Every Surface product Microsoft has ever launched has focused on the needs of a particular niche of users. Surface RT, Surface and Surface Pro took on the tablet market, Surface Book is a 2-in-1 with the option of a faster GPU, and the Surface Studio is meant for designers and artists. With the Surface Laptop ($ 1,299 at Amazon), Microsoft decided to create a more conventional mass market design, but with a locked-down educational variant of the Windows 10 operating system, Windows 10 S. Reviews are now in from several publications, including Wired, The Verge, Engadget, and CNET, so how does the Surface Laptop stack up to other hardware on the market today?
Generally, quite well, at least at the hardware level. Battery life is between 9-10 hours (well below Microsoft’s quoted 14 hours, but solid overall), with snappy performance and a gorgeous display. Everyone appears to have tested the same unit — a Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which puts the machine at the $ 1,299 price point. Just about everyone compared the system favorably with the MacBook Air, with multiple reviewers noting the Surface Laptop is lighter by several ounces while still feeling solid. (LG’s Gram is even lighter than this, but the Gram has been criticized for a great deal of flexing when under load.)
The 13.5-inch 3:2 ratio display has a 2256×1504 resolution and wins top marks from everybody, though the odd ratio means you’ll get some bars at the top and bottom of content when watching full-screen video. Engadget notes that the screen shows well even in full daylight, which is fairly unusual; most LCDs and OLEDs wilt under such conditions.
Wired also notes that the trackpad is excellent. That’s unusual in Windows systems and worth mentioning. Most of the hardware advantages that get claimed for Apple laptops aren’t born out in real-world testing; previous data from SquareTrade has shown that Apple laptops fail, in general, about as often as PC laptops of equivalent price, and there’s not a huge amount of daylight in between the various systems. But trackpads have long been considered an area where Apple really does things better than your average PC OEM. Microsoft, at least, is bucking that trend with the Surface Laptop. While I tend to carry a mouse even when traveling, it’s good to see someone putting in the effort to build a solid pointing device on the PC side of things.
The only real hardware downside anyone mentions is the single USB 3.0 port. Most of the reviews were glad Microsoft stuck with USB 3.0 over USB-C, but there was general desire for two ports, with USB 3.0 on one side and USB-C on the other.
Windows 10 S
Opinions on Windows 10 S weren’t nearly so positive. Everyone acknowledged the theoretical benefit to schools and other educational institutions in theory, but most were quite unhappy with how the OS worked in practice. Wired’s subhead for describing the OS was “Windows 10 Less.” David Pierce writes:
When I turned the Surface Laptop on for the first time, Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana led me through an interminable setup process that I could have done in half the time by myself. When I tried to download Google Chrome, a pop-up message said nope, sorry, not allowed but no worries because Microsoft’s Edge browser works way better. (Nope. Not even close.) I went looking for 1Password, Photoshop, Adobe Audition, Spotify, and a dozen other apps I use each day, to no avail. Sometimes, Microsoft directs you to the Windows Store equivalent of whatever app you tried to download, but usually it just fails. Microsoft clearly hopes 10 S succeeds enough that developers put their Windows apps in the Store, but that presents a nasty chicken-and-egg problem. Without more apps, 10 S amounts to a mediocre browser and a whole bunch of headaches.
The Verge describes the Windows 10 Store as an “app desert” and confirms you cannot change the default browser away from Edge. Critical apps like 1Password and SimpleNote have no Windows 10 Store presence, and neither does the web conferencing solution Zoom (which doesn’t work in Edge). CNET describes being limited to the Windows 10 Store as hitting a “brick wall.” Engadget, on the other hand, was more positive, writing “For the most part, Windows 10 S made me realize many of the apps I needed, like Evernote and Slack, are already on the Windows Store.”
Clearly, your mileage will vary on this point. All Surface Laptops can be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro for free through the end of the year; after that time, the upgrade will cost $ 50 (assuming MS doesn’t quietly keep it free, the way the free Windows 10 upgrade itself is still available). Even Engadget notes, however, that they got tired of trying to cope with the Windows Store limitation and eventually moved to Windows 10 Pro.
The press are generally positive about the laptop as a whole. The Verge notes that the $ 1,300 model is “the new de facto Windows laptop that most people who want a Windows laptop should get.” Engadget states that while overall performance scores are solid, the Surface Laptop’s storage scores are only ~50 percent of the Surface Pro 4. Gaming performance is, as expected, very low — don’t plan on playing anything but simple, low-spec games on this system. Even so, Engadget says: “There’s still a huge demand for traditional laptops. And Microsoft just showed how it’s done.” CNET is less positive, arguing that while the Surface Laptop does nothing wrong, it also doesn’t particularly distinguish itself compared with equivalently priced devices, either.
When I write these roundups, I take pains to keep my own opinion of the device separate from the conclusions of reviewers who have spent time with it. I’ll even go so far as to say that when deciding whose opinions to rank, you should prioritize people who have tested hardware (them) over people like myself, who haven’t. But my opinion on the Surface Laptop’s value proposition (as expressed here) hasn’t changed. It may be a well-built laptop, but you can equal or better its specifications for less money. But like I said, that’s just my personal opinion. The reviewers who have tested the Surface Laptop generally came away positively inclined, and that does count for something.
Now read: The Best Laptops for Photo Editing