5.12.2017

Microsoft's Surface Laptop Doesn't Go Far Enough

Insufficient RAM and a proprietary charger cripple Redmond’s new ultrabook


The Redmond, Washington software giant started the month with a bang, holding its Microsoft EDU event on Wednesday, May 2. The special event held in New York City saw the unveiling of Office 365 for Education and Minecraft: Education Edition. More importantly, however, Microsoft announced Windows 10 S, a lean and secure operating system that lacks backwards compatibility with legacy applications.

By gunning for Chrome OS’s sizable share in the education market, Microsoft is positioning the new OS as a contender for the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s best and brightest. The software will debut on the Surface Laptop, also announced at the event.

"Microsoft is positioning the new OS as a contender for the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s best and brightest."

The machine starts at $999 and the base model comes with an Intel Core i5, 128GB of NVMe flash storage, and 4GB of RAM. Unlike any other Surface product, the processor is a seventh-generation Kaby Lake. The devil is in the details, though, and it can’t be glossed over that the default configuration has 4GB of memory. 

Flagship Android smartphones now come with that much RAM. Chromebooks a quarter the price have as much RAM. Apple’s trailblazing MacBook Air (updated in 2015) has 4GB of RAM. Computing is an arms race, but if Windows 10 S is as streamlined as Microsoft claims, then it should suffice for the types of basic productivity tasks that students (the focus of the EDU event) typically perform. 

"Computing is an arms race."

Heck, Windows 10 S can run the full version of Adobe Photoshop. The problem lies in the many users who will want to load Windows 10 Pro onto their Surface Laptop. Photoshop may run on 10 S, but Premiere currently doesn’t. The majority of the Adobe suite is missing from the Windows Store. Also, there are no BitTorrent clients. Some Computer Science majors, for instance, need to download and install Linux either on a separate partition or in a virtual machine. On that note, virtualization software is also absent in the Modern app environment.

Microsoft is waiving the $50 upgrade fee from Windows 10 S to Windows Pro for 2017, but that won’t affect the hardware. The base model is underpowered for its price. Other ultrabooks in the $1,000 segment including those from Dell, HP, and Lenovo come with the more conventional 8GB of memory. 

"The base model is underpowered for its price."

Configure the Surface Laptop with 8GB of RAM, and the price jumps to $1,299. That’s MacBook Pro territory. The same specifications as the $1,299 Surface will cost you $1,499 from Apple and that additional $200 gets you the P3, 10-bit, wide color gamut display. More importantly, the I/O on the MacBook Pro is far more future proof, with dual USB Type-C ports.

The closest laptop in terms of purpose, the 2015 Chromebook Pixel 2, even has 8GB of memory and USB Type-C. The Pixel 2 is the hero product for Chrome OS and is designed to showcase Google’s software. That’s largely what Microsoft aims to do with the Surface Laptop.

In focusing on their broad vision for Windows, Redmond has overlooked the narrower points of what makes a thin-and-light enticing. “Luxury handbag” ultrasuede and Mini DisplayPort aren’t the way to go on an entry-level machine. That connector came and went with the MacBook Air, the prior go-to for college computing. Like the MacBook Air, the Surface Laptop uses a proprietary charging cable. The Air was replaced with the twelve-inch MacBook, another machine that utilizes the reversible, high bandwidth, industry standard USB Type-C.

"USB Type-C and 8GB of RAM are glaring omissions."

If the Surface Laptop is Microsoft's answer to the MacBook Pro and the Chromebook Pixel, then USB Type-C and 8GB of RAM are glaring omissions. If this new laptop is supposed to lead the market forward and signal best practices to Redmond’s OEM partners, then USB Type-C and 8GB of RAM are glaring omissions. I can’t stress this enough: USB Type-C and 8GB of RAM are glaring omissions

Microsoft is walking the line between this being a premium device and Average Joe's Facebook machine. It's a move out of touch with the previously category-defining Surface line. Whether this latest product from Redmond is intended to be a thin client for lightweight web apps or a serious laptop for serious work, Microsoft's Surface Laptop doesn't go far enough.