Surface Laptop 3 review: AMD Ryzen makes a great 15-inch Surface, but Intel's version may be better

Microsoft's 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 boldly includes a custom AMD processor, and maintains Surface excellence while adding new features like USB-C. But is it really the best Surface Laptop 3 you can buy?

Credit: Mark Hachman / IDG

Performance: A mixed bag

We were honestly excited to review the Surface Laptop 3 both from a system as well as a chip perspective. This is the first time Microsoft featured an AMD processor inside one of its laptops, and not only was it a mobile Ryzen, but a custom mobile Ryzen.

If we had any trepidation, it’s that what Microsoft included wasn’t based on the impressive Zen 2 architecture giving Intel a run for its money on the desktop in the form of Ryzen 3000-series CPUs, but instead the older Zen+ architecture. Fortunately, AMD has published the Ryzen 5 3580U specs. It’s a quad-core, 8-thread chip, with a base clock of 2.1GHz on up to 3.7GHz. It also integrates a 1300MHz Radeon Vega 9 GPU core, giving it a little more oomph for games.

Unfortunately, we weren’t given a 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 for review—or, even better, a 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 for Business version. Both of the latter use Intel’s 10th-gen “Ice Lake” Core chip, and would have allowed a direct comparison between the two architectures. As you can see from the spec list near the top of the review, the Surface Laptop 3 for Business uses an improved memory type, LPDDR4x, and Wi-Fi 5 (also known as 802.11ax).

As it is, we made do with benchmarks from a Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1 we’re currently reviewing, which uses the same Core i7-1065G7 “Ice Lake” chip as the high-end Surface Laptop 3 for Business does. Our Ryzen 5 wasn’t designed to directly compete with a Core i7, but the pricing difference may be small enough to be tempting. We’ve also included the Surface Laptop 2, of course, for a gen-over-gen comparison, as well as competitive notebook PCs from third-party manufacturers. The performance graphs below show the Surface Laptop 3 in red, with Microsoft’s previous Surface Laptops in shades of orange. 

The Surface Laptop 3 that Microsoft shipped us maximized battery life and minimized performance using the power/performance slider available via the Windows taskbar. We thought that was odd until we saw the anemic battery-life numbers. But we wondered how dialing up the performance, especially when plugged in, would affect the rankings. So you’ll see a red outlined bar indicating the benchmark recorded under “Best Performance” settings, too.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 power settings Mark Hachman / IDG

We tested the Surface Laptop 3 using the default settings (shown here), but also adjusted the performance to see what effect it might have.

We test using a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, beginning with the PCMark test suite. Though there’s several to choose from, we’ve selected three: the PCMark 8 Work and Creative tests, as well as the updated PCMark 10 benchmark. Both of the former tests are somewhat older. The Work benchmark focuses on office tasks, while the Creative benchmark leans more heavily into mainstream gaming, video editing, and photo processing. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review pcmark 8 work fixed Mark Hachman / IDG

Ironically, every Surface Laptop we’ve tested has generated abysmal results for this test, which replicates the functionality in Microsoft Office and Skype. In everyday use, though, you shouldn’t notice any dramatic slowdowns.

We’d expect to see substantive gains over the Surface Laptop 2. Surprisingly, only the  Creative benchmark produced those results. But this is just the first of many tests where Intel’s Ice Lake machine, highlighted in blue, smokes the Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen chip. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review pcmark 8 creative fixed Mark Hachman / IDG

It appears that the mobile Vega GPU embedded in the Laptop 3’s Surface Edition chip is helping out in multimedia-oriented tasks like gaming and video editing.

UL’s updated PCMark 10 suite also proves that the AMD/Microsoft Ryzen chip can hold its own. Unfortunately, we don’t have a direct comparison against Dell’s Ice Lake notebook on this test.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review pcmark 10 fixed Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 3 doesn’t do too badly in PCMark 10, an updated benchmark which also incorporates tasks like videoconferencing, photo processing, and more.

One interesting bonus: Applications seem to launch fast with the Surface Laptop 3, and that might be because of the SSD Microsoft chose. Using CrystalDiskMark 4.0.3, random 4K reads (using the 4K32T1 setting) on the Surface Laptop 3 are 261.2 MB/s, basically twice as fast as the 133.8 MB/s reported by the Surface Laptop 2. The Surface Laptop 3’s responsiveness is definitely noticeable, and noteworthy.

Maxon’s Cinebench test stresses the CPU in rendering a fixed CGI scene, showing how well the custom Ryzen chip performs under load. We can tell you that while the single-core score was 144, we’re more concerned about what Cinebench reports when all cores are under load. Here, the AMD-based Surface Laptop 3 compares favorably to an 8th-gen “Whiskey Lake” Intel Core chip, but still trails Ice Lake’s Core i7.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review cinebench fixed Mark Hachman / IDG

The mobile Ryzen chip inside the Surface Laptop 3 is a quad-core CPU, the same as most of the others here. The Core i7-8565Us measured are here are part of Intel’s “Whiskey Lake” generation, while the Core i7-8250Us are the earlier “Kaby Lake-R”.

If you’d like, you can download the open-source Handbrake tool and transcode a full-length movie into a format suitable for viewing on a more compact Android tablet. That’s our next benchmark, which is basically a prolonged CPU stress test that complements how well the CPU does in Cinebench’s quick burst. This speaks to both the Ryzen 5 3580U’s performance as well as the effectiveness of Microsoft’s thermal design decisions. Here, the Surface Laptop 3 excels, which we’d chalk up to the Surface Edition chip and its excellent cooling.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review handbrake fixed Mark Hachman / IDG

Handbrake offers the best testimonial to the Surface Laptop 3’s engineering.

Finally, we get to see how well AMD’s mobile Vega chip performs in 3D graphics. Because of the time constraints engendered by the short review period, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to play games with the Surface Laptop 3. But the 3DMark Fire Strike scores indicate that the Radeon Vega 9 GPU compares with the downclocked Nvidia GeForce MX150, which is impressive for integrated graphics. Unfortunately, the Iris Plus GPUs inside of the 10th-gen Ice Lake chips topped it—but not by much.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review 3dmark sky diver fixed Mark Hachman / IDG

While there’s still a decent gap between the Surface Laptop 3 and Intel’s Ice Lake chip, this is a good result. The Nvidia GeForce MX150 laptops it sits next to use a downclocked MX150, while the others (the Matebook 13, for example) use an upclocked version of the same GPU.

Where I’m really disappointed with the Surface Laptop 3 is battery life. Microsoft has always positioned the Surface Laptop as an always-on, always-connected device, and the first two Surface Laptops have performed quite well in this regard. It appears that the Surface Pro X, due later in November, may bring this vision to reality.

Microsoft encouraged us to test battery life under more real-world conditions. We’re happy to do that, provided we can find repeatable benchmarks and have a bit of time to perform those tests. For now, however, we’ve relied on our tried-and-true video rundown test, which delivers disappointing results. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

No matter how you slice it, about 8 hours and 20 minutes of battery life is disappointing for a Surface. Microsoft has switched from measuring battery life via video rundown to a mixture of apps and idle time, however, and claims 10.5 hours using this metric.

Keep in mind, though, that battery life depends on several factors. Higher-resolution screens tend to consume more power, and pushing performance can negatively affect battery life, too. So can screen brightness—we test using a comfortable 250-260 nits of luminosity, but Microsoft tests theirs at 150 nits. This all can be offset with a larger battery. The 45Wh battery inside the Surface Laptop 3 is on the low side compared with other laptops we’ve tested, however.

We loop a 4K video over and over to measure battery life, and that’s the traditional way Microsoft has measured it, too. With the Surface Laptop 3, however, Microsoft moved to a mix of scripted Web browsing and Office applications. While we can’t replicate this exactly, we can measure using a similar battery test in PCMark 10. That yielded an even lower battery life of 6 hours and 27 minutes.

Bottom line

Even in a world with nothing in it but the new Microsoft Surface Laptop 3, the Ryzen-based consumer model we reviewed might not be the best choice. Admittedly, we haven’t reviewed the Surface Laptop 3 for Business. But for just $100 moreMicrosoft’s Surface Laptop 3 for Business offers a similarly configured model as our test unit, with a Core i7-1065G7 inside it as well as improved wireless capabilities. 

That’s also the the same Core i7-1065G7/16GB/256GB configuration as in the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390, which we have tested. It’s true that Dell’s XPS line already lands high on the performance scale, widening the discrepancy. Still, we can infer from its performance that the Surface Laptop 3 for Business is certainly worth consideration, if it’s not the better option altogether.

What rating would we assign the Surface Laptop 3 as a whole? It’s taken some necessary steps into the future, granted, with the addition of USB-C. Thunderbolt is probably due in a 2020 revision. After a necessary firmware update, the cooling is surprisingly good, assisting performance—which really is about on par with an Intel 8th-generation Whiskey Lake processor, plus a bit more in the GPU department.

In some ways, I view a laptop like I view a hotel. If I can sleep well, shower well, and work well, I don’t care two cents for the view. Microsoft’s Surface Laptops have traditionally nailed the keyboard, screen, multimedia, and battery, and I’ve loved them for it. The sleek, welcoming design was a bonus.

Two of the four are as good as ever. Surface engineers cut a slight corner with the revised keyboard. The low battery life is a black mark, though. I use both prior-generation Surface Laptops regularly as test beds for new Windows builds, and as that user I’m frankly disappointed with the Ryzen-based Surface Laptop 3’s battery life. 

There aren’t too many 15-inch notebook PCs that aim toward the high end of the consumer/productivity space without aiming at gamers. HP’s Spectre series, though, is worth a hard look. The HP Spectre x360 15 we reviewed with a powerful discrete GPU has been discontinued, but the HP Spectre x360 15T featured on our performance charts is still being sold, and at a competitive price that might steer you away from the Surface.

I think the Surface Laptop 3’s sleek aesthetic continues to be worth indulging, and the performance, though not earth-shattering, helps set the Laptop’s bar higher. Those who are more inclined towards brutalist efficiency should also consider looking at recent introductions like the Acer Swift 3—there’s a lot of functionality there for under $1,000, even if you won’t like the display and keyboard as much. Lenovo’s ThinkBook is also worth considering.

You’ll like this consumer-minded Surface Laptop 3, even if it doesn’t excel in all areas. We can’t help but wonder, though, if an even better Surface Laptop 3 waits to be reviewed.

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Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
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