My Week With The Surface Laptop

Image: Kotaku

The Surface Pro 5 launched recently and, as expected, it's the best iteration of Microsoft's 2-in-1 devices yet. But it's not the only new tech from Microsoft. They also launched the Surface Laptop, a Pro-looking device aimed at the crowd who would traditionally buy a Macbook Air.

The Surface Laptop became available in Australia last week, and I paid out of pocket to grab one on launch day. I've been using it ever since; here's what that's been like.

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The Surface Laptop takes a while to boot up

First thing I noticed is that the Surface Laptop takes a surprising amount of time to boot up. The device doesn't seem to hibernate particularly well - if you close the lid and pop it back open 15 or 20 minutes later, the unit goes through a startup cycle that takes about 15 seconds to get back to the desktop.

It's not a massive amount of time, unless you compare it to the almost instantaneous wake up time for ... well, a lot of other laptops. I can't remember any similar delay in startup when I tested the Razer Blade and Razer Blade Stealth, and Apple's offerings wake up in a matter of seconds.

Let me be clear: I'm not complaining here. But it's weird to see a device released in 2017 that makes me feel like I get up quickly, and it's definitely something you'll notice if you use it long enough.

I really like the Alcantara fabric, but

The big feature that stands out on the Surface Laptop, at least visually, is the Alcantara fabric. It's a material that's mostly polyester with a mix of polyurethane, and it's the biggest question mark hovering over the laptop.

Remember, this is a laptop pitched at people who would buy the Macbook Air. Students. Artists, graphic designers, younger professionals, people for whom being light is more valuable than having additional ports and functionality.

That crowd loves to spill shit. Microsoft has warned people that they will need to look after the fabric from time to time with some microfibre cloths, and maybe a bit of soap and water.

But people can be pretty grubby. Provided you're the cautious type, you should be fine - and that means you'll get the nice feeling of that fabric against your hands and wrists a little longer.

It's not just a nice laptop to type on: the fabric feels good resting against your wrists, and it's nice to the touch. It's a much nicer experience than the Type Covers have ever been, which brings me to my next point.

The keyboard is really, really good

I've had plenty of experience with the Surface Book before, and some experience here and there with various Type Covers for the Surface Pro line. That's not to mention all the other laptops I've played with over the years, from full-size gaming laptops to slimmer notebook offerings.

The keyboard on the Surface Laptop is the best of the lot. It's a slightly different experience to the MBA, and I'd rank both of them leaps and bounds over the updated keyboards found in Apple's more recent MacBooks. The keys are a satisfying size, there's a nice amount of room between each of the keys, and the keyboard backlight is sufficient (but nothing special).

Most importantly: there's a CTRL key in the bottom left. Exactly where it should be. The arrow keys are also a decent size, which has come in handy whenever I've fired up DosBOX for a quick nostalgia trip.

The touchpad is good out of the gate

Image: Kotaku

Touchpads on PC laptops have improved over the years, although in a lot of cases I find I still have to tweak them a little to get an experience satisfying enough to match what Apple produces.

The Surface Laptop's touchpad is one of the best. The palm recognition is excellent, perhaps as good as anything that isn't Apple-branded, and the precision out of the box is good enough to use on a daily basis. I've adjusted the sensitivity up one notch since then, but that's less than what I've done with previous laptops on work trips.

The only negative is that if you haven't used the touchpad in a while it can occasionally take a fraction of a second to respond. But most people will often do circles on their touchpad until they can see the cursor, and if the brightness is turned down real low chances are you won't even notice it.

You might have more compatibility issues than you thought

I didn't expect to be roaming through Fallout 4 on the Surface Laptop, but the hardware is powerful enough to run retro games on Steam, classics from Good Old Games, and so on. But what's not factored in is Microsoft's weird 3:2 aspect ratio. The 2256 x 1024 resolution doesn't play nicely with every application, and going through my Steam library uncovered a few titles that refused to boot.

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For reference, I bought the model with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM. On the plus side, my go-to SNES emulator worked without skipping a beat, but you'll need to be wary if you like to do a bit of retro gaming on the side.

Upgrading from Windows 10 S was pretty painless

The Surface Laptop ships with Windows 10 S as standard, a version of Windows 10 that only permits apps to be installed from the Windows Store. Having invested as much into Steam as I have, I was having none of that, and immediately dug into how I could upgrade to something less limiting.

Fortunately, the process was pretty painless. All you have to do is search for Windows 10 Pro on the Windows Store and then click upgrade, with the time to upgrade dependent on your internet connection. It was painless, although that won't be the case for anyone who buys a Surface Laptop after 2017: you'll have to pay an upgrade fee of $US49.

The screen is pretty bloody bright

Enjoying a laptop in its natural habitat - bed

As far as laptop screens go, the Surface Laptop is bloody bright. It's great if you're a uni student who does a lot of work outdoors in well-lit environments. For me, who works in a regular office, around the home and on the train occasionally, I've never needed more than 50%.

If anything, I almost wish the screen could be dimmed even further. When you're sitting in bed next to your partner and you're finishing off a feature, it's a smidge too bright still. But that's the smallest of gripes. And given that I have no desire to use the screen as a touchscreen whatsoever, it should remain perfectly visible (read: no smudges) for a long time.

I really hope nothing goes wrong

Nobody wants their tech to break ever, but that's especially true in the case of the Surface Laptop. As iFixit discovered, it's held together by an awful amount of glue. You can forget about cracking open the laptop unless you're prepared to write it off entirely. Fortunately, I purchased it through Microsoft direct and any repairs are on them.

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It's far from the best value for money

I'm not kidding myself: I've paid well over the odds to preference form over function with the Surface Laptop. You can get plenty of thin and light laptops with vastly better hardware, more RAM, equivalent-sized hard drives, and for cheaper. Hell, you can get a Razer Blade Stealth with a 512GB drive and a 4K screen for $100 more than what I paid, and that's only a few hundred grams heavier. The 13" 2-in-1 Dell laptops ship with an i7 by default, at least 8GB of RAM, plenty more ports, and it's vastly cheaper.

I could go on and on. But you get the picture, and it's the same proposition that Apple owners had to make peace with. Even if you're buying the lowest end Surface Laptop, you're doing so because it's a nice laptop to use. You're not buying it because it's the best value for money - you're buying it because you enjoy using it the most. If the kind of laptop you need relies less on feel and more on grunt, however, there are vastly better options.


So all in all, it's been a week as a Surface Laptop owner. And despite all the quirks and raised eyebrows, I'm pretty happy so far. I needed a new laptop anyway, and having one with a typing experience as satisfying as the old MBA without being shackled to OSX has been a joy.

Have you looked at the Surface Laptop at all, and if so, do you have any questions? Drop them in the comments below and I'll answer them as best I can.


Comments

    Most importantly: there's a CTRL key in the bottom left. Exactly where it should be.

    This is my biggest gripe with laptops and so few people seem to care! I have to use a Macbook for work and detest working on the built in keyboard for this exact reason.

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