I feel like I always start a Surface review the same way, so here goes: I’ve always wanted Microsoft to build a laptop. A couple of years ago, Microsoft nearly did that with the Surface Book but it wasn’t enough.
The Surface Book was top heavy, chunky, and it had a removable screen that I rarely detached. Like many Surface devices, it was different for the sake of being different, but it wasn’t the ultimate laptop that Microsoft claimed it would be.
Microsoft has now finally created the laptop I’ve been waiting for, and it’s simply called the Surface Laptop. The Laptop has virtually everything a working person could ask for, yet strangely, Microsoft has bundled the Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S, a new, slightly crippled version of Windows 10 that only supports apps from the Windows Store. It can’t run any apps downloaded from a website that a pro user might want, such as Adobe Creative Cloud, Steam, or VLC. Microsoft knows there aren’t enough apps in the Store itself, so it’s allowing Laptop buyers to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for free through at least the end of this year.
I can’t really get my work done without many of the apps I use daily, so I installed Windows 10 Pro on the Surface Laptop and have spent the last week using it as my main PC. (For a look at the Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S, be sure to check out my colleague Dieter Bohn’s review.) With Windows 10 Pro, the Surface Laptop has everything I want in a modern Windows laptop. Microsoft has created a unique blend of the finest laptop ingredients, and the result is something that looks stunning and feels luxurious. Is this the ultimate Windows laptop, though? Nearly.
Ditching Windows 10 S lets me run Chrome, Photoshop, 1Password, and a bunch of other desktop apps that aren’t available in the Windows Store. I can set Chrome as my default browser, install small utilities like Wox or Seer that make it easier to use Windows, or make low-level changes to the system if I desire. None of those things can be done on Windows 10 S. If you’re a heavy Windows user like me, you’re going to switch to Windows 10 Pro on the Surface Laptop straight away. It’s a quick process that takes less than a minute and involves a reboot.
Microsoft claims Windows 10 S is more secure and has better battery life due to some mysterious optimizations, but based on my experience using it with Windows 10 Pro, it’s hard to see how those claims are true. Windows 10 S is just a restricted version of Windows 10 Pro, and the fact it takes less than a minute to “upgrade” to the Pro version proves that fact. It might have better battery life simply because you’re forced to use Microsoft Edge as a browser, and because Microsoft controls what apps are available.
Take wox, for example, it is a fully customizable desktop search tool like Alfred on the Mac and it’s not available on Windows 10S. It might not ever be, because it can replace Windows functionality at a level that’s beyond regular Windows Store apps. But it’s essential to me for custom Google searches. Everybody who’s used Windows for any length of time probably has their own example of a must-have app that’s either not available in the Store or probably won’t be placed in the Store because it doesn’t follow Microsoft’s guidelines.
I’ve not had any issue with battery life or performance using Windows 10 Pro on this machine. It really feels like the Surface Laptop was built for Windows 10 Pro and restricting what you can do with it, as Windows 10 S does, sells it short. I’ve been testing the $1,299 Intel Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage and I’ve regularly attached it to a Surface Dock to power two displays, and it has handled it well. I can’t imagine why you’d pick any other variant — the cheaper models have less RAM and storage — and it’s the lowest price point where colors are available.
Microsoft has done some great work on the battery life with the Surface Laptop, and upgrading to Windows 10 Pro doesn’t appear to have any negative effect. I manage to get around 8 hours of solid battery life each day, which is enough to know I can head into the office without a charger. That’s the same amount of stamina that Dieter reports experiencing with Windows 10 S.
Amusingly, I’m most impressed with the fact I can close the lid and it goes to sleep properly and the battery doesn’t run down if I haven’t used it for 12 hours. (This has been an issue with every other Surface product save for the Surface Studio I’ve used.) Even if you use the Surface Dock and close the lid it will activate a clamshell mode so you can transform it into a desktop PC and attach a full keyboard and mouse.
On the hardware side, Microsoft hasn’t gone for any of its usual laptop / tablet hardware gimmicks here and I appreciate that. The Surface Laptop has a beautiful colorful aluminum finish around the entire device, and it all feels like a typical wedge-style laptop. I’ve been testing one with the striking burgundy color, and it has an impressive 13.5-inch display with the usual 3:2 Surface aspect ratio. Despite not being the typical black or silver most laptops are, the burgundy Surface Laptop doesn’t look any less professional in a work environment.
Underneath the display is something that makes the Surface Laptop a lot different: alcantara. Microsoft has opted for the Italian alcantara fabric, something that’s usually found in expensive sports cars, for the palm rests and keyboard area of the Surface Laptop. It gives it a premium look and feel, and it has allowed Microsoft to essentially build its Surface Pro keyboard into this laptop. That’s a good and a bad thing: the key travel feels great, and the spacing is solid, but just like the Surface Pro there’s a little bit of flex here. (The hollow echoing sound when you type that plagues the Pro’s elevated keyboard is fortunately not here.)
I’m a little concerned over the durability of the alcantara fabric, as it feels like owning a black pair of jeans you constantly have to use a lint roller on. I’ve been wiping off the Surface Laptop a lot, and I fear that people who don’t take care of it will end up with a very grubby looking machine in a year. I have no complaints about the trackpad, though. It’s the exact same size as the Surface Book and it feels just as good. It’s great for all of the multi-finger gestures Microsoft has built into Windows 10.
Alcantara isn’t the only gamble on the Surface Laptop. Microsoft has decided to forgo using USB Type-C ports here. The usual Surface connector, regular USB, and mini DisplayPort are present, but that’s it. I’m disappointed USB-C didn’t replace the mini DisplayPort, but I can understand why Microsoft is a little hesitant. USB-C is a mess of dongles and chargers that don’t work across devices, and my experience with the single port has been mixed. I dream of the day we can use one connector for everything, but the reality is we’re not there yet. Microsoft might have gambled and made the wrong decision here, but I feel like for most people USB-C simply doesn’t matter yet.
It would be easy to compare Microsoft’s Surface Laptop to Apple’s MacBook Air that is still praised by many today, but I think that’s unfair. The MacBook Air hasn’t been a class-leading laptop for years with its low-resolution display and aging design. Competition like Dell’s XPS 13 and HP’s Spectre x360 have shown that Apple has been left behind, and Microsoft is now releasing its Surface Laptop at a time when it’s apparent that Apple has given up on its MacBook Air.
The Surface Laptop isn’t perfect and the alcantara fabric will be a risky decision, but it does manage to achieve something very Apple-like: desire. I know there are laptops out there with more bells and whistles, but I still want to buy a Surface Laptop. Microsoft has managed to strike that fine balance of something that looks beautiful and luxurious, but that’s fully functional and effortless to use.
That’s what makes Microsoft’s insistence on Windows 10 S so confounding — it puts it at a weird disadvantage right out of the box. I understand that Microsoft needs to encourage developers to put their programs and apps into the Windows Store, and forcing 10 S is a way to do that, but when you’re spending $1,000 or more for a laptop, you don’t want it to be crippled right away.
Fortunately, upgrading to Windows 10 Pro is quick, easy, free (for now), and doesn’t have any particular downside, so it’s something I recommend you do. (And chances are, you’d probably do it even without my recommendation.) Provided you make that upgrade, the Surface Laptop might be the new default computer I recommend, essentially taking over exactly where the MacBook Air left off.