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Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 review: Meet the new MacBook Air

Never let it be said that Microsoft doesn't know how to do hardware. Last year, it impressed us with the sensibly-priced and highly capable Surface Laptop, which put in a very convincing effort to take the MacBook Air's place as the go-to student laptop.

Now, Microsoft is tasked not only with following that up with the Surface Laptop 2, but also with fending off competition from a newly-redesigned MacBook Air. Has Microsoft's sophomore clamshell got what it takes to hold on to the crown?

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Design

If you've seen the previous Surface Laptop, don't expect any shocks - like the Surface Pro 6, the new Surface Laptop looks exactly the same as the old one. Microsoft has used the same chassis, and just like the original Surface Laptop, it weighs 1.2kg with a thickness of 14mm. The lack of improvement over the previous generation might sound a little disappointing but it's worth remembering that it's still a very petite laptop. For comparison, it's 1.6mm thinner than the new MacBook Air, not to mention 500g lighter.

It's absolutely no trouble to carry around between meetings or to sling in a bag, and the alcantara covering on the keyboard (which we'll talk more about shortly) remains one of the Surface Laptop's most impressive standout features. Not only does it look spectacular, but it also provides a comfortable and spill-proof covering that will help prolong the lifespan of your laptop.

One area of the design where Microsoft has made an improvement is that the Surface Laptop 2 now comes in the same absolutely gorgeous matte-black colour scheme as the new Surface Pro, as well as the existing range of colours like Burgundy and Cobalt Blue.

The Surface Laptop remains one of the most attractive laptops we've used in the last 12 months; it doesn't just look great, it also feels amazing to use. It feels more modern and stylish than the MacBook Air, and it feels more polished and enterprise-ready than the supposedly flagship Surface Pro 6.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Display

Microsoft's displays are building a reputation for quality that rivals the mighty MacBook range. The company's first-party devices are reliably excellent in this regard, and the Surface Laptop 2 manages to exceed the high standard set by its predecessor.

The 2,556 x 1,504 resolution is identical, as is the 3:2 aspect ratio. This aspect ratio originated on the Surface Pro, and it makes more sense there - it's the same ratio as a piece of A4 paper. Microsoft says this makes it more intuitive to use when reading documents or taking notes, but that doesn't really apply to a laptop form-factor. Still, it's perfectly inoffensive.

The resolution is also more than adequate; with a 13.5in screen, a higher-resolution display would be battery-demolishing overkill. As it is, it's sharp enough that even fine details look smooth and accurate - and speaking of accuracy, there have been some big improvements. The Surface Laptop 2's sRGB gamut coverage of 96% is fractionally up over the previous model, but the Delta-E score of 0.85 is a massive improvement over the last generation's result of 1.41.

All of this adds up to a truly phenomenal display that will easily satisfy video and graphics professionals for technical capabilities. It's even compatible with the Surface Pen, which attaches magnetically to the side just like with the Surface Pro. The only minor gripe we have is that the maximum brightness could be higher - while 335cd/m2 isn't going to have problems apart from in the very brightest direct sunlight, it would have been nice to see it pushed closer to the 400cd/m2 mark.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Keyboard and trackpad

If you want to know what we think of the Surface Laptop 2's keyboard, go and read our original Surface Laptop review, as they're basically identical. Same spill-proof Alcantara covering, same keyswitches - same everything.

Mind you, that's no bad thing; the last model's keyboard was an unadulterated joy to use, and this one is just as pleasant. The trackpad is smooth and responsive, the keys have firm, satisfying feedback and the whole thing feels polished and high-class - even more so than the Surface Pro 6's TypeCover, to be honest.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Specs and hardware

The old-school Surface Laptop was packing no small amount of heat, with a full-fat 7th-gen Intel Core processor and a maximum 16GB of RAM, and sure it enough it put in a rather handy performance in our benchmark tests. Microsoft has packed the follow-up with a suitably beefy set of components, however, and it puts in a very capable effort indeed.

The Surface Laptop 2 comes with an 8th-gen Intel processor, available in Core i5 and Core i7 flavours. It also comes configured with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM, but be warned - the Core i5 configuration is only available with 8GB. Likewise, which level of storage you can choose (128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB) is also dependent on your configuration, as well as which colour you choose.

Our review unit features a Core i5-8250U with 8GB RAM - the lowest spec configuration. Despite this, we found the Surface Laptop 2's performance to be very nippy indeed, coping perfectly well with all of our needs and only occasionally wobbling when placed under heavy load. This is more or less how we felt about its predecessor - that too coped marvellously with all but the most hefty of workloads.

Sure enough, the Surface Laptop 2's overall score of 84 in our benchmark tests is a very impressive one, particularly given the specs on show. In fact, it's not all that far behind the outstanding Dell XPS 13's score of 96, in spite of the fact that Dell's machine is fitted with a Core i7 chip.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Battery

Sadly, battery life is the one area in which the Surface Laptop 2 falters a little. Compared to the excellent score of 10hrs 42mins set by the original in our battery tests, the new machine's 7hrs 7mins result is disappointing. If you're heading out of the office, you'll want to bring the power pack with you.

Speaking of which, the Surface Laptop 2 is still using Microsoft's proprietary Surface Connector port, so while it'll work with any older Surface chargers that you have laying around, you won't be able to use any third-party adaptors.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Ports and features

The Surface Laptop 2 features the same scant array of ports as both its predecessor and its stablemate the Surface Pro 6, making do with just one USB 3.0 and one Mini DisplayPort. If you're really desperate for extra ports, you can splash out on Microsoft's Surface Dock peripheral, but that'll set you back by almost £200 if you buy directly from Microsoft.

We hauled the Surface Pro 6 over the coals for its lack of USB-C support, and while the lack of USB-C is still a major disappointment, it doesn't feel like as much of a barrier to productivity as it does on the Pro. This is possibly due to the larger screen size reducing the need for an external monitor, but for whatever reason, it feels less frustrating.

One area in which definitive progress has been made is in the software. 2017's model shipped with Windows 10 S pre-installed by default, which resulted in a frustrating and locked-down experience when trying to do many things. Thankfully, Microsoft has seen the error of its ways and ensured that the Surface Laptop 2 ships with full-fat Windows - Windows 10 Home for consumer customers or Windows 10 Pro for businesses.

Elsewhere, facial recognition allows for biometric login via Windows Hello, and the Surface Pen is also supported - although the clamshell form factor renders it less useful than on the Pro range.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2: Verdict

After spending a few weeks with the Surface Laptop 2, it's genuinely hard to find something we dislike about it. Aside from the omission of a USB-C port - which still doesn't feel like as much of an issue here as it did on the Surface Pro 6 - there's only a few minor niggles, such as a lower-than-average battery life and some odd configuration options.

In all other areas, it's pretty much a knockout, with highly respectable performance, petite dimensions and a gorgeous colour scheme. On top of that, it's rather reasonably-priced, with our review unit coming in at £1,041 before tax. If you're looking for an excellent all-round laptop that covers off the basics with aplomb, this is the laptop to get.

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