Who exactly is Microsoft's new $999 Surface Laptop for?

Surface boss Panos Panay says it's for college students, and will last from freshman orientation through graduation.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read

Panos Panay, corporate vice president for Surface Computing at Microsoft, holds the new Surface Laptop.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft's recent EDU event focused on education technology, low-cost classroom PCs and the new, student-friendly Windows 10 S operating system. But the biggest hardware reveal of the day was something that might strain your average student's budget.

The new premium Surface Laptop marries the high-end design of the company's Surface tablets with a surprisingly traditional clamshell body. It also starts at $999 and goes up from there, which is not the price range most people would immediately associate with a student laptop. (It's £979 in the UK and AU$1,499 in Australia.)

But according to Microsoft VP of Devices Panos Panay, the man in charge of the Surface line, the Surface Laptop is indeed for students -- specifically college-bound ones looking to invest in a serious PC to get them through years of higher education.

"This is where we wanted to put our focus, into those next four years of a student's life, when they're just about to get out of high school," said Panay in an interview with CNET following the Surface Laptop's announcement. "We wanted to bring them a product they could have so much confidence in."


The $999-and-up Surface Laptop is thinner and lighter than a MacBook Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Or, as Panay put it during his onstage introduction of the Surface Laptop: "It's going to last that student from the day they walk into their orientation to the day they walk across that stage for their graduation."

And getting your laptop into the hands of college students is a great way to hook a customer for years to come. Apple's MacBook Air is still popular on campus, but that system's design and hardware are slowly moving out of date, while the newer MacBook Pro laptops cost much more than the new Surface.

But many of the other Windows 10 S laptops demoed at the same event will cost between $189 and $299, so the Surface Laptop represents a pretty significant price jump over those. How exactly did Microsoft arrive at the magic formula targeting college students looking for a thousand-dollar laptop?

Microsoft thinks you'll want to caress its new Surface Laptop

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"It's kind of easy, and it's also complex," said Panay. "There are so many options under $999. There's a lot and they're good, depending on what you want to do. So we're able to focus our energy in the premium.

"Look at college students who are looking at premium products already today. We know the percentages. And there's a lot of MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros out there, and they're playing well above $999. So when you look into the space of a premium laptop with perfect fit and finish, with a premium feel, we look at it and say, we're not going to sit here and make trade-offs to try and push a price down."

And the Surface Laptop, in our brief hands-on time with the system, certainly has high-end appeal, with a 13.5-inch touchscreen display in a slim, light body with a unique fabric covering on the interior. You can read more of our initial impressions here.


The Surface Laptop works with Microsoft's sold-separately Surface Pen and Dial accessories.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Putting Windows in the walled garden

Besides being a slick-looking laptop for style-conscious college students, the Surface Laptop is the flagship for Windows 10 S, a variation on the Windows 10 OS that promises more system security and faster boot times, by restricting the software you can install to prescreened apps found in the official Windows app store. By any interpretation, that's a pretty big restriction to ask college students, or any premium laptop shopper, to live with.

Panay says it's about focusing on what students actually do with their laptops , and that the faster sleep-wake cycles and lack of bloated extra software will make a real difference. "What we wanted to do was focus. Where do students want to work? What do they want to do? What are the things they need most, from battery life to instant-on, and then performance? We knew that there was also pride in the machine. That was critical. So all these things came together. We have our culmination moment, which was Windows 10 S and the Surface Laptop design."

Fortunately, the self-imposed Windows 10 S limitations aren't carved in stone. A one-time option to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro is free for buyers before the end of 2017 (and a similar upgrade costs $49 for other PCs with Windows 10 S).


The restrictions of Windows 10 S can be removed with a free (for now) upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The next Surface

With so much of the focus in new PCs on two-in-one hybrids, adding an old-school clamshell laptop to the existing Surface lineup may not be the most obvious move, but Panay insists it's been part of the plan for a long time: "Since we started Surface, people wanted a laptop."

And while PC makers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo took years of laptop experience and used it to build folding or detaching hybrids, Microsoft is flipping that script, using its extensive hybrid experience to build a better laptop. "I think it took our history to get to this point," Panay said. "There's no way we're designing this laptop the way we designed it today without Surface Pro, without Surface Book , without Surface Studio ."

Watch this: Microsoft's new Windows 10 S Surface is a surprisingly traditional laptop

Of course, mentioning the Surface Pro 4, almost universally praised as a great two-in-one, serves as reminder that it's been about 18 months since that system appeared. That's a long time in an industry often slavishly devoted to the 12-month annual upgrade cycle. The natural question to ask is, where is the Surface Pro 5? And if you're considering a Surface Pro 4, is it better to sit tight and wait for the next generation?

"If people don't want to buy our Pro 4 at this time, that's OK," Panay said. "What I'm super, super sure of is that the people using a Pro 4 have a product that's going to be competitive for five years."


The still-popular Surface Pro 4.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Does that mean there's a new fifth-generation Surface Pro on the way soon? "When it's meaningful and the change is right, we'll put it on market," he said of the still-hypothetical next Surface Pro. "Meaningful change isn't necessarily a hardware change, which is what a lot of people look for. They're like, 'Where's the latest processor?' That's not what I mean. I'm looking for an experiential change that makes a huge difference in product line." Examples he cites include making big strides in battery life or dropping the weight significantly, rather than just upgrading the processing power.

"You'll see that same meaningful impact when Pro 5, or Pro Next hits the market," Panay said, quickly qualifying that, "there's no such thing as a Pro 5."

The Surface Laptop is available to preorder now and ships in mid-June in the US and by mid-August in the UK and Australia.