For the past four and a half years, Microsoft’s Surface family has done double-duty as an aspirational product platform and a high-end demonstration of what PCs are truly capable of. At the low-end, devices like the Surface 3 offered a low-cost, highly portable tablet, while high-end products like the Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, and Surface Studio were meant to demonstrate cutting-edge design techniques without compromising (too much) on overall performance. Surface hardware has always sold for a premium, but Microsoft has matched that premium to an implicit promise that buying Surface meant buying a machine that was a little more capable than what you could find elsewhere.
Today’s Surface Laptop kills that trend and buries it in the backyard. The Surface Laptop is… a laptop, minus most of the good things about laptops. Let’s start with the basics:
When your spec sheet makes reference to color combinations and a felt-covered “luxurious Alcatera fabric-covered” keyboard, you aren’t exactly putting your best foot forward. Microsoft has already stated that the Surface Laptop’s $999 base price buys you an unidentified Core i5 microprocessor and a 128GB SSD, as if this was some kind of cutting-edge achievement. A Dell 13-inch Inspiron 2-in-1 can be had for the same price with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM instead of 4GB. True, your tiny 13-inch display will have a marginally lower resolution (1920×1080 as opposed to 2256×1504), but it’s not something you’re going to notice unless you’ve got Chuck Yeager’s vision.
It gets worse. The Surface Laptop has no USB-C, no card reader, no hardware volume controls, and no HDMI. You do get mini-DisplayPort — we’d personally rather have HDMI, since it’s more widely compatible with other products without requiring a port converter or dongle, but your mileage may vary on this particular point. The Surface Laptop has one USB 3.0 port; for comparison, the Dell Inspiron has a USB 3.0 port, a USB-C port, and a USB 2.0 port.
One of these thousand-dollar laptops envisions that end users might want to copy data from an SD card to a USB thumb drive while having both devices plugged in at the same time. One does not. One of these laptops was designed by engineers who recognized that end users might want to charge a phone while also copying data from a thumb drive. One was not. And let’s be clear — Dell is far from the only company that offers vastly more features at the same (or very similar) price point.
Maybe you love the idea of an included year of Office 365 and a higher-resolution, 3:2 display. This $999 system is still a poor product, for two simple reasons. First, reports are coming in that you can’t change the search provider. You buy a Surface Laptop and you get Bing, at least according to Mark Spoonauer, editor-in-chief of Laptop:
Apparently Windows 10 S doesn’t let you change your search provider. Bing! #Windows10S
— Mark Spoonauer (@mspoonauer) May 2, 2017
The six Bing users out in the audience are going to be thrilled. Everyone else…not so much. It’s not clear exactly how tightly this setting is controlled yet, so there may be ways around the problem. But that leads us to the second issue: The Surface Laptop comes with the new Windows 10 S, which only allows you to run Windows Store apps. Granted, there’s more flexibility on this issue than there used to be with the ill-fated Windows RT. Win32 apps can now be converted into Windows Store apps, which means there’s at least a chance that some conventional applications like Chrome could make an appearance. Then again, Windows 10 S is meant to compete directly against Chromebooks in the education market, which means Google has every reason not to port its software to Microsoft’s new platform. And Microsoft knows this is a negative — that’s why it’s offering a free upgrade for all Surface Laptops to Windows 10 Pro, provided you upgrade by December 31, 2017. It’s not clear if upgrading to Windows 10 Pro also removes the Bing lock-down. Presumably it does.
This option might seem to obviate our complaint about the generally underwhelming quality of the Windows Store, but there’s an important distinction here. Repeated psychological research has demonstrated the power of default settings. Whatever you set systems to be default, those are the settings people tend to use. Somehow, I doubt Microsoft will go out of its way to tell people they can upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for free; the entire point of the Surface Laptop is to get people using the Windows Store exclusively, in the hopes that it’ll push more developers to create more Universal Windows apps. Unless Microsoft presents end-users with a giant button that says “Upgrade to a real version of our operating system here,” the first time they log in, it’s just another step you have to jump through on a Microsoft device that another PC OEM won’t ask you to perform.
Microsoft: Tablets are the future!
Also Microsoft: The Surface book only LOOKS like a laptop!
Also also Microsoft: The Surface Laptop.
— Max Eddy, Max Sweaty (@wmaxeddy) May 2, 2017
The Windows 10 S lock-down makes perfect sense when you’re competing against Chromebooks in the education market and need to offer your customers an easily administered option that will cut down on viruses or other forms of malware. It makes no sense whatsoever on a mainstream laptop. It also makes no sense that Microsoft would offer a $1,000 laptop with far fewer ports than you can get from another vendor.
As Max Eddy of PCMag tweeted (above), this feels like a dramatic step backwards for Microsoft. The Surface Laptop doesn’t raise the bar in any way. It doesn’t bring any innovation to the table. It’s an overpriced piece of hardware with weak specs and poor value compared with the other Windows 10 laptops you can buy today. Microsoft should’ve learned its lesson with Windows RT; consumers don’t want tablets and tablets that appear to run Windows but don’t immediately offer expected compatibility out-of-the-box. Again, unless that upgrade to Windows 10 Pro is a one-click affair, this is going to cause headaches for them down the line.
Remarkably, Microsoft hasn’t even managed to entirely beat the MacBook Air, a 2015-era design based on Broadwell that also costs $999. Granted, the comparison is pretty lopsided — Microsoft has a newer CPU, higher screen resolution, a thinner enclosure, and presumably faster RAM — but the MacBook Air has two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt 2 port, an SDXC card slot, and a full version of macOS without restrictions. The Surface Laptop clearly gets the performance and eye-candy nod, but it’s a little ridiculous Microsoft couldn’t cleanly beat a two-year-old Apple laptop for port connectivity at a $1000 price point.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro, Surface Book, and Surface Studio products have never been inexpensive. They’ve always carried a premium, though not always dramatically so against other equivalent products. But this is the first time the company has debuted such a flatly undesirable piece of hardware. If you’ve been dying for a laptop with less flexibility, fewer ports, less storage, and a mandate to only use Bing, the new Surface Laptop is your anchovy-and-green-bean flavored jam. The rest of us will have to make do with something else.