Opinion by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Microsoft gets sloppy with Surface

Consumer Reports can’t recommend Microsoft Surface laptops, and neither can I.

Gordon Mah Ung

Opinion by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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Microsoft has egg on its face. So long as a software company makes simple hardware, such as keyboards and mice, it does OK, but when it comes to laptops and smartphones, it’s one fiasco after another.

The latest? Consumer Reports removed its “Recommended” mark from, not one, but all Microsoft Surface computers. How bad is it? According to Consumer Reports, best known as the consumer-products review publication that never takes advertising, its National Research Center estimates “that 25 percent of Microsoft laptops and tablets will present their owners with problems by the end of the second year of ownership.”

One in four machines busted after two years? Laptops? Get out of here!

While I usually run Linux on my laptops, they almost all came with Windows on them. In my office I have half a dozen Dell, HP and Lenovo laptops, ranging from a decade old to brand-new. They’re all running just fine. I’ve reviewed over a hundred laptops over the years. Except for the ones that came dead in the box, I never had hardware problems. My first “portable” computer was a 25-pound 1984 KayPro 2. More than three decades later, it’s still going — 5.25-in. floppy drives and all.

So then — two years, you say? Oh, come on!

Here’s a reasonable question: How reliable can such a prediction be? Well, Consumer Reports didn’t pull the Surface’s terrible numbers out of a hat. As Reuters reported, “The non-profit publication surveyed 90,000 tablet and laptop owners and found that an estimated 25 percent of those with Microsoft Surface devices would be presented with ‘problems by the end of the second year of ownership.’”

It’s not just Joe and Jane user who are having trouble with Surface hardware. Woody Leonhard, a Computerworld columnist who knows Windows the way I know Linux, reports that he’s seen dozens of Surface firmware and hardware “fixes” that don’t fix the underlying problem: poorly designed and made computer gear.

Worst still, Leonhard remarks, “complaints lodged on Microsoft’s own support forums have met with stony silence. Sometimes, months after the fact, Microsoft admits that there was a problem. Frequently, there’s no acknowledgment, no fix, and nothing but the support of other customers to drive away the wolves.”

I’ve seen it myself. I don’t own any Surface machines, but like many of you, I’m my friends’ resident computer expert. I’ve been called in numerous times to cure a Surface laptop’s woes. If it’s a Windows 10 problem, I can usually fix it. If it’s a Surface problem, I end up digging through Microsoft’s Surface support forums, and more often than not I don’t find a thing. And, if I’m good at anything, it’s “tech support by Google search.”

Let’s say you’ve got a real hardware problem with Microsoft’s brand-new Surface Laptop. Good luck fixing it. The folks at iFixit, who are much more mechanically adept than I’ll ever be, report, “The Surface Laptop is not a laptop. It’s a glue-filled monstrosity. There is nothing about it that is upgradable or long-lasting, and it literally can’t be opened without destroying it.”

Microsoft, of course, denies it all. Panos Panay, corporate vice president of Microsoft Devices, wrote, “While we respect Consumer Reports, we disagree with their findings. We stand firmly behind the quality and reliability of the Surface family of devices, and I can confidently tell you there has never been a better time to buy a Surface.”

The company is also about to release another defense of the Surface. Microsoft expert Paul Thurrott reports that Panay will admit that the original Surface Book and Surface Pro return rates were high when those devices debuted in late 2015. The Surface Book had a 17% return rate post-launch, while the Surface Pro 4 had a return rate of about 16% in its first year and a half.

You know, that’s not far from Consumer Reports’ 25% over two years.

Panay also claims that “Surface NPS [Net Promoter Score] is consistently higher than [that of] the OEMs” (i.e., the other PC makers). About that: As Thurrott points out, NPS is not a measurement of reliability; it’s a measure of customer satisfaction. And people who are loyal to a brand or spend significant money on a product — both true of Microsoft Surface buyers — tend to give those products higher NPSs, regardless of how good the product really is.

Thurrott also mentioned that another Microsoft source revealed that its 2015 Surfacegate fiasco was not the fault of Intel Skylake chips, as the company had claimed, but poor Microsoft Surface drivers. Do you see a pattern here? I do. It’s Microsoft refusing to own up to its poor hardware design and manufacturing.

My recommendation? If you’re going to buy a high-end laptop for Windows 10, get yourself a Dell XPS 15, HP Spectre x360 or fifth-generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Microsoft has never won my trust for its Surface line, and I see no reason to start buying its laptops now.


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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