Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 review: A once-great laptop now is merely good

A stubborn grip on USB Type A ports and a puzzling attitude toward pricing its various color options mar what is otherwise a solid Windows notebook.

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Surface Laptop 2 performance

Microsoft never designed the Surface Laptop to be anything much more than an aesthetically pleasing middle-of-the-road laptop that a student or a casual worker could tote around to class or a conference. As such, we never expected its performance to be exemplary, and it wasn’t. Battery life sold the original Laptop, and it’s the selling point here, too—but now, other laptops can offer as much or better.

(One performance note: Though we benchmark in airplane mode to prevent background processes from affecting our results, we use the laptops, too—and it was during this period that we were caught short by an unexpected update to the Windows 10 October 2018 Update between tests. The upgrade didn’t seem to affect benchmark scores except for some of the PCMark tests, where scores seemed to fall by about 7 percent. While the scores averaged out—we ran two tests before the upgrade, and two after—it’s also worth noting that even the earlier scores wouldn’t have meaningfully affected the Surface Laptop 2’s relative ranking.)

We gathered together several recently-introduced laptops, all hovering a bit above or below the $1,000 price point. We also included the Surface Laptop 1st Gen (brown bars below) for comparison’s sake.

Our first standardized test, PCMark, supplies three separate benchmarks: Work, Home, and Creative. While the Work test measures typical office productvity applications, such as spreadsheet work and word processing, the Home and Creative tests begin pushing more familiar applications, such as light gaming. Any score over 2,000 is acceptable, and the Surface Laptop 2 (red bars below) made it over the line—but behind everyone else.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 pcmark work IDG
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2  pcmark home IDG

It’s worth noting that while the October 2018 Update inexplicably dragged down the PCMark Work and Home, even the original scores were at the performance level produced by the original Surface Laptop, as measured by both benchmarks.

The Creative tests leans more heavily into tasks like photo editing and video, stressing the system harder. Here, the upgraded processor appears to boost the Surface Laptop 2 higher, though the increased resolution of the Surface Laptop 2’s screen still seems to be holding it back. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 pcmark creative IDG

To be fair, the Surface Laptop 2 isn’t that far behind the competition. But it is behind.

PCMark also recently released a more modern version of its benchmark, combining all of its previous benchmarks into a separate test. Though our database of results is smaller, we’re still able to compare it to a few machines. The Surface Laptop 2 scored 3,400 for the basic test, compared to 2,767 for the HP Spectre x2 and 3,737 for the Dell XPS 13 9370.

Maxon’s Cinebench benchmark should be familiar to anyone who’s read a review of a CPU. The test stresses all or one of the CPU cores, allowing you to get an idea of what the performance would be under an optimized load. Through we test both single- and multithreaded, we show only the multithreaded result below. The Surface Laptop 2 posts a solid midrange score here, far ahead of the 1st Gen Surface Laptop.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2  cinebench IDG

Here, the Surface Laptop 2 begins to climb the ranks, though most laptops on its class do well here.

HandBrake, an open-source tool for converting video, provides an excellent test of how a system handles stress over time. We convert a full-length movie into a format that could be viewed with an Android tablet. This is a real-world task, and one in which the Laptop 2 fares better than usual, leaving its predecessor in the dust.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2  handbrake IDG

The Handbrake test measures video transcoding, a real-world test where the Surface Laptop 2 performs well, and outclasses its predecessor by a significant margin.

Though it’s doubtful that you’ll use the Surface Laptop 2 as a gaming machine, we test using 3DMark’s Sky Diver benchmark to measure how well the Laptop 2 would fare in a 3D gaming scenario. We don’t expect much here.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 sky diver IDG

Most of laptops in this category all measure up relatively well in terms of graphics, though these are not gaming machines.

Finally, there’s battery life, increasingly a key buying factor. In this case, the 1st Gen Surface Laptop lasted nearly 11 hours, while the Surface Laptop 2 lasted slightly less, about 10.5 hours. There’s an explanation: The 1st Gen Surface Laptop’s 48Wh battery has an inherent advantage over the Surface Laptop 2’s 45Wh supply. Both times are good for working all day. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2  battery life IDG

The Surface Laptop’s battery life is outstanding—over 10 hours. But many more laptops have now joined this category, too.

Should you buy the Surface Laptop 2?

Microsoft designed the original Surface Laptop for a student on the go: an affordable, pleasing notebook with moderate performance but killer battery life. Microsoft hewed to the same goal with the Surface Laptop 2.

In the intervening months, however, several other notebooks caught up: the Dell New XPS 13, for example, or the HP Spectre x360 13t (late 2017) offer even better battery life than the Surface Laptop 2, and the XPS far outclasses it in terms of performance. While most peripherals will take advantage of the USB-A port on the Surface Laptop 2 now, the USB-C devices of the future ewill be frustrated. By contrast, Dell’s XPS 13 has wholly embraced USB-C.

Microsoft contented itself with merely tweaking the Surface Laptop to create the Surface Laptop 2, and that’s fine. It still remains one of the better notebooks of 2018, and you’ll be as happy buying it as I was using it. But if you want one of the very best notebooks, you should look elsewhere.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's moderately priced Surface Laptop 2 offers excellent battery life, but moderate performance and outdated I/O may prove a bit limiting over the long haul.

    Pros

    • Aside from processor, hardware is virtually unchanged from first generation
    • Processor bump provides some performance improvement
    • Very good battery life
    • Solid value, especially if you don't opt for premium black

    Cons

    • Aside from processor, hardware is virtually unchanged from 1st gen
    • Lack of USB-C ports might become a problem over time
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