Microsoft Surface Laptop: Australian Review

I love the Surface Laptop. I don’t want to give it back. You can’t take it from me.

What Is It?

The Microsoft Surface Laptop is a $1499 ultraportable laptop that in some ways, is an utterly generic piece of computing hardware. It is the prototypical laptop. But in plenty of other ways, it’s very very special. The Laptop measures 308x223x14.47mm, and it clocks in at just on 1.25kg — all good numbers when it comes to something you’re going to be carrying around a lot. Its 13.5-inch, 3:2-ratio PixelSense display has a 2256×1504 pixel resolution, it works with the Surface Pen, and it’s 10-point multitouch touch-enabled if you want to tap away at your apps instead of clicking and typing. The Surface Laptop uses Microsoft’s Surface connector to charge, but you can also connect a more powerful dock with multiple video and USB ports too.

The Surface Laptop runs Windows 10 S out of the box, Microsoft’s latest attempt at creating a version of Windows that relies entirely on apps delivered through the walled garden of the Windows Store. That means you’re restricted to only apps from developers that upload their apps to the store — an apparently simple process, but one that cuts both ways. You can’t get Chrome on your Surface Laptop until (and if) Google puts it on the Windows Store. You can’t get any of those tiny little programs that you use all the time — like WinDirStat, which I use more often than I’d ever thought, and GIMP and GiffingTool and so on. But, you have a laptop that’s always up to date, and far, far more impervious to viruses and malware than its competitors.

The Surface Laptop runs either a dual-core 2.5-3.1GHz Intel Core i5-7200U in its base two specifications ($1499 or $1999), or a dual-core 2.5-4.0GHz Intel Core i7-7660U in its top two ($2449 and $3299). That i7 sets itself apart with slightly more powerful Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640, too, rather than the HD Graphics 620 of the entry-level both config. Both are more than powerful enough for everyday computing and puttering around the ‘net, as well as older gaming titles, but any AAA game from the last couple of years will not run at any kind of playable frame rates even at a reduced resolution on the Surface Laptop. This is a workaday, university and Netflix-after-dark machine, not anything more powerful — but it’s not meant to be.

Microsoft’s little Surface Laptop also has surprisingly loud and clear and musically powerful speakers. It’s more than powerful enough to fill a medium-sized room with audio at full volume, and unlike so many laptop speakers it doesn’t distort as it reaches maximum power. This is seriously one of the best laptops I’ve used for cranking Netflix at the end of a long day. I had the Surface Laptop for a fortnight around California, and I usually take a Bluetooth speaker with me when I travel, but this time I genuinely didn’t need to use it — it was excess baggage. I’m impressed by the amount of effort that’s gone into a $1500-class laptop.

What’s It Good At?

This is the device that I’ve been hoping and dreaming that Microsoft would make, ever since I saw the Surface Pro and then the Surface Book, and started to understand what Microsoft’s devices strategy was building into. There’s so much that’s good about the Surface Laptop.

It’s just gorgeous to look at, for one, and even more so in the metal when you pick it up and move it around in your hands. It only takes a single digit to open up the Surface Laptop’s lid, a tap on the power button brings it to life from its power-saving deep sleep in mere seconds (on Windows 10 S; 10 Pro takes a little bit longer). The alcantara finish on the wrist rest and the base layer of the laptop is just beautiful, and unique in the laptop world — and it’s easy to wipe clean when you’ll inevitably need to. The lid has that chromed Windows logo, but it’s otherwise unadorned and finished in matte silver — or your choice of satin burgundy, cobalt blue or champagne, and that blue is tempting. It’s just a very nice device.

[referenced url=”” thumb=”” title=”The Story Behind Microsoft’s Alcantara Type Cover” excerpt=”Microsoft’s Surface laptop-tablet hybrid has gone through a huge number of small, often unnoticeable tweaks in its journey from the original Surface Pro of 2013 to the current Surface Pro 4. While the tablet itself gets a lot of attention for the evolution of its kickstand and touchscreen and angular slate design, the humble Type Cover, a nearly mandatory accessory, doesn’t get as much love. Microsoft went to pains, though, in the creation of the Signature Edition version of the Type Cover — a slim, slick, refined piece of hardware that represents the best of Surface and of Microsoft itself.”]

With the Surface Laptop, you get Windows Hello facial recognition sign-in, which is honestly a godsend. You get Cortana, if you want her, with twin microphones that also make this a very powerful videoconferencing device. You get a keyboard and trackpad that are the best Microsoft has put on any of its laptops, with excellent key feel and spacing and tactile clicks from the trackpad. And you get a screen that looks just as good as any $1500 laptop I’ve ever used — incredibly bright to impressively dim in the right conditions, with excellent detail and a 3:2 aspect ratio that fits in more info than a 16:9 or 16:10 competitor.

It’s just the right price for the right specs. For as little as $1499, you can get a Laptop with amazing battery life — I’ve clocked 14 straight hours of video playback on a plane, bang on Microsoft’s own testing and estimates — and an impressively thin aspect. That $1499 gets you 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, but I think the sweet spot is the $1999 model with twice the storage and twice the RAM. If you need the extra power of a Core i7 — and I don’t think many of the Laptop’s potential users will — that’s a $450 premium again and starts to look a little pricy. If you’re looking at the top $3299 Surface Laptop, go and buy yourself Surface Book with Performance Base instead.

[referenced url=”” thumb=”” title=”Microsoft Surface Book With Performance Base: Australian Review” excerpt=”Microsoft’s Surface Book has always been a unique gadget — a great ultraportable laptop, with the extra appeal of a completely detachable tablet screen that contains all the smarts and processing to run proper Windows. The newest Performance Base variant of the Surface Book adds double the graphics power, without making any significant compromise on battery life — but it’s also using tech that Microsoft’s competitors have left behind.”]

None of what I’ve written captures what’s somehow magical about the Surface Laptop, though. Maybe it’s the aesthetics, maybe it’s the combo of big trackpad and comfortable laptop keyboard, the bright and detailed screen and powerful speakers, maybe it’s the feeling of sitting at a Microsoft laptop built for Windows… but I just love using Microsoft’s latest computing marvel. It’s not the most powerful or the most portable — I even already have a Surface Book and a Surface Pro 4 — but it’s just right for so many things I want it to be. It’s great for typing, it’s great for travelling, it’s great for taking out to meetings under my arm without lugging a charger. The Surface Laptop has that X factor, and it has it in spades.

What It Not Good At?

Out of the box, the Microsoft Surface Laptop ships with Windows 10 S, a pared-back, faster, more streamlined version of Windows that doesn’t allow .exe applications downloaded willy-nilly from the broader ‘net to run or be installed. There are good security and software update reasons for this. But I don’t think the Windows Store is ready for some users just yet; I need Google Chrome for my job, and I need an image-editing app that’s a little more powerful than anything I could find in Microsoft’s walled garden. I switched to Windows 10 Pro quickly. It’s not going to be a big deal for most users, and plenty won’t even realise — and will enjoy the always-updated, always-fast advantages of Windows 10 S.

[referenced url=”” thumb=”” title=”Windows 10 S: What You Need To Know About Microsoft’s New Lightweight OS” excerpt=”Google Chrome has become so good that when it comes to affordable, quality laptops, it’s a better buy than a cheap Windows device. So Microsoft needs a lightweight OS to compete, and it’s really hoping that the education-focused Windows 10 S will be that OS.”]

One minor complaint I have is the fact that the Surface Laptop doesn’t have a flat magnetised section on its side or its top that can hold a Surface Pen consistently. There’s a slightly magnetised section that’ll work for a minute or two, but any bump will send the Pen tumbling — it’s not made for it. And it doesn’t include a Pen, which makes sense since it’s primarily a laptop and not a tablet — but if you want one to do any kind of drawing on the Laptop’s detailed screen then you’ll have to shell out an extra hundred bucks. It’s a niche complaint, to be fair, but there’ll be a niche that wished the Surface Laptop had this one small extra feature included out of the box.

There’s no USB-C port on the Surface Laptop; this is not a big deal in some ways, and a kinda big deal in others. It would have been nice to have some faster Thunderbolt 3-grade interconnectivity, and the ability to connect external monitors and superfast external storage. As it stands, you’ve got USB 3.0 and miniDisplayPort, which bridges the gap somewhat, but USB-C is the way of the future and it’s a bit skinnier than regular USB. As it stands, the Surface Laptop is great for your old-school thumb drives — which is great! — but you’ll need an adapter for USB-C devices.

[referenced url=”” thumb=”” title=”What Exactly Is USB-C?” excerpt=”If you’re an owner of a new Apple MacBook, HP Spectre or Samsung Galaxy Note 7 you’d be familiar with the slim, high-speed, high-power USB Type-C connector. It’s set to become the new standard, with its reversibility (that’s right, there’s no wrong way up with the USB-C) just one of the advantages. It can power laptops, transfer data and solve world hunger (okay, maybe not that last one). Now Intel have hailed it as the ideal — and superior — alternative to the headphone jack.”]

If you’re considering a Surface Laptop, there are a few other laptops you should be considering. The refreshed 13-inch Razer Blade Stealth, for example, will start at $1500 in Australia with a Core i7 and 16GB of RAM — and you can plug in external graphics for gaming. Apple’s skinnier and slightly more svelte 12-inch MacBook starts at $1900, and its keyboard is a little bit more enjoyable and more accurate to type on despite being slimmer. You should try these two before settling on the Surface Laptop, and even though I’d buy the Surface Laptop in a heartbeat your mileage may vary.

Should You Buy It?

The $1499-plus Surface Laptop is the Surface that everyone should buy. It brings all of the goodness of Surface — you’re buying a laptop from the guys and girls that make Windows, and that’s no insignificant advantage when it comes to things like software updates. You get Windows 10 S out of the box — with its decent range of apps — but upgrading to Windows 10 Pro is two clicks and five minutes’ wait away.

There are a few small downsides to the Surface Laptop, but they’re few and far between. If you’re a Surface Pen lover, you’ll want to stick with a Surface Pro or a Surface Book. If you need any kind of powerful graphics acceleration, you’ll want a Surface Book. If you want a 360-degree hinge or the ability to use your Windows device as a tablet, that’s the realm of a Book or a Pro or the massive Surface Studio.

Like most university students and office workers, I don’t have strenuous requirements for my everyday computing. I use a lot of Google Chrome, I use a lot of Facebook Messenger, I use a lot of GIMP. The Windows Store is getting better by the day — I actually can’t wait until it gets iTunes and I can listen to Apple Music! — but it doesn’t have everything I need just yet. The Surface Laptop is equally lovely with Windows 10 Pro, but it’s just another step as you set up for the first time.

At the end of the day, though, the Surface Laptop is a thin and extremely portable everyday laptop that ticks a few very, very important boxes. It has excellent battery life. It has a high quality screen, and that screen is a touchscreen to boot for those that want it. It has a keyboard with an impressive feel and accuracy for its size and depth, with the comfort of that distinctive alcantara wristrest. It’s beautiful, it’s more than powerful enough, and it’s just right for so, so many users.

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