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June 19
Surface Laptop Impressions

I finally got the Surface Laptop in, a day after I would have liked to, but I'm not complaining too much, since it seems like the shipping company was ultimately able to accommodate my schedule on the second delivery attempt.

This is totally beautiful hardware. It meets the high standards I've come to put on Surface products, and it's, in general, a great upgrade from the computers I've been using.

As a quick review, I have a Surface 3 in less than stellar condition after I dropped it a few times, a Surface RT that sometimes fills in, and a ThinkPad E520 which I use at home. The idea behind the Surface Laptop was that it should replace the Surface 3 as an on-the-go computer and the E520 as a somewhat powerful computer at home or for longer trips.

I haven't had a chance to let the Surface Laptop really stretch its legs yet, but with what I've done so far, it has been good. The battery life isn't as much as I would have in an ideal world, and I'm still a little burned by Panos Panay's comments about USB Type C, and it's not the most powerful computer you can buy, but it doesn't have to be because it reaches a good compromise of size, build quality, and performance specifications.

I upgraded mine to Windows 10 Professional instantly – not because I don't think I could use 10S, but because I know up front that Pro is better for my needs. I'm not a developer, so I don't need to experience this computer as a flagship development test machine, which is the speculated reason for shipping it with 10S.

The display is great, I can use it reliably at about 125% of its native resolution, which equates to around 1800x1200 of work space (the native resolution is 2256x1504). The wireless networking is much better than the other systems I've been using.

I got the i5/8GB/256GB configuration in a gorgeous blue finish for $1299. I knew up front that I wasn't going to be fine with the 4/128 config. It would work, but I wasn't going to spend $999 on a new computer with the same configuration as not only the Surface 3, but of the ThinkPad T400. It's a configuration that works well, but I know that the web and web-based applications are getting heavier.

As of this writing, the software setup is simple. I installed Office 365 on it, and PuTTYTray. I have yet to set up anything else, but those two things are most of what I do. I initially installed Office 365 via the store, hoping to add the promotional Office 365 time to my existing subscription, but elected to uninstall that and install it normally from 365, mainly because it didn't include the desktop version of OneNote.

Things brings me to one of my complaints about Windows 10 in general. In addition to receiving a lot of software I can't or won't use that counts as (perhaps) paid shovelware, you can't install certain things that feel like they should be optional installs, such as OneNote. I like OneNote a lot, but on any system for which I've licensed Office 365 or a desktop version of Office, I want it to be the full desktop version, with easy handling of the notebooks stored on my personal server.

I've already been asked once or twice about my thoughts on Surface Laptop reparability. The obvious source has already published their teardown, and the gadget sites have talked about how the Surface Laptop can't be disassembled without destroying it. To add, the RAM (obviously) and now the storage (a change from the previous Surface Pros) are soldered on. The problem with this assessment is that the Surface Pro storage, while technically socketed was not in any way reasonable to access. Nobody was pulling apart their Surface Pros to replace the built-in storage with bigger or faster m.2 blades, and the practical effect was that it wasn't upgradeable.

The way I'll put it is this: If I find out that 8/256 isn't sufficient, I don't think that an upgrade to 16/512 would solve whatever the problem is. That kind of discovery is almost certainly going to be accompanied by a need for, say, a quad-core CPU or a beefy discrete graphics processor, or significantly improved i/o capabilities. Even the top end Surface Laptop, which retails for $2199, is still a Surface Laptop with all the limitations implied by a 15-watt dual core CPU, 16 gigs of RAM, and a single USB port. I think if my Surface Laptop is going to be insufficient for something, it's going to be so insufficient that no configuration would have done well.

And, the things I'm doing on this machine are simple enough that I'm not worrying about that happening for a few years. This machine is pretty explicitly for writing and communication. I would likely have ordered the i7/16/512 configuration if I thought I'd need to use Slack, though.

Panos Panay says that the Surface Laptop was designed to be a viable student computer for four years. I believe him, and I'm hoping I can perhaps squeeze a fifth year out of it. I don't know if I can reasonably expect an awful lot more than that, but it really depends on physical longevity in this case, I think.

My ThinkPad T400 was so over-bought that to this day, it's fast enough (with its dual core, 4/128 config) for my research, writing, and communications. The reason I'm not using the T400 is that its display broke, and buying new batteries for it is expensive and impractical. My Surface RT still runs well and gets good battery life, but it was never particularly fast, Internet Explorer 11 on it is nearly unusably slow for blog research. The Surface 3 technically outperforms the T400, but only nominally and only for tasks that are well threaded. The Surface 3 has the problems caused by being dropped – its touchscreen doesn't work, only a part of the display works for pen input, and it gets slow and unstable when running on battery below 30% of its capacity.

The Surface Laptop wasn't over-bought, but it wasn't under-bought. I think the state we are in right now where every Intel computer I have that's less than about ten years old works perfectly fine is indicative of the place we're in with the Surface Laptop. The computing plateau means that unless something game changing comes up or web sites grow too much, this machine will be "a useful computer" long after it stops being "a portable computer."

That said, here's to the next several years of portable computing.


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