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June 13, 2017

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Much more than an elite Chromebook competitor

by John_A

Microsoft’s hardware division has gone from strength to strength over the last few years: from the Surface Pro, which has defined the high-end 2-in-1 space in its refined fifth-gen form; to the heavyweight Surface Book, which has enough grunt to keep MacBook Pro owners sheepishly quiet; to the Surface Studio and its command of the high-end creative space.

Its latest, the Surface Laptop, is supposedly pitched at the education sector. It’s also the device to champion the stripped back Windows 10 S operating system – which cannot install full executable files, only downloads from the Windows Store, almost like “Windows RT version 2” – positioning it almost as an elite Chromebook competitor. Its £979 starting price, however, puts it at odds with more affordable Chromebooks and might be a hard ask for cash-strapped students.

Can such a price be justified for what may be seen as a hampered Windows device? We’ve been using the Surface Laptop over a long weekend and have a different take: with Windows 10 Pro installed (for free), this stylised and really well built laptop is one of the best Windows machines we’ve seen in some time. It’s not just for the education market, and it’s not the most logical launch bed for Windows 10 S, but here’s why the Surface Laptop can be great.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Design

  • 308 x 223.2 x 14.5mm; 1.25kgs
  • Metal body design with Alcantara keyboard surround
  • 1x USB, 1x mini DisplayPort, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack

There’s no denying the Surface Laptop is a gorgeous looking device. With Microsoft now five generations into its Surface Pro line, the company has learned lessons in refinement, producing an iconic statement piece, which is equally apparent in the Laptop.

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From the rear silver four-panel Microsoft logo, to the grey marl (so-called “platinum”) Alcantara material keyboard surround, or the speakers being hidden from sight beneath the fabric, to the USB port being painted in the same finish as the metal body – everything looks seamless and is made to a high standard.

There are small touches of elegance which preside, too, such as the ability to open the Laptop’s lid with one finger without needing to hold the device down. That might sound like something barely worth raving about, but this is design and user experience at the cutting edge.

Port-wise the Surface Laptop apes its Surface Pro cousin. There’s a full-size USB 3.0 port, with a mini DisplayPort slot neighbouring. And that’s about it. No SD card slot, and no USB Type-C port to be found here – which isn’t very forward-thinking given where the market it going. There is, however, a 3.5mm headphones jack, so no fear there.

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The decision to use full-size USB is one that we welcome though. It also means the Laptop is a tad chunkier than its ultra-slim competition – at 14.5mm, thinning to 9mm at the front edge – but that also means more space for battery. And in a laptop that’s aimed at the education market, longevity is a key point.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: What is Windows 10 S?

  • Windows 10 S can be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro for free in 2017
  • 10 S means Windows Store apps only can be installed, no EXE files
  • One year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 included

We do think that Windows 10 S is at odds with the high-end design. Just as Microsoft was beginning to streamline its operating system product, it’s gone and taken a step backwards by muddying the waters once more in this version. To explain: when Windows 8 launched it came with a Windows RT option, also a “streamlined” version with apps only available from the Store, meaning full-on executable file apps weren’t available. It didn’t last, because it was no good. And in its absence Windows 10 has been left to run freely, in full or tablet modes. Windows 10 S is like the second coming of RT.

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However, Windows 10 S looks and operates much like Windows 10, so discerning one from the other might not be immediately obvious. That means it’s a perfectly usable system – the main difference for us has been more pop-up alerts from apps – but we soon ran into a brick wall because of the application install limitations. There’s no full Photoshop in 10 S, for example, and no Google Chrome at all – meaning Microsoft Edge and its Bing default search are left to rule the roost. Capable apps can be packaged and distributed via Windows Store, but right now a number of big ones aren’t. Also, Store is a total mess to search through.

  • What is Windows 10 S?

So why does 10 S exist? Well, Microsoft says it is more secure, streamlined for performance and extra quick to login. That final point is a would-be bonus, but it’s not always true. Yes, the software is instantly available between short sessions and  Windows Hello cameras make for a super-fast login. But with the lid closed for a longer periods, however, Windows 10 S goes into sleep mode, which takes over 10 seconds before revealing the login screen, sometimes longer when it fails to quickly jump out of sleep until various buttons are mashed to prompt it.

The point about 10 S’s performance might ring true on a more limited spec machine, but with a seventh-gen Intel Core i5 processor at the Surface Laptop’s heart (and that’s its entry spec), that point feels entirely moot here. This is Microsoft’s Google Pixel moment: the Laptop is a machine more powerful than its supposed needs.

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Another point worth making is the Surface Laptop comes with a year’s subscription to Microsoft Office 365. The software runs really well – indeed, we’re writing this review in Word, but of course – and delivers some new features across the suite, such as fluid transitions between PowerPoint slides, side-by-side comparison of documents in Word, and the ability for Excel to pull in data from online sources, such as Wikipedia.

Interestingly, Windows 10 S can be upgraded to 10 Pro for free throughout 2017, meaning full executable file installs without limitations. By 2018 that upgrade will cost $49 (likely £49, but UK pricing is TBC at the time of writing). It’s as if the Laptop is a test bed for the stripped-back operating system; as if Microsoft knows that Pro is the better option, hence dangling that carrot from the off. Our advice would be to upgrade to Pro, but each to their own.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Display

  • 13.5-inch, 3:2 aspect ratio LCD with Gorilla Glass protection
  • PixelSense display for 2256 x 1504 resolution (201ppi)
  • 10-point touch control; Surface Pen compatible (not included)

One area where the Surface Laptop is undeniably pro is in its screen. The 13.5-inch panel has been squeezed into a body that feels smaller, thanks to relatively trim bezels – although we’ve seen even more trim ones on Dell’s Infinity Display XPS laptops.

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This Surface’s resolution is high – that’s what the “PixelSense” marketing term is more than hinting at – for greater-than HD visuals. You could edit a 1080p video at pixel-to-pixel scale with editing tools surrounding it, for example… well, if you can find suitable Windows Store-sourced software to do so in Windows 10 S.

Windows laptops are increasingly offering the power of touch, and the Surface Laptop is no exception: it has 10-point touch and, if you have or want to buy a Surface Pen for £100, then it’s stylus compatible (although there’s nowhere logical to store one, which is irksome). We’ve been using the touch feature in conjunction with the keyboard more than we had anticipated – it’s more efficient for scrolling through documents than gestures on the trackpad, we’ve found.

Like in the Surface Pro, the Laptop uses a slightly reflective coating which is its only notable display drawback. It’s not mirror-like in its reflective qualities, but you’ll catch a glimpse of your own face more often than not when there’s surrounding daylight sources. Fortunately there’s ample brightness to cut through any potential issue this could cause when using the Laptop outside.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Typing and trackpad

  • Alcantara material keyboard surround
  • Full-sized keys with backlighting

There are some superficial similarities between Surface Laptop and a Surface Pro with Type Cover keyboard – especially because the former uses the latest generation Alcantara material surround, which looks much like the latest Surface Pro covers. Don’t try and remove the Laptop’s keyboard covering, though, or you’ll end up trying to rip the laptop in half.

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That material finish feels lush on the wrists – there’s none of that cutting-in sensation that’s part and parcel of every Apple MacBook – which makes for comfortable prolonged use.

How such material will survive over a long period of time, however, we can’t say. We’ve seen Alcantara used in higher-end car trims before now, because it’s designed to be resistant of stains, scuffs and marks. It’s not foolproof, though, so don’t go chucking a can of Coke all over it.

As a typing experience, we’ve moved from MacBook Air to Surface Laptop like a duck to water. The keys have the right amount of travel, aren’t too clacky, and are well spaced. The backlight is a nice touch, too, although it deactivates after next to no time. The keys’ only real drawback is how plasticky they feel, which might sound like a bizarre complaint when almost all laptop keys are made of plastic – but they’re the most plastic-in-feel plastic keys we’ve used.

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The same can be said of the trackpad: it doesn’t offer the high-end glass-topped finish of some higher-end laptops. It works fine, has a nice shallow depth to its click, and sits almost flush to the Alcantara surround. Its coating is a well judged balance between the right degree of resistance and smoothness.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Performance and battery life

  • Seventh-generation Intel Kaby Lake processor options
  • Intel Core i5 with 4GB/8GB RAM or Core i7 with 8GB/16GB RAM
  • 128GB-256GB SSD for i5, 256GB-512GB for i7

As we said earlier, as an introduction to Windows 10 S the Surface Laptop is an overpowerful machine. The entry-level model comes with a seventh-gen (Kaby Lake) Intel Core i5 processor, clocked at 2.5GHz, with 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD, priced at £979.

Our review model is one step above that: the Core i5 with 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD, priced £1,249. Go up the ranks and the Core i7 models are priced at £1,549 with 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD, and £2,149 with 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD. Which is a heck of a lot of cash.

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For our money the Core i5 models make the best sense. Our review machine is fanless and therefore silent in operation, which is a great feature. It does get a little hot under the base, which might warm up your left leg a little when on the lap, but it’s not going to scorch any skin.

What you can do with that power under the hood is likely to depend on which version of Windows you opt to use. Now, 10 S isn’t entirely redundant, given some Microsoft/Xbox titles are available on the Windows Store, including the likes of Gears of War 4. In that sense, if you’re looking for the best experience, the higher power machines do make sense, even without discrete graphics options (which is where the Surface Book makes better sense).

We’ve used the Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S for this review in order to explore that experience. It’s meant we couldn’t do everything we’ve needed, given the lack of full Adobe Suite, but otherwise the performance has been sprightly.

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It’s long-lasting, too, thanks to Windows 10 S’s power management. Hit the battery symbol and there’s a slider to select between “battery saver” and “best performance” (“recommended” and “better performance” straddle in-between options). As battery saver switches off the keyboard backlight and limits the screen’s maximum brightness we’ve been switching between the other three options for the main part, as required.

And just how long can you expect to get out of a Surface Laptop? Our Core i5 review model gave us nine hours of use and was still sat at 50 per cent battery. That time included downloading apps, using Slack, Word, Edge, Mail, and some streaming – so nothing heavyweight, but such longevity outperforms the Laptop’s quoted 14 and a half hours of life.

Go a little heavier in use and it still performs well. We streamed a three hour YouTube video at maximum resolution, with brightness turned up to full and speaker volume at around 50 per cent and still had 63 per cent battery remaining. We’d call that capable of nine hours of streaming duties, or more for on-device video, which is good innings. It’s miles ahead of the Surface Pro’s abilities.

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Maybe Windows 10 S does show its dues thanks to battery management then. And if you’re using the Surface Laptop in an education context then, well, that’s going to be a critical feature.

Verdict

The Microsoft Surface Book is a really interesting laptop. It’s gorgeous to look at, incredibly well built… and comes with a hampered version of Windows and all costs a fairly considerable sum of money. In that regard it’s going to be mis-matched for the education sector at which it is pitched.

However, upgrade to Windows 10 Pro – which is free throughout 2017 – and the Surface Laptop is a powerful, silent operator with an excellent screen and decent battery life. We’d opt for one over the entry-level Surface Pro because, pound for pound, you get more for your money in a better-looking package – if you’re specifically after a laptop, anyway.

But money is the issue here, because the Surface Laptop is far from cheap. Which, depending on the context in which it’s viewed, isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. As an elite Chromebook competitor it falls into the same overpriced ground as Google’s Chromebook Pixel did some years ago. Viewed as an out-and-out everyday laptop or MacBook rival, however, and the Surface Laptop is a potentially fantastic machine for many.

If we were going to buy a Windows machine tomorrow it would be the Surface Laptop. It’s only the out-the-box software version that gets in the way in our view, but that’s easily rectified.

The alternatives to consider…

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Apple MacBook Pro

Not a Windows fan? The obvious opposite to the Surface Laptop is Apple’s MacBook Pro.

Read the full article: MacBook Pro (2016) review

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Microsoft Surface Pro 4

With the new Surface Pro just around the corner, now might be a good time to grab a Surface Pro 4 bargain. With a hinge for versatile use, this tablet transforms into a production centre if you buy a Type Cover keyboard and Surface Pen stylus.

Read the full article: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

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