Earlier this week, Microsoft announced Windows 10 S for educational institutions and users that wanted to only use and purchase applications from the Windows Store itself, rather than embrace the standard Win32 ecosystem that we’ve all come to know and love (and hate, for a lot of the time). To commemorate the launch of Windows 10 S, which will become generally available to consumers, businesses, universities and schools worldwide starting in June 2017, Microsoft also announced the new Surface Laptop, a 13.5-inch clamshell design that doesn’t replace the Surface Pro or the Surface Book, but instead complements both and slots in at a lower price point. The Surface Laptop will come pre-installed with Windows 10 S 64-bit, and customers buying one will be able to redeem a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro until 31 December 2017.
Unlike Microsoft’s previous devices, the Surface Laptop is not a 2-1 hybrid device, nor does it have a rotating hinge. It’s not even tablet hardware internally, sporting either an Intel Kaby Lake Core i5 or Core i7 processor, up to 16GB of DDR4 RAM, and solid state storage up to 512GB in size. The display is a 13.5-inch 3:2 aspect ratio IPS panel that Microsoft calls “PixelSense”. The resolution is a very odd 2256 x 1504 pixels, and because it’s more square-ish than it is rectangular, the idea is that it complements the layout of documents and web pages no matter how the display is rotated.
Which is the first puzzling decision about this product, if I’m honest. Surface Laptop does have a touch panel, it can accept pen input just like the other Surface devices, and the display is protected with a layer of Gorilla Glass 3, but it’s not detachable. It’s not a hybrid notebook and it’s not a tablet with a keyboard permanently attached. A 16:10 aspect ratio might have been a better fit in this case.
Milled out of a single block of aluminium, the Surface Laptop’s base acts as a heatsink because the copper heatpipes needed to be put up right against it to make things fit. It weighs 1.2kg fully loaded and only has four user-accessible ports: one mini-DisplayPort 1.2a connector, one USB 3.0 Type-A port, one 3.5mm combined audio jack, and a Surface port on the right-hand side which is used to connect up other peripherals like the Surface dock. The 720p front-facing camera is Windows Hello compatible, and it has a backlit keyboard with Alacantara covering the surface.
With a starting price of $999 for a Core i5 dual-core processor with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, the Surface Laptop seems like a decent alternative to Apple’s entry-level Macbooks at a similar price, which is $999 for the same configuration but with an extra 4GB of RAM. However, the Surface Laptop is only available in one colour in this price range, namely Platinum (the other options are Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Graphite Gold). If you want other colours, you need to step up to the $1,299 configuration which doubles the RAM and storage space.
Confusingly the Core i7 models cost more, but only come in one colour: Platinum. There’s a $1,599 model which changes nothing but the processor (which also includes a jump in graphics performance), and the top-tier $2,199 model with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. At that same price point Microsoft offers the Surface Book for $2099, with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a discrete NVIDIA GPU along with a hybrid design, as well as the Surface Pro 4 for $2099 with the keyboard separately available at $130.
The Surface Laptop is therefore in this awkward position between the two products that Microsoft offers. It has the same power as a Surface Pro 4, but without the niggles of the detachable keyboard, and it doesn’t have the hinge design from Surface Book and the hardware issues that arise from the base of the Surface Book with a discrete GPU inside. Yet, it still has a touch screen, and it comes with an operating system that is arguably crippled from the get-go.
Not to mention that it lacks USB 3.1 support, has no support for USB-C or charging through USB-C, and does not have a slot for mounting an SD card from an external camera. The only way to hook it up to a secure physical network is via a USB LAN adapter, which is why the use of DisplayPort is so odd. Intel and Microsoft could have replaced that with a Thunderbolt 3.0 port using the Type-C standard connector, and then you’d be able to attach all manner of things to it using hubs and external displays and the like, without using that lone USB port. You could charge it off that port too.
It’s weird to find an Ultrabook in Microsoft’s product offerings, and I wonder how successful it will be. It has some stiff competition coming from the likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Acer, and it will probably be picked up by people who are already Surface fans first, and second by those who see the benefit from the free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
Also, it probably won’t be available in the country anytime soon. The Surface Laptop will go on pre-order this week in 20 countries around the world, and none of them are South Africa. It took the Surface brand three years to reach our shores while the Surface Pro 3 was already EOL, and the cheapest Surface Pro 4 available locally still costs R24,000, R3,500 more than the MacBook Air 13 it competes against. I have high hopes for the build quality of the Surface Laptop, but I’m less than enthusiastic about its prospects in our local market when it comes to actual sales.