Panos Panay, chief product officer of Microsoft Corp., displays the new Surface Laptop 3 computer … [+]
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Earlier this fall, Microsoft broadened its well-reviewed Surface portfolio with the new Pro X, as well as a 15” iteration of the Surface Laptop 3. The ultra-thin Pro X 2-in-1 stole the show somewhat at the original announcement (see my coverage here). I went on to review the Pro X after three weeks of use, and it exceeded all my expectations (see here). With that said, I was personally just as intrigued by the larger edition of the Laptop 3, which promised to be twice as fast as the previous generation thanks to its powerful AMD processors. Today I wanted to offer up my four-week review of the Laptop 3 15”.
I, and everyone else I’ve talked to, seem to agree on one thing: at 3.4 lbs, with dimensions of 339 mm x 244 mm x 15 mm, the Surface Laptop 3 is sleek. Remarkably so, for a 15-inch laptop. That said, its classic clamshell design feels quite sturdy and premium. While the Laptop 3 does not fold completely flat, it folds back approximately 135 degrees. The 15” Laptop 3 is set apart from previous models it comes with a bare metal look, instead of the default Alcantara material that’s come to characterize the Surface line. I wonder if Microsoft made this design decision to avoid Alcantara’s demonstrated tendency to take on skin oils over time. I wouldn’t be surprised—there’s nothing premium about that after all. The casing of the laptop is all-aluminum and comes in Matte Black (and Platinum color options (it’s worth noting that the 13.5 version still has Alcantara and additional color options).
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15
The 15” display is squared off—a nice touch that leaves it looking neat and well-proportioned. Overall, the laptop looks sexy, but simple and unassuming enough to not catch too many wandering eyes at the coffee shop. As with previous generations, Microsoft did a nice job with the trackpad and the keyboard. Both were comfortable to use and well-designed, and I would say just about the best experience (Apple included) out there. The Laptop 3’s trackpad is 20% larger than the previous generation, and the keyboard sports a cushy 1.3 mm of travel.
The laptop’s 720p camera is equipped with infrared sensors that enabled practically instantaneous facial recognition login via Windows Hello. This feature aids the device’s “instant on” capability, which quickly initiates the camera and brightens the screen as soon as the laptop is cracked open out of standby. As a tech analyst, I’m frequently having to open and shut my laptop to fire off emails, often mere seconds before having to board a plane to jet off to my next engagement. Time is money, and instant on is a godsend.
Onwards to what many people care about—performance. It’s important to note that bringing AMD into the mix is groundbreaking (users can choose between a Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 mobile processor and offers much higher performance than previous Microsoft laptops. It is performance competitive, but not quite in the same way as, say, Dell’s new XPS 15 with six processor cores and discrete graphics. But then again, it’s not as thick or heavy. There are no free lunches.
This laptop is meant to be a workhorse for more casual users who crave more screen real estate—not gamers and other power users. It blew through what I consider a Microsoft 365 experience without a single hitch. That said, you won’t have to worry about having enough performance for your basic computing tasks (and some less-intensive gaming and lighter video editing). It may not be as fast as some of its competitors, but the laptop has enough juice to handle multimedia creation, such as photo editing with Adobe Photoshop. My main takeaway here is that I’m glad to see AMD and Microsoft finally teaming up, and I look forward to future collaborations between the two. If you’re looking for more horsepower and want a Surface, look to the Surface Book.
The Surface Laptop 3’s 15” PixelSense display is something Microsoft should be proud of. It features a 3:2 aspect ratio, a 201-ppi pixel density, 10-point multi-touch input, and support for Microsoft’s optional Surface Pen. Its custom-tuned AMD Radeon Vega 9 graphics chip allows for smooth, crisp playback, utilizing FreeSync refresh-rate synchronization in real-time. HDR content looks great on this laptop. It features a maximum brightness of 400 nit, which should accommodate most of your typical office settings. If you need higher resolution, highest-end Adobe or the highest-end HDR content, you may need to look at a higher-end laptop. It met my Microsoft 365 use case just fine.
Ports and I/O
It features one USB-A and one USB-C port, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and Microsoft’s ubiquitous magnetic Surface Connect port for charging or Surface Dock. The mini DisplayPort connector from the previous generation was ditched (thankfully), and I could use the USB-C to connect to an external 4K monitor. Additionally, I could use the USB-C port to charge the device if needed, which I needed once as I forgot my charger. This the same port configuration featured in the 13” model—I hoped that with the extra real estate afforded by the larger chassis on the 15”, Microsoft would have added an extra port or two.
I was glad that Microsoft added a USB-C port at all—the Surface Laptop 2 noticeably and regrettably lacked one. That said, for comparison’s sake, the MacBook Pro has four USB-C ports. For the more casual user, the Surface Laptop 3’s I/O will suffice. You do get an additional USB port built into the laptop’s AC adapter, and it’s good for charging devices. For more advanced users, I would recommend Surface Dock for the additional $200 which gave me two charging, 4K displays, RJ45, audio jack and three more USB ports.
In my Microsoft 365 use case, I never felt personally that I was lacking any ports.
Battery life and quick charge
The Surface Laptop 3 15” claims up to 11.5 hours of typical device usage watching video. I haven’t performed an official battery test myself, but some reviewers have managed to milk close to that amount of battery life out of it, albeit running it in Airplane mode. Others have been less successful, stretching it only 6-8 hours while working. It all just depends on the workloads you’re running, and what settings you’re on. While battery life is a key consideration, the pressure is taken slightly off by the laptop’s impressive quick charging capability, which purports to charge the device back up to 80% in an hour. I got very close to that number and was impressed.
AMD vs. Intel
While this four-week review is for the AMD-based Laptop 3, I did use an Intel-based one for a week on my same software in the same use case. I’ll admit; in my Microsoft 365 use case, I didn’t “feel” any difference with the exception of WiFi, where the Intel design had WiFi 6 and AMD WiFi “5”. To see that difference, a user needs to connect to a WiFi 6 router which isn’t pervasive right now. Benchmarkers did show that the Intel unit won most benchmarks. As an example, Anandtech reported that the Intel unit performed the PC Mark 10 benchmark 9% higher than the AMD unit. I will be very interested to see how AMD’s Renoir performs as the shoe could very well be on the other foot, but we’ll see.
All in all, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15 is good looking, high-quality, highly capable device that will serve most of the average computer users’ basic computing needs. It fit my Microsoft 365 use case very well. It’s not the most premium performance of premium notebooks out there, but it is a sleek, sexy, simple and solid offering that showcases the potential of Microsoft and AMD’s continued partnership. If you are considering Apple’s MacBook Air or Pro, you need to check out the Surface Laptop 3 15.
Nice work, Microsoft.