Captivating design; Bright and colorful display; Comfortable keyboard; Very good battery life; Nearly instant face recognition login
SSD on the slow side; Fan can get loud; Colors cost extra; Windows 10 S has several limitations
The Surface Laptop is one of sexiest laptops ever, and it backs up those great looks with solid performance, long battery life and a top-notch typing experience.
Editor's Note: Microsoft has unveiled the Surface Laptop 2, which promises 85 percent more power and features a redesigned keyboard built to outshine the MacBook. Look for it on Oct. 16 starting at $999.
The Surface Laptop ($999, $1,299 as configured) is the Microsoft notebook that I've been waiting for. Unlike the Surface Pro, this clamshell easily balances in my lap. And the Surface Laptop is lighter, more affordable and more stylish than the pricier Surface Book, complete with a chic keyboard deck made of Alcantara fabric and a color-matched magnesium body that comes in four hues.
Microsoft says that it's targeting students with the Surface Laptop, and that's because it comes standard with Windows 10 S, a new streamlined version of the operating system that runs apps only from the Windows Store. The goal is to offer faster performance and better security than regular Windows, but many will find this walled garden too constricting. The good news is that you can upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for free.
Design: Deliciously different
Mmmm, Alcantara. This fabric isn't new, as Microsoft has been using it on the Surface Pro's keyboard for a while. But the soft-touch feel of this material across the expanse of the Surface Laptop's deck feels downright cushy compared with the cold metal you'll find on other ultraportables. (As my 9-year-old put it, "Ooh, it's soft!")
Microsoft has done the Dell XPS 13's soft-touch carbon-fiber deck one better with this material. And it's stain resistant, as I had no problem wiping some jelly off that had escaped my bagel.
My review unit came in Burgundy, which pops, but is still plenty sophisticated for the conference room. You can also get the Surface Laptop in Platinum, Cobalt Blue and Graphite Gold. Microsoft boasts that this laptop has a "silent design," which means you won't see any screws or seams on this system. There's just one fan on the bottom toward the back. Overall, the aesthetic is fashionable yet minimalist.
Measuring 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 inches and weighing 2.76 pounds, the Surface Laptop is fairly portable but heavier than some competing notebooks. The HP Spectre, for instance, measures just 12.8 x 9.03 x 0.41-inches thin and weighs 2.4 pounds, and the 12-inch MacBook is just 2.03 pounds. The Dell XPS 13 is about the same weight as the Surface Laptop at 2.7 pounds, but it's narrower and a bit shorter at 12 x 7.9 x 0.33 -0.6 inches.
Specs (Starting Configuration/Review Model)
OS: Windows 10 S
CPU: 7th-generation Intel Core i5 7200U
Hard Drive: 128GB SSD/256GB SSD
Display: 13.5 inches (2256 x 1504 pixels)
Ports: USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, Headphone, Surface Connect
Size: 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 inches
Weight: 2.76 pounds
Ports: A missed opportunity
Microsoft decided not to include a USB Type-C port on the Surface Laptop, partly because the ecosystem of peripherals is still growing and partly because it didn't want to force people to carry dongles around (cough, MacBook). But I still would have liked to see one USB-C port on here with support for the high-speed Thunderbolt 3 standard, which would enable the Surface Laptop to plug into all sorts of docks, as well as a growing number of graphics amplifiers.
What you do get is a full-size USB 3 port, as well as a Mini DisplayPort for connecting an external monitor. The Surface Connect port on the right side is a proprietary connector that offers power, video and data and is compatible with the Surface Dock ($199), which offers two Mini DisplayPorts, a Gigabit Ethernet port, four USB 3.0 ports and audio out.
Display: A colorful (and tall) canvas
The 13.5-inch touch display on the Surface Laptop provides an immersive experience. It's sharp at 2256 x 1504 pixels, bright and colorful. When watching the trailer for The Last Jedi, I was struck by the vibrant trail of red dust left by the vehicles speeding along the desert on this screen, and on the Spider-Man Homecoming trailer, I could make out fine stitching in the superhero's mask.
The panel averaged 361 nits on our light meter, which beats the XPS 13 (305 nits for the touch-screen version), the HP Spectre (320 nits) and the 12-inch MacBook (340 nits.) However, the MateBook X gets even brighter at 376 nits.
This screen also produces a wide array of colors, registering 135 percent of the sRGB color gamut. That's neck and neck with the MateBook X (136 percent) and better than most other ultraportables. Too bad the color accuracy isn't so great, as the Surface Laptop's display notched a Delta-E score of 5.19; 0 is perfect.
My only nitpick is that the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface Laptop's screen makes the screen taller than what you'll find on other ultraportables. That created a tight squeeze for me when someone in front of me on the bus reclined. The good news is that the height fits more content on the screen at once.
Audio: Get ready for some oomph
The speakers on the Surface Laptop are borderline thunderous given this system's size. DJ Khaled's "I'm the One" featuring Justin Bieber filled my office with sound, and it didn't sound harsh at max volume. The bass had a decent thump, too, resulting in well-balanced audio.
Keyboard and Touchpad: Luxurious typing experience
When you combine a fairly deep 1.4mm of key travel with a soft-touch Alcantara deck, the result is one of the best typing experiences on a laptop yet. Typing this review was a sheer pleasure. The backlit keyboard is comfortable yet quiet, and there's plenty of room for your wrists to rest on the fabric surrounding the layout.
On the 10fastfingers typing test, I averaged 74 words per minute, which is slightly higher than the 71 wpm I achieved on the Dell XPS 13. Even better, I hit 98 percent accuracy.
The 4.1 x 2.7-inch touchpad is roomy and provided fairly smooth scrolling action when surfing the web, as well as an instant response when flicking up three fingers to display all open apps.
Thanks to the work Microsoft has done on the Windows Hello feature and camera, most of the time I got logged in while I was finishing lifting the lid.
Performance: Solid, but SSD could be better
One measure of performance is just how quickly you can get back to work from sleep, and the Surface Laptop shines on this front. Thanks to the work Microsoft has done on the Windows Hello feature, which leverages the webcam for facial recognition, most of the time I got logged in while I was finishing lifting the lid. That's fast.
The Surface Laptop is fairly speedy otherwise, though its SSD could be faster. Our configuration features a 7th-generation Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
On Geekbench 4, which measures overall performance, the Surface Laptop scored 7,157. That's comparable to the XPS 13 (7,159) and better than the Core m3-powered Macbook (6,853). The HP Spectre, Asus ZenBook 3 and Huawei MateBook X delivered better scores in the 7,500 to 8,500 range, but that's to be expected given those systems were packing Core i7 processors.
The Surface Laptop's SSD performance is pretty disappointing. It turned in a transfer rate of just 110.6 MBps on our testing, which is a fifth of the ZenBook 3's speed and one-quarter of the MacBook's. The XPS 13 and HP Spectre were about three times as fast.
The Surface Laptop should be able to get you through most, if not all, of your workday unplugged.
This is a laptop that can definitely crunch some numbers, but it's not the fastest. On our spreadsheet test, in which we match 20,000 names and addresses, the Surface Laptop completed the task in 4 minutes and 1 second. That's slightly behind the XPS 13 (3:55), while the Core i7-powered Spectre understandably took less (3:35).
You can get away with playing some games on this machine between meetings or classes. The Surface Laptop delivered a brisk 68 frames per second on the Dirt 3 racing gaming at 1920 x 1080. The MateBook X hit a slightly higher 71 fps, while the Asus ZenBook 3 and the HP Spectre were below 50 fps.
Windows 10 S: Training wheels I don't need
Take that, Chromebooks? You could think of Windows 10 S as Microsoft's answer to Chrome OS. It's stripped down, offering access only to apps in the Windows Store and making the Edge browser the only one you can access. If you try to download an app from somewhere else, the software will try to redirect you into to the Windows Store or suggest an alternative that's there.
The reason why Windows 10 S is a deal-breaker for me is because it forces you to use Bing as your default search provider and because you can't download the Chrome browser.
The aim of this fork in the operating system is to prevent the usual security headaches, many of which often come from downloading third-party apps. Microsoft also wants to keep the performance speedy over the long haul.
But Windows 10 S is a deal-breaker for me because it forces you to use Bing as your default search provider. You also can't download the Chrome browser. Bing search results have improved, but I want to choose which search engine the browser pings when I type in the address bar.
MORE: How to Use Windows 10
In addition, apps that I use every day are not in the Windows Store, such as Hipchat, although I made due with the browser-based version of the chat app. There are some good apps on the way to the Windows Store, including iTunes and Spotify, which will join popular options like Pandora, Netflix, Sling TV, Facebook and Instagram.
Over time, Windows 10 S could force more developers to create apps for the Windows Store, which will ultimately make the OS more compelling, but I don't being locked into a stripped-down experience. It frankly feels anti-Windows. For now, I suggest upgrading to Windows 10 Pro, which you can do for free.
Battery Life: Very good
The Surface Laptop should be able to get you through most, if not all, of your workday unplugged. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi on 100 nits of screen brightness, this system lasted 9 hours and 2 minutes.
That runtime beats the Asus ZenBook 3's 7:05 and the HP Spectre's lowly 6:13, and it's on a par with the XPS 13 with touch-screen display (9:11). The 12-inch MacBook lasted a longer 9:29.
Heat and Noise: Cool but could be quieter
The good news is that the Surface Laptop stayed cool in our testing, In fact, none of the areas we hit with a heat gun reached 95 degrees, which is our comfort threshold. After streaming video for 15 minutes on this notebook, the touchpad registered 79.5 degrees, the keyboard, 87.5 degrees and the bottom, 90.5 degrees.
Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop's fan got loud on occasion, even when juggling just a dozen tabs in the Chrome browser and a few more in Edge. It's not jarring, but the hum was annoying in my otherwise quiet home office.
Surface Pen: It works
The Surface Laptop wouldn't be my first choice for pairing with a Surface Pen, but it's nice to know that it supports the $99 accessory. I was able to draw in the Paint app smoothly, as well as easily annotate pages in the Edge browser.
The reason why I wouldn't bother is that the display doesn't lie flat or bend back; writing on the screen causes it to bounce backward, which is distracting.
The camera on the Surface Pro is slightly better than average, offering accurate colors but not the best detail. In a selfie, my gray-and-black shirt looked fairly crisp, but there was an overall haze to the image, and it came out on the dark side.
Configuration options: Go for color
The Surface Laptop starts at $999, and the specs aren't bad for that price. You get a 7th-generation Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a128GB SSD. We'd prefer to see at least 8GB of RAM at that price, which the XPS 13 offers for $999 (though without a touch screen).
Our bigger issue is that you need to spend at least $1,299 to get the otherwise boring Platinum Surface Laptop in Burgundy, Cobalt Blue or Graphite Gold. Granted, that step up also features 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, but it's a shame you have to spend $300 extra to change colors.
Other configuration options include a Core i7 model with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $1,599, or you can splurge for a $2,199 version with a 512GB SSD and 16GB of RAM.
Bottom Line: A Winner
When you look at the landscape of ultraportable laptops, there's a race to be the thinnest on the block, but we're starting to see diminishing returns as a result of that quest. The Surface Laptop stands out with a design that dares to be different, and it pays off. I love the Alcantara deck and colorful metal design, and that you don't have to sacrifice a full-size USB port for the sake of thinness. I just wish Microsoft had included a USB Type-C port, with Thunderbolt 3 support.
As for Windows 10 S, I'd skip it and upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, because the former would force me to change the way I work. But if you're willing to trade versatility for faster performance and better security, you can always give it a shot before you decide.
Overall, the Dell XPS 13 is still our top pick, because it offers more ports and starts at a lower price ($799) while offering a speedier SSD. Still, the Surface Laptop delivers, including typing comfort, performance, display quality and battery life. And if you really want a touch screen, you can get it for much less than the XPS 13 ($999 versus $1,256).
Credit: Keith Agnello/LaptopMag
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|CPU||7th-generation Intel Core i5 7200U|
|Operating System||Windows 10 S|
|RAM Upgradable to|
|Hard Drive Size||256GB|
|Hard Drive Speed|
|Hard Drive Type||SSD|
|Secondary Hard Drive Size|
|Secondary Hard Drive Speed|
|Secondary Hard Drive Type|
|Highest Available Resolution|
|Native Resolution||2256 x 1504|
|Optical Drive Speed|
|Touchpad Size||4.1 x 2.7 inches|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Headphone|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Mini Display Port|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Surface Connect|
|Ports (excluding USB)||USB 3.0|
|Size||12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 inches|