Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Microsoft's latest feels like more laptop, less Surface

Microsoft Surface Laptop
Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

The Windows 10 S dilemma

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.

Microsoft Surface Laptop
Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Screenshot/Joe

The upgrade screen for going from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro. 

Screenshot by Joe Kaminski/CNET

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.) 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

Less Surface, more laptop

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 ($2,625 at Amazon) likewise bridges the gap between an all-in-one desktop and pro-level Cintiq drawing surface; and even the oddball Surface Book ($695 at Walmart) 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. 

Geekbench 3 (multicore)

Dell XPS 13 (2016)
7878
HP Spectre x360 (13-inch)
7726
Microsoft Surface Book
7377
Microsoft Surface Laptop
7193
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)
7178
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
6775
LG Gram 13
6647

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance


Streaming video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Book
709
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)
696
LG Gram 13
690
Microsoft Surface Laptop
621
HP Spectre x360 (13-inch)
482
Dell XPS 13 (2016)
475
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
298

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)


System configurations

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

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