NEW YORK CITY—The Surface Laptop has no gimmicks or novelties. It’s a Microsoft PC with Surface branding. But unlike the predecessor systems—the Surface RT and Surface Pro with their convertible tablet and kickstand design, the Surface Book with its hybrid concept and detachable GPU, the Surface Studio with its hinged folding screen, even the Surface Hub with its multiuser touch and integrated video conferencing—the Surface Laptop has no twist, no unique spin that sets it apart from its competition.
It’s just a laptop.
At least the Surface Laptop is a good-looking laptop. Downright stylish, in fact. The 13.5-inch screen (with a peculiar 2256×1504 resolution, retaining the 3:2 aspect ratio used on other Surface systems) is bright and crisp. Bezels are inoffensive. The system is very slim, at 14.5mm thick, with a slight taper. The lines are clean. The weight is respectable, for the screen size, at 2.76lb (1.25kg). The standard platinum gray looks good, if conventional; the burgundy, “cobalt blue,” and “graphite gold” look better still. The design is thoughtful, too, with the hinge appearing “invisible” when the system is opened. Opening feels effortless, too, with just the right amount of hinge stiffness.
And the system interior does have an unusual touch: the keyboard tray is fabric covered. Microsoft shipped a number of Type Covers for Surface Pro 4 with an imported Italian fabric called “alcantara,” and the company uses it on the Surface Laptop, too. The color match between the fabric and the anodized aluminum appears pretty much spot-on; there are even matching Arc mice available in three of the four colors, and they match well, too. The fabric feels warm, with none of the hard metal edges found on many laptops as a trap for those who’d rest their wrists on the system.
The Surface is comfortable enough—though I think I actually prefer the unusual soft-touch finish that Dell uses inside the XPS 13. But I wonder how well the Surface’s cover will stand up to years of eating and drinking at the keyboard.
The good looks are marred somewhat by little plastic inserts on either side, near where the ports are. They look as if they’re a SIM card or perhaps SD reader, but I believe they’re actually antenna cut-outs. It’s a shame that the machine’s otherwise impeccable styling is defaced in this way.
On the inside, we find Microsoft’s first (and presently only) Surface system to use Intel’s latest-generation Kaby Lake processors. Slim as it is, the Laptop includes a fan, and the processors are the mainstream/Ultrabook-oriented U-series parts rather than the ultra low-power Y-series. The top models, with i7 processors, also have Iris Plus graphics. Even with these processors, Microsoft claims 14.5 hours of battery life.
The Surface Laptop is sleek and elegant, but it’s just a laptop. And unlike prior Surface systems, it’s not striving to carve out a new category or push system design in a new direction, practically to a fault. You won’t find USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 here; the Surface Laptop has a single USB 3.1 generation 1 Type-A port. No 10-gigabit-per-second generation 2; no Thunderbolt with all its exciting possibilities for docking stations or using a single cable to both connect an external monitor and charge.
Instead, charging continues to use Microsoft’s proprietary magnetic charging-and-docking connector. That connector means that the Laptop is compatible with the Surface Pro 4 Dock. But that feels like a poor trade-off to me, especially on a machine that Microsoft envisages being used for four or more years.
USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 aren’t the only recent innovations that the Laptop eschews. The gorgeous screen supports touch and pen input, though the pen is not included in the box. But the Laptop doesn’t have a 360-degree hinge. This makes writing on the screen inconvenient at best; you’ll need to hold it to brace it and stop it from moving around. 360-degree hinges add a ton of versatility to laptops (I love them for watching movies in the cramped conditions of a plane, and they make pen input much more practical), and I’m surprised that Microsoft hasn’t used one here. The Surface line has long attempted to make pen input an integral part of people’s workflows, and, with the Pro and OneNote in particular, Microsoft has seen quite some success in this area. But the Surface Laptop lacks that ambition.
The pricing and availability also rather deviate from the ideal. It starts at $999. That gets you a measly 4GB RAM, 128GB storage, and a Core i5 processor. It also gets you platinum. The other three colors are only available in one specific configuration: 8GB RAM, 256GB storage, and the same i5 processor, which is $1,299. Go higher-end still and you’re back to a choice of platinum, platinum, or platinum: 8GB RAM, 256GB storage, and an i7 with Iris Pro is $1,599, and 16GB RAM, 512GB storage, and the i7 is $2,199. Everything is soldered onto the motherboard, so what you buy is what you’re going to be living with for the duration, too. Systems start shipping on June 15.
The Surface Laptop runs Microsoft’s new Windows 10 S: the locked-down Windows 10 that can only run apps from the Store. This will soon include Office. While the major thrust of Windows 10 S is education systems in the same kind of price range as the sub-$500 Chromebooks used by middle- and high-schoolers, Microsoft’s hope is that the Laptop, and machines like it, will extend the appeal and reach of Windows 10 S to audiences such as college students.
These groups tend to be willing to pay a little more (hence the pricing being more in line with that of, say, the MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro). But whether they’ll be willing to live with the constraints imposed by the Windows Store is, well, less than clear. Windows 10 S can, in general, be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro for $50; Surface Laptop buyers who upgrade before the end of the year will be able to do so for free.
Plenty of people whose needs aren’t quite met by the Surface Pro or Surface Book have been calling for a “Surface Laptop.” And this is what Microsoft has delivered. But I’ve often felt that the calls for a “Surface Laptop” never quite meant “Oh, just make a laptop and slap the Surface name on it.” Instead, I’ve assumed they meant “Give us a laptop that retains the Surface trend of pushing new designs and concepts.” The Surface Laptop has delivered on one level: it’s a Surface-branded laptop, and it’s an incremental improvement on the Surface styling. But on another level, I’m not convinced it quite delivers. It doesn’t have that Surface twist. It’s the Surface Laptop, yes, but it’s the Surface, just a Laptop.
Surface Pro—and, to an extent, even Surface Book—operated in new or under-served markets. This, in some ways, made its shortcomings and weaknesses excusable. We might have wished that, for example, the Surface Book had included USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3. But there just aren’t that many systems on the market offering its same combination of 2-in-1 hybridity and a discrete GPU with such a fine high-resolution screen (and there were even fewer when the Book was first launched). So the trade-off was acceptable.
The conventional thin-and-light laptop market, by contrast, has many options and alternatives already, both from PC OEMs and Apple. I’m going to have to use the Surface Laptop much more extensively to truly get a sense of whether it and its extraordinary good looks do enough to distinguish it from its many peers, but the question is already much less clear-cut than it was with its siblings.
Listing image by Microsoft