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Microsoft’s uses Surface to take the laptop fight to Apple. While it leaves mainstream Windows hardware to the likes of HP and Dell, its own brand adds an element of sophistication and a different take on innovation.

This week there was a new Surface Book and a new Surface Go.

Surface Go is Microsoft’s smallest and cheapest tablet. Local prices start at less than NZ$600. You can get cheaper tablets, but anything other than an iPad or Surface in that price range or lower is likely to disappoint.

More screen, less bezel

The new Surface Go 2 is the same size as the earlier model, but the screen size bumps from 10 to 10.5 inches. That’s thanks to smaller bezels, the edge around the screen. Surface Go 3 works with existing Go 3 accessories.

That kind of size increase might not sound much, in this case the screen resolution also increases to 1920 x 1280 pixel. The battery is bigger, Microsoft says you now get 10 hours.

There is also a new model with a faster Intel 8th Gen Core m3 processor. Yet the base model still comes with a Pentium Gold processor, that’s the same as the earlier Surface Go. You might want to avoid that.

Surface Book 3

It has been three years since the Surface Book 2. Longer since the first Surface Book. The models brought innovation and style to Windows, although at a high price.

The Surface Book 3 has a big speed bump, there are 10th generation Intel processors and updated NVIDIA graphics.

Sadly, there’s not much else to excite potential buyers. Physically the new laptops look much the same as the models they replace.

They still have the neat ability to unlock and remove the screen so it can be used as a large tablet. In my review of the earlier Surface Book I speculated that owners rarely use this feature. That appears to be correct.

Interesting hybrid

It still feels like the most interesting variation on the Windows 2-in–1 hybrid theme. Yet it would be nice if there was some fresh innovation in this department. When the first Surface Books appeared the design was well ahead of the curve, today other notebook models feel more up to date.

Microsoft hasn’t sent out review models in New Zealand to date. From the promotion material it looks as if the new Surface Book models continue the solid, well constructed design. Surface Books feel more robust than other mainstream PCs. Apparently it is heavy by laptop standards at about 1.5 kg for the 13.5-inch model.

The next comment will annoy many Windows fans, but the touch screen Windows 10 operating system doesn’t always feel right on 2-in–1 hybrids from other brands. Microsoft seems to have nailed this aspect of design in the past and there’s no reason why the Surface 3 doesn’t continue that legacy.

Mike Riversdale has a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responded to my review of the Laptop on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a good point. The Surface Laptop 3 is far more than expensive than similar laptops. Even if you shop around it is  $1000 or so more expensive than similar laptops. That makes it at least 50 percent more than the price of a 15-inch Windows laptop from HP, Dell or Lenovo. It is a whopping 80 percent more than Riversdale’s fancy new birthday laptop.

Premium laptop

Microsoft positions its Surface Laptops as premium models. It would be fair to say the build is top notch. The case is nicer than you’ll find on most commodity laptops. The keyboard is the best I’ve seen in any laptop. The screen ratio is more suited to writing than displays on consumer laptops optimised for video

All these things are nice. For many people who spend all day writing a first class keyboard is a must. It is well worth paying a few extra dollars for more comfortable, more productive typing.

Yet it’s still a struggle to justify a 50 or 80 percent premium.

And anyway, Microsoft does not sell its Surface Laptop 3 on these features. At the time of writing the marketing copy on Microsoft’s website makes that clear. It starts: “Make a powerful statement and get improved speed, performance, and all-day battery life”.

The $3100 review model might have improved speed compared with a second generation Surface Laptop. Yet it is no faster than those $1700 rival Windows laptops. We can concede the battery life is good, but not a lot better than those competing machines.

Tangible, intangible

If the tangible aspects can’t justify the higher price, does it come down to less tangible things?

And that’s where Microsoft’s price becomes more of a puzzle.

Apple can and does charge more for MacBooks than most Windows computer makers can get away with. There are people, I’m one of them, who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact that I can handoff between my phone, iPad and MacBook is worth paying a little extra for.

Some people swear there are productivity benefits from using a Mac. You don’t have to agree with this opinion. That’s not important. What is important is that many computer buyers believe they get better productivity from a Mac

Microsoft cannot make a similar claim. The version of Windows 10 on the Surface Laptop 3 is near identical to that on rival Windows laptops. There is no premium in the software. Unless you count the fact that Microsoft doesn’t load up its laptops with bloatware.

Microsoft Surface Laptop brand

Which only leaves another reason Microsoft thinks it can charge a premium; that the brand is more valuable. It can’t be that Microsoft computers are more reliable than competing devices. In 2017 the US Consumer Reports said that it would no longer recommend Microsoft’s Surface laptops and tablets because of “poor predicted reliability” compared to other brands.

That’s damning. Microsoft says it has fixed the problems. It may have done. But any laptop buyer with a memory or access to Google will doubt it is worth paying a quality premium.

It’s not going to cut much ice with buyers, yet scale is one reason Microsoft hardware is expensive. The company does not rate among the top five PC makers. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Apple and Acer account for 80 percent of personal computer sales. Acer is the smallest of the top 5 with a six percent share of the market. It’s no secret Acer is struggling.

The Surface range is a US$2 billion business for Microsoft. That puts it in the region of a little over one percent of the company. It’s healthy, but not essential to Microsoft’s future.

It’s not about you, it’s not about the laptop

So what is going on with Surface? Before Microsoft entered the market, the Windows laptop scene was in bad shape. There was as race to the bottom between computer makers. They still make tiny margins selling hardware, in some cases unsustainable margins.

Microsoft introduced the Surface to inject quality and excitement back into the market.

At the time Apple was almost the entire premium end of the PC market. That’s not something Microsoft could sit by and watch. Over time that would erode the Windows brand and create all sorts of tensions. There was no way Microsoft would leave the high ground to Apple.

You can see from the numbers and the market share, that Microsoft is not serious about winning the bulk of hardware customers. It doesn’t need to do that. It needs to establish a premium Windows computer brand that shines out as an alternative to Apple.

Having high prices is an important part of that strategy. A high price can be as much a marketing strategy as low, low prices. It also means Microsoft makes a tidy sum from the exercise.

If you, like Mike Riversdale, think the Surface Laptop 3 costs too much at NZ$3100, that’s fine. Shop elsewhere. It’s not for you. It is a message from Microsoft to let you know there is more to the PC business than getting a bargain.

The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - large and small models

At a glance:

 

For: Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against: Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe: OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict: Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price: Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web: Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. Here I looked at the NZ$3100 model that sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a stand-out laptop keyboard. They must be out there. The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about. See my revised opinion on the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard.

There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for the kind of work I do: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

When the Surface Laptop 3 arrived I felt excited about the machine. At first sight it appears to be a great work computer for people who need a larger screen.

That impression didn’t go away. Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎

At NZ$700, Surface Go rounds out the bottom end of Microsoft’s tablet-to-laptop range. It’s a small, thin tablet with a 10-inch screen. No doubt people will compare it with another small, thin 10-inch tablet: Apple’s NZ$540 iPad.

Before going further, we should be clear, the tablets come from different ranges. They have different design perspectives. Despite the obvious similarities, few people will choose between the Surface Go and an iPad. For the most part, they aim at distinct markets. You also need to remember these are the cheapest models in each range.

That said, they are low-cost tablets from the two biggest names in personal computing. Both are versatile mobile devices. They both have large touch screens by mobile device standards. Each offers a huge catalogue of software covering almost every possible application.

Microsoft Surface Go

Size, weight

Apple’s iPad is smaller and lighter than the Surface Go. It measures 240 by 170 by 7.5 mm and weighs 470 g. Surface Go is about 10 percent heavier at 520 g. It’s thicker at 8.3 mm.

Although the frame is fraction larger at 244 by 178 mm, that’s used for a bigger screen. The Surface Go display is 10.6 inches, while the iPad is 9.7 inches. The Apple display has more pixels: you get 2,048 by 1,536. The Go is has 1,800 by 1,200 pixels. I’ll save you the maths of working out that means the iPad has 264 pixels per inch compared to Go’s 217.

Both support an optional pen for writing on-screen. Apple’s drawing tool is the Apple Pencil.

Processors

Microsoft uses a two-core Intel processor; the Pentium Gold 4415Y. Apple’s is the A10 Fusion chip. Without benchmarking, it’s hard to know which has the more powerful processor.

On paper Apple’s hardware choices give you a little more battery time than the Surface Go. How that works in practice is more a matter of how you use your tablet.

Apple appears to have an edge here, but we’d need to wait for formal tests to know. Both processors are a generation behind the top models in their respective ranges. As it says at the start of this post, people will use the devices in different ways. So their relative power is less important than the suitability for applications.

The Surface Go has a clear edge when it comes to storage. The extra NZ$140 buy double the Ram and double the built-in flash storage. The Go has 4GB and 64GB. Again it’s hard to know what these numbers mean in practice without testing, but as a rule more is better.

Surface Go expandable memory

You can expand the storage on a Surface Go. There is a MicroSD card slot. There is nothing like this on the iPad. This will matter a lot to some people. It would interesting to know how many people use a memory slot in a device like this.

Apple’s iPad runs iOS. It’s the same operating system as on the iPhone. In recent iterations Apple updated iOS to make better use of the iPad’s size and capabilities. As you’d expect it integrates well with an iPhone and the MacOS.

The Surface Go comes with Microsoft’s Windows 10 running in the S Mode. This limits your software choices, but it’s a piece of cake to upgrade this to Windows 10 Home.

At the risk of triggering angry comments, I find iOS has a better touch screen interface. Although Windows 10 handles touch, at times the old user interface peeks through. It can cause problems. Your experience may differ.

On the other hand, I find Windows 10 makes more sense on a tablet than a desktop. Again, you might have a different view.

Microsoft’s marketing makes a lot of fuss about the kickstand. This allows you to prop the Surface Go up in the landscape orientation on a flat surface. Some Surface Pro users love this feature, it’s popularity bewilders many iPad fans.

Microsoft’s Surface Go Signature Type Cover adds NZ$220 to the price. The Surface Pen is NZ$160. Apple’s Pencil is the same price. Apple has its own keyboard covers for iPad Pro models. For the plain iPad, Apple’s online store offers a NZ$150 Logitech Slim Folio Case with integrated bluetooth keyboard.

Storage options

Both ranges offer models with more storage. A 128 GB iPad is NZ$700, the same price as the basic Surface Go. For the well-heeled Microsoft has a 128 GB model with 8 GB of Ram at NZ$950.

Let’s put the Surface Go price into context. The same money will buy a Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook or one of a range of low-price Windows laptops.

By the time you add the official keyboard you could buy a ThinkPad with an Intel Core i3 processor. Of course these would not be as portable. Yet you will find a better processor, better keyboard and better screen.

If you’re already happy with Apple or Microsoft’s comforting embrace, then you’d do well to stay put. That way you can be productive from the moment you open the box. Most of the time, you will get more from your existing investments in software and services.

At first sight the iPad and Microsoft app store look to be roughly equal, after all, this is Windows we are talking about. Yet in practice many popular Windows apps are either not optimised for touch or have occasional touchability lapses. You may also find some popular, well-known apps are not there.

It’s odd, but on a personal note I find Microsoft Office works better on an iPad than on a touch screen Windows tablet. Although this could be a matter of familiarity and taste, you couldn’t say the same for MacOS where Office is noticeably inferior.

Microsoft Surface sales yet to take off

Microsoft-branded hardware has yet to strike a chord with buyers. The brand doesn’t register in the global PC sales statistics collected by IDC and Gartner. There have been reliability problems with Surface hardware.

Over the last three months of 2017 Microsoft’s Surface line made $1.3 billion in revenue. That’s impressive, but the dial hasn’t shifted from two years earlier. Sales are flat. That is despite a slew of new Surface products in 2017.

In round numbers Apple makes more than six dollars from its iPad models for every dollar Microsoft earns from all its hardware products excluding the Xbox.

There’s nothing to suggest Surface Go will change the market dynamic. The device looks neat and will meet an unmet need, but it doesn’t look like a surefire winner.

Surface book

Consumer Reports has pulled its recommendations for Microsoft’s Surface products, citing an industry-worst failure rate.

Source: Consumer Reports: Microsoft Surface is Dead Last for Reliability – Thurrott.com

Reliability is one of the hardest things to cover off when reviewing hardware.

It’s no accident that Apple, which sits at the top of the reliability league table lends hardware to journalists for extended review periods. That makes for better reviews on two counts.

First, you can dive a lot deeper into the product and use it more like a buyer would. I often wait  until a month or more before writing about Apple kit. I write about my experiences using the product in real, everyday work.

There’s no need to run through artificial tests which is what happens when you only have something for a few days. A longer test means a better understanding of quirks and nuances, and what they mean in practice.

Testing for reliability

Second, you get a better feel for reliability. If you use a computer for a couple of months without a glitch, there’s a good chance it will last for 12 months or longer without a problem.

A third benefit of extended review periods, is that a reviewer can find something they are so comfortable with, that they are happy to spend their own money on. It’s because I spent quality time with Apple hardware I chose to buy that brand later.

Something similar happened when I borrowed the HP Spectre. I loved it so much that I’m writing this post on mine.

 

I didn’t see anything wrong with the review Surface Book. But I only had it for a little over a week. I did notice a minor hiccup with the Surface Pro 3, but didn’t write about it at the time because it happened once and just may have been user error. A longer review might have shown me it was a device problem.