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Surface Pro 8 – who should buy?

Microsoft’s updated Surface Pro 8 is for people who need Windows packaged in the slimmest, lightest device. Make that well-heeled people, it’s not cheap.

That’s the short version. Now for a longer version.

This isn’t going to read like a standard product view. Instead, we’re going to look at who might benefit from buying a Surface Pro 8 and who would do better looking elsewhere. First, the basics

Great display

From the moment you fire up the Surface Pro 8 you’ll notice the display.

It’s nearly an inch larger than the display on the Surface Pro 7 with tiny 5mm bezels at the side. The top bezel is larger at 10mm, but it hides the front facing camera. You don’t see the bottom bezel when you are hooked up to the Signature keyboard.

Microsoft has increased the refresh rate to 120Mhz. That’s something you don’t often see on everyday devices.

Experience

In practice this makes for a better experience. It feels and looks better. The cursor and screen scrolling are smoother. None of this sounds like much and after a while you won’t notice it, but you’ll miss it the moment you start using a device with a slower refresh rate.

There’s an adaptive colour feature that adjusts the screen depending on what’s around you. Again, the effect is subtle, you notice it most when day turns to night or night turns to day.

All of this adds up to a quality experience. When it comes to the visual side of things, the Surface Pro 8 feels better than any other Windows computer.

Typing

Sadly you cannot say the same for the keyboard. As with other Surface Pro models, the keyboard is an optional extra. It’s not that optional. Almost no-one buys a Surface Pro without the NZ$479 Signature Keyboard.

That’s a lot of money for a keyboard by any standard. Thanks to a core made from carbon fibre it is sturdier than early Surface Pro keyboards. Yet it still flexes as you type. It stays in place, but you don’t get the solid feel of a laptop keyboard.

Nor do you get much key travel. On the plus side it is laid out with plenty of room. As a touch typist I didn’t run into problems.

Performance

We’ll look more at relative performance in a moment. There’s a base model Surface Pro 8 that uses the Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of Ram. That’ll cost you NZ$1850. Storage is a mere 128GB, which is barely enough to get by with.

The review model has an i7 with 16GB of Ram, 256GB of storage and Iris Xe integrated graphics. It sells in New Zealand for $2770.

In both cases that’s before you add almost $500 for the not-really-optional Signature keyboard.

Fast by Windows standards

This is a fast machine by 2021 Windows standards. You can run many apps at the same time without seeing any performance drop. I loaded it with a dozen simultaneous tasks without it getting warm.

Microsoft claims you can get 16 hours use on a single charge. I found the Surface Pro 8 fell well short of that. Eight hours is closer to my experience and that’s with dialling down the screen brightness.

Audience

The obvious audience for the Surface Pro 8 is existing Surface users looking for an upgrade.

Beyond that, this will appeal to the rusted-on Windows user. Someone who has spent years working with Microsoft’s OS, and has optimised their practices to the point where switching to, say, MacOS or Linux would be hard.

Surface Pro 8 costs a lot more than conventional Windows laptops offering the same performance. You can buy laptops with similar chip and memory specifications from companies like HP, Lenovo or Dell for $1000 less.

Or you can spend the same money and buy a more powerful device.

That makes it an expensive way of getting a mobile Windows computer.

Yet Surface is more than that. It converts to a tablet and delivers a more complete Windows 11 experience. I’d argue it is a better experience than most 2-in-1s.

Comparisons with MacBook Air

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 does not scrub up well in a direct comparison with a MacBook Air, the 2020 model with the M1 processor.

By the time you’ve added the Signature Keyboard to the Surface Pro 8, you’re looking at spending more than NZ$3000 for a computer with 256GB of storage.

A MacBook Air with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1750.

It doesn’t have a touch screen and you can’t remove the keyboard. Yet Apple’s computer is much faster. If you like benchmarks, then you’ll see the MacBook Air is about 40 percent faster than the Surface Pro.

When it comes to battery life, the MacBook Air will carry on working for at least three more hours than the Surface Pro. My testing shows you should expect to run for even longer. You get more computer for less money.

The key difference is the operating system. Now that most apps are delivered from the cloud and the key non-cloud apps come in MacOS and Windows versions, there’s less to worry about in this department.

It comes down to whether you like MacOS or Windows and whether you can be as productive if you switch.

In a sense, the Surface Pro 8 makes a strong case for buying an Apple laptop.

Comparisons with iPad Pro

The Surface Pro 8 is far more laptop-like than the iPad Pro. I might hook a keyboard to the iPad Pro for 30 percent of my time with the device. With the Surface Pro it’s never not connected.

Even so, you can view both as tablets and compare them that way.

Adding the Smart Keyboard Folio, which is the closest model to Microsoft’s keyboard to an iPad Pro with 256GB of storage comes to a total of NZ$2380. That’s $650 less than the price of a similar configuration Surface Pro 8.

Like the M1 MacBook Air, the M1 iPad Pro is much faster than the Surface Pro. Meanwhile the iPad Pro’s battery life is on a par with the Surface Pro 8. The iPad Pro is around 100g lighter than the Surface Pro, in practice you’d barely notice this.

On a straightforward comparison, the iPad Pro offers more computer for less money.

Slim Pen 2 Stylus

You can buy pens, or Pencils and Stylus to give them their brand names, for both the Surface Pro 8 and the iPad Pro.

Apple’s Pencil integrates neatly with the iPad Pro. It has magnets which let it stick to the side of the iPad when not in use. It will charge while in this position.

Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2 Stylus tucks into a holder on the Signature Keyboard. In its own way this is as neat as Apple’s magnetic approach. This includes a wireless charger.

There’s also a separate charging holster. I struggled to see the point of this. It makes life more complicated than is necessary.

Surface Pro 8 verdict

There will be people reading this who don’t think price is a barrier. Yet by any standards the Surface Pro 8 is expensive.

By the time you add a non-optional keyboard, the lowest practical option will cost NZ$2500. A MacBook Pro costs less. There are plenty of decent Windows alternatives that will leave change in your pocket.

None of this is to detract from the Surface Pro 8. It has a wonderful screen and there’s the flexibility to remove the keyboard and enjoy a movie on a tablet. It’s about as good as the Windows laptop experience can be.

Microsoft Surface Duo a curiosity phone

Microsoft has a different take on a folding phone. While models from Samsung and Huawei have a folding screen, the Surface Duo has two side-by-side displays connected by hinges.

You will be able to buy a Duo next month. It won’t be cheap. The US price is US$1400. In normal times that would put the New Zealand price somewhere north of NZ$3000. Keep in mind that you can buy a decent Android phone for NZ$500 and a first class tablet with a better tablet operating system for NZ$600.

Surface Duo is a curious device on many levels. Above all, it is curious that Microsoft should get back into the phone business after being burnt by its Nokia experience.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Is it a phone, is it a tablet?

To be fair Microsoft isn’t calling the Surface Duo a phone. Although that word could be triggering for a Microsoft marketing executive.

Nor does it call the device a tablet. Yet there’s no question it fits somewhere between the two.

Another curiosity is that Microsoft uses the Surface brand name. The company previously said it uses the Surface name for products that highlight the potential of its Windows operating system. The Surface Duo is an Android phone.

And that’s another curiosity. Because an Android phone means Microsoft has to get into bed with Google, a company that is a rival in many markets.

Mobile productivity

Those curiosities keep on coming. Microsoft is pitching the Surface Duo as a mobile computing device at a time when demand for mobility has hit a pandemic-inflicted low point. Phone sales are down 30 percent. Meanwhile, demand for PCs, which are a Microsoft strength and Windows’ home turf, are riding at a ten year high.

The idea of productivity on the move was a potential winner before the world began working from home. Now, the Surface Duo is another device looking for a meaningful purpose.

There are two 5.6-inch OLED displays. You can run different apps in each or you can connect them for an 8.1-inch screen with a hinge down the centre. This format allows a more robust construction. The screens are made from Gorilla Glass and are less fragile than, say, the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

One screen good, two screens better

A promotional photo from Microsoft shows one screen used for text and the second as a on-screen keyboard with the device turned on its side. In this format it becomes a tiny laptop, albeit one that runs Android.

You’ll be able to run any Android app on the Surface Duo, although apps may be restricted to a single screen. There’s software that allows you to open an app on the other screen from the first one. Microsoft tweaked its own apps to take advantage of the larger display.

The idea behind the Surface Duo is sound enough. During more mobile times there was a healthy demand for devices that could keep you productive while on the run. A bigger screen, even if split in two, is better for reading.

Yet this is not the right product for August 2020.

Part of the problem is price. Upwards of NZ$3000 is a lot for a mobile productivity device if you’re not that mobile. Even if you are, it’s not clear what the Surface Duo brings to the productivity party that isn’t done adequately elsewhere. It could take off with people who have specific needs, but it was never made to be a mass market hit.

Surface Go 2 — Microsoft’s latest more ultraportable than tablet

Surface Go 2 is Microsoft’s second generation Windows 10 tablet. Like Apple’s iPad, the Surface Go 2 is a lovely device, Yet it has more in common with ultraportable Window laptops than the iPad.

Microsoft’s second Surface Go is a fraction larger than the first version. The screen is now 10.5 inches. It weighs 545g, that’s 22g more than the earlier model.

Measurements are 245 by 175 by 8.5mm give or take a tenth of a mm. It roughly the same size and weight as an iPad Air, although not the same shape. The Surface screen is wider and shallower than the more squarish iPad.

Ideal trade-off

You won’t notice any weight difference when carrying the hardware, but you will notice the bigger screen. Depending on your application (more about this later), it could be an ideal trade off between screen size and portability.

In practice it is small and light enough to slip into a briefcase or any kind of bag almost without noticing it is there. It isn’t going to cause problems with airplane carry on baggage.

Local prices for the Surface Go 2 start at NZ$629. That buys the Wi-fi model with 64GB of storage and an Intel Pentium 4425Y processor. Pay NZ$880 for 128GB of storage and the same processor. These models both have 4Gb of Ram. NZ$1200 gets the Ram bumped to 8Gb and a more powerful Intel Core m3 processor along with 128GB of storage and 4G mobile network connectivity.

There’s little question you will want the $220 Signature Type Cover.

Add the necessary keyboard and you’ll pay $850.

While you can buy laptops with similar power for these prices, this has a much more premium feel. It is the cheapest way of getting a Microsoft Surface device.

Keyboard

Many iPad users get by without a keyboard. It is harder, although not impossible, to use a Surface that way. An iPad spends a lot of its life being used in the phone-like portrait orientation. Everything about the Surface Go assumes you will use it like a laptop. That means the screen will be landscape apart from the odd rare occasion.

Microsoft might call it a tablet. Technically Surface Go 2 is a tablet. Yet the Surface Go 2 will likely end up being used like an ultraportable laptop.

It is a mighty fine small, lightweight laptop. The touch screen is better than you’d find on similarly priced laptops. It looks bright and responds as you’d expect to touch. The kickstand is a nice touch. Everything is built to a high standard.

Enough power, not heaps of power

The review model came with a Pentium Gold processor. It won’t break any speed records, but it provides more than enough power for the kind of work you’d expect to throw at a small computer.

I found it ideal for my writing work. It handles all the online tasks without missing a beat. I’m not the kind of user who opens dozens of browser Windows.

When I attempted this in the name of science, I got bored long before the Windows Edge browser lost the plot.

If you are wedded to Windows, live in Microsoft Office and don’t need a big screen for creative work or grunt for huge calculations, this could be the only computer you need.

Great for Zoom meetings, Microsoft Teams

The Surface Go 2 is a stellar performer when it comes to video conferences. It has a better front camera than you’d normally find on a laptop selling for under $1000. It’s five megapixels and can shoot video in full HD quality. What’s more, it requires less light than a standard laptop camera which struggles with my home office.

Microsoft hasn’t skimped on the microphone and speakers. I found the mic works better than other Windows laptops for calls. It’s not noticeably better than the Apple equivalents.

The speakers are not up to the standard of the iPad Pro, but, again, are excellent by Windows laptop standards. They do OK with music, although the bass is missing in action. Yet they are great for video calls. I can hear everything at the other end. Better than that, the sound is clear enough for me to record conversations speaker-to-mike.

Other features

On the back there is an 8 megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video. This is clumsy with the Surface Go 2 format, but can be useful at a pinch.

The Surface Go 2 Type Cover keyboard is much like the earlier Surface Go keyboard. It’s about 30mm smaller than a full-size keyboard in both dimensions. In part this is because the top row of function keys are all half size.

It looked like I might struggle with pudgy fingers on smaller keys. I’m a touch typist, which means it takes getting used to, but after 30 minutes I was back to full speed. In practice the keyboard is better than anything you might see on a laptop in this price range.

A few other points:

  • Microsoft equipped the Surface Go 2 with Wi-fi 6. If you have a suitable router it will give you a better, more reliable wireless connection. If you buy a Surface Go2, it would be a good time to upgrade your router to Wi-Fi 6.
  • I’ve found Windows Hello face recognition to be unreliable on other recent laptops. It worked every time on the Surface Go 2.
  • Given that next to no-one leaves the store without the keyboard, it is not optional. Microsoft should bundle the two products together. Even if that doesn’t reduce price, it would reduce wasteful packaging and unnecessary stuffing around.
  • Microsoft says the battery is good for five hours. It’s longer than the original Surface go, but around half what you’d get with an iPad. You can eke out power longer by cranking down the brightness, but my old eyes struggle with this.

Surface Go 2 verdict

With the Surface Go 2, Microsoft has refined the laptop PC format into something modern and productive. You get access to a huge library of Windows apps, not all are full touch enabled, but they will work.

It’s a perfect choice for a second computer if you have, say, a desktop at home and need a light computer for the road. I’d recommend it for journalists or anyone who spends their working life in Microsoft Word or another word processor.

The Surface Go 2 is not the best machine to buy if your main need is media creation or media consumption. You would need to make compromises.

Microsoft Surface Book 3, Surface Go 2

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.

More on the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

There’s more to say about the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, like me, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

 

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review: Big touch screen

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.

 

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. This review looks at the NZ$3100 model. It 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.

 

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 has one of the better laptop keyboards. 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.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, say, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The proprietary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 is a reminder of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

 

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for everyday work: 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.

It is a great work laptop for people who need a larger screen.

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. ↩︎

Why is the Surface 3 laptop so expensive?

After this story was posted Mike Riversdale said he had a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responds on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a point. The Surface Laptop 3 is more than expensive than similar laptops by a considerable margin. 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 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 who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact you can handoff between 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, 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.

A high price is part of that strategy. High prices 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.