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Monday, 26 June 2017 15:20

Microsoft Surface Laptop – when only a clamshell will do (review)

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Microsoft has expanded its Surface line-up to include a traditional “clam-shell” style, ultra-light notebook.

Its positioning overlaps a little – it has a larger 13.5”, 2556 x 1504 screen than the new 12.3”, 2736 x 1824 Surface Pro (2017) and the same size as the 13.5”, 3000 x 2000, Surface Book. It has a choice of Intel 7th generation Core i5 or i7 whereas the Surface Pro also offers the m3. Both will have LTE versions soon.

MS SN family

It all comes down to if you feel more comfortable with a clamshell or a tablet/kickstand and detachable keyboard – the former is best to balance on your lap at the latter is a tad lighter (768g plus keyboard) than the 1.252kg unit.

Either way, the Surface Pro created the hybrid 2-in-1 category and, while there is a lot of competition in the laptop space, I think the Surface Laptop introduces the 3:2 screen ratio to the notebook category.

Windows 10 S

There is an elephant in the room – the Surface Laptop comes with Windows 10 S installed. This can only run apps from the Microsoft Store or from a corporate or education store contained within. The theory is that W10S is leaner, faster to boot, has better battery life and should be less prone to virus/malware introduced if apps were allowed from outside the Store.

It appears the security aspect has been compromised by cyber security firm Hacker House with physical access to the laptop using a poisoned Microsoft Word document.

You can read ZDNet’s article here. The summary says, “This hack may not have been the prettiest or easiest to launch. You could argue that the hack took too many steps that wouldn't be replicated in the real world and that this case would rely on either social engineering or physical access to a device, rather than a weaponised file to launch on a double-click. If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that nothing is unhackable.”

Microsoft is allowing a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro until the end of this year and thereafter for $79. Apart from the Store restriction, the Pro version allows it to join a domain – important in enterprise use. 

MS SN colours

Specifications

  • Screen: 13.5” PixelSense Touch/Pen Display, 2556 x 1504, 201 ppi, 3.4m pixels, 3:2 screen ratio; 10 touch points; Gorilla Glass 3; 100% sRGB calibrated
  • Processor: Intel Core i5-7200U, 2.5/3.1GHz or i7-7600U 2.5/4GHz
  • Graphics: Intel HD 620 (i5) or Intel Iris Plus 640 (i7)
  • RAM/Storage: LPDDR3-1866, 4/128GB (i5 only), 8/256GB (both), 16/512GB (i7 only) – no SD slot. 1TB OneDrive
  • Camera: Windows Hello, 720p front camera
  • Audio: Stereo microphones, Omnisonic Dolby Audio Premium, 3.5mm combo jack
  • Ports: Full sized USB-A 3.0, mini-DisplayPort (4K), Surface Connect (will also be compatible with recently “speculated” USB-C charging dongle)
  • Comms: Wi-Fi AC, Dual band, 2 x 2 MU-MIMU, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Dimensions: 308.02 x 223.20 x 14.47 mm x 1.25kg
  • Battery: rated for 14.5 hours video playback at 50% screen brightness
  • Construction: Aircraft aluminum and Alcantara fabric (in some markets and configurations also Graphite Gold, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue)
  • Price: i5/4/128GB $1499, i5/8/256GB $1799, i7/8/256GB $2499, i7/16/512GB $3299 – all prices include 1 year Office 365 personal subscription (purchased prior to 15/10/17) and free Windows 10 Pro upgrade (to 31/12/17). Student, Academic and volume pricing available
  • Options:
    • Surface Pen  (4096 pressure levels) $TBA,
    • Surface Dock  (add two monitors, 4 USB-3.0 ports, etc) $299.95
    • Surface Dial  (not for on-screen use) $149.95
    • and a variety of mini-DisplayPort adapters

Out of the Box

MS SN frontFairly spartan – the Laptop and a 15V/2.58A (38.7W) charger with a 5V/1A USB charge port.

Setup is typical of the Windows 10 Creators Update – it will ask you about security and privacy and it will work without any enabled which is good if you are a little paranoid – as you should be.

First impressions are that it follows Surface design cues, it is very light, and the screen section of the unit is very thin and able to be lifted with one finger. The review unit was very “aluminum/grey” with grey Alcantara fabric on the keyboard. There are other colours as well.

Performance

I was unable to run the usual test suites as these were not in the Window Store. As I was not allowed to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, all I can say is that there was plenty of power from the i5/8GB/256GB review unit.

What was very impressive was the boot time. From cold boot to Windows Hello login took less than eight seconds and a warm boot took under two seconds. Windows Hello added less than a second.

Keyboard/trackpad

MS SN keyThe Alcantara-covered keyboard has a 1.5mm throw and that is good for touch typists. But I noticed a little key bounce (no deal breaker) like the Pro detachable keyboard and that is understandable given how thin it is.

The Alcantara fabric is a hard-wearing material used in premium automotive use as a durable, longer lasting alternative to leather. In the week or so I deduced that this would wear very well and it repels moisture and should stand the test of time.

Using the standard touch-type test, I achieved 95% (of my normal) with no appreciable difference in error rate.

The oversized trackpad supports 5-finger touch e.g. pinch, zoom, etc., – it is responsive and great as it will move the cursor from top right to bottom left in one swipe obviating the need for a separate mouse.

Screen

The 13.5” is the same size as the Surface Book and bigger than the 12.3” Pro. I put it side-by-side with the Surface Book and there is no difference to my eyes – colours are perfect.

The 3:2 ratio is wonderful for work things like documents and spreadsheets. Native 16:9 content (movies) can be “zoomed” to fill the screen eliminating the top and bottom bars.

It works well with the Microsoft Pen (I have an older 1024 pressure level version) for drawing – less so for note taking as you can’t use it as a tablet.

Audio

MS SN speakerThe Realtek High Definition Audio provides 2.0 sound from dual up-firing speakers located below the keyboard. It gives reasonable separation and provides Dolby Audio decoding. It is loud and clear enough for personal listening or a movie in a hotel room.

Windows Hello

While it is not mandatory to use it – give it a go and you will find it is as fast as typing in a password or pin. I had 100% success with this.

Battery

I used a 1080p video loop at 50% and it did indeed deliver 14.5 hours. I have seen other tests with Windows 10 Pro used and they report 13.5 hours.

On a 4K video at full brightness is achieved nine hours. For office use, you can count on similar time.

The 45.2W battery recharged in just over an hour.

Upgradeability

iFixit that develops repair manuals said, “It is a glue-filled monstrosity. There is nothing about it that is upgradable or long-lasting, and it literally can’t be opened without destroying it.” And that is true. But it makes some statements that are a little superficial.

“The CPU, RAM, and onboard storage are soldered to the motherboard, making upgrades a no-go.” When was the last time you saw an ultralight/ultrathin with upgradeable memory, CPU or storage?

“The battery is difficult and dangerous to replace, giving the device a limited lifespan.” This is potentially correct but 45.2W replacement batteries are on the Web and it appears there are replacement services.

As for a limited lifespan – well that is the $64,000 question. A battery like this will last 4-5 years. Microsoft needs to take this criticism on board for Laptop 2018 and be clear about Windows 10 S length of support.

Who is it for?

Anyone really. Hardware-wise it will suit ordinary users to power users. Windows 10 S is designed to be locked down in education and enterprise environments.

It is a very functional, light, thin notebook. To many, it may be the answer to Surface Pro “lapability” issues.

Pros

  • Light, thin, svelte and great attention to detail
  • Amazing 100% sRB screen (only bettered by the Surface Book)
  • Great performance from i5 or i7 but get 8GB RAM
  • Windows Hello is damned fast (makes up for no fingerprint reader)
  • Fourteen-hour battery life (on video test) and 9-10 hours of general office use
  • Full-size USB-A 3.0
  • Mini-DisplayPort – inexpensive dongle to HDMI
  • Upgradeable from Windows 10 S to Windows Pro free until 31/12/17

Cons

  • USB-C charge/data dongle allegedly coming soon
  • No SD card, but it supports USB-3.0 and external SSD drives
  • Lack of repairability – perhaps a three-year extended store warranty might finally be worth the paper it is written on.
  • No Pen supplied – that is a cost issue yet this device and Windows Ink is made for it!

Summary

Competitors: Dell XPS 13, HP x360 Spectre

To close let’s position Surface

Tina Flammer, Microsoft Australia Surface product marketing lead, said, “Microsoft produces Surface as reference devices to show the world what the right combination of hardware and software can achieve. Its mission is to help users create more – ideate, create, get work done and use touch. We want OEMs to have the flexibility to out-design or provide more features or better value. Surface drives innovation.”


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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