Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Microsoft didn’t do as we all expected when it started releasing its own hardware under the Surface name back in 2012, instead it gave us a tablet with a thin detachable keyboard and a kickstand, which, by design, is not a laptop.
It’s taken almost five years for the company to do the obvious thing and now we finally have everything that the Surface family represents to this point in the most conventional form factor yet, and that is a very good thing.
Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Design
Aesthetically this machine exudes presence and power. It’s hewn from milled blocks of aluminium and finished with hard edges and rounded corners. Its clean lines and wedge profile are punctuated by the option of three standout colourways too: Cobalt Blue, Burgundy and Graphite Gold (there’s also a more sedate silver option dubbed Platinum) which, collectively, should help the Surface Laptop stand out on store shelves.
Its minimalist form is only broken by the inclusion of a narrow vent running beneath the laptop’s flush hinge along its back and just four ports; a headphone jack, a single USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort and on the opposing side, Microsoft’s own proprietary Surface Connector for power.
The company’s reluctance to embrace USB-C across any of its Surface range comes from an apparent lack of support for the standard in the market, but this seems like a short-sighted decision considering the long life span machines as powerful as the Surface Laptop usually experience (Eve Tech’s forthcoming Eve V makes for the perfect alternative as a result). At least they’re saving users from the dongle-laden nightmare 2016/2017 MacBook and MacBook Pro owners have to endure right now.
A polished Microsoft logo sits at the centre of the Laptop’s lid which itself has been perfectly balanced and tightened so that it can be opened with a single finger and yet hold its position with minimal wobble, even when using the touchscreen. It’s the most obvious example of just how refined the Surface Laptop looks and feels as a piece of hardware and contributes to the sense of enjoyment you get from using it.
Once open all that metalwork and those hard lines are replaced with a softer but equally clean setup. You’re presented with a 13.5-inch screen sat within respectably narrow black bezels whilst a glass trackpad (which could be bigger) and keyboard lie set within a tight covering of colour-matched short-pile Alcantara – a soft, fine felt-like fabric that’s typically found in sport cars (according to Microsoft), which in this instance has been treated to resist spills and stains.
Replacing metal with material around the keyboard does give cause for concern if you’re planning on using the Surface Laptop as a daily driver, as it’ll be subject to all manner of substances (think food, drink and palm sweat, and get your minds out of the gutter!), but the company seems confident that a damp cloth and a quick spritz of screen cleaner should be enough to lift most marks.
Indeed a digital artist and long-time Surface Pro user corroborated the company’s claims by showing us his year-old Surface Pro 4 Signature Type Cover, which is also wrapped in the distinctive material and despite a year’s worth of use and abuse has only just begun to show signs of wear around the palm rest area.
As for the keyboard itself, the backlit plastic keys offer a pleasing amount of travel (1.5mm) and nice even spacing. The experience lands somewhere between the Surface Book’s metal keyboard and the removable Type Covers of the Surface tablets; not too hard, not too soft. That said, there’s still an unsettling amount of flex across the typing surface around the keys, it’s markedly less of an issue compared to the Surface Type Covers’ but it’s still present.
Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Screen and media
Similarly to the Surface Book, Microsoft’s opted for a responsive 13.5-inch 3:2 aspect ratio PixelSense touchscreen. The 2256×1504 resolution gives you pin sharp and pleasingly punchy visuals, making it great for creative use and enjoying video, even if there is slight brightness drop-off at more extreme angles.
Whilst the Surface Pen is sold separately the Laptop does offer support for the stylus with up to 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity (even when using the new, more capable version designed alongside the 2017 Surface Pro) too.
The audio experience, meanwhile, falls to new Dolby Audio Premium-certified Omnisonic speakers that, rather neatly reside underneath the typing surface. The unorthodox placement doesn’t impede their ability to pull out some really respectable sound which remains clear throughout their range. We just wish you could push the gain that little bit further at 100 percent.
Microsoft Surface Laptop review: OS
Remember Windows RT? It was Microsoft’s attempt at locking down the Windows experience so that it was both more lightweight and easier to manage for the company, and it was universally panned. Out the box, the Surface Laptop runs what feels like a distant cousin of RT in Windows 10 S but this is a slightly different beast.
The are two key factors that come as part of this new revision of Windows 10: it locks Microsoft Edge in as the default web browser and more significantly, only allows for the installation of approved applications via the Microsoft Store. Let’s tackle both of those fundamental differences one at a time.
Whatever preconceptions you may have about Edge, it has gotten significantly better since its original introduction back in 2015. Microsoft’s reasoning is that it’s more power efficient and less resource hungry than its biggest rivals Chrome or Firefox, but a complete inability to switch it out as the default browser seems, at the very least, user hostile.
Nonetheless, tab management has improved and there are now a small range of extensions available including Pinterest, Pocket, Evernote and LastPass, however, choice unsurprisingly remains extremely limited. Chances are if you avoided using Edge before, being forced to use it now isn’t going to change how you feel about it.
Arguably the bigger issue here is that you can only install approved apps direct from the Microsoft Store, meaning you’re forced to put all of your faith in a developer’s or company’s ability to produce a robust app or web experience to give you the functionality that you need.
In practice this simply doesn’t work, with offerings like Microsoft’s native Twitter and Facebook apps feeling clunky and diluted compared to their web-based counterparts, whilst Windows 10 S simply prevents you from installing more intensive applications like Adobe Photoshop CC and Steam outright.
The intent behind Windows 10 S is that Microsoft can guarantee greater security, performance and reliability for users by vetting which applications can be loaded onto their machines. Such a decision places all of the pressure on the Microsoft Store’s ability to deliver, however, which in reality it simply can’t. The range of apps on the Store has unquestionably grown but it’s still missing many key players and will likely never be able to compete with the cornucopia of applications available in the wider world.
There is a shining light in that Surface Laptop owners can make the jump to Windows 10 Pro for free before the end of 2017 via an upgrade process found within the Microsoft Store, giving you the full, unfettered Windows you’re likely already familiar with.
Whether you stick with Windows 10 S or jump to Windows 10 Pro, the rest of the Surface Laptop software experience is effectively the same, with Cortana integrated throughout the OS to lend a helping hand where required, excellent window management with snap functionality, multi-touch gesture support when using the Laptop’s touchscreen or trackpad and a year’s free access to Microsoft Office 365 including the latest features and support.
Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Performance
Microsoft is offering up the Surface Laptop in a number of configurations, almost all of which sound respectably powerful. You’re given the option of a seventh generation Intel i5 or i7 processor, 4GB up to 16GB of RAM (depending on processor) and up to 512GB of SSD storage.
If your needs don’t exceed basic Office productivity, web browsing and video streaming then you could quite happily live with the base i5/4GB skew running Windows 10 S, but such needs could then equally be met by a more affordable machine (and one that runs Windows 10 Pro out the box) or a decent tablet.
For anything more intensive we’d suggest not skimping below the (£1249) i5/8GB RAM model with 256GB of storage (the machine we used for this review) and making the jump to Windows 10 Pro as soon as possible.
Windows 10 S running on this hardware does feel decidedly snappy and battery life supposedly takes a hit for users who switch to Pro, however, reports from third-parties who’ve tested the Laptop running on both iterations of the OS suggest that the difference is negligible when it comes to longevity.
Microsoft promises up to 14.5 hours of video playback (running on Windows 10 S) and whilst we’d take that figure with a massive grain of salt, we’d still recommend the Surface Laptop as a reliable work machine, able to contend with rivals like the MacBook Air and Pro by doling out seven to eight hours of mixed usage at a time.
Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Verdict
Just as Google’s Chromebook Pixel was a showcase device for Chrome OS, so, too is the Surface Laptop for Windows 10 S, but therein lies the problem. The performance of the average Surface Laptop configuration goes to waste if you don’t plan on using it with Windows 10 Pro and the diverse library of powerful applications that that switch makes available to you.
Microsoft has produced an exceptional piece of hardware with a restricted iteration of Windows; the limitations of which for most will likely outweigh the benefits that the company is so keen to push. Make the jump to Windows 10 Pro, don’t look back and the Surface Laptop is one of the nicest machines in its class.
This review was written on a Surface Laptop running Windows 10 S.