SURFACE LAPTOP REVIEW ROUND-UP FEATURING WINDOWS 10 S

The Surface Laptop reviews are in, and they're universally positive. But there are caveats I'll get to later. First, the good.

Wired's David Pierce's has high praise for the keyboard + trackpad combo:

The Surface Laptop, then, exists to serve people who live and die by the keyboard and trackpad. Both excel. The trackpad moves more smoothly than almost any I’ve ever used—it joins the MacBook Pro and Chromebook Pixel as my favorite ‘pads.

Devindra Hardawar for Engadget doesn't miss the speaker grilles:

You also won't find any speaker grilles on this laptop -- instead the sound comes directly through the keyboard. It's a bit odd at first, especially since you can feel vibrations as your fingers rest on the keys, but the speaker placement makes for a far better audio experience than you'd find on most laptops. The sound is enveloping and detailed, and there's even a bit of low end too. It's ideal for video watching, since it comes right at you. In comparison, other laptops have speakers off to the sides, or beneath the screen, which projects sound away from you.

Dieter Bohn of The Verge on the Alcantara mystery:

The big question is why Microsoft used this fabric in the first place. As far as I know, it's simply an aesthetic thing and makes the laptop feel nicer. It certainly makes the laptop stand out and gives you something to talk about when you open it up. That's reason enough, I suppose, and I admit I like the feel of it.

Other bits worth noting:

  • If you ever wondered what a Windows laptop designed in California would look like, this is it.

  • Although battery life isn't the claimed 14.5 hours in real-life usage, it's still all-day battery i.e. meets the threshold for what is acceptable in a 2017 laptop.

  • The screen is gorgeous, but if you're a pen user, this isn't the Surface for you. Watching the video reviews, the one word I'd use to describe the touch experience is wobbly.

  • If you keep your expectations in check, you'll be happy with its performance. But if you're a gamer or pro user, then this isn't the Surface for you either.

  • Pricing may be slightly higher than its direct competitors but it's not unreasonable.

The Surface Laptop is almost a home run. The one misstep is with ports, or lack of. If you're going to ship with a single port today, then although USB 3.0 was the sensible choice, the absence of (Thunderbolt) USB-C means the experience of using the device will become worse at some point during its ownership because dongles. No (Micro) SD slot either though means for some users the dongle becomes an immediate inconvenience; if the smaller Surface Pro has room for a Micro SD slot, then so should the Laptop. I/O aside, the Surface Laptop is comfortably the best v1 Surface, and for it to be so close to perfect is remarkable.

The hardware doesn't make up the entire Laptop story though. There's the software caveats that it ships with, and as unanimous reviewers are in their praise for the Laptop as a laptop, they're mostly critical of Windows 10 S, or as David Pierce calls it, Windows 10 Less. Yeah, he's not a fan:

All Windows 10 S ever did was drive me crazy.

Without more apps, 10 S amounts to a mediocre browser and a whole bunch of headaches.

Microsoft claims you'll get increased security as well as better battery life and performance running Windows 10 S. I accept you'll be safer, but The Verge's Tom Warren disputes the second and third wins:

I’ve not had any issue with battery life or performance using Windows 10 Pro on this machine. It really feels like the Surface Laptop was built for Windows 10 Pro and restricting what you can do with it, as Windows 10 S does, sells it short.

Dieter Bohn acknowledges the potential benefits but remains unconvinced:

But the trade-off for all those benefits isn't worth it because the Windows Store is an app desert. Many of the apps you expect are either not in the store or — if they are there — are worse than what you can get on iPads, Mac, the full version of Windows, or even on the web.

Devindra Hardawar appeared to be the exception:

I stuck with the Windows 10 S experience for most of this review, and frankly I was surprised by how much I could get done without installing any legacy software. The only real pain was being forced to use Spotify's web player and not having access to any browsers outside of Edge or Internet Explorer. Otherwise, the experience felt identical to the way I typically use my PC. It was a huge difference from Windows RT on the first Surface (Microsoft's first stab at locking out legacy apps), since there's actually a decent app selection now.

Although Spotify is coming to the Store, he eventually opted for the Pro upgrade too:

As someone who often juggles multiple browsers throughout the day, I eventually outgrew the restrictions in Windows 10 S and chose to upgrade.

That's not average-user behavior, but the average-user is a Chrome user and Chrome is highly unlikely to get on the Store anytime soon.1

For Microsoft, the Laptop reviews must be bittersweet. Hardware scores an A, whereas software a F. I accept the (hassle) free upgrade makes it a no-brainer for reviewers to recommend to their readers, but considering its reported shortcomings, I don't believe $49 would've stopped a recommendation either. The Store needs to take off in a big way in the next six months for this to change.

1. Windows 10 S first needs to have a substantial user base before Google even considers this. If the past is the precedent, then Windows Phone numbers of users won't be enough. Then there's the not-so-small matter of needing to use Edge's (much improved but still inferior) rendering engine. Although the same restriction applies on the App Store, there's a noteworthy difference in that Chrome was actually using Safari's WebKit in 2012 when it launched on iOS and its new renderer, Blink, is a WebKit fork. I can't see Google agreeing to this concession just to get on the Store. In an unlikely scenario that they do, it's actually not in users' best interest. Chrome's UI shell and sync engine isn't what generally draws users to it but it's its speed and rendering. What is still unlikely, but slightly less unlikely than the above, is Microsoft making a special exception allowing Chrome to get on the Store on terms Google is satisfied with.

Wednesday, June 14 - 3:01 pm

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