Review: Surface Laptop for Graphic Design, Photo Editing

Here's the Microsoft Surface Laptop review unit that I've finally gotten my hands on thanks to Microsoft Singapore. I was looking for the release date when I found that it was actually released in mid 2017. Anyway, my review is written for graphic designers and creatives and there aren't many such reviews out there. So hopefully my review can still be useful and relevant.


The Surface Laptop is a 1.25kg 13.5-inch touchscreen laptop. This is Microsoft's first laptop, and one that's part of their expanding Surface product line, one that currently includes the Surface Pro, Surface Book 2 and Surface Studio.

I found it strange for Microsoft to make and sell a laptop though because the laptop market is incredibly competitive. At least with the Surface Pro when it first came out, it had the unique selling point of having a full desktop OS running in a tablet form. The Surface Laptop? Is it worth the money? Let's see.

Specifications

Here's the configuration of the review I received:

  • Intel Core i7-7660U (2.5 to 4.0 GHz)
  • Intel HD 640 integrated GPU
  • 16 GB RAM
  • 512GB SSD

Here are the different configurations possible and the pricing.

Table from Wikipedia

The specifications look decent for a 13.5-inch laptop.

Both Intel i5-7200U and i7-7660U has the same base clock speed of 2.5Ghz but the boost speed for the i5 tops at 3.1Ghz while the i7 goes up to 4.0Ghz. For graphic design, photo editing and occasional 1080P video editing, the laptop is powerful enough. If you plan to do a lot of video editing, definitely get the i7 model or if you have the budget, get a laptop with quad core processors. Avoid the m3 model even for graphic design work.

8GB of RAM is still enough for graphic design nowadays but if you have the budget, go for 16GB. I find with Photoshop, Illustrator and Lightroom (with 100 RAW photos) opened, the system already uses close to 8GB RAM. So if you plan on loading large files, opening more apps, such as web browsers, listening to music or using other apps, it's good to have more memory.

For graphic design and photo editing, please get the model with at least 256GB storage. After formatting, the actual capacity are as follows
128GB = 119GB
256GB = 238GB
512GB = 476GB
1TB = 0.9TB

A clean Windows 10 installation takes up 12GB. After you install apps, maybe that will take up another 10GB. So if you're using the 128GB model, which actually has only 119GB in actual capacity, you'll only be left with 97GB of actual storage left. Once you start filling it with photos, videos and graphic files, you'll run out of space in no time. And we have not even factor in the frequent Window OS updates.

The onboard SSD storage is fast when it comes to launching Windows, apps and saving files. But for some reason, I felt that it wasn't as fast as it could be because I've used even faster SSD. I don't have any measured stats for you though. It's just how I feel. Overall, it is still very fast and responsive. It's just something strange I noticed.

The integrated graphics card are good enough for graphic design and maybe simple 3D modeling with Sketchup or Blender. I would not use Maya or 3dsMax on the Surface Laptop. This is not the appropriate laptop for 3D or gaming. Should you need to do 3D work, there's a 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 model with NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card.

Build quality


The build quality is excellent. I love the smooth brushed aluminum surface. Corners are nicely rounded off and there's a nice solid premium feel to the laptop. The weight is just right.


There aren't many ports. The only ones included are one USB 3 port, a mini DisplayPort and a 3.5mm audio jack.


On the other side is the power charging port. It would have been great if there were more USB ports or even an SD card reader. Having additional ports would really entice creators, especially those who use many USB devices, such as external storage, SD cards, scanners, all of which I personally use.

Having only one USB 3 ports means you have to bring adapters out when you're working outdoors. Adapters are not heavy. It's just that you have to remember to bring them.

There are many reviews complaining about the lack of USB Type C. That wasn't really a issue to me because almost all my other devices are all still using that rectangular USB 3 port. My main gripe is the lack of USB 3 ports.



If you want official accessories, Microsoft also sell a Surface Dock which will give you more ports (4x USB3, 2x mini DisplayPort, 1x Gigabit Ethernet Port)


The power adapter is the same one from the Surface Pro and comes with one additional USB 3 port. I've tried connecting an SD card reader there but nothing happened. Looks like that USB port can only be used for charging.


The keyboard is excellent for typing. There's good travel for the keys and the feedback is great. This keyboard is significantly better compared to the detachable keyboard for the Surface Pro.


Main thing to note is there's no Control key on the right side. So that means when you're using a mouse for example and want to Ctrl+= to zoom with your left hand, you won't be able to do it unless your fingers are two times longer than usual. I use the right side Ctrl key quite often.


The whole keyboard surface is installed with Alcantara material. It feels really nice to touch. The material is, coincidentally, very similar to the material I used for my sofa. LOL. It's really comfortable. The downside to the material is, since it's fabric, it is bound to absorb oil and dirt. You could certainly wipe and clean the surface but it's not as easy to clean fabric compared to smooth metallic or plastic surfaces.


Screen is glossy and has a resolution of 2256 × 1504 (201 PPI). The resolution is sharp and makes everything appears crisp.

I used a Spyder5Pro to colour calibrate the screen and measured95% sRGB support. The colour reproduction and quality is good enough for photo editing and graphic design. If you need to compare printed proofs against the screen, or require critical colour accuracy, you need 100% AdobeRGB screens though. The AdobeRGB gamut support here is only 74% and NTSC is 69%.


This is considered a high resolution screen for this screen size. Some older software are not written to scale properly on high resolution screens, e.g. 4K screens especially. For example in the picture above, Adobe Illustrator CS6's menu and toolbar icons look very small.


This is Adobe Photoshop CC and the app is able to support the resolution and the menus, tools and palette all look comfortably big.


The screen is also a touchscreen. If you want to, you can use the Microsoft Surface Pen or Surface Pen alternatives to write or draw on the screen. It's more suitable for jotting down quick notes and not for writing or drawing for long periods of time. It's awkward to draw on the screen since it wobbles. It feels like holding and drawing on a hard back writing pad while standing.

The US $99 Surface Pen is not included by the way.

The advantage of the touchscreen is it can support finger gestures as well. So when working with certain software, you can use finger gestures to pan, zoom and rotate.

If you want to know more about the writing and drawing performance, check out this video:

Windows 10 S

Before we talk about graphic apps, you have to know that the laptop comes installed with Windows 10 S. That's a lightweight version of Windows 10 that can only install apps from the Microsoft app store. Thankfully you can get a free upgrade to Windows 10 and that should be the first thing to do to remove any limits and restriction from the laptop.

Graphic design performance

The dual core 2.5Ghz processor is more than sufficient for graphic design work.


Both Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator ran smoothly. I was able to open large files in Photoshop, zoom and pan without significantly screen redraw latency. I wanted to mention the part on screen redraw because the Surface Pro 2017 that I'm using suffers from screen redraw lag even though the specification is similar to the Surface Laptop with the exception of the graphics card — SL uses Intel HD 640 while the SP2017 uses Intel HD 620. On the Surface Pro, when zooming and panning, the screen would redraw in rectangular blocks. With the Surface Laptop, the screen would redraw almost instantly. The slight lag on the Surface Pro can be irritating.

I tried drawing on the screen with Photoshop, Krita, Medibang Paint Pro and performance was good. I did not have to install any WinTab driver or any driver to get the pressure sensitivity working. And palm rejection works really well too. But seriously speaking, a laptop screen is not for digital painting work.


With Adobe Lightroom, I exported 100 RAW files. Here are the timings:

  • Mac Pro 2013 Xeon quad core 3.7Ghz - 3 min 17s
  • Surface Laptop Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5-3.1Ghz) - 8 min 26s
  • Surface Book 2 Intel Core i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz) - 8min 57s
  • Surface Book 2 Intel Core i7-8650U (1.9 to 4.2 GHz) - 3 min 49s

Export speed is decent enough. You really can't expect much from dual core processors. While exporting, I was checking the resources and the CPU utilisation fluctuates quite wildly, from 30 - 70%. I was not able to get 100% CPU utilisation. Because of the fluctuation, sometimes even the Surface Laptop can beat the 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 even though the latter should be faster.

When I exported the photos, I did hear the fans turn faster but they are not roaring or anything. They may be louder when exporting videos but I did not test the video editing capabilities because I don't have any video editing software on Windows. 1080P editing should be fine. 4K video editing requires a significantly more powerful system.

Battery life is surprisingly good. Depending on what you do, you can get around 7 - 10 hours of battery life. So if you do any processor intensive tasks like exporting photos or videos, battery life is shorter obviously. But for normal usage, battery life is so good that I often find myself wondering if the battery life indicator is accurate or not.

Conclusion

Overall performance is snappy. I don't have any complaints about the speed of this laptop. It's a dual core 2.5Ghz laptop and it performs like one. If I have the budget to get a laptop like this, I would be quite satisfied. The best thing I like about it is the excellent build quality. I'm not that big a fan of the Alcantara material even though it feels really nice to touch. I wish that Microsoft had made the Alcantara replaceable, like something you can peel off easily and replace.

The colour accuracy is good enough. If I need to compare colours, I always connect it, via the mini DisplayPort, to my external monitor, the BenQ SW2700PT.

The Surface Laptop definitely has its own limitations. The most obvious one for me is the lack of more USB ports and SD card reader. If they could throw in a microSD card reader like with the Surface Pro, that would be terrific.

The most surprising thing to me is Microsoft putting out such a good laptop. It is pricey for sure, just like Apple Macbook Pros are pricey, but this is a solid product. Hopefully they will add more functionality to the laptop in the future. It's not all about thinness. I appreciate light weight but I appreciate functionality even more.

Quick list of pros and cons
+ Excellent build quality
+ Excellent typing experience
+ Vibrant high resolution screen
+ Screen has good colours and viewing angles
+ Snappy performance from SSD
+ Nice weight (1.25kg)
+ Stylus is quite accurate for drawing on the screen
+ Good speakers
+ Good battery life
- Limited ports
- Windows 10 S cannot install desktop apps

Video review

Availability

You can find the Microsoft Surface Laptop and more reviews via these Amazon affiliate links:
Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.fr | Amazon.es | Amazon.it | Amazon.co.jp

Oh, if you find my review useful, let me know in the comments section. If you use Surface Laptop, I would love to hear from your experience, especially on the Alcantara surface and the durability of the product. Thanks.

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