Surface Laptop review: Microsoft's MacBook Air killer nails what students need

Great looks, battery life, light weight. And for the future, there's Windows 10 Pro.

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After upgrading to Windows 10 Pro, however, a wealth of new benchmarks became available, together with the ability to compare them to a number of competitive laptops and tablets. As the numbers demonstrate, the Surface Laptop performs well, though not at the top of its class. 

Windows 10 Pro performance: Pretty good

We use PCMark’s Work, Home, and Creative benchmarks to measure standard computing tasks. As you might imagine, some of the functions overlap from test to test. Nevertheless, you’ll find more office-productivity measurements in the Work test, transitioning into light gaming and photo manipulation in the Home test (first chart below), as well as more strenuous workloads in the Creative test (second test below). 

pcmark work surface laptop IDG
pcmark home surface laptop IDG

It’s hard to imagine any of today’s laptops falling down under the stress of typing a Word document, as the Work test measures. Of the three PCMark tests, Creative (below) is usually the better benchmark, performing a suite of real-world tasks. You can see it even slightly outperforms the original Surface Book, meaning it’s a solid choice for everyday computing.

pcmark creative surface laptop IDG

We use two additional tests to stress the Laptop’s CPU: the open-source video conversion tool, Handbrake; and Maxon’s Cinebench benchmark. Though Handbrake (below) is a useful tool for converting video—for example, shrinking down a video to an appropriate size for a tablet—it also measures how well the CPU will hold up over prolonged load. 

handbrake Surface Laptop IDG

Cinebench (below) stresses the CPU in a different way: asking a single core of the microprocessor to render a scene, and also asking all of its cores to complete the task as quickly as possible. While design students would probably be given workstation time to complete these tasks, it’s possible students would also need to have a decent rendering engine on their lap.

cinebench Surface Laptop IDG

We then turn to 3DMark, and the firm’s Sky Diver 3D graphics benchmark (below). Generally, Sky Diver’s graphics load is a little too much for a laptop like the Surface Laptop, and we’ve already seen how poorly it fares on the Tomb Raider benchmark, above.

3dmark sky diver surface laptop IDG

Finally, there’s our follow-up battery life test. We already ran one with Windows 10 S, but we wanted to see how Windows 10 Pro affected the battery life. After setting the same test parameters (full battery, and with the display at a fixed, moderately bright level), we loop a 4K video over and over until the battery runs down.

The results, below, are interesting: On Windows 10 S, the Laptop took 765 minutes to expire, as shown above. But when we upgraded to Windows 10 Pro, battery life dropped sharply: 654 minutes when Windows 10’s battery slider was dialed up to emphasize performance, and 689 minutes when we slid the power slider to emphasize battery life. That’s more than an entire hour lost when switching from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro.

surface laptop windows 10 battery life IDG

These more detailed performance tests mostly show how Windows 10 S benefits battery life. Given that no other tests showed a dramatic , we’re leaving the basic score of the Surface Laptop unchanged.

Conclusion: A great choice for back-to-school

Oddly, the Surface Laptop feels like progress forward and back, all at once. Microsoft originally designed the Surface lineup to hustle its hardware partners into the future, implicitly stripping Apple of its design cachet and encouraging consumers to buy new PCs. Now, the Surface Laptop has stepped down a rung, challenging some of the cheaper, more mainstream product lines of its hardware partners to keep up. Laptops like HP’s latest Spectre x360 already do, but other vendors could use a push.

As someone who enjoys diving down into a Settings menu or adjusting the registry, Windows 10 S feels cramped. I have to believe most college students will encounter some app they either need or want before too long, and chafe at the restrictions. Sure, the upgrade to Windows 10 Pro is free for now, but it should be free forever.

Surface Laptop thickness comparison Mark Hachman

Microsoft’s Surface Book (top), the Surface Laptop, and an Apple MacBook Air from 2010.

I’m also still a bit leery of Microsoft’s port choices. Apple received praise for eliminating the floppy drive and DVD-ROM, but received criticism for the single Lightning port that forced users into a web of dongles. In four years, will students curse Microsoft’s cheapness, and reluctance to invest in USB-C? Maybe, though today a USB-A connector is still the right choice. The tipping point to USB-C isn’t that far away, though.

That doesn’t change what Microsoft has accomplished with the Surface Laptop. Decent performance, a stylish exterior, and outstanding battery life check all the boxes of a product designed to upend the MacBook Air. Sure, the Surface Laptop might not have as much to write home about as its fancier Surface kin. But for Microsoft, that’s nothing as long as the Surface Laptop is what those students are writing on.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Surface Laptop is a reasonably-priced premium laptop whose excellent battery life and light weight outweigh any restrictions placed upon users by the Windows 10 S operating system.


    • Fantastic battery life inside an ultrabook chassis
    • Reasonably priced, for a Surface
    • Free (for now) upgrade to Windows 10 Pro


    • App restrictions can make Windows 10 S frustrating
    • Limited port selection
    • Other notebooks offer more advanced features, like USB-C
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