Microsoft interestingly chose an education-focused event to launch the newest member of the Surface series of computers: the Surface Laptop. It was interesting because almost everything about the Surface Laptop spells premium; from the laser-cut Alcantara material that wraps the keyboard and trackpad, to feats like implementing the thinnest LCD touch module in a laptop to date. And while a fair share of students use Apple’s Mac laptops, for many the starting price tag of a $1,000 will be a bit too much.
At first glance, the $999 Surface Laptop might just look like the perfect alternative to the $999 MacBook Air (why you should buy a MacBook Air), which has received no love from Apple in the past few years. The Surface Laptop comes with a high pixel density display that’s also touch compatible, runs the latest 7th generation Intel Core i5 and i7 chips, and is thinner and lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air. But here are a few things you need to know before you click that order button on Microsoft’s website.
1. There Is No USB-C Port
The Surface Laptop has a typically-shaped USB 3.0 port found on most computers today, meaning your existing peripherals will work without an adapter. But the world is moving to USB Type-C (USB-C, for short) as we speak, with companies like Apple putting only USB-C ports on its new computers like the 2016 MacBook Pro. Other companies aren’t as aggressive with USB-C yet, but have started including at least one in their high-end models.
The Razer Blade Stealth for example, has two USB 3.0 ports and one USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, which lets you connect peripherals like an external graphics card to play high-end games. Android phones are also adopting USB-C aggressively, so you can charge your phone with your computer’s power adapter.
The problem here is that people don’t upgrade their computers as often as they upgrade their smartphones. Since you’re spending a $1,000 or more on the Surface Laptop, we assume you’ll want to use it for the next three to five years. And looking at USB-C’s rate of adoption, it might just start getting obsolete sooner than later.
2. You Can Upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for Free
Like we mentioned earlier, it was odd to see a computer as powerful as the Surface Laptop come pre-installed with Windows 10 S, an education-focused restricted variant of Windows 10 that can only run apps from Windows Store. Because it won’t run any executable files, Microsoft can optimize the performance and reliability of the OS better, as there won’t be any random apps going rogue in the background. This OS is designed to run on computers that cost as low as $189.
There are some sneaky moves Microsoft made with Windows 10 S too, like how you can’t set another browser as your default web browser (it’s set to Microsoft Edge). What’s worse, you can’t even set the default search provider (Bing) in the Edge browser. Also, with Windows 10 S you’re at your favorite app developers’ mercy, as it’s up to them to make a version available in the Windows Store. For example, you can’t use Chrome in Windows 10 S until Google decides to list it on Microsoft’s app store.
Fortunately, until 31st December 2017, you can buy a Surface Laptop and pretend it never came with Windows 10 S. This is because you’re are eligible for a free upgrade to the standard, no-holds-barred Windows 10 Pro (after December, the upgrade may cost $49). I don’t see any reason why any Surface Laptop owner won’t want to upgrade and free herself from these restrictions.
3. The 14.5-Hour Battery Life Is “Quoted”
One of the biggest claims Microsoft made during the launch presentation of the Surface Laptop’s battery life of “14.5 hours of video playback”. Now that sounds impressive for a computer that’s thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, has a higher-resolution screen, and yet tops the Air’s rated 12-hour runtime. But there are a couple of factors to consider.
First, if you read the fine print at the bottom of the official website, Microsoft does not fully define the testing conditions of that video playback test. For example, how high was the brightness? What was the quality of video playback? We know that Apple claims a 12-hour battery life playing a 1080p HD video at 75 percent screen brightness at the bottom of their page. Next, there’s no comparable claim of how long the Surface Laptop’s battery will last when browsing the web. Apple suggests the same 12-hour battery life when browsing the web over Wi-Fi.
I’m not saying that the Surface Laptop’s battery life will be bad, but there’s a good chance it won’t run as long in typical scenarios, where you’re doing more than just watching videos. For example, Microsoft’s updated Surface Book last year claimed a whopping 16 hours of runtime, but if you were to go by the reviews, it doesn’t last as long in the real world.
4. The Base Model Has 4 GB of RAM
The Surface Laptop interestingly competes with both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro 13 non-Touch Bar model (which is said to be the spiritual successor to the MacBook Air). The entry-level $999 SKU of the Surface Laptop is priced the same as the entry-level 13-inch Air, but comes with just 4 GB of RAM. The MacBook Air’s base model comparatively comes with 8 GB RAM.
Now, 4 GB of RAM might be fine if you don’t use more than a few apps and tabs in your web browser, but it certainly less for anything more, and especially so when you’re paying $1,000 for it. Also, 4 GB RAM could be enough if you’re planning on using it with Windows 10 S, which is designed to “suspend or even terminate applications to reduce the usage of memory, processor, and battery resources”, as suggested by Ars Technica.
But in our experience, we’ve seen that today’s web apps (like Facebook, Gmail, Outlook.com, Google Docs or MS Office Online) are complex and 4 GB RAM sometimes can prove insufficient. To upgrade to the model with 8 GB, the price also goes up to $1,299 (you also get 256 GB of SSD in place of the 128 GB drive). But the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is often discounted to as low as $1,249 on Best Buy. Sure, the Surface Laptop has a touch screen and more color options, but the Pro has a sharper screen, Intel Iris graphics, USB-C ports, a huge glass trackpad, and better syncing with other Apple devices that you may own. This will make the choice harder for some.
5. You’ll Have to Choose Between Color or Specs
This is the weirdest decision you’ll have to make when buying the Surface Laptop. You’ve probably already seen that the computer is available in four different colors: Platinum, Graphite Gold, Burgundy, and Cobalt Blue. Want to stick to the entry-level $999 model? You can only get it in Platinum. What’s weirder, say you want to soup it up with the Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM or 512 GB of SSD storage? Again you can only get all of those options in Platinum. Yup, you can’t get those other fancy color options even if you’re willing to drop $2,199 on one.
The only configuration where you can choose from any of the four colors from is the 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD option. I can imagine this might be the model that most people will choose, so from a supply-chain point of view, it makes sense for Microsoft to make it available in all colors. It also works to their advantage since people drawn by that deep red or blue color will have to pony up $300 extra over the base model.
In conclusion, I don’t mean to dissuade you from purchasing the Surface Laptop if you’re absolutely in love with it. In fact, I’m very happy that Microsoft seems to have hit it on the nail with a computer that could potentially break Apple’s monopoly in the $1,000+ segment.
But remember, you’re going to be using this machine for the next couple of years at least, so we hope you’ve made peace with the above. Anyone else have grave misgivings about the Surface Laptop? Let us know in the comments!