The Surface Laptop 3 feels like a new beginning for Microsoft's traditional laptop series. Debuting this year is a larger, 15-inch model with a metal-clad chassis and AMD processors. What hasn't changed is the Surface Laptop 3's attractive looks and remarkable portability. As such, this sleek machine is one of the slimmest and lightest 15-inch laptops ever, yet it retains the gorgeous design of its predecessors.
Some of the changes Microsoft made to the Surface Laptop 3 aren't as successful. The 15-inch version's AMD processors are underwhelming, as is the laptop's battery life. And while we're thrilled about the Surface Laptop 3's USB-C input, its port selection remains frustratingly limited. Also, Microsoft still charges a fortune to upgrade storage capacity.
The Surface Laptop 3 has many pros and cons. In the end, the 15-inch model is a welcome addition to the Surface family, but it falls short of being one of the best laptops in Microsoft's lineup.
Surface Laptop 3 price and configuration options
The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 starts at $1,199 for a Platinum (metal) version with an AMD Ryzen 5 3580U CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Only the Platinum color option is available at this price.
If you need more storage, start saving. Microsoft charges $300 to upgrade from a 128GB to a 256GB SSD. That brings the price of the cheapest black edition -- equipped with a Ryzen 5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD -- to $1,499.
For comparison, Dell charges only $50 to upgrade the XPS 15 from 256GB to 512GB of storage, while HP charges $100 for the Spectre x360. Even Apple charges less ($200) to upgrade the MacBook Pro. Microsoft's price gouging would be tolerable if those larger SSDs weren't so slow (more on this below).
Our black review unit with a Ryzen 5 3580U CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD costs $1,699, a high price for not a lot of storage.
The only option with the more powerful Ryzen 7 3780U CPU option costs $2,099 and comes with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.
We wish Microsoft sold the Intel version of the Surface Laptop 3 to consumers and not just enterprise customers.
Surface Laptop 3 design
Microsoft cast a spell that stretched the Surface Laptop 3 into a 15-inch machine without making it any thicker than its 13.5-inch predecessors. The result of this magic trick is an ultraportable laptop with a large display.
The Surface Laptop 3 adopts the refined aesthetic of its Surface siblings but now comes in an all-metal variant. I ended up liking the metal finish more than I expected to.
As much as I've grown to love the warm, welcoming Alcantara fabric material, I can't deny that there's a certain refined elegance to the black metal model I reviewed. I went back and forth on which material I'd choose, but ultimately, I narrowed it down to the gorgeous Cobalt Blue Alcantara or Sandstone metal that I got to see at Microsoft's event.
If I'm nitpicking, the Surface Laptop 3's minimalist design looks somewhat spartan on such a large laptop. A small, glossy Microsoft logo reflects against a matte, black lid but gets swallowed by the dead space around it. And Microsoft didn't take advantage of the extra deck real estate; there are no top-firing speakers or a fingerprint sensor (although the touchpad is generously sized). I also wish the side bezels were trimmed down as they are on most modern laptops.
The Surface Laptop 3 is among the most portable 15-inch laptops ever. At 3.4 pounds and 0.6 inches thin, the Surface Laptop 3 is considerably lighter than the Dell XPS 15 (4.5 pounds, 0.7 inches) and the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro (4 pounds, 0.6 inches). And while it's understandably heavier than the 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2.4 pounds, 0.6 inches), the Surface Laptop 3 is just as sleek.
Surface Laptop 3 ports
USB-C has finally arrived on the Surface Laptop 3, but we still can't get over the limited range of ports.
On the left side of the Surface Laptop 3 is a USB 3.1 Type-A port, a USB-C port and a headphone jack. That USB-C port is great for charging newer devices, connecting to monitors and transferring data, but it's not the faster Thunderbolt 3 variant (which is an Intel technology).
The only connection on the right side of the Surface Laptop 3 is a Surface Connect port for charging via a magnetic power cable (much like Apple's retired MagSafe) and connecting to the Surface Dock. I really like how the magnets snap together but wouldn't mind if Microsoft switched to the ubiquitous USB-C input for charging.
Surface Laptop 3 display
The Surface Laptop 3 has a beautiful 15-inch touch-screen display (not the typical 15.6 inches) with a 2496 x 1664 resolution and a 3:2 aspect ratio.
If you're used to the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio, 3:2 screens are taller but narrower (more square-shaped), making them great for viewing documents and websites. Videos are a bit more cropped (expect black bars on the top and bottom), but that didn't bother me when I was watching movie trailers. Then again, I was probably too focused on the Surface Laptop 3's sharp, bright and colorful panel to notice.
The Surface Laptop 3's screen is so crisp that I could see the freckles on Rey's nose in a wide shot of her standing in the middle of the desert when I watched a trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. When she turned on her lightsaber, the brilliant blue glow contrasted beautifully with the muted brown sand. The high-res panel even captured blood-red sparks flickering into the air as Kylo Ren welded his stealthy black helmet back together. My reflection stared back at me as I watched the clip on the laptop's glossy panel, but the display offers excellent viewing angles and accurate tones.
While it may not be a 2-in-1 laptop, the Surface Laptop 3 does have a touch screen. I was able to scroll down web pages and even sketch an atrocious (not the screen's fault) drawing of an elephant in Paint 3D without any problems. If you prefer using a stylus, the Surface Laptop 3 supports Microsoft's Surface Pen ($99).
The Surface Laptop 3's screen is excellent, even if it didn't ace our benchmarks. According to our colorimeter, the Surface Laptop 3's display covers 101% of the sRGB color gamut, making it less vivid than the panels on the 4K XPS 15 (210%), MacBook Pro (114%) and 1080p ThinkPad X1 Carbon (109%). It also fell short of the category average (131%).
Peaking at 380 nits, the Surface Laptop 3's screen is plenty bright, but it's dimmer than the screens on the XPS 15 (4K, 418 nits) and the 15-inch MacBook Pro (403 nits). The 1080p display option on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (336 nits) and the premium-laptop average (346 nits) weren't as bright.
Surface Laptop 3 audio
Microsoft hid the Surface Laptop 3's speakers beneath the keyboard in what seems like another Apple-inspired move to painstaking prioritize form over all else. And yet, the sound doesn't suffer. The vocals in Post Malone and Swae Lee's "Sunflower" were surprisingly clear, and I even felt the low thudding of the drums that open the track.
The speakers were loud enough to fill my small apartment and had enough oomph to give From Indian Lakes' "Garden Bed" a toe-tapping energy. To give you an idea of how loud the speakers get, I was comfortable listening to this song at 40% volume with my TV broadcasting postseason MLB in the background.
Surface Laptop 3 keyboard and touchpad
In many ways, the Surface Laptop 3's keyboard feels like a refined version of Apple's doomed butterfly-style keyboard.
The keyboard is similarly shallow, but the Surface Laptop 3's flat, Chiclet-style keys feel more comfortable thanks to their snappy feedback and low required actuation force. Forgoing the number pad in favor of large, well-spaced keys means that even people with large hands should feel comfortable typing on the Surface Laptop 3.
These are little things, but I also love that the backlit keys have three brightness levels and that the Fn and Caps lock keys have LED indicators that illuminate when they are enabled.
Still, I prefer the cushier keys on the Surface Laptop 2 and the 15-inch Spectre x360's outstanding keyboard, which offers deeper travel.
I typed at 119 words per minute with an accuracy rate of 96% on the 10fastfingers.com typing test. That matches my average speed and improves upon my average accuracy a bit.
Large, fast and responsive, the 4.5 x 3-inch Precision touchpad on the Surface Laptop 3 is as good as you'd expect from Microsoft. My fingertips appreciated the touchpad's large size and comfortable, soft-touch surface, and I had no problems using Windows 10 gestures, like pinch to zoom and three-finger swipe, to switch between windows.
Surface Laptop 3 performance
Microsoft surprised us by outfitting the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 with a custom AMD processor. AMD's mobile chips don't typically perform as well as their Intel counterparts, which is why they're rare in premium laptops. Nevertheless, we were hopeful that a partnership between Microsoft and AMD would spawn a competitive CPU. In some ways it did, but in others, it fell short.
The 15-watt Ryzen 5 3580U paired with 16GB of RAM wasn't very convincing in my real-world testing. While I didn't have too many problems loading 15 Google Chrome tabs, four of which were playing 1080p videos, I did notice a brief stutter when switching between pages. These subtle performance hitches were minor and won't affect most people who need to get work done or stream videos.
Here's where things get a bit ugly. The Surface Laptop 3 scored an 11,612 on the Geekbench 4.3 overall performance test, which is far below what the MacBook Pro (31,012; Core i9-9980HK) and XPS 15 (28,882; Core i9-9980HK) received. That's expected because of the higher-wattage Intel H-series CPUs in those laptops; however, the Surface Laptop 3 also fell short of the ultraportable ThinkPad X1 Carbon (16,649; Intel Core i5-8265U) and the category average (16,069).
The Surface Laptop 3 struggled on our video transcoding test, needing 20 minutes and 33 seconds to convert a 4K video to 1080p resolution. The beefier XPS 15 (8:00) and MacBook Pro (8:10) crushed that result, while the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (17:40) also finished before the Surface Laptop 3. If it's any consolation, the Surface Laptop 3 outpaced the category average (21:52).
Microsoft once again outfitted one of its premium devices with a sluggish SSD. The Surface Laptop 3 took a pedestrian 18 seconds, for a rate of 282.7 megabytes per second, to duplicate 4.97GB of multimedia files. The blistering SSD in the MacBook Pro (2,610.8 MBps; 4TB PCIe SSD) is magnitudes faster, while the storage drives in the XPS 15 (508.9 MBps, 1TB PCIe SSD), the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (424.1 MBps, 256GB PCIe SSD) and the average premium laptop (510.2 MBps) are also much speedier.
Surface Laptop 3 graphics
The Ryzen 5 3580U CPU in our review unit is paired with integrated Vega 9 graphics. Although you shouldn't expect the performance of a discrete graphics card, we found that the Surface Laptop 3 performs better than laptops that rely on Intel's integrated graphics.
On the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark, the Surface Laptop 3 scored a 100,522, which bests what the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (81,350; Intel UHD 620) and the average premium laptop (91,331) posted but is nowhere near what the XPS 15 (177,158) and its discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 graphics put up.
We saw similar results on our real-world gaming test; the Surface Laptop 3 played the racing game Dirt 3 at a smooth 56 frames per second. While it drifted past the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (31 fps), the Surface Laptop 3 fell behind the category average (62 fps) and was lapped by the MacBook Pro (120 fps, AMD Radeon Pro Vega 20) and the XPS 15 (80 fps).
Surface Laptop 3 battery life
The Surface Laptop 3 lasted 8 hours on our battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness.
While that's not a terrible result, a couple more hours of juice would have put the Surface Laptop 3 on a par with the 15-inch MacBook Pro (10:20). The ThinkPad X1 Carbon (9:30) also outlasted the Surface Laptop 3, and even the XPS 15 (8:07) with a 4K OLED display stays powered longer on a charge. The average premium laptop has a slightly lengthier runtime of 8 hours and 14 minutes.
Surface Laptop 3 webcam
The 720p webcam above the Surface Laptop 3's display is decent, but you should buy an external webcam if you frequently take video calls. The Surface Laptop 3 will do in a pinch. But the red tones in my face were unnaturally oversaturated in a selfie I snapped in our dimly lit office, and there was a thick layer of visual noise throughout. At the same time, I was surprised by how the camera perfectly exposed the tricky lights hanging above my head.
The Surface Laptop 3's IR camera quickly and reliably recognized my face and logged me in immediately after I opened the laptop's lid. That's a big relief, because the Surface Laptop 3 doesn't have a fingerprint sensor.
Surface Laptop 3 heat
You won't need to worry about the Surface Laptop 3 overheating. After the laptop played a 15-minute, 1080p video, the underside reached only 92 degrees Fahrenheit, while the center of the keyboard (91 degrees) and touchpad (83 degrees) were even farther from our 95-degree comfort threshold. The only area you should avoid touching is the left underside near the hinge, which warmed to 97 degrees.
Surface Laptop 3 software and warranty
Microsoft doesn't include any extra software that isn't already preinstalled on Windows 10 Home. But that doesn't mean it's bloatware-free. Taking up space on the Surface Laptop 3's hard drive are several free games, including Candy Crush Friends, Farm Heroes Saga and Microsoft Solitaire Collection.
I really like the Surface Laptop 3. I just don't love it as much as I'd hoped I would. With an attractive, lightweight chassis and a gorgeous 15-inch display, the Surface Laptop 3 successfully bridges the gap between ultraportable laptops and those with large screens. Unfortunately, the laptop falls frustratingly short in other ways: Its performance and battery life are unimpressive, there are very few ports, and upgrading storage and RAM increases the price exponentially.
If you want a portable laptop but you don't need a 15-inch display, consider the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, both of which offer faster performance and longer battery life than the Surface Laptop 3. If you do need that larger panel but you aren't worried as much about portability, then go with the Dell XPS 15 or the Apple MacBook Pro. Only the Acer Swift 5 offers the same portability and screen real estate as the Surface Laptop 3, but it doesn't feel nearly as premium.
As you might have noticed, each of these options forces you to make a compromise. That's where the Surface Laptop 3 finds its niche, because as an ultraportable laptop with a large display, there's nothing else like it.
Credit: Laptop Mag