Microsoft And AMD's Surface Laptop 3 Is Something Special

The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 might be one of the most portable 15-inch devices I’ve ever used. It’s thin, it weighs just 1kg, it has a big 15-inch display, and somehow it manages to be pretty powerful to boot. I’ve rarely used a laptop this big that feels so small when transported from home to office, or even just around the house. It’s absolutely excellent. It’s also the first premium device in years to rely on an AMD processor instead of an Intel one. AMD and Intel have both made a very big deal about this partnership, and having used the Surface Laptop 3 for almost a week, I understand their enthusiasm.

Surface Laptop 3

WHAT IS IT?

The 15-inch version of the Surface Laptop, now with AMD inside.

PRICE

Starts at $1,699 for a 13.5-inch and $1,999 for a 15-inch. Reviewed at $2,799.

LIKE

Thin. Portable. Incredible GPU performance.

NO LIKE

Battery life is middling. Keys can feel mushy. Aluminium finish picks up hand grease fast.

The Surface Laptop 3 is the third generation of Microsoft’s attempt at a great $1,500 laptop. This year Microsoft produced two types of Surface Laptops. A 13.5-inch version that starts at $1,699 and has a 10th-generation Intel Ice Lake CPU inside, and a 15-inch version that starts at $1,999 and relies on an AMD Zen 2 processor with a souped-up Vega GPU.

The one reviewed here is the $2,799 version with Ryzen 5 3580U CPU, Vega 9 GPU, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD. That’s a very weird price for a very weird device because other big Windows laptop makers like Dell and HP just aren’t doing anything like the Surface Laptop 3. HP’s Spectre x360 and Dell’s XPS 15 are both quite a bit thicker and heavier, but for the same price, the give you discrete graphics and older CPUs with more cores.

Microsoft’s hope seems to be that people will be willing to pay for portability instead of power in a 15-inch laptop. As someone who is just fine with her 13.5-inch device, but did wish it had a bigger display, the 15-inch Surface Laptop is basically targeted at me. It’s my laptop, just with more display and barely any more weight.

Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

It only weighs 1kg! That’s only 200g than the 13.5-inch, and still less than the flagship 15-inch devices from Dell and HP.

This is the first 15-inch laptop in nearly four years that I prefer to a 13.5-inch when commuting too and from the office. It takes up barely any more space — comfortably fitting into a suitcase pocket meant for a 13.5-inch device when I dragged it to a wedding over the weekend. At 0.57 inches, it’s incredibly thin for a 15-inch too.

Yet despite being so thin and light, it feels sturdy. I can run around with it open, clutched in one hand, and not feel like it’s going to flex or break. When I took it on the plane this weekend, neatly balanced on my lap, there was no floppy hinges or undue wiggling as I typed. The only things I can criticise about the build of the laptop are the finish and the keyboard. Microsoft opted for an aluminium finish (found in either black or platinum on the 15-inch).

The distinct fabric palm rest found in the 13.5-inch isn’t available on the 15-inch, which is a shame because the black aluminium Surface Laptop, like every single black aluminium laptop I’ve ever used, is an absolute magnet for the oils found on your hands. I’ve used this thing for less than a week, and its matte finish is already starting to shine. The fabric, or some kind of oleophobic coating, would be welcome.

As for the keyboard — the keys feel just a little too mushy for my taste. They’re not mushy enough to repulse me, but I do wish they had just a little more snap to them.

Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

I also wish Microsoft would just stop with the fancy Surface Connect port for charging. I have a bad habit of knocking the cable out of the port on accident, and I’m spoiled by the wide range of devices I now use that charge via USB-C. With such a meticulously designed computer, the random proprietary charging port stands out in an unappealing way. The Surface Laptop 3 does include a USB-C port (as well as a USB-A port and 3.5mm headphone jack), but it’s for powering displays and charging peripherals, not for charging the device itself.

While the reluctance to fully embrace USB-C feels like a step backward, the insides of the device feel like a significant step forward. You won’t be able to find this specific CPU and GPU in a non-Microsoft product. The company partnered with AMD to produce the chips that power the Laptop 3.

While neither company has gone into extensive details about what’s different between the Ryzen 5 3580U found here and the standard 3500U, both have, at least, noted that the Vega 9 GPU is more powerful and has more compute units than the Vega 8 found on the 3500U.

What does that mean if you don’t care about all those numbers and specs? It means the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 flies in GPU intensive tasks. At least comparatively. See, the GPU space for laptops has gotten pretty complex in the last year. Intel has two different types of GPUs, the traditional wimpy integrated ones found one half of its 10th-Gen lineup, and a new, faster integrated one found specifically in Ice Lake products.

A little faster than those Ice Lake GPUs are the discrete MX150 and MX250 GPUs made by Nvidia and usually found in higher-end laptops. Then there are the even more powerful discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD. The Nvidia cards usually end up in gaming devices or more expensive workstations, whereas AMD’s discrete GPUs ship in Apple devices.

AMD’s integrated Vega 9 GPU found in the Surface Laptop 3 hovers, speed-wise, somewhere between the Ice Lake and the MX 250. It’s fast enough to make a lot of less demanding gaming smooth, but not exactly powerful enough to get you through Gears 5 on anything above Medium.

As for the CPU, it butts up against the performance of Intel’s i7 Ice Lake processor (we haven’t tested the i5 Ice Lake processor, which would be the more fair comparison). In Blender, where we render a 3D image and note how long it takes, it was just as fast as Dell’s new XPS 13 2-in-1 with an Intel i7-1065G7.

The only places Intel’s part outperformed were in Geekbench 4 and WebXPRT 2015, two synthetic benchmarks that typically favour Intel’s processors. In real-world tests, from Overwatch to Civilization VI to Handbrake, the Ryzen 5 3580U was just as fast (and in the case of the games, it was actually slightly faster).

Yet there’s one caveat. Battery life. It’s profoundly middling. The Surface Laptop 3 lasted just 7 hours and 42 minutes in our test, where we set the brightness of the display to 200 nits and stream a YouTube video until the battery dies. That’s nearly four hours less than that Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 with the Ice Lake chip. Not really impressive!

But Dell’s XPS series has always outperformed competitors in battery tests, and Microsoft told me our results were accurate. It’s also right in line with last year’s Microsoft Surface Laptop 2, which was a heckuva lot less powerful. So as much as I want to ding the Surface Laptop 3, all I can really say is “it’s fine” when it comes to battery life. Not abysmal, but not incredible.

The so-so battery life feels like the only real significant misstep in an otherwise excellent device. Imagine if something as portable as this 15-inch device also had incredible battery life? Instead of being a great 15-inch laptop, the Surface Laptop 3 would be a required purchase for a lot of people.

As it stands, it’s just a very smart purchase for a lot of people. If you value portability and don’t need half a dozen CPU cores and a big discrete GPU, the Surface Laptop 3 is a rarity that hits a perfect balance I didn’t know I needed until I had it in my lap. AMD (and Microsoft) have produced a GPU and CPU seemingly as good as Intel’s very best. It’s absolute proof that AMD can and should start appearing in more laptops, especially the big flashy ones.

README

  • The GPU is very good.

  • The CPU is on par with a 4-core U-series processor from Intel.

  • The battery life is only middling.

  • The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is so thin and light it’ll be hard to go back to a more powerful 15-inch device.

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