Microsoft has been busy building out its Surface family of devices in recent times, and the latest addition is the Surface Laptop.
While it is easy to see the use cases that Microsoft imagines for each of its devices, the Surface Laptop is more the budget all-rounder of the family; although the Surface Book is the actual all-rounder of the lineup, it is hardly cheap.
But just when you thought you knew what a Microsoft device was all about, Redmond throws a curveball and decides it needs to put Windows 10 S on the device. With a semi locked-down environment that Microsoft says allows for more secure and hassle-free usage, the Surface Laptop could be considered to behave like a very powerful and much more flexible Chromebook, but it is also more than that: It’s a proper install of Windows 10 that is packed with training wheels.
With a $50 upgrade to the standard Windows 10 — or free for a limited time — the Surface Laptop needs to be considered alongside regular laptops as well as starting a new category for Microsoft.
Before we consider the bifurcated software, let’s turn to the hardware.
Carpets in the bathroom
Before the laptop is opened, there is no doubt that the Surface Laptop is a premium device — throw all the Apple-esque adjectives you want at it, they’ll match the looks.
Once the device is opened, the first sight of the one feature most likely to decide if you are going to purchase this device is gained: The Alcantara fabric out of which the keyboard and trackpad sit.
In the world of Windows laptops with no lack of comparable devices, the unique addition of fabric can be a deal breaker — if you dislike Alcantara, there are plenty of full metal or plastic devices waiting for purchase.
Microsoft said in briefings that it is looking to target university students with this device, and provide a single laptop for a student’s entire tertiary experience. After using this device for around a week, I wonder how this fabric would stand up to three years of sweat, bad foodstuffs being dropped on it, coffee spills, cask wine incidents, as well as some stamped in cigarette ash and a pouring of bong water over it.
Redmond says the fabric is able to handle the abuse, but in my experience, that university life stains like nothing else.
Opinion around the ZDNet Sydney office on the fabric revolved around it being “not quite right” rather than repulsive, but cleaning always popped up as an issue.
Time is going to be the ultimate test for this, but as a first impression, is feels like carpet in the bathroom — it could very well work, but its as though someone decided a furry iPad keyboard could work on a laptop.
Beyond the carpet
Elsewhere on the hardware front, Microsoft has assembled a nice combination of hardware.
The laptop offers an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, a 3:2 aspect ratio 2256×1504 13.5-inch touchscreen display, a range of memory from 4GB to 16GB, and 128GB to 512GB of SSD storage.
Battery wise, the device is said to have 14.5 hours of video playback life. As usual, in real-world usage I would not expect anything near that number, but its battery use is quite good, and there is little charge lost when the lid of the device is shut and left for over 24 hours.
The hardware package is good, but there are a couple of caveats.
Typing on the Surface Laptop is good, and the not-aligned-to-the-space-bar trackpad is as good/bad as other modern ones. Handily, Microsoft has put the Control key in its proper place on the bottom left of the keyboard, and offers proper Home/End/Page Up/Page Down keys, but they are placed at the top of the keyboard, worryingly close to the power key. I never accidentally hit the power key, but it’s not hard to imagine it happening when poring over a large PDF document, for instance.
The speakers for this device sit under the keyboard, with Microsoft saying the fabric plays a part in the sound, and the keys are each lit with a subtle backlight.
Ports on the device consist of one USB 3 port, a mini DisplayPort, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left side, and a Surface power connection on the right. Microsoft can argue USB-C is not ready for primetime, but only putting a single USB port onto a device is a recipe for a dock and dongle mess. The choice to put a USB port on the accompanying power brick is a clear admission that Microsoft believes users will indeed require a second such port.
While possessing a touchscreen is a nice addition, it is not likely to be utilised fully due to the laptop display swinging to only 150 degrees. Nowadays, plenty of Windows convertibles allow for multiple modes of input, and not allowing the screen to swing all the way around — or even to lay the device flat — feels like a misstep, particularly when the Surface Pen is promoted as an input method.
After my time with the Elitebook 1030 and its little material loop in April, it is surprising the Surface Laptop does not come with a well-thought out way to store a Surface Pen. Magnets are all well and good to attach the pen to the side of the laptop at a desk, but it is possible to shake the pen free, and that means the potential of losing it — hopefully in a bag, and not outside somewhere.
Is that Windows 10 S before me?
At a quick glance, there are few clues that a Windows 10 device is running the S version over its standard brethren.
As long as an application is delivered via the Microsoft Store, Windows 10 S will run it.
Windows 10 S also ties the machine to using Edge’s rendering engine, which means there are no alternative browsers to Microsoft’s latest web browser. This is a particularly bold call since Edge is not faring well on market share measures, and it is liable to display weird behaviour from time to time, probably because a percentage of web developers are not testing their creations in it.
Provided Windows 10 S picks up traction, and isn’t taken out to the shed where Windows RT was finished off, it could very well be the Windows version that you direct non-technical family members towards to keep them out of trouble.
In the plus column for Windows 10 S, it boots quickly and adds security features, but for power users, the safety rails that Windows 10 S has in place can feel like restrictions. Not to mention that for enterprise, the ability to join an old-school Active Directory domain is absent, and only joining an Azure Active Directory is offered.
Long term, the problem for Microsoft will be getting the right apps into the Microsoft Store soon enough, and preventing users from getting weary of being stopped from running the applications they want.
For instance, this device is aimed at students, but it doesn’t offer Steam. Clearly, Microsoft is trying to push its Xbox platform in this instance, but it seems a shame that young users could forgo some valuable security benefits because they want to enjoy the occasional frag.
Salvation is always at hand should Windows 10 S not be to the user’s satisfaction, with an upgrade to regular Windows 10 on offer. At the moment, the switch in Windows flavour is free, but it will rise to $50 at some point in the future.
Microsoft wants the Surface Laptop to be a showcase vehicle for Windows 10 S, and taken together, it is a good package.
For all the positives that the device has, and they are far more numerous than the negatives, there are two unknowns that stop it being a slam dunk.
Will Windows 10 S be a workable option in the next decade, or will users retreat back to regular Windows 10?
Is Alcantara fabric a masterstroke or a stain magnet?
These are questions that can only be answered after years of use and perspective, but should the worst come to pass, in 2020 you’ll be in possession of perfectly reasonable machine running Windows 10 that didn’t break the bank and might have a few marks of leftover pizza attached to it — in some quarters, they’d call that character, exactly the sort of thing you’ll need once you leave university.
Also check out Mary-Jo Foley’s Surface Laptop review.