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Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 review: A beautiful miss

Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3 gives AMD a shot at laptop glory, but it misses

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 review: A beautiful miss
MSRP $1,199.00
“The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is a beautiful laptop, but its mediocre performance limits its potential.”
  • Large 3:2 display
  • Build quality is rock solid
  • Comfortable keyboard and touchpad
  • Stays quiet and cool
  • Not powerful enough
  • Graphics are disappointing
  • Bezels are large

The story of AMD’s epic return to power is among the best stories in tech this decade. After years lagging behind its peers, the company’s recent desktop processors and video cards have given Intel and Nvidia serious competition. It’s a wonderful underdog story, and one that’s seemingly uncommon today. A small company has tangled with its bigger tech rivals and, at least sometimes, won.

Yet there’s one important device that still troubles AMD. The laptop. For years, the company has tried to land design wins. It’s had a few, most notably its partnership with Apple, which brings AMD Vega graphics to the MacBook Pro and the iMac. However, these wins haven’t brought AMD to most portable PCs. The vast majority still have Intel inside and, if they include graphics, rely on Nvidia.

I hold in my hands a laptop that could change that. It’s the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, which runs on a custom Ryzen processor with Vega graphics. It’s a crowning marketing achievement for AMD, and suggests the company might finally have what it takes to compete with Intel in the laptop space.

Or perhaps not. The Surface Laptop 3 is capable, but if you’re hoping for raw performance that mirrors AMD’s recent desktop success, you’ll be let down.

Editor’s note: Want to know more about other Surface devices? Check our reviews of the Surface Pro 7, Surface Pro X, and Surface Neo.

AMD takes a swing

The 15-inch laptop space is instead dominated by specific group of people. Professionals looking for content creation tools — machines with serious power for video rendering and programming, and maybe even gaming. They need laptops paired with a color-accurate screen to make edits on their projects. That’s why you can’t find a 16-inch MacBook Pro with less than a six-core processor and 16GB of RAM. 

Let’s be clear. That’s where the Surface Laptop 3 and its new AMD processor just can’t compete.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 screen
Riley Young / Digital Trends

Paired with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, the Ryzen 5 3580U Microsoft Surface Edition powered my review unit. It’s a four-core processor with a 2.1GHz base clock. A Ryzen 7 version with Vega 11 graphics is also available, though that model starts at a whopping $2,099, despite still only having four cores. For that price, you could get a powerful XPS 15 with a six-core processor and a GTX 1650. Those two more cores and extra graphics make it a significantly more capable laptop for editing, photography, and video encoding.  

These chips are from AMD’s older architecture, Zen+, and don’t benefit from the improvements found in the newer Zen 2 desktop processors. That’s a shame.

The Surface Laptop 3 isn’t a powerhouse for editing video or photos.

AMD’s chip is on par with an 8th-gen U-series processor, but that’s the problem. Intel’s U-Series processors aren’t often found in premium 15-inch laptops. Those laptops instead have more powerful chips with six or even eight cores.

That means the Surface Laptop 3 isn’t a powerhouse for editing video or photos. It’s fine for basic use, but won’t impress when handling large files.

You might also have problems with the screen. It’s sharp thanks to its 2256 x 1504 screen resolution, but for professionals, its color accuracy isn’t high enough to compete with the MacBook Pro or the 4K XPS 15. I’d hoped to see better results, as the Surface Laptop 3 15-inch is priced to compete with those popular alternatives.

Vega 9 is just sad

At Microsoft’s big event, Panos Panay proudly told his audience he’d played Fortnite with his daughter on the Surface Laptop 3.

To be fair, he admitted it didn’t run all that well, and was probably referencing the faster Vega 11 model. On my review unit with Vega 9 graphics, playing Fortnite was a serious stretch. In fact, it was nearly impossible without butchering the graphics. Civilization VI was also borderline unplayable. Unlike Dell’s XPS 15 or Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme, both of which can play many games are enjoyable settings, the Surface Laptop 3 is not a gaming laptop in disguise.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3
Riley Young / Digital Trends

The more powerful RX Vega 11 model should squeeze some faster framerates out of these games, but Vega 9 was disappointing. Even the Iris Plus integrated graphics featured in the new 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 fare better. I’ve already tested them on smaller laptops like the XPS 13 2-in-1, and I managed better framerates in Fortnite.

There’s a silver lining, at least. AMD’s Vega graphics are offered even on the most affordable configuration, while many other companies charge more for discrete graphics.

Who is the Surface Laptop 3 for?

So no, the Surface Laptop 3 isn’t for content creation or for gaming. But there are still those who want a 15-inch laptop solely for the extra screen real estate. They don’t need heaps of power, just a larger display to get a clearer view of Excel spreadsheets, web content, and Netflix. 

If you’re in the this crowd, the Surface Laptop 3 has plenty to offer. It’s a simple, well-built laptop with a large 15-inch screen that’s perfect for getting work done. It even has a taller, 3:2 aspect ratio to give you a fuller view of your work. Use it for long enough, and you’ll likely find it hard to return to a 16:9 laptop like the Dell XPS 15.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 use
Riley Young / Digital Trends

The laptop is also surprisingly portable for its size, weighing less than a 16-inch MacBook Pro at just 3.4 pounds. That’s impressive given there’s no compromise in build quality or battery life. You can still expect a solid seven to eight hours in light usage. That’s less than the XPS 15, but still enough for a workday full of meetings.

However, there’s a reason companies like Apple don’t even offer one of its 16-inch MacBook Pro for this crowd. They’re few and far between, and are often looking for the cheapest laptop possible. Budget buyers aren’t not Apple’s demographic, nor are they Microsoft’s. 

It has perks, but none are new

The places where Microsoft has directly ported over components from the 13-inch model are strong. The keyboard is still quiet and comfortable. The touchpad feels as precise as ever. The new USB-C port is much appreciated, and the aluminum case feels premium to use. There’s no doubt about that.

This isn’t the powerful MacBook Pro competitor many wanted it to be.

But even here, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 still feels like a missed opportunity. That becomes clear when you set the Surface Laptop 3 next to a 16-inch MacBook Pro. The touchpad could have been larger, as could the keyboard itself. 

Despite that laptop design being three years old, the MacBook Pro plays to the strengths of larger form factor in ways the Surface Laptop 3 ignores. Speakers are still hidden beneath the keyboard when it seems like there would have been plenty of space up on the keyboard deck for them. Don’t even get me started on the display bezels, which are now some of the thickest in the industry.

Even the port selection could have used more. With the inclusion of USB-C, the selection is now at least passable, but nearly all of its competitors offer more variety.

Yes, these are all creature comforts. If you buy the $1,199 base model, you might not be disappointed. But if you’re spending over $2,000 on a better configuration of this laptop, you’ll be jealous of your friend’s XPS 15 or MacBook Pro.

Our take

There’s nothing flashy about the Surface Laptop 3, especially not the all-black model I reviewed. It’s a simple, well-built laptop with most of its bases covered, and that’ll be enough for some. But this isn’t the powerful MacBook Pro competitor many wanted it to be, nor is it a substantial improvement over its predecessor.

Is there a better alternative?

The best alternative is the XPS 15, which starts at $1,050. That gets you a faster H-series processor and an extra 128GB of storage. It’s not as light or refined as the Surface Laptop 3, but the higher configurations have broader ranger in terms of performance. 

There are some 14-inch laptops that offer a similar overall package, such as the Lenovo Yoga C940 or the Huawei MateBook X Pro

Want more options? Check out the best laptops of 2021.

How long will it last?

The Surface Laptop 3 is as sturdy and well-built as laptops get. The inclusion of swappable storage also means you can upgrade in the future on your own. The one-year limited hardware warranty is nothing special, but Microsoft does offer plenty of additional support, including 90-day technical support over the phone or 12 months of in-store technical support.

Should you buy it?

No. The base configuration is the only one I can come close to recommending — again, if you just want that larger screen. The higher-end models don’t stack up well against its competitors. Even then, an entry-level configuration of the Dell XPS 15 is likely the better option.

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