The Teardown: Microsoft Surface Laptop
Image credit: Microsoft
It looks cool, but has Microsoft created the Humpty Dumpty of laptops with its Microsoft Surface Laptop?
The received wisdom is that if you build a product to address multiple markets, Apple will beat you up. With its intense focus (as in, limited product range), Apple’s preference for simplification is more easily grasped by the consumer.
So, how come everyone thinks the new Microsoft Surface Laptop is such an apparently shrewd play? Because it does mix things up. And, unless they have gone under the computer’s hood, just how good a call is that?
On one level, the Surface Laptop is a direct challenge to the MacBook Pro. It has a similar aluminium outer case. It weighs just 1.25kg in a 308 × 223 × 14mm frame. It has a keyboard and lower section clad in Alcantara, a comfy resting place for your palms made of material more commonly seen on upscale luggage and vehicle interiors.
Meanwhile, there are the potential specifications to match. A top-of-the-range Surface Laptop features an Intel Core i7 processor running at up to 4GHz with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid state drive. That’s ballpark for reasonably heavy-duty gaming or video production. This configuration costs £1,790 (£2,149 including VAT).
However, there is another side to the Surface Laptop. It is still a sleek-looking, Alcantara-clad piece of kit, but also one that has been deliberately hobbled.
Out-of-the-box, all Surface Laptops run the Windows 10 S operating system. This subset of Windows 10 restricts users to apps available in the Windows Store. Try to download from elsewhere and the machine will direct you back to the Store and – with luck – either the app’s ‘approved’ version or an alternative.
Two things are happening here. In its base configuration – 3.10GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD – Microsoft is targeting business and educational customers who want greater control over what employees or students can install on centrally owned laptops. Getting into the Windows Store includes extra security checks against malware and other naughtiness. This edition costs £815 (£979 including VAT).
Also, Windows Store apps are more heavily optimised for power consumption and to minimise their memory footprint. Microsoft is making a formidable claim for the Surface Laptop’s 45.2Wh battery, a life of up to 14 hours, although reviewers have tended to achieve closer to 8-10 hours. Either way, this is an all-day machine.
It is important to note that an owner can escape the Windows 10 S restrictions. Until the end of this year, they can upgrade online to a standard Windows 10 installation – and, with it, the option to download external software – for free. From January, a charge of around £50 will apply.
In terms of industrial design, the Surface Laptop shows Microsoft’s skills evolving since it first launched the Surface tablet range and also leveraging its longer-standing experiences on the X-Box. The Alcantara is the main differentiator between this computer and its Apple rivals when it comes to slickness. We will only know how durable the material proves to be after the products have spent several months in the wild.
In two areas, though, Microsoft comes across as more conservative than Apple.
The Surface Laptop has a standard USB 3.0 Type-A port rather than the new Type-C found on Apple’s latest hardware. It is a decision that can be as easily argued for as against. Apple owners have already noted frustration at having to get dongles to connect their existing Type-A devices; Surface Laptop’s critics say that the absence of Type-C shows insufficient regard for future-proofing. Frankly, the choice here is yours.
Arguably more surprising, given the Surface brand’s own legacy and this laptop’s explicit bid for a chunk of the enterprise/productivity market, it does not feature a full 360-degree hinge, though there is support for Surface Pen and other peripherals. Still, anyone who needs to look over diagrams or images, particularly in the field, should opt for the Surface Pro.
However, these may not be the elements that give potential buyers pause. In the enterprise or education spaces, a bigger problem may be the Surface Laptop’s internal build.
Those who have central repair and maintenance operations for their IT hardware will note with concern that the Surface Laptop has been scored at a rare 0 out of 10 for repairability by the iFixit Teardown team.
Even for something as simple as replacing the battery, the team had to go through 10 preceding steps that involved pulling out the motherboard, speakers, antennas, trackpads and more. Glue abounds, as do a great many strangely situated connectors and spot welds. The fabled Alcantara has to be literally cut through.
This is iFixit’s frustrated ‘verdict’: “The Surface Laptop is not a laptop. It’s 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.”
Given the breadth across which Microsoft is looking to market the Surface Laptop, this is a huge black mark. Abroad with the corporate road warrior or wielded by the sloppy student, such a laptop can expect a fair old bashing around. In that context, a machine resistant to any significant hardware repair seems an unusual play (although the Apple products it competes against are themselves notable for ‘Keep Out!’ design strategies).
IT managers will also be quick to point out that many cheaper, ‘old-school’ (i.e. repairably designed) laptops are still out there. If it is just a case of getting hold of Windows S to run on them to provide security – well, you cannot see Microsoft confining a new OS to just one family of machines.
Meanwhile, power users may wonder why Microsoft has made a number of conservative choices (notably, the Type-C port) in an expensive machine that may not last that long beyond the end of a warranty.
Microsoft surface laptop
1 Display/upper unit
2 Lower enclosure inc. battery
4 Keyboard fabric cover
9 Headphone jack
10 Fan and heat sink
11 SSD (Toshiba)
12 Security module (Nuvotron)
13 CPU (Intel)
14 Memory (RAM) (SK Hynix)
15 Wireless SoC (Marvell)
16 Display drivers (Microsoft)