No MacBook Air Killer, All MacBook Air Filler

Microsoft's Surface Laptops also may have an AI problem...
Surface Laptop review: Microsoft’s best MacBook Air competitor yet
Microsoft finally makes Windows on Arm worthwhile.

Tom Warren really likes Microsoft's new Surface Laptop. But he's also a Windows guy. Reading this as someone who hasn't regularly used Windows in 20 years,1 my takeaway is different. Basically, it sounds like Microsoft has (finally) done a good job creating an answer to Apple's MacBook Air – 16 years after the launch of the first Air, but to be more fair, just about four years since the first MacBooks running Apple Silicon, which truly moved the ball forward for laptops – but these Surfaces don't actually move the ball forward for laptops in any meaningful way. Nor is it going to entice any MacBook users to switch. It's just a great update if you were already a Windows user with a Surface Laptop previously.

Even then, it still feels a bit goalpost-shifty to compare the Surface Laptop, which has a fan, to the MacBook Air, which does not. That fan allows Microsoft to run their CPU, in this case, the new Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite, hotter and thus, faster. Apple also offers a laptop with a fan, it's called a MacBook Pro. It's not the comparison Microsoft or Qualcomm wish to make here, and I guess that's fine since it's the Air which is the best-selling laptop and in the price-range of these machines from Microsoft. But it's just not exactly apples-to-Apple.2

Fan aside – and to be clear, Warren notes that it only really kicked on while he was doing his benchmark tests, but it wasn't noticeable during regular usage; also true with a MacBook Pro, btw – the benchmarks indicate a machine that is somewhat faster than the MacBook Air. But really only when it comes to multi-core performance. So for, say, browsing the web, this simply won't matter and the MacBook Air will still likely be faster.

Also, it sounds like the emulator, a feature which Microsoft has been touting to no end, still mostly sucks. And this matters not only for performance but for the element of the device most highly-touted: battery life. It sounds like Microsoft has finally gotten battery life on the Surface Laptop to a good place, if you're using apps optimized for ARM64, which isn't a huge number right now. That will change with time, of course, but again, this is stuff that Microsoft touted as being solved.

But the real lump of coal:

For all the improvements in battery life and performance, the Surface Laptop is also a Copilot Plus PC with a neural processing unit (NPU) for new built-in AI features in Windows. Microsoft has made a big deal about these, with Recall supposed to be the flagship feature on these new laptops. Recall has been delayed due to security concerns, and it’s a delay that has overshadowed the entire launch of Copilot Plus PCs. It’s why you’re only reading this review now and not on launch day last week.

What’s left of the AI-powered Windows 11 features aren’t nearly as controversial as Recall, but they’re also not that compelling. Cocreator lets you create images in Paint through a text prompt and by drawing what you want to see. Because the Surface Laptop 7th Edition no longer supports the Surface Slim Pen, this feature feels a lot less useful than it is on the new Surface Pro.

Microsoft really shit the bed here both from a security and PR perspective. And what's left sounds very 'meh'. It's almost like Microsoft forget the 'Copilot' part of 'Copilot+ PCs'. And certainly they forgot the '+' part.

While the DALL-E functionality impresses Warren, he doesn't think much of the local models Microsoft built for Cocreator. Don't push OpenAI away too far, too fast, Microsoft! In other "sounds great" news:

Bizarrely, Microsoft has also added an image creator feature to the Photos app, which uses local AI models instead of the cloud-based DALL-E feature found in Paint. It uses a local Stable Diffusion model, so it’s quick to generate images on the Surface Laptop, but you’ll need an internet connection since Microsoft uses Azure to check your prompts and make sure you’re not trying to generate something bad. You’ll need an internet connection for the Cocreator feature, too, for the same reason.

Yeah, I've been thinking that Microsoft may need to more or less copy what Apple is doing to integrate AI into their OSes, rather then the other way around. Now I just feel more strongly about it. Said another way, they've gotten the hardware closer, now they need to focus on the software.

1 I was a Windows guy back in the day – were you at the Windows 95 midnight launch at your local CompUSA? I was!

2 Also, these are comparisons to Apple's M3 chip, while they already are on to the M4 chip. But, to be fair, that M4 chip is only in the new iPad Pro, not even the MacBook Pros yet, let alone the MacBook Air.