The original Surface products from Microsoft -- the first-gen Surface Pro and Surface RT -- had everyone asking at the time: "Why is Microsoft making a tablet?" The latest Surface has everyone asking a different question: "Why is Microsoft making a laptop?"
The rationale for the original Surface tablets was that no one was making cool touchscreen devices for Windows 8, Microsoft's controversial tablet-first/touch-first operating system. But the Surface line showed the way: After a few generations -- and a much better version of Windows -- it became the best-in-class two-in-one, a position it arguably retains today, even with the barely evolved 2017 version of the Surface Pro.
But, it turns out that not everyone is ready to abandon the classic clamshell for a life of clip-on keyboards. Laptops remain popular, from Apple's MacBook Pro to Dell's XPS 13 to Lenovo's iconic ThinkPad (although several of these brands now offer 360-degree hinge hybrid versions of some of their systems). That appeal to the familiar may be why Microsoft's newest addition to the Surface family ended up being such a traditional-looking laptop.
It may be traditional, but it's also a very nice-looking laptop -- thin for its screen size, and lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Pro (but heavier than a 12-inch MacBook). The components inside are about what you'd expect from a premium laptop in this price range: an Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage in the starting configuration ($999, £979 or AU$1,499). That swells to 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD in our upgraded review unit ($1,299, £1,249 or AU$1,999).
|Price as reviewed||$1,299, £1,249 or AU$1,999|
|Display size/resolution||13-inch, 2,256x1,504-pixel touch display|
|CPU||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U|
|Memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz|
|Graphics||128MB Dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 LE|
|Operating system||Windows 10 S, upgradable to Windows 10 Pro|
The 2,256x1,504 resolution display is a touchscreen, and has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as the Surface Pro. That means it's a bit closer to a square shape than most other laptops, which have a 16:9 aspect ratio. The former is better for reading long text documents and organizing office files, the latter is better for movies and TV shows.
Microsoft's Surface Pen is supported (as is the Surface Dial, but only as a deskside accessory, it won't work directly on the screen). The screen here does not fold back 360 degrees or detach from the keyboard, as many pen-enabled PCs, including the Surface Book and Surface Pro, do. That's a point worth reiterating, as the Surface brand name has been synonymous with the idea of a slate-style tablet screen before now.
Using the new, sold-separately Surface Pen ($99) is a decent enough experience -- Microsoft says the latency on the Surface Laptop screen is lower than on older Surface Pro devices -- but there's an inherent awkwardness to drawing on a clamshell, especially when the lid doesn't fold down a full 180 degrees. I found myself holding the screen steady with one hand and using the Pen with the other hand. While the new Pen is more expensive, older models still work, and can be picked up for around $60, £60 or AU$95. What the new Pen adds is 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity (up from 1,024) and a tilt function that changes the virtual ink flow in some apps when drawing from different angles.
Like other Surface systems, it also still has the same proprietary long, thin power connection, which thankfully still pulls out safely if you trip over it. Since Apple has dropped its MagSafe power connections for USB-C, this is now one of the only klutz-friendly laptops out there.
But the single biggest thing that strikes everyone who sees the Surface Laptop is that its interior surfaces (no pun intended) are covered with an artificial fabric material called Alcantara. That's a tough material made of polyester and polyurethane that dates back to the 1970s and has been used in cars and boats.
The default color is called platinum, which is basically a silver-gray. It's also the only color available for under a thousand bucks right now. To get graphite gold, burgundy or cobalt blue, you'll have to jump up to the more expensive 8GB/256GB configuration. This test system is the burgundy model and it's probably the best looking of the bunch. The fabric cover that runs across the wrist rest and between the keyboard keys has a subtle marbled look to it, and complimentary shades of burgundy cover the actual keys, the lid and even the bottom panel.
Up close, the fabric material looks upscale and isn't overly fuzzy. It should be relatively easy to clean, especially as it's essentially the same material used on fabric-covered car dashboards, but I wouldn't spill a glass of wine on it. Microsoft says you can just use a damp cloth for cleaning.
Keep in mind the Surface Laptop has been aggressively pitched as a laptop college students would buy for freshman orientation and keep until graduation. I don't know about you, but I have a hard enough time keeping a laptop clean as a responsible adult -- I'm not sure how a fabric-covered computer is going to fare in the world of dorm rooms and dining halls. Just remember, you can't reupholster a laptop.
In actual hands-on use, the Surface Laptop feels like a well-made, superpremium laptop, with a balanced aluminum body that doesn't tip over backwards when you tap on the screen. It's certainly much more "lappable" than the Surface Pro, which was a common complaint about that product line. The island-style keyboard will feel familiar to anyone used to a MacBook or premium Windows laptops from Dell, HP and others, and the wide touchpad responds well to multifinger gestures.
The seventh-gen Intel Core i5 processor is more than powerful enough for any college or professional workload this side of heavy duty video editing, though gaming also takes a back seat, as only Intel's basic integrated graphics are included. But if you do want to do some serious photo and video editing, or install many popular software apps, there's a brick wall you'll run into by the name of S. This is one of the very first products to run Microsoft's new Windows 10 S operating system, a "walled garden" version of Windows that promises a safer, more secure experience by only allowing software found in the official Windows app store to be installed.
Try to download and install something like the Google Chrome browser, or the Steam video game platform, and you'll get a polite but firm message telling you it's just not going to happen. Click through a warning, however, and instructions are provided on how to install unsupported apps by changing the OS from Windows 10 S to the full version of Windows 10.
Especially at its premium price, the Surface Laptop is more attractive with the full version of Windows 10. Fortunately, switching to Windows 10 Pro is free until the end of 2017, but will cost $49 thereafter. If you go for the Pro upgrade, it's a one-way trip that will give you a nearly identical experience, except now you'll be able to download and install any software from the internet, rather than just being restricted to apps in the official Windows app store. The OS upgrade is pretty much a no-brainer right out of the box for most people.
Once we did the Windows 10 Pro switch and ran our standard PC benchmarks, the system performed largely as expected for a premium Core i5 laptop (though one multitasking test gave us anomalous results, and we're working with Microsoft to figure out why). In heavy everyday use, it felt speedy and responsive. We didn't run into any slowdown or stuttering -- not that you would expect to at $1,299. The built-in Windows Hello camera above the display was also responsive, logging in via facial recognition faster than on other Hello-compatible systems I've tried. (Microsoft says that's because the camera turns on the moment it detects the lid being opened.)
Microsoft promises 14 hours of mixed use battery life from the system, which would put it in the upper echelons of current-gen laptops. Our tougher online video streaming test rates it as 10 hours and 21 minutes, which is still impressive.
Despite its cool design and unique materials, the Surface Laptop also leaves us scratching our heads. There's no shortage of cool-looking slim laptops for students or professionals hovering right around the $999-$1,299 mark (including Apple's new lower-cost 13-inch MacBook Pro), and the Surface Laptop really doesn't do anything all that different, aside from its colored fabric covering and the Windows 10 S operating system. It even feels like it takes a step backwards in one way -- keeping a single USB 3.0 port (and a mini-DisplayPort), instead of jumping on the trendy USB-C bandwagon as Apple, HP, Asus and others have done.
The Surface Pro remains a great middle ground between a laptop and an iPad, and its magnetic keyboard cover and built-in kickstand remain the best in breed. The massive Surface Studio likewise bridges the gap between an all-in-one desktop and pro-level Cintiq drawing surface; and even the oddball Surface Book is at the very least unique, pairing a high-powered Surface tablet with a solid keyboard dock stuffed with a graphics card and extra battery.
But when it comes to the Surface Laptop, this is a very nice-looking, well-equipped product that stands alongside the top performers in its category, but doesn't necessarily surpass them. Personally, I found it very enjoyable to use, but like many midsize, midprice laptops in 2017, it's a remix of familiar components at a familiar price, which means you should feel free to choose largely based on the look and feel you like best.
|Microsoft Surface Laptop||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 4||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Book||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965 / 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520; 1TB SSD|
|LG Gram 13||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 512GB SSD|
|Dell XPS 13 (2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 512GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)||Apple macOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2GHz Intel Core i5-6360U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Graphics 540; 256GB SSD|