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Consumer Reports Casts Doubts on Microsoft Surface Hardware Reliability

In a rebuke of Microsoft's Surface Pros, Surface Books and new Surface Laptops, Consumer Reports magazine last week removed its "recommended" designation from the PCs and tablets. The nonprofit, subscriber-funded publication rescinded its stamp-of-approval after a survey of its readership led Consumer Reports to forecast that 25 percent of Microsoft's Surface-based systems will "present owners with problems" within two years of owning them.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed subscribers who bought new tablets and laptops between 2014 and the beginning of 2017. Complaints ranged from systems freezing or shutting down unexpectedly, with others dissatisfied with the responsiveness of the touchscreens.

Consumer Reports, which purchases and tests products in its labs on various metrics including display quality, battery life and ergonomics, had previously found several of Microsoft's Surface systems either "Very Good" or "Excellent," including its newest Surface Pro, released in June. However, the publication made the change because many customers care equally about reliability, which its surveys now brought into question.

"While we respect Consumer Reports, we disagree with their findings," wrote Microsoft's Corporate VP for devices Panos Panay, in a blog post challenging the 25 percent failure rate. "In the Surface team we track quality constantly, using metrics that include failure and return rates -- both our predicted 1-2-year failure and actual return rates for Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are significantly lower than 25 percent. Additionally, we track other indicators of quality such as incidents per unit (IPU), which have improved from generation to generation and are now at record lows of well below 1 percent"

Panay also noted that a survey conducted by researcher Ipsos, commissioned by Microsoft, found a 98 percent satisfaction rate among Surface Pro 4 customers. Interestingly, the Consumer Reports advisory didn't make note of the widely publicized battery issues faced by Surface Pro 3 users. My Surface Pro 3 barely gets three hours these days, despite applying all of the firmware patches Microsoft released.

Among those commenting to the Consumer Reports advisory, a good number had various complaints, while others offered more positive assessments of their experience with the hardware. Personally, I turn to Consumer Reports when making a major purchase such as a car or home appliance (though not for computer hardware or software). Having just bought the new Surface Laptop of my own a few weeks ago, I'm not planning on returning it based on the Consumer Reports advisory, for a number of reasons.

First, based on the tests of the Surface hardware, Consumer Reports testers were impressed with the various systems. It's hard to conclude that 25 percent of every machine will become inoperable after two years, though any system can experience issues of various degrees. But perhaps most important, the survey period ended earlier this year -- way before Microsoft released its latest systems, meaning it has no bearing on the current hardware.

Panay said in his post that Microsoft has learned a lot since rolling out its first Surface devices five years ago. Analyst Patrick Moorhead, CEO of Moor Computing and Insights, has owned every Surface model Microsoft has released, agreed. In an e-mail, Moorhead noted the various software issues it experienced with its Skylake-based SKUs almost two years ago. "These issues have been resolved and led to Microsoft's conservativeness with their latest crop of products," Moorhead noted. "Notice on Surface Laptop and Surface 5 that Microsoft did not embrace Kaby Lake, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3, as this conservatism should lead to a very high-quality experiences."

So far, I'm happy with the Surface Laptop and hope that I'll feel the same way in a few years. I'll follow up with my impressions of the device after a few more weeks of using it.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 08/14/2017 at 10:56 AM


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