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The original Surface Laptop was the wrong product at the wrong time: It was a me-too product with out-of-date and limited expansion capabilities that was further burdened by the terrible Windows 10 S. And was it released with dual-core processor choices just three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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Comments (26)

26 responses to “Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 Review”

  1. Avatar

    jaredthegeek

    I really want to like this laptop but the lack of USB C is crazy. I can forgive the lack of Thunderbolt USB C on laptops half this price like the Vivobook but not at this price point.

  2. Avatar

    Mike Widrick

    I think the loss of Windows S is bad, because that was really a 'free' copy of Windows Pro. Now, for those of us who require RDP or encryption, it's an added cost. Same as a price increase, really.


    Related, I think MS has too much on their plate to have those different skus for consumers in a market that isn't growing. It has outlived its usefulness in an era of free OS updates and perpetual Windows 10. Maybe start charging extra for no ads or preinstalled apps, like amazon and some OEMs?

  3. Avatar

    jdjan

    Nice review. I picked up the i5/256/8gb configuration from the Microsoft store Black Friday sale and it made the whole thing a lot more palatable at $999. So far so good, but I do lament the omission of USB-C even though I don't use it much. For a laptop that would otherwise be good for my needs for 3-4 years I see this being an increasing point of frustration as I acquire more and more USB-C peripherals and devices. Even Surface Go has it.

  4. Avatar

    MikeGalos

    Nice to see the port issue finally being properly labeled as Thunderbolt 3 rather than the misleading talk about Type C connector versus Type A connector.


    Since Thunderbolt is optional with a Type C connector people mistakenly think having the flippable Type C connector gives them the optional capabilities especially with the USB Consortium not requiring labeling of optional protocols. This has been making growth of more advanced USB devices difficult as mismatched options in hubs, extenders and devices make the optional protocols not work causing frustration and a sense of unreliability of the newer designs.


    Let's be honest. People look for the connector shape and don't read the fine print on the 3rd page of the full technical specs to learn what will and won't work together.


  5. Avatar

    joeaxberg

    I bought one and returned it. I've never felt that special something about any Surface computer. I tried all three: Surface Book when it came out. Surface Pro last year. Surface Laptop earlier this year. They all seemed "gimmicky" to me. The weirdo hinge on the Book, the flimsy keyboard and horrendous trackpad of the Pro, and the just general "meh" I felt about the Laptop (Windows 10S didn't help and I had a disastrous experience trying to upgrade it to Win 10 Pro).


  6. Avatar

    remc86007

    "You won’t see the difference at all in day-to-day usage."


    Uh, what? Am I the only one that can instantly tell whether I'm on a dual core or quad core just by loading a website like thurott.com? My quad core desktop computer spikes up to 70% usage just loading the page. The time before you can scroll on a webpage is noticeably longer on dual core systems, especially if anything else is going on like syncing onedrive or streaming music.

  7. Avatar

    wright_is

    A proper dock is important. I wouldn't buy a laptop these days that didn't have Thunderbolt 3 - my laptop spends 95% of its time docked.

  8. Avatar

    Tony Barrett

    Microsoft still treading the upper realms of plausibility with a device that looks ok, but has some glaring omissions in what is (almost) 2019, and is still way too expensive. Sure, they've carved themselves a niche with Surface, but it will only ever be that by the looks of it, a niche. If I was to spend this much on a laptop (and I wouldn't), I'd expect more - a lot more, and it had better be user up-gradable too.

  9. Avatar

    SYNERDATA

    It never made sense to me that they did not give this a 360 degree hinge so that the pen and touch display are practical to use where it seems there is no good reason for a laptop to not be able to fold back into a tablet mode up now.

  10. Avatar

    harmjr

    For an outdated laptop it's over priced. And does not deserve the premium device name. Stop following Apples game.

    • Avatar

      jimchamplin

      In reply to harmjr:

      Apple’s game used to be high quality hardware for a comparable price, making their products a good value.


      Then OMG THIN AND SMALL became their thing, and more recently OMG EVEN HIGHER MARGINS. Now it’s actually overpriced, and they still won’t include discrete graphics except on the highest end machines.

    • Avatar

      CrownSeven

      In reply to harmjr:

      Spoken like an entitled apple fan boy. Unless you’re referring to the apple line up that is.

      • Avatar

        harmjr

        In reply to CrownSeven:

        OMG HA! Them be fighting words. I have just been called an apple fan boy. Never! Apple products are for those people who need a fisher price tech gadgets. Microsoft needs to get back to innovating. This is just a laptop with a carpet keyboard.


        No finger print reader, No USB C, and a whopping 128 gb that is so 2016. Today it should have all that plus two USB C on each side of the device that can charge the device. It should have a removable hard drive a replaceable battery. LTE standard. And yes it can still have the surface connect too. Its like they took a Ferrari body and slapped it on a Ford focus.


  11. Avatar

    MacLiam

    I agree completely with the "something special" feel of the Surface LT. It feels good to work on and looks good when you're just staring at it in between work bursts. There's something really confident and appealing about this minimalist design when competitors are going for gold and chrome accents. I got a blue i5/8/256 last March or April when Microsoft was sitting on excess supply and decided to offer this version at a pretty steep price cut. I recall it still came with 10 S at that time, whose limitations I immediately discarded. I was left with 10 Pro. The machine is on occasion perceptibly slower than any of the i7 Surfaces I have been exposed to, but not enough to bother me for the price I paid. I use it mostly for casual browsing and the NY Times crossword puzzle, which is easy to work on either from the keyboard or with the pen. The LT is also one of my test machines for insider releases. It's running in the new light mode right now, which looks pretty nice with the dark blue edges and deck around it. The only thing bad about the Alcantara surface is that splattered salsa will stain it, and the recommended lemon juice trick doesn't work.


    I don't think the LT is completely useless for inking. If I want to take handwritten notes, I just turn it to the side and write on the screen like a legal pad while the keyboard sticks up to the left as a wind/sun screen; lefties could do the same thing by reversing the position. If I wanted to sketch, I could turn it completely around on a low wedge and draw with the screen almost flat and the keyboard component sticking up. It's easy to adjust to a point where the use position won't tip over backwards..


    I have to agree about the ports and the Thunderbolt thing. The latter is a continuing need, but if I need more ports I can plug this thing into the dock that I mostly use with a 15" Book. Now there's a speeds and feeds device.


    When my current LT someday has its unrecoverable crash, I might consider picking up a similarly-equipped LT2 to replace it. But in the interim there is no reason for me upgrade.


    Fair review: Critical where needed and appreciative where warranted.

  12. Avatar

    William Clark

    Close but no cigar. I have an Acer Switch which is about 18 mos old. It has USB C, Core i5, 8G RAM, 256G SSD and came with pen and detachable keyboard for about $750. There are too many misses for me to upgrade.

  13. Avatar

    bbold

    I purchased a Surface Laptop 2 on black Friday from Microsoft's website (actually a day before), picked it up at my local Dallas Microsoft Store, and I love it. $999 for a limited time for the 256gb HD and 8gb mid model in sexy black. ($300 off! This sale will come back for the holidays, check out the calendar on the MS website for the Holiday Deals.) The black color of the mid range model really is striking, but what I really wowed about is the performance! I also own the base Platinum 4gb model from last year and while I still love it, this is definitely better. I'm amazed at the louder speakers and the better battery life, as well as the soft velvety feel of it all. The laptop is so sexy that I like to show it off to everyone. That's really saying something, coming from an old Apple user like myself. This will look well in business meetings and for those who want something a little more professional looking. Read & write speeds improved, too, as well as the whole product. You can really see the 8th gen Intel i5 processors at work. I use a Surface mouse (2018 version) which means I touch the alcantara less, but that might prolong its life. Another tip: Make sure to use your student or educator discount if you can't find this great $999 deal, you'll still save quite a bit.

    (I agree with you, though, Paul. Time to ditch MDP for a USB C port. I'm fine if Microsoft even hobbles it like they did in my Surface Go and take out the Thunderbolt 3 capability, but this is just an old port that simply needs be updated for the times. I don't own a single MDP piece of hardware, but have like 5 USB c ones I now have to buy a dongle for to use. Why MS decided to introduce that on the much lower powered Surface Go? I have no idea.)

    Otherwise, a fantastic sleek and sexy fast laptop. Great everything, and I even use it with the new surface pen sometimes. A black pen, of course. For those looking for a primary note taking device, the Surface Go may be a better option. This laptop, however, is perfectly fine for like 90% of all users I feel. Students will love it, and so will writers like myself. If you have normal needs and don't want to play a ton of high graphic games, this is a no-brainer. A++

  14. Avatar

    webdev511

    I agree on the way too restrictive upgrade choices. I'd like an i5 with 256 GB m2 and 16GB of ram. I can always use an SD/Micro SD to bump up storage plus I have 1TB in OneDrive so ?? Even if it meant that was a custom config that needed to be shipped from the factory.

  15. Avatar

    BigM72

    Keep everything the same but add two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports and it would be nigh-on perfect. Even one TB3 and one USB-C would be good. Even no TB3 and two USB-C would be decent.


    The port situation is pretty ridiculous today and I honestly don't know how Panos defends it.


    But it is the only complaint that I have with that laptop.

  16. Avatar

    kherm

    Excellent review, Paul, but the 1st-gen base model Surface Laptop did in fact have alcantara.

  17. Avatar

    Buzzmodo

    I bought a Black Surface 2 laptop at the Microsoft store in Bellevue on Friday. $999 for i5 and 256 gig SSD. And I can return it at any time up until January 31. Also, I just saw on Amazon Cyber Monday sale that Amazon is selling the i5 128 gig SSD for $799. I'm happy with the added space, and buying from Microsoft was fine. Not sure that I care about the extra SSD capacity with all the cloud storage available. But one day in I like the laptop a lot!

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