THE SURFACE LAPTOP IS THE ANSWER TO MANY CRITICS’ PRAYERS. BUT IT’S NOT QUITE THE MACHINE EVERYONE WANTED MICROSOFT TO MAKE
Ever since Microsoft released the first Surface Pro, critics have nagged the company to make a “proper” laptop. It brought out the Surface Book, but that still wasn’t enough to keep the critics happy. Now, five years into the Surface programme, we finally have one, and it’s called the Surface Laptop. And guess what? The critics still won’t be happy.
That’s not to say the Surface Laptop isn’t a lovely piece of hardware. It is, and you’ll pay a pretty penny for it (something I’ll come back to later). But it’s a laptop with a difference: it’s designed for and comes with Windows 10 S rather than Windows 10 Home or Professional. The S suffix means this is a laptop that can only run applications from the Windows Store. Want to install Steam for some gaming action? Tough. Want to buy one of the millions of Win32 applications that don’t come in the Store? Forget it.
There is a way around this. Microsoft is, for the rest of the year, giving anyone who buys a Surface Laptop the option to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for free.
THE ALCANTARA EFFECT
Before I get too deep into the conundrum of Windows 10 S, let’s take a look at the hardware, because there is plenty to love. The base model comes with a Kaby Lake Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a 13.5in “PixelSense” display running at 2,256 x 1,504 pixels.
Microsoft has always put great displays on its portable devices, and the Surface Laptop continues this trend. With 95.6% sRGB colour gamut coverage and an average Delta E of 1.41, it offers almost perfect colour accuracy. Colours looked vibrant, with an abundance of detail.
Like the Surface Pro, the screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which I prefer over widescreen displays for the simple reason that I spend my life on the web and the web is deep rather than wide. The screen is ten-point multitouch and supports the Surface Pen, but note it doesn’t support the tilt feature of the latest version of the Pen (tilt mimics a graphite pencil to make shading easier).
It’s a genuinely good-looking design, too. Where the Surface Book is chunky, the Surface Laptop is svelte. It weighs a mere 1.25kg and has a matte aluminium finish. The keys and trackpad are surrounded by Alcantara fabric that adds softness to the design. It’s the kind of thing I’d worry about splashing tea on, although it is coated to be spill-resistant.
It’s exactly the kind of design you would expect the creators of the Surface Pro and Surface Book to come up with if they were making a laptop, for better or worse. The “worse” bit is in the ports: there’s no USB-C on the Surface Laptop. Instead, you get regular USB, mini-DisplayPort and a 3.5mm headphone jack, plus the Surface connector for power and attaching Microsoft’s docking station.
UPGRADE TO PRO
And now let me mention again: this is a machine that runs Windows 10 S rather than Windows 10 Pro, which meant that initially our benchmarks wouldn’t install. After all, the chief limitation – or selling point, depending on your point of view – is that only Windows Store apps will install on 10 S.
You can see why Microsoft has done this: Windows 10 S effectively brings the security and stability we’ve come to expect from the world of managed applications you get with iOS or (to a lesser degree) Android. Windows Store apps are sandboxed and much less likely to have any malware payload in them. Using this path, Microsoft also claims your system shouldn’t suffer from the kind of lingering death of performance you get as your Registry and other bits of Windows are clogged with digital silt.
I’m a big fan of this approach overall, having seen the results of rampant Win32 applications far too often. But it also means you’re entirely reliant on the Windows Store – and that’s a big issue. The Store isn’t the greatest repository of quality applications in the world. If you’re used to the expansive range of choice you get with Android or iOS (or even macOS), the selection is pretty skimpy. There’s an awful lot of rubbish apps. Safe apps, but rubbish nonetheless.
My colleagues suggest that you immediately take advantage of that
Windows 10 Pro upgrade o er, but I’d say it’s worth sticking it out and trying Windows 10 S because, if you can live with it, it o ers many advantages. Unless you want to install Photoshop. Or Steam. Or most games. Or… or… or…
Luckily, switching to Windows 10 Pro is simplicity itself: if you download a piece of software from outside the Store you’ll be asked if you really, really want to download it. Then follow the “See how” link and, along with a list of the di erences between S and Pro, you’ll see a free upgrade button. Hit it, you’ll get a reminder to back up your files, and then – after a couple of minute and a reboot – you’ll be living the life of a Pro.
Note that this switch is irreversible, which is why it’s worth trying out Windows 10 S first. Who knows, you may grow to like its walled-garden approach. Perhaps it will tempt you not to install antivirus software (see our feature on p28), although it’s wrong to think you’re immune from viruses because the Store is your only way of installing extras. It’s just removed one obvious means of attack. Besides, the real killer is that you can’t use Chrome, Firefox or Safari as your browser, and are instead stuck with Edge or one of its rebadged variants.
So how fast is the Surface Laptop? Even without the benchmarks installed, the answer to that was a clear “fast enough”, and that’s exactly what you should expect from a machine running Intel’s latest Kaby Lake processors. We were sent the Intel Core i5-7200U model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage and, while this isn’t the kind of laptop you’re going to render a Hollywood epic on, what you are getting is perfectly good performance.
Its overall scores was almost identical to our A-Listed ultraportable, the Dell XPS 13; if you’re after something with real workstation levels of power then choose the larger Dell XPS 15 (see p50), which has enough room in its chassis for the quad-core Intel Core i7-7700HQ.
For a travel companion such as the Book, though, battery life is more important. Microsoft claims up to 14.5 hours of life, but a better guide to real-world use is our continuous videoplayback test, where the Laptop lasted for 10hrs 42mins. That’s an outstanding figure for a Windows laptop. For less stressful use, it’s in the “all day and then some” category.
SORRY, HOW MUCH?
The first reaction of almost everyone when the Surface Laptop was announced was that it was a tilt at Apple’s long-standing dominance in the world of education, particularly the MacBook Air. At the lowest end, that’s true: the Intel Core i5-based, 128GB version of the Surface Laptop will cost you $999, which is $500 less the base MacBook Air, and you’re getting a far better machine for your money simply thanks to the resolution of the display.
The next model up, which doubles both memory and storage, costs $1,299 – which is $600 less that the baseline non-Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro. The highest-end configuration of Surface Laptop costs $2,199, which is a $800 less than the top-spec and almost identically-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro. However, the MacBook Pro has the Touch Bar and USB-C ports – yet the Surface Laptop at the top end gives you an i7 CPU where the MacBook Pro is an i5 .
The other thing to note: if you’re a teacher or student then you can claim 10% o the price.
The laptop market is very crowded, and it takes something special to stand out. Every manufacturer, including Dell and HP, is making an excellent, well-designed 13in laptops that will take you through three or four years of school or uni, the market Microsoft is purportedly targeting with the Surface Laptop.
What Microsoft has done is kill o the MacBook Air as the de facto student machine. Other than a pure unabashed love of macOS, I can’t think of a reason to buy an Air over the lowest-specced Surface Laptop. The Air era is oªcially over.
Once you go above $2,000 you have many choices from both Windows PC makers and Apple. Does the Surface Laptop stand out from that crowd? In some ways, yes: it’s a lovely piece of design and it’s very practical, but it also stands out as a quality machine. Windows 10 S confuses things, but if you really can’t live with it, you do have the option of Windows 10 Pro for free.
Overall, the Surface Laptop is an interesting entry into a crowded market. I think the design gives it the edge over its Windows-based competition, although some of that will always be personal preference. It beats the MacBook Air and faces little competition from the lowand mid-range MacBook Pro in terms of price and spec. It’s not a flagship, ground-breaking design in the way the Surface Pro was, but it’s a good piece of hardware and will make a lot of people – including students – very happy.