Like so many students, the very first laptop I had was a MacBook (the plastic one, not the new 2-pounder). I bought it in the summer of 2007 after finishing my first year of college, and it lasted until I graduated.
I loved the machine even though it weighed a hefty five pounds and was an inch thick. It’s a tank by today’s thin and light laptop standards, but you have to remember something: Back then, a one-inch thick machine was the definition of thin.
Steve Jobs wouldn’t famously pull the MacBook Air out of a manila envelope until a year later, and the laptop wouldn’t go on to become the most popular laptop until 2010 when it got a redesign with more ports.
In the last decade, MacBooks have morphed into the gold standard. They’re still more expensive and underpowered compared to Windows laptops, but for students and professionals, Apple’s machines expertly balance style and performance.
Chromebooks are also a popular option for many students, but their inability to run many “real” apps outside of Google Docs, underpowered web apps, and Android apps (if your machine supports them), makes them less viable for many college students (at least according to the dozen or so that I asked).
Apple’s MacBook domination on campuses and in Starbucks is arguably the strongest case for why Microsoft’s first clamshell laptop, the Surface Laptop, exists.
The Surface Laptop builds on the Surface Pro’s success. Although the Surface Pro was never meant to sell in volume — it’s mostly an aspirational reference design meant to nudge PC makers towards Microsoft’s 2-in-1 vision — it has helped ingrain this idea that Microsoft is an underdog that builds hardware Apple won’t.
Just like how you know an Apple product when you see one, the same goes for Microsoft’s entire lineup of Surface devices.
The Surface Laptop is a very handsome machine. It comes in silver, gold, blue, and burgundy — all very attractive colors. The 2.76 pound laptop is lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and thinner, too.
Its aluminum body is sturdy and sits firmly on a table or on your lap. The Surface Laptop has a wedge-shaped design and flaunts it hard; you won’t find rounded tapers to create the illusion that its thinner.
Most of its ports (USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, and headphone jack) sit on the left side. On the right side is a lone SurfaceConnect magnetic plug. I appreciate the full-sized USB 3.0 port, but one just isn’t enough; a second one would have been great, or at least one USB-C port. There’s also no SD card slot (a trend I don’t like), which basically means students will need to buy a separate memory card reader or a USB hub to get more ports. Even though Microsoft thinks USB-C isn’t ready for primetime, you’ll probably still end up in #donglehell.
The number of ports may be a little lacking, but the screen, keyboard and trackpad are sublime.
The 13.5-inch PixelSense touchscreen (2,256 x 1,504 resolution) has super slim bezels around it, and it’s covered with scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3. I found the screen both remarkably sharp and bright, and incredibly responsive.
I used to feel touchscreens on a laptop were silly, especially on Windows machines, which have tiny icons not designed for fingers, but I now really like them. “Gorilla arm” isn’t really an issue since you’re not using the touchscreen all the time, only sometimes. It’s a shame Apple thinks touchscreens are wrong for Macs. My only qualm with the touchscreen is how it wobbles when you poke at it, but that’s a necessary concession to get the screen so thin.
The keyboard and trackpad are some of the best I’ve ever used on a laptop. If you’ve typed on a Surface Pro or Surface Book, you’ll know how bouncy the keys are — the Surface Laptop’s keys with 1.5mm travel are satisfying and the opposite of the flat-as-hell keys on Apple’s MacBooks (the Air’s still got the old keys, though).
Likewise, the trackpad is exceptionally smooth and nearly on par with a MacBook’s. That Microsoft can make a great trackpad only upsets me more that PC makers like HP and Lenovo still can’t get their shit together.
The most eye-catching thing about the keyboard and trackpad is, of course, the Alcantara fabric that surrounds it. The soft touch material is indeed soft and really keeps your fingers warm when you’re typing and scrolling. Microsoft says the material’s got a “polyurethane covering for durability, including water and chemical resistance.”
I’m not sure how well the Alcantara cover will hold up to years of Cheetos dust, Red Bull spills, and whatever other gross things it may come into contact with in a dorm room. But I can tell you the edges on my review unit started to fray a little after a week in my bag.
I tested the $1,299 model with 7th-gen Intel Core Intel Core i5-7200U, Intel HD 620 graphics, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD storage, and it powered through like a real champ.
I wasn’t gaming on it or anything (mostly web browsing, typing, and streaming Netflix and YouTube videos) — just typical college student stuff — but even so it never chugged. I can’t speak for the 4GB model, though. But based on my past experience testing laptops with 4GB of RAM I can tell you they bottleneck very quickly.
The Surface Laptop runs Windows 10 S. It’s Windows 10, but with one huge caveat: You can only install apps from the Windows Store. In this regard, Windows 10 S is basically like iOS.
Microsoft gives a few reasons for why Windows 10 S is better for students. One, it’s safer. Barring users from downloading and installing apps (from who knows where) means fewer virus-infested machines. Two, allowing Windows Store-approved apps improves performance and battery life. And three, Windows 10 S computers are easier to manage by network admins who want to quickly deploy a specific version and set of apps to devices.
You’d be stupid to say no to security and better performance, but are they worth restricting yourself to apps only in the Windows Store?
For me, the answer is no. I need Chrome for work and I use many apps that aren’t available in the Windows Store. But I’m not the target audience — students are — so I asked a bunch of my friends’ siblings who are in high school or college.
No surprise, all of them gave Windows 10 S’s huge app restriction a thumbs down. Sure, Windows 10 S runs Office 365, Google Docs works just fine in Edge, and you’ll find some popular apps like Netflix, VLC Player, but if you want, for example, Adobe’s Create Suite (Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere, etc.) or even another web browser, you’re totally screwed unless the app makes it into the Windows Store.
You could probably find alternative apps, but college students often use custom apps that come with their textbooks — none of which will work on the Surface Laptop unless… you upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
Students I asked all gave Windows 10 S’s huge app restriction a thumbs down.
Surface Laptop owners can upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro and basically remove the Windows Store-only apps restriction until December 31, 2017. After that, upgrading will cost $50.
But while upgrading to Windows 10 Pro will “un-cripple” the Surface Laptop (there’s no going back to Windows 10 S), it comes at the expense of the aforementioned advantages.
You could argue that there’s no such thing as a truly secure computer — it’ll always be a cat and mouse game between Microsoft and hackers — and no laptop truly gets all-day battery life with real-world usage (I got around 6-8 hours of mixed usage; Microsoft advertises up to 14.5 hours of local video playback), and I agree.
How’s a student supposed to pick? I say be fearless and just upgrade. The Surface Laptop doesn’t get significantly slower and the power adapter’s compact enough to lug around. It’s not like it’s 2005 and laptops only get two hours of battery life on a single charge.
Making a decision
The Surface Laptop can be summed up in a single word: finally.
After years of beating the 2-in-1 drum, Microsoft’s finally made a laptop that’s a real laptop through and through (sorry, but the Surface Pro isn’t a laptop if the keyboard isn’t included).
The Surface Laptop starts at $999, but nobody should buy this model; 4GB of RAM won’t get anyone very far. Which means the lowest-priced model to consider is the $1,299 version I tested. (Don’t forget to add $50 to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro if you miss the cutoff by the end of year.)
A $999 MacBook Air (2017) gets you more ports and double the RAM, but also a lower non-touch display and punier graphics. The new $1,299 MacBook Pro (non-Touch Bar) is a more comparable machine, and it’s got the better specs for the same money (without a touchscreen, of course).
It’s a tough call. How important is a touchscreen to you?
For a first laptop, Microsoft got a lot right. It’s not perfect (no laptop is), but it’s damn close and it’s still one of the better Windows 10 laptops that I actually wanted to keep using because the hardware is so nice.
But if you buy one, do your self a favor and upgrade to Windows 10 Pro ASAP.
Microsoft Surface Laptop
Bright, high-res touchscreen • Fantastic keyboard and trackpad • Speedy performance • Great battery life
Apps restricted to Windows Store unless you upgrade to 10 Pro • No SD card slot • No USB-C port • $50 to upgrade to Win 10 Pro in 2018
The Bottom Line
Microsoft’s first laptop is a winner, but only if you upgrade it.