Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 Review

Posted on November 25, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 23 Comments

The original Surface Laptop was the wrong product at the wrong time: It was a me-too product with out-of-date and limited expansion capabilities that was further burdened by the terrible Windows 10 S. And was it released with dual-core processor choices just three months before Intel upgraded the world by moving to quad-cores across the board in its mainstream U-series processors.

No matter. There has always been something special about Surface Laptop, something that is easier to feel than explain. And while those who get a bit too caught up in specifications—or “speeds and feeds,” as industry wonks call it—will always miss the point, those who have actually experienced Surface Laptop get it. This is a PC that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Surface Laptop 2 arrives less than a year and a half after the original Surface Laptop, and given the sometimes glacial pacing over in Redmond, that’s a blink of an eye. So it’s not reasonable to expect—or even want—Surface Laptop 2 to feature a new design. After all, the first one was iconic in its own derivative way—sort of the Whopper to MacBook Air’s Big Mac, if you will—and might even be considered timeless in its own right. There’s no need to mess with success.

But there is a need to mess with distress. And rather than addressing the original Surface Laptop’s key mistake—it’s lackluster expansion capabilities—Microsoft has instead called a mulligan. And that’s kind of inexcusable for a team that prides itself on creating new markets and leading the way.

But does it diminish Surface Laptop 2? To find out, I’ll be reusing a lot of the language from my original Surface Laptop review to find out what’s changed and what hasn’t. For the better. And for the worse.

Design

Despite its derivative looks, Surface Laptop 2 is still one of the most attractive and professional-looking laptops available for purchase. Just as it was last year: Literally, nothing has changed when it comes to this product’s external design.

So it still uses an anodized aluminum unibody construction, which I found to be quite durable and scratch-resistant in the previous generation product. And the keyboard deck is still covered in Alcantara fabric.

This design touch has proven to be controversial. And while there were some initial concerns about its durability or resistance to stains, it has held up well over the past year, and I use Surface Laptop regularly.

I also think it looks and feels great, and that Microsoft should now be acknowledged for leading a push to more natural materials in our digital products. HP has recently followed suit, for example, with its leather-clad Spectre Folio.

That said, many simply don’t like Alcantara. And I feel that this fabric covering should be an optional feature so so that anyone can configure exactly the Surface Laptop 2 they want. (One might make the same argument about the terrible Touch Bar on the high-end MacBook Pros, where it is not possible to configure one without this feature.)

Display

Good news: The excellent 3:2 13.5-inch PixelSense display from the first Surface Laptop carries over to Surface Laptop 2. This stunning panel provides a resolution of 2256 x 1504, or 201 PPI. Which, yes, is lower than the 267 PPI panels found in Surface Book 2 and the new MacBook Air. But still decidedly excellent.

As before, the display is crisp, clear, and vibrant, and ideal for productivity work. It’s also multi-touch capable, should you need that. And it’s compatible with Surface Pen, a pointless feature given that you can’t lay the Surface Laptop 2 display down flat. That said, the hinge mechanism is smooth and supports subtle adjustments.

Components and ports

While first-generation Surface Laptops shipped with dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core processors, Surface Laptop 2 includes more powerful and efficient quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core processors. You won’t see the difference at all in day-to-day usage. But this upgrade pays dividends when you need some extra power—perhaps while editing a video or crunching numbers in a large Excel spreadsheet—or even a bit more battery life.

Surface Laptop 2 needed just over 51 minutes to complete my processor-intensive video encoding test, in which I convert the 4K video Tears of Steel to a high-quality 1080p format. By comparison, most 8th-generation Intel Core-based laptops need over an hour to complete this test. And the dual-core Surface Pro (2017), which is comparable to the first-generation Surface Laptop needed 1:41, which is typical for that type of machine. Even Surface Book 2, with its dedicated graphics, required about an hour.

But you can see how minimal the real-world differences are between the two Surface Laptop generations using PCMark 10. Overall, the scores were nearly identical, with Surface Laptop 2 hitting 3139, while its dual-core predecessor scored 3034. And the first Surface Laptop managed to achieve a higher productivity score, at 5174 than did Surface Laptop 2, with 4642. Put simply, most people won’t see any benefit from the new processor architecture. Which is fine: Day-to-day performance is excellent.

Surface Laptop 2 is about average from a noise and heat perspective. You won’t hear much from the fan unless you’re really pushing the machine, which most people won’t. There’s nothing objectionable to report there.

Connectivity is excellent, though I’m surprised Microsoft still doesn’t offer any LTE capabilities as Surface Laptop 2 would make for an excellent Always-Connected PC. But you’ll find 802.11ac Wi-Fi as before, and Bluetooth 4.1, a small upgrade from the Bluetooth 4.0 LE in the first Surface Laptop. I’m not a big fan of Marvell networking hardware, but connectivity has been error-free; the clearly-visible Wi-Fi antennas on the outside edges of the keyboard deck probably help.

Surface Laptop 2 doesn’t offer a fingerprint reader, which I’d prefer. But its 720p front-facing camera is Windows Hello-compatible, of course.

Sound quality is excellent. Surface Laptop 2 provides surprisingly strong dual speakers, as before, which offer crisp, spatial, and loud audio quality. You’ll have no problem filling a hotel room with sound on road trips.

Expansion remains a sore spot.

Surface Laptop 2 includes a single full-sized USB 3.0 port and an old-fashioned miniDisplayPort for video-out, plus a headphone jack on the left.

On the right, you’ll find Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port, which magnetically connects the laptop to power or, optionally, a Surface Dock.

Ah boy.

Microsoft’s tone-deaf stance on the modern expansion capabilities of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 was indefensible in 2017, but it’s downright laughable today. And it’s a real black mark for an otherwise special laptop.

To be clear, this isn’t just about USB-C, though had Microsoft replaced miniDisplayPort with USB-C, as it did previously with Surface Book 2, it would have given users more options as USB-C could be used for power and external storage (and other peripherals) in addition to video-out. But by continuing to ignore the far more powerful Thunderbolt 3, Microsoft is doing wrong by the power users and business professionals who would normally embrace this premium PC line. When it comes to expansion, Surface Laptop isn’t just behind the times. It’s downright old-fashioned.

Last year, I made the case that having a single USB port never really impacted me while using Surface Laptop 2 out in the world. But with every other PC maker embracing both USB-C and Thunderbolt and almost always providing both legacy and more modern ports, the excuse is wearing thin. Instead of arguing that Surface Laptop 2 meets my needs, I should be delighted by the fact that it has no limitations at all. And can exceed my current expectations. Sadly, that is not the case.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Microsoft has long delivered one of the best PC typing experiences and Surface Laptop 2 continues this tradition. Its backlit, plastic island-style keys provide a nearly ideal key throw and do so without any of the loudness of Apple’s latest MacBook keyboards.

Microsoft’s excellent Precision Touchpad is likewise best-in-breed, at least on the PC side of the fence; I think you could make a good argument for Apple retaining its title overall thanks to the strength of the Force Touch trackpad it now uses in modern MacBooks. But the Surface Laptop 2 touchpad is just the right size, and it performs quite well, with minimal mis-clicks.

Like its predecessor, Surface Laptop 2 is compatible with Surface Pen. This functionality is likely just a vestigial benefit of Microsoft using the same display supplier across its PCs. But it’s of little to no use on a traditional laptop whose display can’t even lay flat. So I ignored this as will all Surface Laptop 2 owners.

This is as far back as the display goes

Portability

Weighing in at about 2.8 pounds—yes, it’s identical to its predecessor—Surface Laptop 2 is an ideal travel companion. It is both thin and light.

It also delivers on longevity, thanks to an epic 14+ hours of battery life on my HD video streaming over Wi-Fi tests. In fact, that is exactly 1 hour longer than the battery life achieved by its predecessor. Overall, Surface Laptop 2 has delivered an average of almost 10.5 hours of real-world battery life.

Software

Where the original Surface Laptop was burdened by the nonsensical Windows 10 S, Microsoft has since returned to its senses and has put that nonsense on the backburner where it belongs. So Surface Laptop 2 comes with the far more reasonable Windows 10 Home in its consumer configurations, and with Windows 10 Pro for businesses. Sanity prevails.

Of course, Surface Laptop does come with a lot of Windows 10 crapware …

Beyond that, Surface Laptop 2 is about as clean as any Windows 10 PC can be. Microsoft, as you may know, still bundles a ton of useless crapware with Windows 10, and it’s all there in Surface Laptop 2. The good news? You can remove the truly terrible stuff.

… but you can at least uninstall all of it

Pricing and configurations

Surface Laptop 2 starts at the same $999 price point at its predecessor. But this year’s entry-level configuration is a significant step-up from the first generation’s.

In 2017, $999 would have bought you a Surface Laptop with 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB of storage, and your choice of color, as long as that color was Platinum and you didn’t want the Alcantara.

This year, $1000 buys you a Surface Laptop 2 with a more powerful quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB of storage, and your choice of Platinum, Burgundy, and Cobalt Blue colors. And each comes with Alcantara.

That’s excellent news, especially for those who felt that they were priced out of the Surface product. The problem comes when you try to upgrade past that base configuration. Because unlike other PC makers, Microsoft doesn’t let you arbitrarily upgrade some individual components. You can get extra storage, for example, but you can’t just get extra RAM.

To get a Surface Laptop 2 with 16 GB of RAM, you also need to upgrade the processor to a Core i7 and the storage to 512 GB for an astonishing total cost of $2200. Even Apple lets you perform just this RAM upgrade on the new MacBook Air for only $200.

You can upgrade from 128 GB of storage to 256 GB of storage, but it costs $300, not $200, the price Apple charges for that upgrade. Looking to add just a Core i7 to that? Or just an upgrade to 256 GB of storage? Nope. Neither is possible.

As bad, the bold new black color—which replaces the gorgeous Graphite Gold color from last year—is only available at the $1300 price point, which includes a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage. I guess style has its cost.

Given all this, my preferred configuration has changed from last year, and I wouldn’t personally upgrade past the Surface Laptop 2 base configuration. $300 is far too much to ask for 256 GB of storage.

Recommendations and conclusions

As with the first-generation version, Surface Laptop 2 makes a compelling emotional case despite its me-too design and dated expansion options: Your heart will scream yes even as your logical brain cries no.

That I still love Surface Laptop 2 says a lot about the nature of attraction. I review dozens of laptops each year, and I’ve been doing so for about 18 years. And I could rattle off a half dozen reasons why neither you nor I should even consider buying Surface Laptop. Yet I find myself drawn to it, just as I was with the first version.

Not convinced? Here’s something I’ll offer up for the logical half of your brain: I often argue that tech products should be “optimized for the every day, not for the occasional.” And that’s exactly what Microsoft did with Surface Laptop 2. So while we may complain about a few specifics—like expansion, seriously, Microsoft—the overall package here is a huge success.

Surface Laptop 2 is highly recommended. Despite a few quirks, you’re going to love it.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Classic design
  • Color choices
  • Best-in-class display
  • Excellent keyboard and touchpad
  • Excellent battery life
  • Reasonable pricing, at least for the entry-level model

Cons

  • No USB-C/Thunderbolt 3
  • Only one USB port
  • miniDisplayPort is out of date, will require dongle
  • Alcantara should be optional
  • Upgrades are too expensive

 

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