Review: Microsoft's Surface Laptop running Windows 10 S

For the past 10 days, I've put Microsoft's Surface Laptop through its paces. Here's my 'non-reviewer's review' of Microsoft's newest member of the Surface family.

Surface Laptop is the flagship PC for Windows 10 S

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I don't often write reviews. But when I do, I write as a "normal" (not a power user or professional reviewer) about products on which I'd consider spending my own money.

The recently introduced Microsoft Surface Laptop is one such product.

Microsoft provided me with a loaner burgundy-colored Surface Laptop 10 days ago. I was eager to try it, as I believe clamshell-type PCs, like laptops and ultrabooks, are still the best computing devices for many of us.

In addition, I was curious if Windows 10 S, the version of Windows with which this device is bundled, could work as my OS flavor of choice.

See also: Microsoft launches Windows 10 S, its Store-centric version of Windows 10 | Making sense of Microsoft's Surface lineup | CNET Review: Microsoft's latest feels like more laptop, less Surface

I haven't been overly enamored of Microsoft's other PC models, including the Surface Pro and Surface Book. I liked the concept of the Surface Laptop: A premium computing device for higher-education students and productivity workers. And I was especially intrigued whether Microsoft might have finally made a laptop that truly is lappable.

Let's get the lappability thing out of the way. I know many folks have claimed and actually believe that the Surface RTs, Surfaces, Surface Pros, and Surface Books work on one's lap. They've snapped pics of themselves using them -- often with legs crossed, legs propped up or balancing precariously these various devices -- to prove they are "lappable."

Some have questioned whether I have unusually short legs or am otherwise configured strangely because I cannot make the existing Surfaces work on my lap. Nope and nope. Sorry guys; I am not holding the Surfaces wrong. And even though Microsoft recently rebranded Surface Pros as the company's "most versatile" laptops, I still consider them to be tablets with kickstands and detachable keyboards. As such, Surface Pros still are not well-made for lap use. Usual disclaimer: YMMV.

So what's my lappability rating on Surface Laptop? I'd give it a 7.5. It's more lappable than I thought it might be when I had a few moments with it at the Surface Laptop launch in early May. But its 3:2 aspect ratio and weight of whatever is behind the screen still leave it a bit more top heavy than I'd like. I also find the screen a bit wobbly when poked/touched and the base a bit slippery, requiring me to hold the device in place firmly with my wrists. All that said, I'd still call this Microsoft's most lappable Surface device to date.

I understand not everyone wants or needs to use a laptop on her/his lap. On a flat surface, the newest Surface is well balanced, even when using touch, which is not the case with the Surface Book in my limited experience. The Surface Laptop also works with Microsoft's pens and Dial, but I didn't try it with either. I am one of the estimated 70 percent of Surface users who don't need or use a pen. I also don't often use touch, as the trackpad on this device is quite good.

The 13.5-inch screen resolution of 2256 X 1504 is excellent. The keyboard, much like the one in the Surface Pro 4, is decent for long bouts of typing. I find the wrist wrest of this laptop to be abnormally long (from the bottom edge to the bottom row of keys) so as to accommodate the large trackpad. It's not just my wrists that are on the keyboard base -- it's part of my forearms as well, which feels strange to me.

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The Alcantara fabric that covers the keyboard base (other than the actual keys and trackpad) is definitely going to be a love-hate thing. It feels more like a pool-table cover than a shag carpet, for those wondering about the fuzziness factor.

Microsoft included the covering as a way of differentiating its laptop and giving it a more premium feel. I admit I found myself constantly worrying about staining the cover with food/drink, sweat and tears (not unicorn ones). Officials say the fuzzy keyboard can be wiped clean easily with a damp cloth. But to me, the minuses on this outweigh the potential benefits. During the last few very warm days we've had here in New York, I've found the covering a bit too warm for my liking. And with the way things are going, I'm thinking we'll have more warm days than cold in our futures.

As has been widely reported, there are no USB-C ports on the laptop, but there are USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, Surface Connect for power, and a headphone jack. The ports are on the sides of the laptop. Meanwhile, the power button is now on the keyboard, to the left of the delete key. At first, I was a bit concerned about this placement, but I have not accidentally hit the power key at all in 10 days. And I think it's placement on the keyboard might go a long way to stopping inadvertent power-on situations that have plagued users of some other Surface models.

In my 10 days of use of the Intel Core i5 model with 8 GB of RAM running Windows 10 S (Creators Update release, a k a 1703), I didn't approach the 14-hour battery life figure Microsoft touted for Surface Laptop. The Microsoft figure is for the non-real-world continuous video playback scenarios. In my intermittent, regular but non-continuous use -- browsing the web, monitoring Twitter, writing posts and emails, watching YouTube videos, and playing music on Groove -- I'd guess I've been more in the seven-plus-hour range, not including time when the machine was unused and in standby. (This is a rough calculation, obviously; I'll update in the next couple weeks as I use the device more.)

Happily, I have not once come back to my idle machine to find that most of the battery drained while I wasn't using the device. The default settings for 10 S on the Laptop call for the device to sleep, not hibernate, when not in use, which seems to be part of what "Modern Standby" does to help save battery.

On to the software. I have said recently that I believe I could live with a Chromebook these days, as I almost never need any Win32-only apps. The Surface Laptop proved my hypothesis was right.

For those who code, rely on Win32/legacy applications, want/need access to the Bash shell, the Surface Laptop -- as it is configured out of the box -- is not for you. For those like me who have few app needs and/or who can use browser-based versions of oft-used apps like Google Maps and Google Search, the Surface Laptop isn't a hindrance.

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Credit: Microsoft

Windows Hello authentication worked well and speedier on this 10 S device than on any other Windows 10 device on which I've tried it. And I've been managing fairly well with the Edge browser. Like many Chrome users, I suspect, I never really had given Edge a whole-hearted try before I was unable to install Chrome (it's not a trusted Windows Store app). Even though there are very few extensions available for Edge, it was fast and quite usable.

Windows 10 S, the version of Windows 10 formerly codenamed "Windows Cloud," limits users to running apps that are installable from the Windows 10 Store and/or which are preloaded (like my beloved Microsoft Notepad). Microsoft is touting security/trust and performance as the reasons for this limitation. Users who cannot make 10 S work have the option of a non-reversable upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. This calendar year, that upgrade is free for anyone using a device costing $800 or more (which includes the Surface Laptop); starting next year, it will cost $49 for those who aren't education users.

A couple of final thoughts: I've been using for the past year the HP Spectre ultrabook (the model introduced in 2016) as my daily driver. This is my favorite laptop I've ever used. It's really light at 2.54 well-distributed pounds (compared to Surface Laptop at 2.76, but which feels substantially heavier). The Spectre is incredibly lappable and gives me about six hours of real-life battery use. It doesn't include touch or Hello, but I don't miss either.

The Spectre, priced around $1,250 for the Core i7 model I have, is definitely what I'd call a premium laptop. What makes it premium? Good battery life, a decent-resolution screen, nice styling/details. I still would consider the Spectre "premium" if it shipped with Windows 10 S rather than Windows 10 Home.

Am I ready to trade in my Spectre for the Surface Laptop? No. There's nothing the Surface Laptop offers me over the HP Spectre that leave me feeling compelled to upgrade.

I believe the reason Microsoft made its own laptop, even though its PC partners make plenty of them already, was to show OEMs and customers that a premium computing device could run Windows 10 S. I'm not sure that Microsoft needed to make its own laptop to prove this, but the Surface Laptop is a nice addition to Microsoft's line-up for productivity workers who want a well-crafted device that's a cut above many of the Windows laptops on the market.

The Surface Laptop begins shipping on June 15. The Core i5 model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage starts at $999. The configuration I tested with 8 GB of RAM starts at $1,299. The Core i7 model with 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage starts at $2,199 and starts shipping June 30.

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