Microsoft Surface Laptop nearly aces test

NEW YORK — Microsoft will be awfully pleased to learn that the burgundy Surface Laptop sitting on a table in my house tickled the fancy of just the type of consumer the company would like to attract: my 13-year old daughter Sydney, a middle-schooler.

“Can I have it?” she asked upon noticing the $999 (on up) notebook for the first time, excellent news for Microsoft since it trotted out Surface Laptop last month at a press event squarely focused on educational markets.

Indeed, I expect the computer to pose a strong challenge to Google’s Chromebook’s and Apple’s various MacBooks in the classroom, especially if teachers and students embrace the new streamlined version of Windows 10 called Windows 10 S. More on that in a moment.

For now, some observations on the laptop:

Handsome hardware: When it comes to the hardware, Microsoft aced the test, though I’m grading on a bit of a curve if only because I’d have preferred the emerging USB-C connector rather than the proprietary connector Microsoft uses for its power adapter. (To be fair, most Apple notebooks use a proprietary adapter as well.) It also lacks an SD card slot.

You might also consider spending $1,299 for a system with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, double the capacities of the base unit, and the configuration I tested. You can configure even higher priced systems. So this is not an inexpensive computer, a possible drawback for parents or educators.

Still, Surface Laptop ranks among the best-looking laptops I’ve seen and of equal importance is a pleasure to use. The trackpad is smooth, and the keyboard I typed on to write this column had the right touch-feely key “travel.” Trackpad and keyboard are surrounded by a suede-like, Italian Alcantara fabric that is found in luxury sports cars. I felt comfortable resting my palm and wrists on it while I typed. An intern in my office wondered if it would stain or scratch. I couldn't seem to scratch it and Microsoft says you can wipe it clean.

 

The computer runs 7th Generation Intel Core processors, has speakers that sound loud and crisp, and boasts an inviting 13.5-inch touch-display, framed by narrow bezels. Though constructed of solid aluminum, Surface Laptop is MacBook Air-thin, and weighs only 2.75 pounds.

I didn’t run a formal battery test so I can’t vouch for Microsoft’s claim of 14.5 hours of battery life. I never fretted much about battery life during my on and off usage over several days, but the power level did drop low enough at times causing a battery save feature to kick in.

Though my test unit is burgundy, Surface Laptop will be available in other appealing colors — platinum, graphic gold and cobalt blue. The machine starts shipping Thursday.

Windows 10 S, secure, streamlined but restrictive. The hardware represents only half of the story. As the first computer to run Windows 10 S, there are important considerations to keep in mind. As with the browser based Chrome OS, Windows 10 S is a security-focused version of Microsoft’s venerable operating system.

 

It bears a striking resemblance to Windows 10 Professional and Windows 10 Home, with a Start button and familiar colorful square and rectangular tiles. The voice (or text)-driven Cortana assistant is available at your beck and call and will engage you in conversation, including when you first turn on the computer to set it up. Example: “Your keyboard is set to the United States. Want to stick with that?”

As with Chromebooks, Windows 10 S almost instantly wakes up from sleep mode. And I was even able to log into Windows from a cold boot (meaning the machine was turned completely off) by having it recognize my face using the Windows Hello feature in just 15 seconds. This Hello feature, which is available on certain other Windows 10 computers, worked reliably during my tests.

But there are key differences between Windows 10 S and the Pro or Home version, the biggest of which is that the only apps you can run (aside from what’s pre-installed) are those made available inside the Windows Store. It boils down to security. According to Microsoft, each available app runs in a “container” to prevent it from messing with other apps or the computer. Windows Defender software runs by default to protect the system from malware; you can find other anti-virus software in the Windows Store.

You get Microsoft’s own Office apps (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote) and between now and October 15, Microsoft is throwing in a free one year subscription to Office 365. You also get one TB of cloud storage for a year.

Other available apps include Autodesk Sketchbook, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Hulu, Instagram, Netflix, Pandora,  Slack, Twitter, and Photoshop Elements (though not the more professional grade Photoshop).  Meanwhile, iTunes and Spotify are said to be coming, but not available yet.

 

Among others missing, with no such promise of any imminent arrival: the Chrome, Firefox and Safari web browsers. Microsoft directs you to its own Edge browser and the default Bing search engine. If like most of us you prefer Google search, you can still get there via Google.com, and set up the site as a permanent tab.

One of the apps I frequently use, the Quicken personal finance program, was also unavailable in the Windows Store.

When you search for such an app that's missing in the store, Microsoft may recommend alternatives. For Quicken, Microsoft suggested Money Tracker Pro, which costs $9.99 or Splashtop Business —Remote Desktop & Remote Support, which was free but off the mark.

Fortunately all is not lost for people who want Quicken or other apps they need or want that won’t or haven’t yet made it to the Windows Store. It involves switching to Windows 10 Pro but only take this step if you’re certain you don’t want to revert to Windows 10 S. This bit of surgery cannot be reversed, even by returning the machine to factory settings.

The normal cost to switch to Windows 10 Professional is $49 but the fee is waived for education customers, accessibility customers or those who purchased a device greater than $799. In other words, Surface Laptop buyers qualify.

While my overall experience was positive, not everything went off without a hitch. When I first tried to add my HP network printer to Windows 10 S to print a copy of this column in Word, the following message appeared: "The Active Directory Domain Services is currently unavailable." Fortunately, I was able to add the printer inside Windows Settings, after which I had no trouble printing.

Surface Laptop is not a perfect computer. But students (and others) seeking a light, attractive and secure well made notebook, will find that Microsoft's new laptop surely makes the grade.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

The bottom line

Microsoft Surface Laptop

$999 on up; www.microsoft.com

Pro. Handsomely-designed, thin and light, secure laptop with good battery life. Lovely display, excellent keyboard, strong speakers, Cortana, Windows Hello.

Con. You're restricted to apps from the Windows Store, unless you upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. And if you do, there's no turning back. Lacks USB-C or SD card slot. Pricey.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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