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?
  • Mark Hachman (PC World (US online))
  • 22 October, 2019 00:00

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 feels fresh again, after two successive generations of relatively stagnant designs. Those eager for a larger computing experience now have a new 15-inch option, which also boasts something novel: a custom-designed mobile AMD Ryzen processor. In all, it’s an intriguing mix of style and speed.

New Surface Laptop 3 features include a modern USB-C port in addition to the tried-and-true Surface Connector, expanding your charging and I/O options. Microsoft’s stunning RealSense display remains, and while the touchpad has grown larger and more functional, you may find the keyboard a tad less enjoyable.

But wait, there’s a choice to be made. Microsoft also has a Surface Laptop 3 for Business, and this 15-inch option essentially replicates the consumer version we reviewed—but includes a powerful 10th-gen Intel Core processor, advanced wireless, and improved memory options. (Microsoft’s 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 is built around Intel’s 10th-gen chip, too.) Disappointing battery life in the consumer version has us wondering whether the true enthusiast version of the Surface Laptop 3 might be the Business edition. Let’s see if you agree.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3  alt hero Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 3 in Matte Black.

Surface Laptop 3 basic specs

  • Display: 13.5-inch (2256x1504) PixelSense; 15-inch (2496x1664) PixelSense (as tested); both touch-enabled
  • Processor: 13-inch: Core i5-1035G7/Core i7-1065G7 (Ice Lake); 15-inch: Ryzen 5 2.1GHz 3580U Radeon Vega 9 Surface Edition (as tested) / Ryzen 7 3780U Radeon RX Vega 11 Surface Edition
  • Graphics: 13-inch: Iris Plus 950; 15-inch: Radeon Vega 9 (as tested)
  • Memory: 13-inch: 8GB/16GB LPDDR4x; 15-inch: 8/16/32GB DDR4 (16GB as tested)
  • Storage: 13-inch: 128/256/512/1TB; 15-inch: 128/256/512GB M.2 SSD (256GB as tested)
  • Ports: USB-C, USB-A, Surface Connect, 3.5mm jack
  • Camera: 720p (user-facing); Windows Hello enabled
  • Battery: 46.9Wh (tested), 45.8Wh (rated); quick-charges up to 80 percent in 1 hour
  • Wireless: 13-inch: Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ax)/Bluetooth 5.0; 15-inch: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home (consumer) / Windows 10 Pro (business)
  • Dimensions: 13-inch: 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 in. (14.51mm); 15-inch: 13.4 x 9.6 x 0.57 in. (14.69 mm)
  • Weight: 13-inch: 2.89 pounds; 15-inch: 3.4 pounds (tested), with charger: 4.0lb
  • Color: Sandstone (metal), Matte Black (as tested, metal), Cobalt Blue (Alcantara) and Platinum (Alcantara, metal)
  • Price: Orders start at $999 at $1,699 as tested

Once again, we reviewed the “consumer edition” of the Surface Laptop 3. Business users don’t receive the option of the AMD Ryzen Surface Edition processor. Instead, both the 13-inch and 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 for Business use either an Intel “Ice Lake” quad-core Core i5-1035G7 or a i7-1065G7 chip—which, as we’ll learn, may be the better option.

Pay close attention to the Surface Laptop 3 consumer and business prices, though: There’s a massive $400 bump from a 13.5-inch Core i7/16GB/256GB consumer configuration to a Core i7/16GB/512GB business configuration, for example, and that’s simply insane. A 15-inch business version that matches our consumer model’s loadout only costs about $100 more than the AMD Ryzen-based laptop we tested, however.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 fabric or metal Mark Hachman / IDG

Metal or fabric? It’s your choice, though which you choose also determines which configuration of the Surface Laptop 3 you’ll receive.

A sleek, svelte design

Whereas not much differentiated the original Surface Laptop from the Surface Laptop 2, a number of new updates set the Surface Laptop 3 apart: the new 15-inch form factor, of course; the AMD-based “Surface Edition” mobile Ryzen processor option; and new color and chassis options, too. We were offered the Matte Black 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 for review, but after viewing the dusky Sandstone option at the launch, we can recommend that as well.

Surface Laptops have always aspired to be more than just computing devices, and the sleek, svelte swathes of metal that inform the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 are lovely, both to view and to hold. For its size, the Surface Laptop 3 feels uncommonly light, although, to be fair, other laptops in its class have also moved to lighter materials and their internal components have slimmed down too. Even Microsoft’s 65W charger is surprisingly tiny. Nevertheless, the Surface Laptop 3 is sturdy beyond concern. It’s a standard clamshell design, which means it folds back to about 45 degrees off the horizontal plane like previous models, but doesn’t go completely flat. 

I definitely prefer the magnesium metal chassis introduced in the Surface Book 2 lineup, which is now featured in the Surface Laptop 3. Earlier Surface Laptops were covered in the Alcantara fabric used by the Surface Pro devices, but now you can choose between that look and bare metal. Each color is associated with a specific material, though, save for the Platinum version—or, to put it another way, our Matte Black test device was only available in the metal coating.

Personally, I like the feel of cool metal against my skin in a warm California office, but others may feel differently as the winter rolls in. But be forewarned: Black metal is a fingerprint magnet. Also keep in mind that your material options apply only to the interior of the Surface Laptop 3’s clamshell workspace. On all models, the exterior will be metal, helping the Laptop remain cool.

Not fanless, but surprisingly close

Cooling wasn’t an afterthought for Microsoft. Usually, we prefer to leave Windows’ power/performance settings just as the manufacturer sets them, as the settings are indicative of the manufacturer’s intent. During the out-of-the-box (OOBE) setup process, the fan blew hard, with a noticeable whine. It actually revved, like a motorcycle, during one of the many updates (including Surface firmware updates) that Windows applied at startup.

After applying the updates, however, the fan virtually disappeared. Yes, the default power configuration is “best battery life,” even when plugged in. But usually that means that the fan will kick on sometime. And it did, though rarely and not aggressively even during our normal benchmark runs. (Cinebench R20 and Handbrake were two exceptions, when the fan kicked on with a strong hiss.) In general, though, the Surface Laptop line has transformed from a banshee to a virtually fanless device: dead silent, without any particular effect on performance. And even when the Surface Laptop 3’s fan was called to action, it turned off nearly instantly after the benchmark completed. Moreover, the bottom of the chassis never came close to being hot, let alone uncomfortable. That’s remarkable.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 venting Mark Hachman / IDG

Unlike some competing laptops, Microsoft uses just a small hinge-mounted vent to cool the Surface Laptop 3. Otherwise, passive cooling appears to shoulder more of the load.

Laptop displays have improved over the years, but the Surface displays, including the one on the Surface Laptop 3, remain at the top of the heap. Unfold the Surface Laptop 3, and Microsoft’s bold PixelSense display brightens, putting out a blazing 383 lumens, more than most of its competition. Though Microsoft didn’t offer a 15-inch Surface Laptop 2 version, the 201 pixels-per-inch density of the Laptop 3’s 15-inch model remains the same as the prior generation.

At the top of the display, a tiny 720p camera sits alongside depth sensors that allow you to log in almost instantaneously with Windows Hello, providing quick, efficient password-less logins to the computing world. The camera doesn’t offer a built-in physical shutter, so paranoid types will have to satisfy themselves with some good old-fashioned black tape.

Adding USB-C is a plus

The other noteworthy addition to the Surface Laptop 3 is the new, long overdue USB-C port, which replaces the miniDisplayPort found on most previous Surface devices. Because Microsoft left the USB-A port alone, you won’t have to worry about connecting to legacy USB hard drives, printers, and other devices. But if you’re an existing Surface owner who bought a miniDP-to-HDMI dongle, it’s now obsolete within the Surface line. So, too, is Microsoft’s Surface Connector-to-USB-C dongle, or the much cheaper ecosystem of third-party chargers. But there are literally dozens of USB-C hubs to choose from, too, which offer much cheaper I/O options than the Surface Dock.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3  left side Mark Hachman / IDG

USB-C replaces MiniDP in the latest iteration of the Surface Laptop, the Surface Laptop 3.

Because it now sports USB-C, you can charge your Surface using a USB-C charger, rather than just the Surface charger. To be fair, the ubiquity of Surface chargers has been a Surface strength, as one Surface charger basically fits all Surface devices. Still, there’s even less of chance now that you’ll be without a plug in a pinch.

Remember, too, that this Surface Laptop 3 adds quick charging: up to 80 percent charge in an hour. We’re told by Microsoft that quick charging works across USB-C, though you’ll need the same power that Microsoft’s Surface charger provides (60W) to enable this. We didn’t test this extensively, but did notice a 55 percent charge in about 40 minutes using a HP-branded USB-C charger.

Microsoft chose not to add Thunderbolt functionality to the USB-C port, which means that the Surface Connector, which is also still present, will be your primary display output to a Surface Dock. Assuming you have a Dock, that’s not critical. One underappreciated deficiency of any Surface device to date has been their inability to output to a pair of 4K monitors, at eye-pleasing 60Hz rates. The Surface Laptop 2 struggled to meet a 4K/60Hz setup with a secondary 1080p monitor, too. For those who love productivity, this was a big deal.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 right side Mark Hachman / IDG

The magnetic Surface Connector, a staple of the Surface line, is still embedded in the right-hand side of the chassis.

I was extremely pleased to see the Surface Edition-based Laptop 3 simultaneously output to its own display, a 4K/60 setup, and a 1080p monitor with aplomb. (Because of time restrictions, I was unable to test against a pair of 4K displays.) 

The keyboard and built-in speakers

Picking apart keyboard subtleties usually boils down to the spacing between the keys (the pitch), and the amount of play in the keys (the key travel). Surface keyboards are generally quite good, and the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is no exception—spacious keys provide a comfortable landing pad, with good resiliency. The 19mm key pitch remains unchanged. The Laptop 3’s key travel feels somewhat less than in the Surface Laptop 2, though, and it is: 1.3mm versus 1.5mm. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 keyboard Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft rearranged some of the Surface Laptop 3’s function keys and slightly reduced the key travel. The metallic chassis does tend to attract fingerprints, too.

A quick digression about Surface keyboards: The Surface Book series still provides what I consider to be the premier Surface typing experience. The first-gen Surface Book’s keys (with 1.6mm key travel) extend upward from the chassis, while the top of the Laptop’s keys are level with the chassis. That means that the Laptop’s keyboard actually rests in a valley of sorts, stretching your fingers a bit further. It’s a subtlety, but subtleties distinguish good keyboards from great ones.

Microsoft also inexplicably rearranged the function keys on the Surface Laptop 3’s top row, moving the backlight key to the far left and the screen brightness keys to the middle. Small guide bumps were added to the function keys as well.

The Surface Laptop 3’s touchpad is 20 percent larger than the previous model’s touchpad, and it’s smooth and clickable across virtually its entire surface—less than a fingersbreadth at the top. To be fair, you’ll probably unconsciously accommodate a trackpad that isn’t entirely clickable, but it demonstrates Microsoft’’s commitment to the basics: a good screen, a good typing experience, and so on. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 back Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft generally isn’t shy about pumping up the jams, either, and the Surface Laptop 3’s audio booms forth from a pair of “omnisonic” speakers backed by Dolby Audio Premium. Wandering through Windows’ audio controls can be a bit of a snipe hunt. Are they in an app? Part of the Control Panel? I couldn’t actually find the Dolby controls, which are usually in a Realtek app. But Microsoft’s spec sheet claims they’re there. Nevertheless, these are speakers you won’t mind listening to music on, at all, which is saying something for laptop speakers. The Laptop 3 produces bright midrange sound, and discernable (though underpowered) bass.

Somewhat surprisingly, Microsoft didn’t load up the Surface Laptop 3 with too much extraneous crapware, although worthless apps like Farm Heroes Saga make an appearance. Honestly, we wish Microsoft did more with the Surface app that it bundled with Surface devices. While it provides a nice summary of the system specs and provides basic configuration options for the Surface Pen (sold separately), it would be welcome to see something a bit more comprehensive. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 surface app Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s probably time to freshen up Microsoft’s Surface app. 

Next page: Performance benchmarks and conclusion

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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.