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Microsoft Surface Laptop First Impressions

Posted June 19, 2017 | Microsoft Surface | Surface Laptop | Windows

I was able to borrow a Surface Laptop from a friend for the better part of this week, so I’d like to chime in belatedly with some first impressions. I still hope to formally review this device at some point.

Note: To be clear, Microsoft has not provided me with a Surface Laptop review unit, despite many requests. –Paul

But I can already see why Microsoft has held this machine back from me: It is elegant and beautiful, for sure, but it is also frustrating and limited, thanks to Windows 10 S. And I have some very real concerns about the build quality, as this particular device is already dinged up pretty badly despite being handled carefully.

So let’s start with that.

To achieve its colorful design, Surface Laptop returns to the anodized paint process used by early Surface devices. This means that it can chip or scratch, revealing the silver color of the metal underneath. And on this particular device, barely 10 days old, that’s exactly what’s happened in three places: Gouges from normal usage reveal that its pretty red coloring is in fact just surface-level, like lipstick.

There’s a gouge!

That is disappointing, because the primary selling point of this device, I think, is this gorgeous color design. And when you couple this fact with the recent news that Surface Laptop is in no way repairable or upgradeable, the entire value proposition starts to fall apart.

Aside from these blemishes, Surface Laptop is indeed beautiful. It’s also thin, light, and very portable. And when you consider that the keyboard, touchpad, and display are all essentially identical in size to those found on Surface Book, it’s impressive how much more travel-friendly this device really is.

That said, the Alcantara material on the keyboard deck is rightfully controversial. I find it both attractive and nice to the touch, but I am worried that it will dull or stain with use and time. So far, it looks and feels fine. (And since this isn’t my computer, I won’t be smearing Coke or Cheetos into the Alcantara.)

The color matching between the metal body, the plastic keys, the glass touchpad, and the Alcantara covering is excellent, with the keyboard and touchpad just a hair darker for much-needed contrast. It’s just really nice looking.

The display, too, is beautiful, and while its 2256 x 1504 resolution is lower than that of Surface Book (in the same 13.5-inch frame), I’d never notice that if it hadn’t been pointed out to me. I like that the bezels are fairly small—smaller than those on the new Surface Pro, for sure—and are black, which helps the display appear to float above the keyboard.

But the expansion situation is unacceptable, regardless of your opinion of its lack of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. There is just a single, full-sized USB 3 port, so you’ll need a dongle if you want to use two devices (like a mouse and Ethernet adapter). That more than sort of undercuts the primary issue people have with USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. (As I’ve argued in the past, the dongle issue is not new to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3.)

Surface Laptop also includes an old-school miniDisplayPort for video-out and a Surface Connect port (on the right) for power or Dock-based expansion. There are two slot-like things on each side that look like SD card readers, but are in fact just weird antenna designs. It’s best not to look at them.

Setting up Surface Laptop for the first time, I ran into numerous issues. Starting of course with the overly-loud and completely unwanted and unnecessary Cortana voice-over in Setup. But this device presents other challenges. After manually triggering over 20 app update downloads and syncing OneDrive, I tried to figure out how to get Office on this device. And it should be easier, frankly.

There are tiles in the Start menu for Word 2016 and other Office applications, but when you select one, the Store launches and navigates to a preview version of Office 365 Personal. I actually have an Office 365 Home subscription, and while I know this is, in fact, available from the Store too, I couldn’t find it easily. I finally did find Office 365 Home by searching and then changing the filters. It shouldn’t be this hard.

With that out of the way, I started to consider which apps I use every day and how I could cope with the limitations imposed on me by Windows 10 S, which only works with Store apps. There’s no Chrome, of course, so Edge will have to do. I use MarkdownPad for writing, but Microsoft Word is acceptable. I use the Twitter web app, so I’ll need to stick to an Edge tab for now. Ditto for Google Inbox and Google Calendar, though I guess I could slum it and use the built-in Mail and Calendar apps for the week.

I prefer the desktop version of Skype, but I’ll need to stick with the UWP version. Ditto for OneNote. Fortunately, Adobe Photoshop Elements 15 is a Store app.

Looking over this list, Chrome is enough of a pain point that it would require me to take advantage of the Windows 10 Pro upgrade. It’s not just the browser, it’s the web apps (Inbox, Google Calendar, Twitter Lite) that I pin to my taskbar too. And the performance. And the extensions. And the ability to use Google Search instead of Bing, which no one in their right mind would ever choose. (Yes, I know I can visit Spare me.)

MarkdownPad is a problem too. I’ve been trying to replace this unsupported desktop application with a web app or Store app for months, but it’s just indispensable. Word is OK for a week, but not long-term.

Ultimately, what we have here is an elegant looking machine that seems to fall apart the closer you examine it. Surface Laptop is expensive, with a real base price of $1300 for a version with enough RAM to last a few years and those neat color choices, and there’s a lot of serious competition in that price range. The build quality issues are concerning, and while Windows 10 Pro is a free upgrade now, it won’t always be.

But as I’ve noted in the past, Surface Laptop does have that special something. It’s thin, light, and pretty, and the battery life is allegedly impressive. The performance of this version—a Core i5 with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage—is stellar so far. The device is lappable, unlike the new Surface Pro, and I don’t find it to be particularly top-heavy.

So … I don’t know. Surface Laptop is a device that speaks more to the heart than the mind. And that alone makes it a viable competitor to any Apple laptop.

But if you’re in the market for a PC, you will want to really research your options. And, preferably, get some hands-on time at a local Microsoft Store or other retailer.

I’d love to review Surface Laptop over a longer period of time. If only Microsoft would give me the chance.


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