Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop says nothing about the future of technology. The team in Redmond didn’t concern itself with the way things will be in 2025—which ports users will want, what kind of device they’ll use, how they’ll feel about bezels. Instead, Microsoft built a laptop optimized for 2017.
Microsoft Surface Laptop
The best looking Windows laptop you’ve ever seen. Good keyboard, trackpad, battery life, and performance. Windows Hello is stupid fast.
Windows 10 S is not nearly enough for most people. A standard laptop isn’t great for pen and touch. Cortana-led setup is obnoxious.
Contrast that approach with Apple’s MacBooks. To trim every millimeter from its laptops, Apple invented a shallower keyboard. It ditched standard USB ports, embracing USB-C and hoping everyone else will do the same. And the TouchBar? Don’t even go there. Apple doesn’t make the laptop you want now. It makes the laptop you might want four years from now.
But if you asked 1,000 people what they want in a laptop today and put it all in a $1,000 package, you’d get something like the Surface Laptop. After a week with a burgundy review model, I can say it looks and feels fantastic, especially the fabric covering the keyboard and trackpad. It’s a terrific laptop, once you upgrade the hopelessly crippled version of Windows that comes installed. (More on that later.) The future of laptops looks messy, expensive, and bedeviled by dongles, but the Surface Laptop spares you the transition pain. Microsoft built a right here, right now laptop, and a damn good one at that.
Open and Shut Case
The Surface Laptop sports a tapered clamshell design, slightly wider at the back than the front, with a 13.5-inch, 2256×1504 screen secured with a sturdy hinge. At 2.76 pounds and about half an inch thick, it slightly undercuts the 13-inch MacBook Air—already a remarkably small device for the money. You can buy it with Intel’s Core i5 processor or the more powerful i7, choose between 4, 8, or 16 gigs of RAM, and 128, 256, or 512 gigs of solid-state storage. (Mine featured an i5 with 8 gigs of RAM and 256 gigs of storage.) The battery falls well short of Microsoft’s quoted 14 hours, unless all you’re doing is looking at the thing, but I saw a solid nine or 10 hours on most days.
The specs measure up to every other $1,000 Windows laptop: good enough for lots of tabs and Word docs, but not so much when it comes to heavy gaming. The design, however, stands out. Its lines look clean and sharp, and the metal appears virtually seamless. It has that jewel-like, sharp-object appeal of the best Apple products. You can buy the notebook in burgundy, blue, silver, and gold, all with a polished matte finish I absolutely love.
The fabricky palm rest stands out as well. It’s Alcantara, a suede-like polyester blend used in cars and Louis Vuitton bags that recently became the hot new thing in consumer electronics. Microsoft put it around the keyboard and trackpad, giving your hands a warm, soft place to hang out. I love the look and feel, but worry about the longevity. It started to fray at the edges after just a few days, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’ll eventually wear through the fabric. (Microsoft assures me this won’t happen.) One nice upside: Spills bead up and wipe off easily with a paper towel.
On the right side of the Surface Laptop, you find the wide, skinny port for Microsoft’s proprietary charger. On the left, a headphone jack, MiniDisplay port, and a single USB 3.0 port. That last one created some controversy. USB-C represents the future of ports. It’s better, faster, smaller, and everyone’s adopting it. So why did Microsoft use ye-ol’ 3.0? Because virtually all of your printers, cameras, external hard drives, and podcasting mics still use it. Microsoft made a pragmatic decision: The Surface Laptop makes life easier and more dongle-free now, and potentially a little harder in a couple of years when you own more USB-C gear. Personally, I think one of each port might have been the right move, especially because who uses MiniDisplay anymore? But everything I own still uses USB 3.0, and I have to say: I love the dongle-free life.
Mostly I love that Microsoft built a laptop for how I live now. Still, Redmond could have borrowed some features from other Windows laptops, like the Dell XPS 13‘s bezel-free screen or the HP Spectre X360‘s 360-degree hinge. Either would make the Surface Laptop’s touchscreen and pen more useful. Even the Surface Book works in more ways thanks to the detachable screen. Without any of that I’m forced reach all the way over the keyboard to pinch and rotate, and I can’t find a comfortable angle for using the pen. Microsoft knows this, by the way; its other Surface devices feature ultra-flexible kickstands and hinges to improve pen and touch. The Surface Laptop supports both, but optimizes only for mouse and keyboard.
The Surface Laptop, then, exists to serve people who live and die by the keyboard and trackpad. Both excel. The trackpad moves more smoothly than almost any I’ve ever used—it joins the MacBook Pro and Chromebook Pixel as my favorite ‘pads. The keyboard features lots of travel and plenty of space, though the slightly concave keys feel a little mushy at times.
Windows 10 Less
When Microsoft launched the Surface Laptop, its most touted feature was Windows 10 S, a simplified, more secure version of Windows 10. The software works great for schools and businesses, which manage fleets of computers, and even for people with basic computing needs who benefit from the boosted malware and virus protection.
All Windows 10 S ever did was drive me crazy. 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.
Luckily, upgrading to Windows 10 Pro takes just two clicks and five minutes. Eventually, it’ll cost $50, but it’s free until the end of the year. Upgrade and you’re on the same software as any other Windows machine. The upgrade didn’t hurt the performance or battery life, and it turned the Surface Laptop into a full-featured laptop.
After upgrading, my Surface Laptop hums like a near-perfect Windows machine. The coming shift to fancy USB-C devices might require me to get a bunch of dongles down the line, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. In the meantime, I don’t need a backpack full of ancillary junk to do everything, and, in a sea of MacBook Pros at Starbucks, I stand out with an eye-catching laptop. And it’s a Windows machine. Crazy.
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