Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 review

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 2 launched last year, but already feels old

Six months in, the Surface Laptop 2 already feels antiquated.
Six months in, the Surface Laptop 2 already feels antiquated.
Six months in, the Surface Laptop 2 already feels antiquated.

Highs

  • Beautiful, premium design
  • 3:2 screen is gorgeous
  • Good battery life
  • Excellent typing experience

Lows

  • Outdated port selection
  • Thick bezels are an eyesore
  • Modest processor performance

DT Editors' Rating

Few people purchase laptops right when they come out, but as we all know, the landscape can change quickly.

The Surface Laptop 2 launched at the tail end of 2018, but we want to consider how it holds up to the new breed of competition around six months later. Our unit is the sleek black model, which came with a quad-core Core i7-8650U processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Those specs might sound fresh enough — but as you’ll see, time hasn’t been kind to Microsoft’s most recent laptop.

Six months goes fast

There are features of the Surface Laptop 2 that still feel cutting edge. The boxier, 3:2 display is all the rage these days, as is the simple design language of the chassis. Even the Alcantara material that’s built into the keyboard deck feels modern. It’s not as cold and stark as aluminum but remains durable and luxurious.

Unfortunately, the keyboard deck is a dust and crumb magnet. There’s an endless amount of spaces where dust can easily become trapped, which mars the otherwise beautiful design. The aluminum on the lid tracks fingerprints, too. Our review unit was the black edition, which costs an extra $100 over the silver model. Other color options include Burgundy and Cobalt Blue, though those also cost an extra $100, starting at $999.

In other areas, the Surface Laptop 2 feels even older than it is. The large screen bezels are a perfect example. The 3:2 aspect ratio helps in this area a bit, but the added size and unused space that the bezels create isn’t a good look. With laptops like the Huawei MateBook X Pro or Dell XPS 13 out, the Surface Laptop 2 looks thoroughly outdated in comparison.

I felt at home on the keyboard deck from the get-go.

The same is true of the port selection. On the left side is single USB-A port, a mini-DisplayPort for video, and a headphone jack, while the right side has only the magnetic Surface Connect port for charging. Not only does it not have a Thunderbolt 3 port, it’s missing a USB-C port altogether. Swapping out the mini-DisplayPort for USB-C port feels like a no-brainer, and it’s only going to grow worse over the years. Today, you can still find plenty of old peripherals that use a USB-A connection, but we’ve seen that change over to USB-C at a rapid pace.

The location of the ports is an annoyance. The sides of the laptop angle inward, making some of the ports hard to reach. The Surface Connect power cord is especially difficult, which discounts some of the convenience of having a magnetic connection.

A typing masterpiece

The keyboard on the Surface Laptop is among our favorites. Unlike the layout of the Surface Pro or Surface Go, it’s spacious and leaves plenty of room to stretch your fingers. The keyboard also doesn’t have the shallow key depth of one of the MacBooks, providing a quiet and comfortable typing experience. I felt at home on the keyboard deck from the get-go. My one nitpick is the placement of the power button, which is right in the function row. I occasionally put the laptop to sleep by accident.

Surface Laptop 2 Review
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The touchpad isn’t as good. Unlike the surprisingly quiet keyboard, it has some rough edges. The click is bit too loud and the surface of the pad isn’t as smooth as it could be. It’s also considerably smaller than on laptops like the MateBook X Pro and MacBook Pro. It does support Windows Precision drivers, though, so multi-finger gestures feel responsive.

The Surface Laptop 2 supports some of Microsoft’s biggest Windows 10 innovations such as Windows Hello and Windows Ink. The infrared sensor for facial recognition is placed next to the 720p camera just above the screen. It works like a charm. Inking on a clamshell laptop isn’t ideal, but touchscreen support is always an added bonus. You can even use the device hand-in-hand with the Surface Dial if you’re so inclined.

Tall, bright, and crisp

3:2 is my favorite aspect ratio for a laptop, and the Surface Laptop 2 is one of the pioneers in this screen size. It might not be the most airplane-friendly laptop in the world with its 13.5-inch screen, but the extra screen real estate makes web browsing — and just working, in general — feel more productive.

It has a screen resolution of 2,256 x 1,504. That’s a solid 201 pixels per inch at this size, a higher pixel density than what you see with a 16:9 1080p screen like the one on the Dell XPS 13, and even better than the Huawei MateBook 13. It’s extra crispness at no extra cost to you, which is exactly what we like to see. It’s a bit behind the likes of the MacBook Air or Huawei MateBook X Pro, but those laptops are a several hundred dollars more expensive.

The image quality holds up too. It doesn’t excel in one particular area, like the MacBook Pro’s wide color gamut and color accuracy or the Huawei MateBook X Pro’s high contrast ratio. Instead, the Surface Laptop 2 has all the bases covered, offering decent ratings in everything from color gamut to gamma. It looks great in person and won’t disappoint you when watching movies, playing games, or viewing photographs.

A professional photographer might need a better calibrated monitor, but the Surface Laptop 2 will be more than adequate for normal use. It maxes out at 342 nits, which is bright enough to overpower the screen’s highly glossy finish. It’s right in line with the competition of the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360 13.

The speakers are located under the keyboard, and they aren’t great. They crackle at higher volumes and lack a significant amount of bass and midrange frequencies. Options such as the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and MateBook X Pro offer clearer and brighter audio.

Last year’s performance doesn’t cut it

The Surface Laptop 2 resolves a lot of the issues we had with the first Surface Laptop’s performance. Thanks to Intel’s 8th-gen processors, both the Core i5 and Core i7 models make the jump up to four cores, which offers a significant boost. While it’s standard across all this laptop’s competitors, you’ll notice the difference in multithreaded applications and multitasking in general if you’re coming from an older laptop.

It should be noted, however, that we’re talking about the older Intel Kaby Lake R chips, which were first launched toward the end of 2017, not the more recent Intel Whiskey Lake chips that you’ll find in competitors. Microsoft has a tendency to use older silicon across the board, even in high-end computers like the Surface Studio 2 — to their detriment.

This doesn’t mean the Surface Laptop 2 is horribly slow, but it does come behind the most current generation of Intel hardware. In fact, it’s one of the slowest laptops to use this processor, which is a bit strange. In both single and multi-core Geekbench performance, the Surface Laptop 2 is a solid 23% behind Whiskey Lake laptops such as the Dell XPS 13 or Huawei MateBook X Pro. The single-core performance is particularly worrying, falling 13 percent behind the Core i5 Surface Pro 6.

Our review unit’s Core i7-8650U is only around 22% behind the Whiskey Lake laptops out there in Geekbench performance, and easily outpaces slower Y-series options like the MacBook Air. However, if the Surface Laptop doesn’t receive a 9th-gen update in the fall of 2019, this processor will start to feel sorely outdated heading into 2020.

Surface Laptop 2 Review
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

We also run our laptops through a video encoding test in Handbrake, to see how the components do when the rubber meets the road. It encoded a two-minute 4K clip to H.265 (x265) in five minutes and thirteen seconds. That’s not as large a discrepancy as in our Geekbench tests, but the Surface Laptop 2 is still underperforming a bit from where it should be. For example, the Huawei MateBook 13 completed the test 22% faster.

The bottom configuration offers 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, though you can jump up to 16GB of RAM and up to a 1TB SSD. The Surface Laptop 2 does bring fast storage to the table. With its Hynix SSD, we achieved a write speed of 950 MB/s and a read speed of 617 MB/s a sequential CrystalDisk Mark test. This particular Hynix SSD isn’t as fast as some Toshiba or Samsung storage options found in the most expensive laptops, but it’s many times faster than a spinning hard disk drive, and beats the slower SSDs commonly found in mid-range laptops.

Forget about gaming

The Surface Laptop 2 doesn’t include discrete graphics, meaning it can’t do much in terms of playing games.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken a huge step forward in battery life.

These days, you can find 13-inch laptops with an included Nvidia MX150 graphics card, such as the Huawei MateBook 13, Asus ZenBook 13 UX331FN, or Razer Blade Stealth. That card doesn’t turn these laptops into powerful gaming machines, but they do provide a small boost for lighter games like Rocket League or Fortnite.

Without a Thunderbolt 3 port, the Surface Laptop 2 can’t be powered up by an external GPU either. It relies solely on Intel’s UHD Graphics 620, meaning you’re gaming will need to be limited to Minecraft and Candy Crush.

Is a full day of battery life enough?

Battery life was one of the original Surface Laptop’s stand-out features, lasting for over twelve and a half hours in our video looping test. But in 2019, it’s no longer a pack leader. The HP Spectre x360 lasts two hours longer in the same test, for reference. Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop 2 hasn’t taken a huge step forward to stay in the race.

The Surface Laptop 2 lasted over eleven hours in our video loop test, which is a step back from the original version. On the other hand, it survived a bit longer in our web browsing test, which cycles through websites until it dies. It last eight and half hours, which means you should be able to enjoy a full work day on a single charge, so as long as you’re not running any intense applications and leave screen brightness at a moderate level (we test at a calibrated 100 lux using a light meter).

One of the main hurdles the Surface Laptop 2 is the higher resolution screen. 1080p laptops like the HP Spectre x360 or Dell XPS 13 don’t have as many pixels to push, making longer battery life a bit more achievable. That said, the Huawei MateBook X Pro has a similar problem but still manages to beat it out in most of our tests.

Our Take

The Surface Laptop 2 takes some meaningful steps in the right direction. Without being hindered by a dual-core processor or the “S Mode” software limitations, it’s free to compete with the best notebooks of Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Apple. At $1,000, it’s not a bad value, especially if you’re drawn to the unique design. Unfortunately, there are just too many places where the design and performance feel outdone by the competition.

Are there any alternatives?

If you want a touchscreen laptop with a 3:2 display, the best option is the Huawei MateBook X Pro. It is a bit more expensive, however, and has funky webcam positioning.

You might also consider the Surface Pro 6, which is similarly priced to the Surface Laptop 2. It’s like the clamshell in a lot of ways, except that it’s a 2-in-1. You can pick up the tablet alone for $799, though we highly recommend adding on the Type Cover keyboard, which pushes the Core i5 model up to close to the Surface Laptop 2’s price. The typing experience on the Surface Laptop 2 is obviously much better than the detachable keyboard, but the Surface Pro 6’s portability and tablet features make it stand out.

Lastly, if you just want the best laptop you can buy, pick up the Dell XPS 13. It has better battery life, more performance, smaller bezels, and a futureproofed port selection. A similarly-configured XPS 13 is $65 more than the Surface Laptop 2, and a Core i3 model is offered for $200 less.

How long will it last?

The Surface Laptop 2 will physically last you four or five years, but performance and port selection will only last you a couple. Because Microsoft went with a processor that was already a year behind, that’s one less year this laptop will feel snappy and powerful.

You aren’t gaining anything special in terms of support either — just a standard limited one-year warranty. Microsoft does offer an extended two-year warranty, but you’ll have to pay extra for it.

Should you buy it?

No. You’re better off picking up one of its competitors or waiting for an update later this fall.

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