and a joy to use (as, again, it is on Surface Book 2). It’s not too large or wide, as is the case on many competing products, but is instead right-sized to my preferences. It also performs well, and utilizes Microsoft’s excellent Precision Touchpad technologies to deliver a wide range of capabilities, including multiple, customizable gestures.

As noted previous, Surface Laptop is compatible with Surface Pen. But because that usage makes no sense on this device, I did not test that.

Battery

Surface Laptop surprised me in a very pleasant way when it came to battery life. In fact, I was so sure something was amiss that I checked to make sure I had configured it properly and then ran the test again. Nope, it was correct: Surface Laptop delivered over 13 hours of battery life each time while streaming HD video over Wi-Fi.

How impressive is this result? The larger and dual-battery-equipped Surface Book with Performance Base had previously delivered the best battery life I’d seen in 2017, at 11:30. The previous second-place finisher, the Lenovo ThinkPad 25th Anniversary Edition, which also features dual batteries, clocked in at 9 hours.

I have several more PCs to test before the end of the year. But as of today, Surface Laptop has delivered the best battery life that I’ve measured in 2017.

On a side note, I will address an obvious if mistaken complaint about this kind of battery test—that it “bears no relation to how people actually use computers.” That is untrue. This is very much how people use computers, and the only time most would need this kind of battery life is while flying great distances. I skew the test by streaming the video over Wi-Fi, and not using local playback, and I feel that this is a nice compromise between an artificial benchmark and non-measurable real-world use.

Software

Controversially, Surface Laptop comes with Windows 10 S, Microsoft’s artificially limited OS. The good news is that you can upgrade quickly and easily to Windows 10 Pro, and that you can do so for free. I expect virtually all Surface Laptop customers to perform this upgrade because they will not otherwise be able to run Windows desktop applications—Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop, and the like—or install third-party drivers for scanners, printers, and other peripherals. Even Microsoft’s own Surface Precision Mouse will not work completely on Windows 10 S because its configuration software is desktop-based.

With an eye towards taking one for the team, I tried to use Windows 10 S, I really did. But it is a complete non-starter, and after a few weeks of (virtually) hitting my head against the wall, I finally did what all Surface Laptop users will do and gave up, upgrading to the far more capable Windows 10 Pro.

Beyond the curious operating system choice, Surface Laptop is about as clean as any Windows 10 PC can be; Microsoft, as you may know, bundles a ton of useless crap in all versions of Windows 10, so Surface Laptop does include that, but you can at least remove the truly objectionable stuff.

Pricing and configurations

Microsoft offers five Surface Laptop models, three of which are available in multiple color choices.

The entry-level model, which features a Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of solid-state storage, costs only $999. But it is also available only in a single color, Platinum, which looks similar to other Surface PCs. You should avoid this model: Aside from the lack of color choices, which I feel is a key benefit of Surface Laptop, 4 GB of RAM is simply not enough to future-proof this purchase. Whatever your needs, be sure to get a PC with at least 8 GB of RAM. It’s 2017, and any new PC should last at least 4-5 years.

If you can afford $300 more, you will get a lot more: The same Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of storage, and your choice of colors, which include Platinum, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Graphite Gold. $1299 puts this PC firmly in the premium category, of course, and not everyone can afford such a purchase. But at this trim level, Surface Laptop will be far more future-proof and more able to withstand the demands of the next several years. This is the model I reviewed, and the one I would buy with my own money.

Microsoft also offers three Surface Laptop models that are based on the Intel Core i7 processor. But I don’t feel they’re worth the added expensive. For example, the $1599 model provides the same specs and color choices as the $1299 model, aside from the Core i7 processor, which also comes with Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 integrated graphics. That’s a lot of money to pay for such a minor upgrade.

For $2199, you get 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage, and those same color choices. But the highest-end model, which features 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage at a cost of $2699, only comes in Platinum. Strange.

In my view, the $1299 model is the sweet spot of the Surface Laptop model lineup: You get enough RAM and storage for several years of active duty, and a choice of colors, which I feel is critical. This model easily justifies the additional $300. But the step up to a Core i7 processor and slightly better integrated graphics does not. Stick with the $1299 version.

Recommendations and conclusions

What’s interesting about Surface Laptop is that its appeal falls firmly on the emotional side of the decision-making curve: You will buy this device because of its stunning design, which manages to be both pretty and professional looking. And not for its components, which are nothing special, with a previous-generation and dual-core CPU and lackluster expansion.

But that’s what makes Surface Laptop special. I often hammer on Microsoft for its backwards view on device expansion, and yet I love this laptop. Surface Laptop is, well, just a laptop. And yet it is so much more. It will draw jealous comments from others, especially Mac users. It will make you feel good, carrying it, and using it, and even when it is just sitting on the table, inert.

This is a product I wish to use every day, and in instead of PCs that offer superior components and are, on paper, better values. But there is no value quite like attraction. And Surface Laptop is one of the few PCs I’ve used that triggers a truly emotional response.

Surface Laptop is highly recommended. You’re going to love it.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Sleek, gorgeous design
  • Color choices
  • Alcantara fabric
  • Excellent display
  • Excellent keyboard and touchpad
  • Excellent battery life
  • Surprisingly strong speakers

Cons

  • Minimal and dated expansion
  • Can’t lay flat
  • Windows 10 S

 

Tagged with

Elevate the Conversation!

Join Thurrott Premium to enjoy our Premium comments.

Premium member comments on news posts will feature an elevated status that increases their visibility. This tab would allow you to participate in Premium comments with other premium members. Register to join the other Premium members in elevating the conversation!

Register or Subscribe

Join the discussion!

BECOME A THURROTT MEMBER:

Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Register