Is Microsoft’s 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 a gaming laptop in disguise?

Everyone seems to love a sleeper. A station wagon with 700 horsepower. A pocketknife with 20 hidden tools. A sleek, professional laptop that can also play games. There’s undeniable allure to an object that looks mundane but has a secret power.

The new 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 from Microsoft  looks like a sleeper. With a 15-inch 3:2 screen and simple exterior, it seems most at home when it’s at work. Yet the 15-inch model has a secret, one not found in the 13-inch version of the Surface Laptop 3.

That secret is a custom AMD Ryzen processor paired with AMD Vega graphics. This sets the 15-inch model apart from its 13-inch sibling.

These components hint the Surface Laptop 3 could work as a gaming laptop. Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, alluded to that during the products announcement in early October as he bemoaned how badly his daughter beats him in Fortnite. But is the Surface Laptop 3 really a sleeper gaming laptop?

Want to know more about Microsoft’s October Surface Event? Check out our full coverage.

Just how powerful is it?

The AMD Ryzen processor in the Surface Laptop 3 is officially called the “AMD Ryzen Microsoft Surface Edition.” In fact, there’s two processors involved. One is AMD’s Ryzen 5 3580U, the other is AMD’s Ryzen 7 3700U. They’re both quad-core, eight-thread processors with a thermal envelope of 15 watts.

Despite the Surface Edition name, both chips appear to be simple tweaks of the existing Ryzen hardware, the Ryzen 5 3500U and the Ryzen 7 3700U. You can check out AMD’s website for their specifications.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3
The Surface Laptop 3 packs impressive power for its size

Since this isn’t all-new or heavily revised hardware, we have an idea of how well the CPU will perform. The 3500U and 3700U are available in laptops like HP’s Envy x360, and have managed respectable results. They can’t beat Intel’s best quad-core processors, but they’re not far behind, either.

Most games aren’t CPU bound, anyway, so it’s doubtful the small gap between Intel and AMD will translate to any noticeable difference in game performance.

Put simply? The CPU should be great for gaming. Let’s move on to the graphics.

It’s Vega. It’s also integrated

The real tweak to AMD’s Ryzen Microsoft Surface Edition can be found in the graphics solution. The chips still use AMD’s Radeon RX Vega graphics, but slightly up the graphics core count. The Ryzen 5 models have Radeon RX Vega 9 with 9 graphics cores, while the Ryzen 7 models have Radeon RX Vega 11 with 11 graphics cores.

According to Tom’s Hardware, official numbers from AMD claim the Radeon RX Vega 11 can more than double the performance of the Intel UHD Graphics 620, at least in the 3DMark 11 and 3DMark Time Spy benchmarks. That’s a huge bump up from the Surface Laptop 2.

In real-world gaming, you’ll be limited to low or medium detail settings.

On the other hand, Intel’s UHD Graphics 620 sets a low bar. In real-world gaming, you’ll be limited to low or medium detail settings to achieve 30 frames per second in games like The Witcher 3 and Destiny 2. Newer titles, like Metro Exodus, might not be enjoyable even at 1080p and low-detail settings.

Still, the Vega integrated graphics chip has its benefits. Demanding titles might not play well, but you can load up Fortnite and enjoy a round at reasonable settings. You can also play older titles and newer, less demanding games like Sayonara Wild Hearts or Overland. Intel’s UHD 620 graphics can struggle even in those scenarios. AMD’s alternative might not handle the highest settings, but it’ll be smooth at medium to high detail, at least.

Hidden problems

We have the answer to our question. Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 15-inch isn’t a gaming laptop. It’s not a sleeper. It can play many games, but not all of them, even if you dial back the settings.

The Surface Laptop 3 has a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of 16:9. In theory, this isn’t a problem. In practice, it can be. I’ve used Microsoft’s Surface Book and Book 2, which also have a 3:2 display, to play games. I’ve had issues.

Microsoft Surface Book 2
Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 has its own quirks. Digital Trends

At times, World of Warcraft was bizarrely unwilling to accept the proper 3:2 aspect ratio, so the graphics were distorted. I also saw problems with Civilization VI, which didn’t always want to acknowledge the 3:2 screen and would instead play in a 16:9 window. Older games can have problems, too. They might refuse to boot, insist on playing in windowed mode, or you may encounter other oddities.

Again, this shouldn’t be a problem in theory. Modern games can handle a wide variety of resolutions. In practice, though, problems could creep in atn unexpected times. The 3:2 aspect ratio is extremely unusual today, and I’m not sure developers test it extensively (or at all) before they publish a game or patch. You should expect bugs, and those bugs might not have an easy solution.

Oh, and remember the screen’s resolution. The Surface Laptop 3 15-inch has a beautiful 2,496 x 1,664 display. It’s great, but you can’t expect to play many games at that resolution. You’ll likely need to opt for a lower resolution, which means you won’t get the most out of the screen while gaming. Alternatively, you could plug in a 1080p monitor.

Not the sleeper I hoped for

Anyone hoping the Surface Laptop 3 is a sleeper will be disappointed. Its performance is adequate for some games, but certainly far less than a gaming laptop’s.

It also lags other major players in the 15-inch space. Apple’s MacBook Pro 15, Dell’s XPS 15, and HP’s Spectre x360 15-inch can be purchased with more powerful discrete graphics. To make matters worse, you can only find the top-tier Radeon RX Vega 11 in the $2,099 or $2,799 configuration of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 15-inch.

That’s the more damning point. The Surface Laptop 3 is a professional, slim laptop that can play games. That’s great. It’s also not new. Other laptops already do that. The Dell XPS 15 with Nvidia GTX 1650 graphics is a much better choice if you want a professional laptop that can game on the side. A Dell XPS 15 with Nvidia graphics starts at $1,399.

Don’t mistake this for a verdict on the Surface Laptop 3. Its attractive, it has a beautiful display, and it puts a refreshing focus on easy repairs. Give it a look if you want a laptop for work. Just look elsewhere if you need a laptop for play.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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