My Experiences Using the Surface Laptop
I have been using a Surface Pro 4 i5, 16GB model since late last year. I held off on getting a Surface device for actual work. I found the first three generations of devices to be too much of a compromise and they seemed to have too many reliability issues. Eventually, I had to replace my old laptop. I chose the Surface Pro 4, which I have been quite happy with this year.
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When Microsoft announced the two new Surface devices in early May, the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro, I was immediately intrigued on the Surface Laptop. It was much cheaper than a Surface Book. It also did not have bold new design choices, such as the dynamic fulcrum hinge.
As Surface Laptop comes preloaded with Windows 10 S, I knew I might have some challenges in being my usual productive self. I knew I may have to upgrade to a normal Windows 10 version. It is possible to simply upgrade to Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise simply by changing the product license key.
I placed a pre-order for a Surface Laptop i5-model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD. This seems to be the sweet spot in terms of cost, performance, and battery life. Compared to my Surface Pro 4, it is not as powerful. However, I was really looking for better battery life. Many people have complained about the awkwardness of the Surface Pro while traveling and using it on the go. To be honest, it took me a few weeks with the Surface Pro 4 to get used to balancing the device on my lap. Since then, it has mostly been a non-issue for me.
Using Windows 10 S for Work
I got confirmation of delivery for mid-June, which was pretty accurate. I received the device on June 16th. I had already decided to try and love Windows 10 S as strongly as humanly possible while trying to do all my work with the limitations of the Windows Store and Universal Apps. I knew I would have trouble getting by without several of my main tools, such as Google Chrome, Notepad++, and KeePass.
To replace Chrome, I switched to Edge, which I have never really liked. Surprisingly enough, it has been a good experience and feels much like using Chrome or Firefox. Granted, there are some things I am missing but Edge feels lightweight now compared to Chrome. Over a period of a long weekend, I found myself quite happy with Edge. The biggest deal breaker in the end for me with Edge, the missing mobile equivalent for my Android phone and iPad. I miss having my bookmarks, browsing history, and saved credentials automatically synchronized across all devices.
Web browser aside, the smaller utilities and apps often had similar alternatives available. Most of these are free on the Windows Store. I use KeePass, an open source tool to securely store all my credentials locally. This allows me to create complex passwords easily and there is an app available for mobile platforms. I found PassKeep as a Windows app, which supports KeePass database files. While perfectly usable, it is clumsy due to the shortcut keys not working.
Office 2016 is available as a Universal App. I decided to not configure Outlook and simply resort to using the built-in Windows Mail app. After using it for more than a week, I really like it. Outlook has gotten very bloated and slow in recent times. Mail reminds me of the old days when I used Elm or Pine over a telnet or ssh session in Linux. It is nice, fast, and fluid. There are some frustrating qualities in it, which I mostly pin on the UWP platform. There are some aesthetic issues that Outlook does not have but it is a small price to pay for getting speedier access to email and calendars.
Dropbox is not available as a rich version and the Windows app is somewhat poor. You can access your files and data but that is all there is to it. Having files synchronized locally was something I could not get to work. I suspect the boundaries of UWP framework forbid such activities from happening. Whenever I needed to fetch a file, I would manually have to go and download that file with Edge. I felt my productivity go drastically down because of this. Your train of thought is constantly cut when you hunt a file that is not locally available.
The liberating thing about using Windows 10 S, you do not need to spend any time fiddling around with settings. It is a bit like using iOS on iPad. It just works. You mostly use one or two apps at a time and you do not need to constantly hop between numerous apps.
I found Windows 10 S speedy and non-intrusive, although I did disable most Windows and app notifications to avoid distractions. Obviously, with the more limited version of Windows, I could not work in certain applications, such as Visual Studio 2017. For those occasions, I opened a Remote Desktop connection to my primary workstation, which is a beefy Windows 10 Enterprise machine in my office. Mobile data is very cheap, fast, and unlimited in Finland. This allows me to leave stuff running remotely while I am traveling and cannot get online as easily. The remote desktop app had limitations, including lack of dynamic resizing but it worked for my needs.
After 4 full days and 35 hours of work with Windows 10 S, I can say it is perfectly possible to use a Surface Laptop as an IT Pro or a developer and still be very productive. Windows 10 S is limited and you need another laptop or machine to use for things where an app is not available. You also need to change your attitude a bit. I found myself challenging my preconceptions on Windows apps, which was a refreshing tour.
Moving onto Windows 10 Pro/Enterprise
I knew immediately upon unpackaging the device that eventually I would have to move to a real Windows 10 version. As I had an unused Windows 10 Pro key available, I decided to not use the free option to upgrade to Pro. I would simply change the license to Pro myself. This upgrade process took about 5 minutes.
After a reboot, I could install all the missing applications and utilities, including Chrome, Notepad++, and Visual Studio Code. This would be the case on any normal laptop.
There might be some additional optimizations Microsoft introduced as part of Windows 10 S but so far, I have not encountered anything that I cannot use with Windows 10 Pro. I still have access to all my apps from Windows Store but I get the full benefit of using Windows software now also. The first thing I did after upgrading the Windows version, download the usual utilities from Ninite.
Traveling and Battery Life
I bought the Surface Laptop for travel and I still use my Surface Pro 4. It is a bit beefier and the form factor is smaller. I carry both devices every day. Since they share the same charger, it is only a little extra weight in my messenger bag.
I was wary of Microsoft’s promise of the 14-hour battery life. I made a mental note to myself, if I get half of that, I will be happy. Turns out, I get 7 to 8 hours of regular use in Windows 10 Pro. I am using BatteryBar Pro and currently, I still have 5 hours and 30 minutes of battery at 76 percent. It certainly is not something to write home about but compared to my Surface Pro 4, it is much better. At the current price of Surface Laptop, I am satisfied with the battery life.
I traveled to the Netherlands last week to present at Office 365 Engage. This was the first time I had a chance to use Surface Laptop on the road. It seems the resume from sleep and hibernation issues that have plagued my SP4 for months, do not exist in this newer device. The device sleeps immediately and wakes up while I am still opening the laptop cover.
All the usual things I look for in a laptop work as expected. I carry a few dongles with me. Since they share the same adapter types with SP4, I only need one set. They consist of a 4-port USB3 hub, a Mini DisplayPort adapter that provides connectivity for DVI, VGA, HDMI, and a USB Ethernet adapter. During my presentations at the conference, I did not have any issues. Microsoft seems to have carried over the fixes that it recently introduced for SP4.
Travel-wise, the device is both better and a little worse than SP4. The good thing is that the display is clearer and touch feels a bit snappier. As the device sleeps and resumes reliably, I found myself using the laptop in every possible place. I was not worried about balancing it on my knee, accidentally disconnecting the keyboard, or dropping the device.
The thing that still bothers me with Surface Laptop, the size of the screen. While writing this article, I am flying back to Helsinki from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. The passenger sitting in front of me reclined his seat without a warning in lightning speed. I quickly slipped the laptop away from the tray but still got a small hit on the top of the device. This usually does not happen with SP4. The form factor is smaller so that you have more room for quick rescue operations.
Final Thoughts on Surface Laptop
Is this the best Windows laptop you can currently get? It depends on your usage patterns. For travel, working on the go, and carrying a lightweight laptop, I still say it is. It is also much cheaper than similar offerings from other vendors but the feeling is very premium. The device feels well-designed and crafted. It is classy and has a premium feel.
I suspect the majority of people who purchase this laptop will quickly move on to Windows 10 Pro or Pro. I also feel Windows 10 S is perfect for non-technical users who are content with Windows app available from the Windows Store.
Battery life could be slightly better, even if it is miles ahead of Surface Pro 4. The display is nicer. It is the best display I have used in any laptop. The keyboard is what you would expect coming from a previous Surface device and key travel is great. It reminds me a bit of Macbook but with better key travel. It is a joy to use. The touchpad is responsive and works like a thought.
I do recommend anyone looking for a great and lightweight laptop to try out the Surface Laptop. Make sure to go with the 8GB model. It seems like the sweet spot in terms of pricing and capabilities. For me, the Surface Laptop seems like an ideal companion for many years to come.