NEW YORK CITY — Microsoft has a new Surface laptop, and it’s called the Surface Laptop.
And at first blush, it feels nice. That should be the case given how much Microsoft talked up the build quality of its new take on the traditional clamshell, but that premium feel did carry over in the short time I was able to play with the new Surface at the company’s New York City event on Tuesday.
The lid is covered in a smooth aluminium — that did seem to pick up some light smudges — but the whole device comes off as clean and solidly put together. It’s not the absolute thinnest or lightest machine out there, but, at 14.5mm thick and 2.74 pounds, it’s unlikely to encumber you out on the go. It also just looks great: The solid burgundy and dark blue tones are particularly striking in a way that should immediately stand out. That’s really the best thing it has going for it.
The trade-off is a lack of ports: You get a headphone jack, USB 3.0 port, and mini DisplayPort, and that’s it. That’s fine enough for a notebook aimed at college kids more than pros — photographers aside — but Microsoft’s continued rejection of the increasingly popular USB-C isn’t great.
The cloth-like alcantara fabric that coats the palm rests and lays underneath the keyboard is probably the signature design feature here. If you’ve ever used one of the Surface Pro’s pricier keyboard covers, it’s more or less that; I wouldn’t say it’s more luxurious than metal, but it’s soft, and more notably it’s different. It’s one of those things that will signify you’re using a Surface, which is part of the point here. How well that alcantara will hold up over time is another question, but that’s a question for the future.
Likewise, it’s too early to say how well the essentials may perform in the long-run. For what it’s worth, the 13.5-inch touch display was bright, sharp, and responsive; the keyboard had enough travel and space to feel comfortable (unlike, for me, Apple’s MacBook); and the trackpad was perfectly acceptable, if a bit stiff to click. I wasn’t able to check out the speaker quality in such a noisy environment, but if nothing else, Microsoft’s decision to plant them underneath the keyboard is clever. And the promised 14.5 hours of battery life will be great if it actually holds up.
On the inside, the Surface Laptop starts with the latest Intel Core i5 chip, with an option for a stronger Core i7 chip (with boosted graphics) beyond that. You can get 4, 8, or 16 GB of RAM, and 128, 256, or 512 GB of SSD storage. My demo unit did feel speedy, but part of that is because it’s running Windows 10 S, the lightweight variant of Windows 10 that Microsoft announced alongside the new laptop today.
This is what’s really going to determine whether or not the Surface Laptop is worth it: The laptop itself looks and feels great, but so do HP’s Spectre x360 and Dell’s XPS 13, both of which start around the same $US999 (about $A1,300) price point, although Australian pricing hasn’t been confirmed yet.
But whereas those laptops run an unhindered version of Windows 10, here you’ve got a Microsoft-ified alternative to Chrome OS. You’re mainly running through Microsoft’s Edge browser (for now), and you can only download apps from Windows’ app store. If you try to download, say, Google Chrome from the web, you’ll get a pop-up recommending you download Edge instead.
To be clear: For a lot of people, including many college kids, that’s still plenty. Chrome OS has shown that people can get by with just a web browser, Edge is getting better, and the Windows app store does have a good chunk of the essentials onboard. (Full-on versions of Microsoft Office are coming soon, too.) Windows 10 S looks virtually identical to plain Windows 10 in function and aesthetics — you just can’t download as much. And if it’s anything like Chrome OS, it should get much more out of lesser hardware than its beefier sibling.
But if you need the whole shebang, or you just don’t want to pay close to $US1,000 to be locked into Microsoft Land, then the Surface Laptop loses a bit of its shine. Microsoft’s ace in the hole is that you can switch to the full Windows 10 for free until the end of the year — it will be $US50 after that — but that lowers the value a bit, particularly if you’re using the entry-level model and its lesser RAM and storage. In that sense, the Surface Laptop is as much “Microsoft’s Chromebook Pixel” as it is “Microsoft’s MacBook.”
Nevertheless, as a piece of hardware, the Surface Laptop feels like it belongs alongside the other top-end devices in the Surface series. It’s got that “object of desire” feel going for it, and the lighter software load should help it get more out of what it’s working with. It will likely just be up to you, and how much value you place in design versus simplified software, to decide whether or not it’s worth the premium.
We’ll have a more complete review before the Surface Laptop is released on June 15.
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