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Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Aims at the student, offs the MacBook Air


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The Microsoft Surface Laptop – the firm’s first proper device running Windows 10 S – is a strange prospect. Ahead of the official unveiling, I’d have expected the company to target the cheaper end of the student laptop shindig. But in a bizarre move, Microsoft seems to have its sights set on the high-end ultraportable market rather than bargain-basement Chromebooks and low-cost laptops. The mind boggles.

I can’t imagine many students being able to afford this laptop, even despite that 10% student discount Microsoft offers, but with the cost of tech generally on the rise at the moment (Brexit discussion tabled), it isn’t as expensive as it first appears.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review

So what exactly is Microsoft’s Surface Laptop? That’s simple: it’s a 13.5in laptop with Windows 10 S onboard (a new locked-down, “hardened” variant of Windows 10 that only allows the installation of pre-approved apps from the Windows Store).

It has a 2,256 x 1,504-resolution touchscreen; its keyboard surround is coated in water-repellent Alcantara fabric to prevent tea spillages tarnishing your shiny new laptop; and, despite powerful internals, is beautifully thin and light.

In short, you should probably toss out the “student laptop” tagline; the Microsoft Surface Laptop is a superb laptop in its own right – just as good as any of its ultraportable competitors.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Price and competition

As I’ve intimated above, the Microsoft Surface Laptop isn’t a replacement for your Chromebook or low-cost laptop. It’s a premium ultraportable and this is reflected in the price. The base model, which comes with an Intel Core i5-7200U, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage, will set you back a sky-high £979. If you want the top-end model (Core i7, 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD), you’ll be spending up to £2,149 inc VAT.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Surface Laptop does sit at the “cheaper” end compared to rivals, and with a 10% student discount available, it undercuts the competition handily. Only the venerable 13in MacBook Air at £949 comes close, with the exquisite 13in MacBook Pro costing from £1,249, Dell’s wonderful XPS 13 from £1,149 and the sleek Asus ZenBook 3 for around £1,000.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Design

There’s no denying it: the Surface Laptop is the best-looking Windows laptop of 2017 so far. It’s gorgeously sleek, with clean aluminium edges and rounded corners, and seriously skinny to boot, measuring 14.5mm at its thickest edge and tapering to 9.5mm at its thinnest. The screen is even skinnier, measuring a mere 3mm, and the whole laptop weighs only 1.2kg.

It’s a beauty but, as with most laptops, physical connectivity is somewhat limited. You’ll spot a solitary USB 3 port on the left edge, accompanied by a mini-DisplayPort and 3.5mm headset jack. Look to the right and you’ll find a magnetic charging port for the proprietary Surface charger. That’s your lot, and bizarrely there’s not even a USB Type-C port in evidence. Don’t worry, your craving for ports can be satisfied by a £190 dock.

In an interesting move, there’s no speaker grill, either. Speakers are hidden under the keyboard, with audio protruding through the keys themselves. It’s a strange thing to use when listening to anything – the keyboard vibrates a little – but audio is incredibly well-defined and clear, and plenty noisy to fill a large room. One thing to note, though: It is a touch too bass-heavy, with some of the more subtle tones lost in its overwhelming loudness. Hans Zimmer’s excellent orchestra was drowned by the overwhelming organ clamour, for instance.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Keyboard and touchpad

Open the lid, and the keyboard surround is what really draws the eye. It’s coated in Alcantara fabric (the same fabric coating used in high-end sports car dashboards, steering wheels and bucket seats) and it’s one of the Surface Laptop’s fanciest features.

It’s also hardier than you might expect, specially treated to resist spills, stains and moisture absorption, and it wipes clean remarkably successfully.

The keyboard itself isn’t spill-resistant, more’s the pity, but it is a joy to type on. Each individual key-press feels stiff but with just enough give to provide a satisfying click. The keys are generously spaced apart, too – enough to keep typos to a minimum.

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The touchpad is generously sized, too; plenty spacious for your frequent finger flourishes. And you’ll be taking advantage of those, as Windows 10 S retains a long list of multi-touch gestures, from three-finger window swiping and finger pinches, through to basic dual-finger scrolling.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Display

Sadly, nothing is ever 100% perfect these days. The Surface Laptop ticks all the right boxes thus far, but there’s almost always a sticking point, but no such sticking point lies in the Surface Laptop’s 13.5in, 2,256 x 1,504 display.

Historically, Microsoft’s displays have been up there with the very best in the business, and the Surface Laptop’s panel is one of them, with a 95.6% sRGB colour gamut coverage and an average Delta E of 1.41 indicating pitch perfect colour accuracy. Colours looked particularly vibrant, alluding an abundance of detail.

That’s great, because the Surface Laptop is bright enough for use in most environments, at 397cd/m2, while its 1,490:1 contrast ratio offers up punchy, solid-looking images.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Performance and battery life

This particular configuration, with an Intel Core i5-7200U CPU clocked at 2.5GHz, paired with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage, will set you back a pricey £1,249. But don’t worry, it’s a marvellous performer if you do decide to splurge.

Initially, since this runs Microsoft’s totalitarian Windows 10 S out of the box, I wasn’t able to test the Surface Laptop with our usual suite of 4K benchmarks and SSD tests. But don’t fret: I’ve since upgraded to Windows 10 Pro, and have put the Surface Laptop to the test.

An overall score of 49 in our demanding 4K benchmarking tests is unexpected. For a device this skinny, you’d expect it to buckle under the pressure, but that’s not the case. For comparison, last year’s Surface Pro 4 reached a score of 44, while the Surface Book lagged not too far behind at 43. This is Microsoft’s fastest laptop yet, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the top-end model.

Subjectively, it performed as well as you’d expect, juggling multiple browser tabs, streaming Netflix shows and coping fine with the odd bout of Minecraft gaming.

The most impressive aspect of the Surface Laptop’s performance, though, is its battery life. Lasting 10hrs 42mins in our continuous video-playback test (with the screen set to 170cd/m2 and flight mode engaged), it’s one of the longest-lasting Windows laptops we’ve come across in recent times, and it will comfortably get you through a full day’s university work with a little bit of juice left for a post-dissertation Netflix treat in the evening.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Windows 10 S

Windows 10 S (making its first appearance with the Surface Laptop) is a stripped-back version of Microsoft’s desktop OS. On the surface, it looks like full-fat Windows 10, but it allows users to install and run only Windows Store apps.

Try installing a regular Windows application and Cortana will tell you off, referring you to a similar app you can find on the Windows Store. Like Chrome OS, it’s a somewhat antagonistically streamlined experience but with the positive payoff that it’s more secure (at least according to Microsoft).

Can you get all your work done this way? Unlikely. No matter how Microsoft dresses it up, the Windows Store simply isn’t up to the task just yet, and the number of UWP apps is certainly not enough to meet the demands of most of Microsoft’s target audience. Sure, the usual suite of Office apps can be downloaded (and the Surface Laptop also includes a full year’s subscription to Office 365 Personal), but when so much university work hinges on third-party software, I can’t see this being a firm choice.

Fortunately, if you fancy the look of the Surface Laptop but not Windows 10 S, Microsoft is currently offering a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro (worth £220) so long as you take that offer up before the end of the year. I beg of you: do this as soon as you take it out of the box.

Microsoft Surface Laptop review: Verdict

With that annoyance dealt with, we can focus solely on the Surface Laptop’s capabilities as a standard Windows 10 laptop and in that regard, it’s a very positive outlook. Not only is this a gorgeous machine to look at, but it’s also a highly practical machine that’s ideally suited to life on campus and beyond.

And with a 10% student discount and Office 365 Personal thrown in on top of an already competitive price, it represents superb value for money. In fact, even if you’re not a student, you should take a long, hard look at the Surface Laptop before splashing out elsewhere – just make sure you upgrade to Windows 10 Pro as soon as you buy one.

Core specs
Processor Dual-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U
RAM 8GB
Memory slots (free) 1 (0)
Max memory 16GB
Dimensions 308 x 223 x 14.47mm
Weight 1.25Kg
Sound Realtek HD Audio (3.5mm headset port)
Pointing device Touchpad, touchscreen
Display
Screen size 13.5in
Screen resolution 2,256 x 1,504
Touchscreen Yes
Graphics adaptor Intel HD Graphics 620
Graphics outputs mini DisplayPort
Graphics memory 1GB
Storage
Total storage 256GB SSD
Optical drive type N/A
Ports and expansion
USB ports 1x USB 3.0
Bluetooth 4.0
Networking 802.11ac
Memory card reader N/A
Other ports N/A
Miscellaneous
Operating system Windows 10 S
Operating system restore option Restore partition

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