Microsoft Surface Laptop: A cheat sheet

Everything you need to know about Microsoft's MacBook challenger aimed at schools and students.

The Surface Laptop is a low-cost, streamlined Windows PC designed to challenge the rising popularity of competing devices like MacBooks among schools and students.

You'll find everything you need to know about Microsoft's Surface Laptop in this "living" article, which will be updated over time.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is the Surface Laptop? A $799 to $2,699 Apple MacBook challenger made by Microsoft and aimed at students.
  • Why does the Surface Laptop matter? For its performance and battery life, although some reviews have said the laptop does little to "stand out in a crowded marketplace".
  • Who does the Surface Laptop affect? The laptop is being pitched at schools and students.
  • When is the Surface Laptop available? Available to order now.
  • How do I start using the Surface Laptop? Microsoft has announced a variety of new services to make it easier for schools to manage and set up the laptops.

What is the Surface Laptop?

Microsoft pitches the $799 laptop as an Apple MacBook challenger, with better battery life and performance. The laptop is part of an attempt to dissuade schools and students from switching to other mid to high-end PCs.

The laptop uses Windows 10 Pro in S-mode, a locked-down version of the OS that will only run apps installed from the Windows Store. The move to restrict Windows appears to be a strategy to make the OS easier to use and less prone to performance and security problems caused by downloading software from the internet. Every app also runs in a container to further reduce the security risk.

However, admins and computer owners are able to switch out of S-mode to a regular install of Windows 10 Pro, in order to install non-store apps. Once switched out of S-mode the PC can't be switched back.

Microsoft is targeting fast boot times for Windows 10 in S-mode, so no more than 15 seconds for the initial log in and under five seconds for every subsequent attempt. At the launch event for the device, a Surface Laptop was also shown waking and sleeping instantly upon the lid being opened or closed.

One potential drawback to keeping a machine in S-mode is the Windows Store lock, with the store still missing many of Windows' desktop releases.

The big draw for the Surface Laptop is supposedly the ability to use it all day on a single charge, with Microsoft's corporate VP of devices Panos Panay claiming the laptop can manage up to 14.5 hours of video playback, more he said than "any MacBook on the market today". However, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley found battery life to be closer to around seven-plus hours in her time with the laptop, while CNET's tests averaged at around 11 hours.

Performance is also a key factor, with Panay comparing the Surface Laptop to Apple's products, saying the device is 50 percent faster than the MacBook Air, and that the Core i7 in the Surface Laptop is faster than the i7 in the MacBook Pro. However, only the top-end $1,599 Surface Laptop has a Core i7 processor, with the entry-level $799 machine packing a less powerful Intel Core m3 CPU.

In her review of the laptop, ZDNet's Foley called it "a nice addition to Microsoft's line-up for productivity workers who want a well-crafted device that's a cut above many of the Windows laptops on the market".

In a review of a $1,299 model, TechRepublic's sister site CNET praised the laptop's battery life and design, deeming the machine an otherwise solid if unremarkable laptop, while criticizing the locked-down OS and limited ports.

Additional resources

Specs for the Surface Laptop

CPU: Seventh generation Intel Core m3, i5 or i7 processor

Graphics: Intel HD 620 (i5) / Intel Iris Plus Graphics (i7)

Memory: 4GB, 8GB or 16GB RAM

Display: 2256 x 1504 resolution (201 PPI) PixelSense touch screen with Corning Gorilla Glass

Storage: Up to 1TB SSD

OS: Windows 10 Pro in S-mode, can be switched to regular Windows 10 Pro

Ports: USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm headphone jack, Surface Connect

Battery life: Up to 14.5 hours video playback

Dimensions: 12.13" x 8.79" x .57" (308.02 mm x 223.20 mm x 14.47 mm)

Weight: 2.76 lbs (1.25 kg)

Keyboard: Coated in Alcantara. Keys have 1.5mm of travel.

Exterior casing: Aluminum

Colors: Burgundy, Platinum, Cobalt Blue, Graphite Gold

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Why does the Surface Laptop matter?

As a relatively new device, the extent to which the Surface Laptop will appeal to students who would otherwise have invested in a MacBook remains unproven.

While Microsoft has produced some compelling figures for battery life, seemingly without compromising performance, Ovum analyst Ronan de Renesse says Microsoft needs more than hardware to tempt new users.

"Microsoft will see success wherever its software becomes a unique differentiator versus Google and Apple alternatives but today's announcements failed to demonstrate this," he said.

"Office 365 is already available on Chromebooks and Apple Macs so, while making Office 365 free to teachers and students on Windows 10S is a plus, it fails to be unique."

That said, the full version of Microsoft Office is available for the laptop via the Windows Store from the day of its launch.

Microsoft's partners may instead be more successful with the range of low-cost PCs—starting at $189—running Windows 10 in S-mode, announced alongside the Surface Laptop, he said.

For Microsoft, however, the Surface Laptop is significant, according to Chris Voce, research director at Forrester, who said "this fills an important gap in their device offerings", adding "this new device will have a significant influence" on the revenues of Microsoft's Surface group.

Sales of the Surface Laptop to date have failed to make a significant impression on Microsoft earnings, with the company's Surface devices division reporting a revenue increase of just 1% in the year to the end of Q2 2018, despite three major new product launches during that period.

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Who does the Surface Laptop affect?

Microsoft is primarily pitching the device at students.

During demonstrations of the device at the New York launch event, Microsoft's Panay talked up the laptop by demonstrating how it would benefit students.

The instant sleep and wake was described as an aid when needing to rapidly take notes in lectures, and the long battery life is a necessity for keeping a machine running all day in school and at the library.

Talking about the stability and ease of use brought by Windows 10 S being locked to the Windows Store, Panay said: "It's going to last the student from the day of their orientation to the day they walk across the stage for their graduation."

In his review, ZDNet's Chris Duckett also drew attention to the potential for the laptop's Alcantara fabric-covered keyboard base to attract stains in the frequently less-than-pristine student halls.

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What are the competitors to the Surface Laptop?

Microsoft seem to be pitching the device against the Apple MacBooks, from the Air through to the Pro, comparing both their performance and their battery life, as seen in this slide below.


Microsoft's battery life comparisons for the Surface Laptop and Apple's MacBooks at the event in New York today.

Image: Microsoft

While it's Google Chromebooks that are proving increasingly popular with students and schools, the price of the Surface Laptop positions it more as a competitor to the now defunct Chromebook Pixel, rather than the majority of low-cost Chromebooks.

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When is the Surface Laptop available?

The laptop is available to order now, with prices starting at $799 for the Intel Core m3 version and ranging up to $2,699 for the Intel Core i7 model with a 1TB SSD and 16GB RAM.

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How do I use the Surface Laptop?

Schools will also be able to manage Surface Laptops via Microsoft's Intune for Education.

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About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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