[Academic Tech] Surface Laptop Studio review/first thoughts (i7, 32GB, A2000)

My home desktop has been having some issues recently – crashes, general slowness here and there.  I’ve mentioned the computer many times on my blog, and it’s what I’ve been using consistently for all my photogrammetry testing. I bought it from DinoPC, and I’ve nothing but good words to say about it – it’s been an absolute work horse for simulations, rendering, photogrammetry, office work, and gaming. Unfortunately, it’s getting very long in the tooth, at 7 years old, and is really starting to worry me that it’ll die at any moment, worries enhanced by the odd crash and lock-up.

As such, it’s time to consider a replacement.  I’ve been back and forth a lot trying to figure out what devices I want to use between home, work, and commuting/travelling. I’ve had a lot of love for the portable surface devices I’ve had; a Pro 3, Pro X, and Go/Go2, so I thought I’d try the Surface Laptop (SLS) as a potential replacement for my main computer at home.

It’s pretty terrible timing – the Microsoft even happens in early/mid October, and I was hoping I could make it just a bit longer, but I’m getting more and more jittery about losing the desktop. So I’ve picked up the very top-end SLS from CEX. It’s an 11th Gen i7, with 32GB RAM, 2TB SSD, and an Nvidia RTX A2000.  It cost much less than half of the £3,500 Microsoft are selling this model for new, and it’s completely new/refurbished – just a single battery cycle on it. Apart from postage troubles, I am, as usual, very pleased with the service from CEX.

This is going to be a (early – 24hrs) review of the device generally, then there will be a second post (published shortly after) quantifying performance against my desktop and my wife’s M1 MacBook Pro.

I was super excited to try this device out, having never actually seen one in person. When it arrived, I was actually a little disappointed that it wasn’t that exciting – it’s a grey laptop, and superficially it looks like an old MacBook except there’s a line across the lid, and a Microsoft logo. Unlike my Pro X, which I maintain is the most beautiful computer I’ve ever used, the SLS is pretty ‘normal’.

The Surface Laptop Studio in its normal laptop mode (running Agisoft Metashape), and beside the 14″ MacBook Pro. The 3:2 aspect ratio gives it a little more screen space, but it does have larger bezzels and a bigger footprint than the Mac.

Look a bit closer, and the shape of it does start to stand out a bit more – the pedestal for optimal cooling, for instance.

The pedestal both makes the laptop look thinner at first glance, and provides really impressive cooling.

The keyboard is fantastic – the keys are the same feel as the type covers of the Pros and Gos I’ve had, except this is rock solid.  I’m immediately typing as quick as I usually do with very few errors. I’ve written this post (and the next) on the SLS and it’s lovely.

The touchpad is large, and uses haptic feedback for button clicking and so on.  It feels great.

The Webcam is absolutely superb, and pulls out every wrinkle in its 1080p video, even in poor or complex lighting. There’s also Windows Hello, which logs you in with facial recognition, and works absolutely flawlessly for me, much as it did on the Pro X.

The port selection is dissapointing though – there’s a surface connect port and a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the right, and two USB-C (thunderbolt) ports on the left. An SD card reader, or an HDMI port, or a USB-A port would all have been very welcome. Even just an extra USB-C on the right would have been nice.

The 14” screen is beautiful – crisp and clear at 2400×1600 pixels.  It’s a lower pixel density than a MacBook, or than my Pro X, but it’s very hard to tell.  It’s also 120Hz, but I honestly can’t really tell much difference to my old 60Hz monitor.  Maybe that will change with more use.  Or maybe I’m just old and don’t notice.  I spent my youth trying to optimize games to run above 20 frames per second, so 60 and 120Hz are all smooth to me. Oddly, the screen has curved corners, which is in keeping with the new Windows 11 aesthetic, except that they’re a different radius to the corners or windows, and they literally hide tiny parts of the screen – it’s possible to move the mouse pointer behind the curved corner

Odd design choice. Looks fine, doesn’t cause many problems, but odd.

The big show-off feature of the SLS is the moving/folding screen – it can move forwards into a ‘tent’ posture, presumably for watching movies and the like, and it can lay flat, for art work stuff. I have a Renaisser 520 pen from my Pro X, which is what I’m using here.  I’d love to try the Slim Pen 2, because apparently that has haptic feedback with the SLS that makes writing feel like it’s on paper, rather than a glass screen, but even second hand those pens are £60+, and I’m not willing to spend that just to feel a little vibration as I write. 

I don’t really think the folding screen is a big deal.  In fact, I think it’s pretty terrible design.  Moving it forward into tent mode doesn’t really offer much more than when the laptop is open normally, except it hides the keyboard, but leaves the screen at a single angle.  If I were watching a movie, I’d prefer just the normal laptop mode where I can adjust the angle of the screen.  Important given the high reflectivity of the screen (a problem for all surface devices, there’s just no anti-glare at all). If you go all the way to lying flat, then I think it’s a little too flat, lacking the adjustability of the Pro/Pro X/Go line.  It also means that when laid flat it covers the keyboard, so if you’re using Photoshop or such, you can’t access any modifier keys (e.g. shift/ctrl to add/subtract from selection).  It’s all just a bit dumb, and I’m not sure what I’d use that for.  Maybe I’m not the target audience for this feature, but it’s obvious this is where some cost of the device comes from.

Sound is really impressive, definitely as good as if not better than the MacBook.

The performance is frustrating – it’s fine (see the next post) but not mind blowing, mainly because it’s got a quad core 11th gen processor, instead of a more recent 12th gen that would have both more cores, and more efficiency (so more battery life).  If Microsoft announce a 12th gen upgrade to the SLS next month, that would be something.

The RTX A2000 is also on the disappointing side – it only has 4GB of memory, which isn’t great, though there’s some shared memory with the 32GB RAM in the device, so I’m hoping larger models etc will work fine.  Indeed, my testing in the next post shows that that RAM is super important.

Basically, if you check the follow-up post, you’ll see that performance of the SLS is just a little behind that of my desktop computer.  Which on the one hand is disappointing, because that desktop (apart from the GPU) is 7 years old, but on the other hand, this small 14” laptop is holding its own against the desktop.

I will say that it’s been doing a good job of keeping the keyboard cool enough, and that the fans even when working fully, are pretty nice and quiet, and because of that pedestal, the hot air is blow out the sides away from your hands.

The last thing to discuss is battery life, and I’m not sure here.  Some of my performance testing indicated it’s not great if you’re hammering it, but it seems pretty good normally for office work. My model came with a 127W charger, though I gather that if bought new, it comes with a slightly weaker charger for some reason. Like lots of the other features, it’s not mind blowing, but it’s ok. 

Summary:

No nitty gritty on performance, as that’s following in the next post, but my general thoughts and feelings about the device are that it’s a beautiful laptop, with a relatively decent spec sheet, let down by being a year or two behind the very fastest competition. Pen and touch are things I use a lot (even if just for signing documents and navigating the OS). The screen is gorgeous, even if the pulling forward and laying flat is a bit of gimmick.

I really like using it. But it’s not a performance increase over my desktop, and it’s not as efficient as a MacBook.

But, it has something about it that makes me want to use it.  I don’t know if I’ll keep it – I think I need a few days to really test it out a bit more.

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