What You Should Know about Microsoft's Surface Laptop

By Daniel Falconer

And hands-on from a demo at our local Microsoft store.

With the Surface Pro, Microsoft designed a tablet that they argued could replace a laptop. Then, they released the Surface Book, which was a high-end laptop that could double as a tablet. And now Microsoft has announced… the Surface Laptop. We've come full circle. And this may be the gimmick-free computer that people have been asking for Microsoft to make for years.

The Surface Laptop is a 13.5 inch (2256x1504, 3:2 aspect ratio) ultrabook starting at $1000, coming June 15th with pre-orders available now. The base model has an Intel core i5 U processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Configurations currently go up to a core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD for $2200. Microsoft also stated that a 1TB version would be made available. Those specs are pretty run of the mill for ultrabooks, but Microsoft is also claiming 14.5 hours of battery life, and that no charge will be lost when the device is sleeping. Impressive if true.

This thin laptop weighs 2.76 pounds, but it's also slim on ports sporting only a USB-A port, a Mini DisplayPort, a headphone jack, and the usual Surface connector port. The Laptop has a touchscreen using Microsoft's Pixelsense tech, a Windows Hello camera system, and supports both the Surface Pen and Dial accessories. It comes in four colors; Burgundy, Platinum, Cobalt Blue, and Graphite Gold. For some reason, only the higher of the two i5 models is available in all of the colors, and all other models are only available in Platinum (for now?). It's made out of Aluminum, which is a departure from the Surface line's signature Magnesium. And the Laptop even has an Alcantara fabric finish on the entire keyboard/palmrest area.

The build quality was exquisite and it felt very sturdy, despite being so light.

I managed to see the Surface Laptop for myself at my local Microsoft Store. Wow. When Panos Panay said his team poured everything they had into all of the little details, he wasn't exaggerating. The build quality was exquisite and it felt very sturdy, despite the fact that it's so light. It felt about the same weight and thickness as my Surface Pro 3 (with a Pro 4 Type Cover), which is a tablet with a 12 inch screen. The keyboard quality was about on par with the Pro 4, so fairly decent, and the trackpad was similar as well, albeit noticeably larger.

The Alcantara finish looked great, and felt smoother than the keyboard side of a normal Type Cover. There are actually no perforations in it for speakers either. Microsoft used new technology to put the speakers underneath the keyboard. A public space obviously isn't the best place to judge laptop speaker quality, but from what I could hear there was no muffling of the sound.

Then there's the lid of the laptop, which Microsoft made a big deal that it can be opened with only one finger. Many of us have gotten to the point where we don't think about needing to hold down the bottom half of a laptop when opening the screen, or maybe needing to grab it from both sides to get it going. The tension of the hinge and weight of the machine is just right so that, sure enough, it only takes one finger to open it up. That being said, the Laptop still has the squared edges that Surface devices are known for. I could see some people having problems getting their finger into the seam between halves.

Despite the device supporting the Surface Pen, the screen doesn't fold all the way around. It goes back a little farther than the Surface Book. This is where the Surface Laptop starts to fall apart as a product in my eyes. During the presentation, when Panos was writing on the screen he was using his off hand to hold the screen. Clearly the support for the Surface Pen was included for the sake of including it; it's a Surface device, therefore it "needs" Pen. I still think Panos Panay could sell me dirt ("The way this dirt feels between your fingers is unlike any dirt you've felt before."), but that moment really broke the Panos-effect on this product for me.

The Surface Laptop also doesn't fit in with Microsoft's goal for the Surface brand. Previous products kicked the doors down, turned things sideways, and made everything shiny and nice. It has been few years since Microsoft nailed the Surface Pro with the third iteration, and their partners are now providing similar products. So much in fact that they're eating into the sales of Surface. And that was Microsoft's intention; to steer hardware partners towards their vision of product design. But the Surface Laptop is just a really well made ultrabook. Dell, HP, Lenovo and others already do that. Do I think Microsoft's take on the ultrabook is better? Quite possibly. However, unlike previous Surface devices, this one serves no purpose other than to compete with Apple's Macbook.

And this leads me to how this completely falls apart. The Surface Laptop is running Microsoft's new version of their operating system, Windows 10 S.

The Surface Laptop doesn't seem to fit in with Microsoft's goal for the Surface brand--it's just a really well made ultrabook.

Windows 10 S, as Terry Myerson put it, stands for "Streamline, Secure, Superior Performance, the Soul of today's Windows". What it really stands for is Store, as in, this is the final form of Windows 10 Cloud; a version of Windows 10 that only runs apps from the Windows Store. Sound familiar? To be fair, unlike Windows RT, Windows 10 S isn't tied to ARM devices. It can run on almost anything the Pro version can. That means it can run traditional desktop programs, so long as the developer uses Microsoft's Centennial dev bridge to port their app into the Store. Part of this announcement included the fully featured Office 365 programs coming to the Store, and they showed Spotify as well. If a user tries to install an executable from the internet, a message will pop up stating it will only run Store apps, and if the system knows what you're trying to install it may offer a Store alternative.

For a $50 fee any Windows 10 S installation can be upgraded to Pro, and Microsoft is also allowing Surface Laptop owners to upgrade for free through the end of 2017.

While it can be installed on any machine, Windows 10 S is meant to compete with Chromebooks. Google has a significant portion of the education market now, and Microsoft needs to get it back. Not just for marketshare, but mindshare as well. Exposure to technologies at a young age influences how people use devices, and what devices we use, as we get older. Microsoft has partnered with Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Samsung, Toshiba, and Fujitsu to make devices running Windows 10 S, starting at only $190.

Windows 10 S and other Microsoft products do have some cool new features to entice the education market. Logging in on 10 S will be significantly faster than Pro, so teachers will be able to get things going sooner. When a fresh 10 S system is setup, those configurations can be copied to a USB drive and plugged into another device to automatically set it up. Teachers and administrators won't have to sit and click through the setup on every machine now. And Microsoft Teams, their Slack competitor, will have features added to suit teachers and a school setting, such as management of class rosters, quizzes, and engage students with polls. That being said, dedicated class management software like Canvas and Blackboard are entrenched in schools and universities. Microsoft will need to do more than some Office integration if they want to make inroads with Teams in schools.

Microsoft will need to do more than some Office integration if they want to make inroads with Teams in schools.

I get it. Microsoft wants to push the Store. They want to get developers to build apps for it, and for people to download them. Traditional win32 programs are dinosaurs by today's standards. Outside of complex productivity programs and the occasional outlier (I'm looking at you Discord), the majority of app development is for what would be considered mobile apps. And while work still needs to be done to bring UWP up to snuff for some win32 apps, it's far more capable than it was five years ago. Just look at Microsoft's Play Anywhere initiative for Xbox games and the introduction of AAA games to the Windows Store.

Windows 10 S on its own is likely fine. It's far more capable than Windows 8/RT was and includes a big red eject button for anyone that wants to use, er… pay for it. Hopefully Microsoft's messaging around it becomes much more clear at their BUILD developers conference next week.

And the Surface Laptop when viewed simply as a piece of hardware is without a doubt the best laptop I've ever seen. It's amazing. But when thinking about it as a product it's incredibly confusing. Microsoft is targeting college students with the Laptop, and talked a lot about STEM students specifically. The problem is STEM students need access to traditional desktop programs. I don't get it. On one side Microsoft is trying compete with the Macbook, but have a Windows take on the Chromebook Pixel on the other. Those can't be two sides to the same coin. They're completely different currencies. The Surface Laptop seems like it could be a fantastic device, but as a product in Microsoft's Surface lineup it's somewhat confusing.