Consumer Reports, the venerable product testing publication, has withdrawn its "recommended" designation from Microsoft's Surface line of PCs, citing the potential for long-term reliability issues.
In an article published August 10, Consumer Reports says:
New studies conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center estimate that 25 percent of Microsoft laptops and tablets will present their owners with problems by the end of the second year of ownership.
Troubling? Yes. But the headlines don't tell the whole story. CNET Labs has tested and reviewed every Surface product since the original Surface RT in 2012. Our experience with Surface products has been a mostly positive one, especially in the past few years, as Microsoft has refined and improved the product line.
Before we go further, two points you should note. Consumer Reports is a direct competitor to CNET in the product recommendation space. And before you accuse us of pro-Microsoft bias, make sure to check out our highly rated reviews of (for instance) Apple MacBooks and Samsung laptops.
With those caveats, here are five things you should know -- some analytical, some anecdotal -- about those Consumer Reports headlines concerning the Surface.
1. The data cited by CR is not overall return or repair rates for Surface laptops or tablets. It's based on a survey of Consumer Reports subscribers, which may or may not reflect the general laptop-buying public. While the entire population involved in the CR survey was large -- "90,741 tablets and laptops that subscribers bought new between 2014 and the beginning of 2017" -- it also spanned nine brands, including Apple, Dell, Asus and HP. It's unclear how many in that group actually owned Surface products.
We asked Microsoft for a comment, and a company spokesperson gave us the following statement:
While we respect Consumer Reports, we disagree with their findings. Microsoft's real-world return and support rates and customer satisfaction data show we are on par if not better than other devices in the category. We stand firmly behind the quality and reliability of the Surface family of devices and continue to make quality our primary focus.
2. The scary sounding 25-percent failure number is an estimate. The exact phrasing that CR uses is this: "New studies conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center estimate that 25 percent of Microsoft laptops and tablets will present their owners with problems by the end of the second year of ownership." The estimate comes from the above-mentioned survey that seems to encompass only pre-2017 Surface models. It seems unlikely that the current Surface Pro and Surface Laptop models, which weren't released until June 2017, would be included in the survey, but those are some of the ones from which CR is pulling its recommendations. Likewise, only the Surface Pro 3 and earlier models have even been on the market for two full years (the Surface Pro 4 was released in October 2015). Furthermore, the term "present their owners with problems" is notably vague -- CR cites startup problems, frozen systems and unresponsive touchscreens. To that end...
3. There are certainly documented hardware frustrations with Surface products. The most widely reported problem we've seen with the Surface line has been related to sleep/wake issues. The problem bedeviled some Surface Pro 4 owners for months until Microsoft finally nipped it in the bud with a firmware update. And reports of similar problems with the new Surface Pro appeared shortly after its release in June. That could be exactly the sort of issue that Consumer Reports is identifying in its survey. That said...
4. In our hands-on testing of recent Surface products, including the Pro, Book, and Laptop, we've found them to be generally reliable. As always, our experience with a handful of review samples is ultimately anecdotal to... that handful of review samples. But the Surface Pro 4, in particular, is frequently used in our testing lab, and has held up well since 2015.
5. Surface reliability doesn't seem appreciably better or worse than other such devices in Amazon user reviews and reader email I've received. This is (again) anecdotal, but I receive a lot of emails, tweets and messages from CNET readers about computer support issues. Very few have been about specific problems with the Surface line. Is that definitive? No, but it can be a good indicator of what computer buyers are thinking about. Similarly, Surface products on Amazon with anywhere from dozens to hundreds to thousands of user reviews each range mostly between 3.5 and 4.5 stars, especially if you discount the pre-2014 products. I'd expect lower ratings if one out of four products were truly problematic.
Putting things in perspective
None of this is to say that the Surface product line is more or less reliable than other Windows PCs. It's incredibly frustrating to spend a thousand dollars or more on a new laptop or tablet, only to have it not work as expected. Like most other PCs, Surface products include a one-year hardware warranty by default.
We have not conducted a reader survey on the issue of laptop reliability, as Consumer Reports has. But remember that the final word on these issues is often fleeting. Consumer Reports pulled its recommendation on Apple MacBook laptops in late December, only to reverse itself just 3 weeks later, though that was based on the organization's own testing, not a reader survey.
To reiterate CNET's experience: In our hands-on use and testing, the Surface Pro, Laptop and Book have largely behaved as expected, including products that are close to two years old. As such, the Pro and Laptop in particular remain two of our many recommended high-end tablets and laptops. The Surface Book is likewise still a solid buy, though potential purchasers should note that the current version is almost a year old and may see an update in the near future.
Does that mean Surface products are a slam-dunk buy? Of course not. The long-term viability of that fabric-covered wrist rest on the Surface Laptop, for instance, still gives me pause. With more great laptops and 2-in-1 tablets on the market than ever before, Microsoft's hardware should be judged on its merits versus the myriad competing products.
We'll continue to keep alert for reports of real-world Surface issues, and provide updates where needed. If you have any real-world Surface stories -- good or bad -- please share them in the comments.
The best laptops you can buy right now: These are CNET's favorite laptops.
Special Reports: All of CNET's most in-depth features in one easy spot.