Initial thoughts on the design of the Surface Laptop

Yesterday Microsoft held its Education event, where it unveiled Windows 10 S and the Surface Laptop. While I will have more to say another time, I first want to discuss the intriguing new hardware.

With the new Surface Laptop, Microsoft seems to have substantially improved the overall quality of its hardware. I would argue that its hardware to date hasn’t been truly competitive at the high end of the market, but I would still recommend Microsoft’s devices over those from every other Windows OEM due to their superior hardware-software integration. Based on my experience with the Surface Pro 4, you are going to get a much smoother, more polished experience for criteria like trackpad performance by running software tailored by Microsoft.

The company is comparing its new laptop directly to the 13" MacBook Pro, particularly emphasizing how the Laptop weighs 0.26 pounds less than the Pro. Part of the weight difference is due to the Laptop's Alcantara surface, which I find to be the most interesting engineering decision. This material choice trades off structural rigidity and thermal dissipation efficiency for lower weight and greater comfort.

It is critical to note, though, that the Laptop only offers 15W U-series Core CPUs from Intel, while the 13" MacBook Pro also offers 28W CPUs for its more expensive configurations. In other words, the Surface Laptop has been aimed at a lower TDP, and thus lower performance, target than the 13" Pro. An eventual 15” Surface Laptop with H-series CPUs now seems likely, and many would be excited by such a product. Microsoft’s concession to its OEM partners is that it is once again only competing at the very high end of the market.

First, the bad news. The Laptop features one “full-size” USB Type-A port and one Mini DisplayPort, but no Type-C ports. At this point, Microsoft’s affinity for legacy ports and eschewing of any and all progress in connector standards is comical. Enterprise usage isn’t even a real concern, so there’s really no excuse.

I also strongly recommend not buying the base configuration with only 4GB of RAM. That makes the real starting price $1,299, in my opinion.

To be frank, there have been plenty of issues with Microsoft's hardware in the past. While it hasn't skimped on battery capacity in its recent products, the company has never shipped particularly spatially efficient computers with its Surface line. For the Surface tablets this philosophy went so far as to deliberately utilize empty space internally in order to optimize weight distribution, a design decision I found bizarre.

Previously questionable design tenets seem to have been abandoned with the Surface Laptop, however, and I think Microsoft's willingness to somewhat normalize on design has resulted in its most compelling device to date, at least on paper. And as it acknowledged on stage, that's exactly what its fans have wanted it do - just make a normal laptop.

In the grand tradition of PC vendors harmlessly creating new marketing terms for laptop audio, Microsoft has branded its speaker implementation as Omnisonics, not to be confused with ambisonics. Since it could not cut holes into the Alcantara surface, it has instead placed its two speakers behind the keyboard, radiating sound out through the keycap edges. The result is going to be mediocre audio quality from the speakers. On the plus side, the Surface Laptop uses Dolby Audio Premium DSP algorithms and meets whatever hardware requirements the license entails.

Since the Laptop is not a tablet, I can’t think of a single good reason why the aspect ratio of the display should be 3:2 instead of 16:9 or 16:10. Panos Panay stated that Microsoft wanted to maximize display area (optimizing closer to 1:1), but this strikes me as absurd for a product that never changes orientation. I’m particularly not a fan of the aspect ratio because it makes the laptop lid more likely to wobble. (This is one of the main reasons the Surface Book form factor did not work.)

Microsoft ships the most accurate displays of any Windows OEM, but while its panels have been very bright, they haven’t been competitive on efficiency. (Seriously, please never source Panasonic panels.) Based on the rest of the system design, though, I’m hopeful that the Laptop features an efficient display. Although there are not yet many Win32 apps in the Windows Store, keep in mind that there is effectively no High DPI support for Win32 apps.

Now for the good news. One of the best things about the Surface Laptop is that Microsoft has learned from the Surface Studio color calibration debacle. Unlike with the Studio, the Laptop’s display is correctly calibrated to sRGB, because there is no system-wide color management in Windows. It’s great to see Microsoft improving like this. The company continues to individually calibrate its displays, a practice going back to the Surface 3 which is a big deal and should result in great color and greyscale accuracy.

Microsoft didn’t exactly ship Kaby Lake-U early, but it can tout it as a significant advantage over Apple, as Kaby Lake provides the rough equivalent of a 300MHz CPU frequency boost over Skylake. The one battery life claim made, up to 14.5 hours of video playback, also emphasizes the advantage of Kaby Lake's addition of HEVC hardware decode, which Skylake was sorely lacking.

The entire rest of the laptop basically looks great, as do the four available colors. One thing that many people have missed is that, though, is that the GPU and DRAM frequencies for the priciest SKUs are lower than those for the 13" MacBook Pro.

(Sidenote to Microsoft: please make the technical specifications listed in your Fact Sheets more directly accessible to prospective buyers. They are important. Compare to Apple. I would also criticize Apple’s minimal consumer disclosure, mind you.)

The combination of lower clock speeds, the Alcantara, and the size of its singular fan makes me somewhat skeptical about the energy and thermal efficiency of the case design. I would expect conservative DVFS tuning. Public testing will have to wait on a review by AnandTech. Panay did weirdly seem to suggest that the keyboard feels warm during normal use.

Even though much of this article has been criticism and concerns, overall I have a very positive impression of the product. Microsoft is clearly on a roll, and the Surface Laptop appears to be its best hardware to date. While the device is particularly aimed at college students, especially since MacBooks have traditionally done well at US universities, I think it will sell well to a broad audience.