Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch (Core i7) review: This is the one you should buy
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7), also known as the Surface Laptop 3 for Business, finally delivers on what Microsoft has traditionally promised with its Surfaces: a great screen, a great keyboard, and great battery life.
The Surface Laptop 3 with Intel’s 10th-gen Core i7 chip achieves roughly 10 hours of battery life. This is more than enough to get you through your workday, and siginificantly longer than what was achieved by the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 with AMD’s Ryzen 5 CPU, or the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 with Ryzen 7. Other than the CPU and storage variations, the Surface Laptop 3 units we’ve tested are largely identical.
We still admire what AMD has accomplished with its current Surface Edition chips, and look forward to next year when its 7nm process kicks in. For now, however, this Surface Laptop 3 with an Intel Core i7 is the only Surface Laptop 3 we’d recommend.
Surface Laptop 3 for Business (Core i7) basic specs
- Display: 13.5-inch (2256×1504) PixelSense; 15-inch (2496×1664) PixelSense (as tested); both touch-enabled
- Processor: 13-inch,15-inch: quad-core Core i5-1035G7/Core i7-1065G7 (Ice Lake)
- Graphics: 13-inch,15-inch: Iris Plus
- Memory: 13-inch: 8GB/16GB LPDDR4x; 15-inch: 8GB/16GB/32GB DDR4 (16GB as tested)
- Storage: 13-inch,15-inch: 128/256/512/1TB (256GB as tested)
- Ports: USB-C, USB-A, Surface Connect, 3.5mm jack
- Camera: 720p (user-facing); Windows Hello enabled
- Battery: 45.8Wh (as reported)
- Wireless: 13-inch/15-inch: 802.11ax 2×2 MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0
- Operating system: 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: 3.36 pounds (tested), with charger: 4 pounds
- Color: Sandstone (metal, as tested), Matte Black (metal), Cobalt Blue (Alcantara) and Platinum (Alcantara, metal)
Price: Orders start at at $1,099 at Microsoft.com; $1,599 as tested
Pay close attention to the Surface Laptop 3 prices: There’s a massive $400 bump between the SL3’s 256GB and 512GB SSD configurations. One of the new features of the Surface Laptop 3 is its ability to swap out the SSD, though it’s not exactly user-serviceable.
We’ve previously reviewed the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 5) as well as the Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 7), both of which are the “consumer” versions of the Surface Laptop 3 for Business. The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 consumer models use a semi-custom “Surface Edition” of the AMD’s older Zen+ Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 chips, while the 13-inch consumer and 13-inch/15-inch Surface Laptop 3 for Business use Intel’s 10th-gen Ice Lake chips. (Full disclosure: Intel sent us this Surface Laptop 3 for review, not Microsoft.)
There are other, somewhat substantive differences between the consumer and Business models: the operating system (Windows 10 Pro, versus Windows 10 Home), as well as the wireless. Intel’s chip is paired with an 802.11ax radio, while the AMD chips come with 802.11ac. The first standard offers up more potential bandwidth (9.6Gbps vs 6.9Gbps) as well as broader wireless coverage. The Surface Laptop 3 for Business models also cost about $100 more than a similarly-spec’d consumer model at retail, though recent discounts have pushed the disparity to about $210.
Chassis: The Platinum option spurns fingerprints
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 offers various chassis options that include either a solid metal finish or the now-traditional Alcantara fabric inside. We tested the Surface Laptop 3 for Business (Core i7) in the Platinum color. Though we would have preferred the lovely “Sandstone” option, it’s not available in the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.
I actually prefer the look and feel of metal under my palms. It does get a little chilly on your lap, but its conductivity surely helps with cooling. The Platinum model doesn’t soak up fingerprints like the Matte Black option does, and the keyboard and touchpad contrast nicely with the chassis itself.
Surface Laptops have always aspired to be more than just computing devices, and the sleek swathes of metal that inform the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 are lovely both to view and to hold. The Surface Laptop 3 joins other laptops in its class that have moved to lighter materials, and slimmed down their internal components. It feels surprisingly light. Even Microsoft’s 65W charger is tiny.
At the same time, the Surface Laptop 3 is sturdy beyond concern. It’s a standard clamshell design: It folds back to about 45 degrees off the horizontal plane like previous models, but it doesn’t go completely flat.
The fan plays a slightly larger role
Microsoft paid attention to cooling in the Surface Laptop 3. Note that in all three Surface Laptop 3s that we reviewed, all of the Windows power settings were set to maximize battery life and presumably keep the fan noise at a minimum. In the Ryzen 5 consumer model, the fan was nearly nonexistent, though it ramped up a bit more with the Ryzen 7 model. With Intel’s Ice Lake, I noticed a faint fan hiss of quietly blowing air in the background. It blew noticeably louder under certain testing scenarios, but there were no great spikes in noise.
When the Surface Laptop 3’s fan was called to action, it turned off nearly instantly after the benchmark completed. Moreover, while the bottom of the chassis got warm, it never came close to being hot, let alone uncomfortable, even with the more powerful Core i7 in play.
Laptop displays have improved over the years, but the Surface displays, including the one on the Surface Laptop 3, remain among the very best. Microsoft’s bold PixelSense display on the Surface Laptop 3 for Business puts out a blazing 377 lumens, more than most of its competition does. The 201 pixels-per-inch (ppi) density of the Laptop 3’s 15-inch model remains the same as the prior generation’s 13-inch model. (Microsoft didn’t offer a 15-inch Surface Laptop 2).
At the top of the display, a tiny 720p camera sits alongside depth sensors for logging in almost instantaneously with Windows Hello. 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. The image quality is certainly good enough for videoconferencing, and I was logged in routinely using my face.
The camera also plays a role in the Surface Laptop 3’s new “instant-on” capability, which brightens the screen and turns on the camera in just a whisker after opening the Laptop from standby. It’s darn convenient.
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. (As we were writing this, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 for Business page claimed the device had a miniDisplayPort; it doesn’t.)
Because Microsoft left the USB-A port alone, you won’t have to worry about connecting 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 obsolete with the new product 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, which offer much cheaper I/O options than the Surface Dock.
Because it now sports USB-C, you can charge your Surface using a USB-C charger, rather than just the Surface charger. 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 a chance now that you’ll be without a plug in a pinch.
Microsoft chose not to add Thunderbolt functionality to the USB-C port, which means that the Surface Connector, 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 the 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 loved productivity, this was a big deal.
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. As Thunderbolt I/O interfaces become more common, however, it’s possible the lack of Thunderbolt may become a deficiency Microsoft will be forced to solve.
A decent 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 lesser than in the Surface Laptop 2, though, and it is: 1.3mm versus 1.5mm.
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 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. We like the small guide bumps that were added, though.
The Surface Laptop 3’s touchpad is 20 percent larger than the previous model’s, and it’s smooth and clickable across virtually its entire surface—less than a finger’s breadth 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.
Microsoft generally isn’t shy about audio, either. The Surface Laptop 3 sports a pair of “omnisonic” speakers backed by Dolby Audio Premium. Wandering through Windows’ audio controls can be a bit of a scavenger hunt. Are they in the included Realtek audio app? Part of the Control Panel? Regardless, these are speakers you may actually enjoy—which is saying something for laptop speakers. The Laptop 3 produces bright midrange sound, and discernable (though underpowered) bass.
Somewhat surprisingly, Microsoft restrained itself on the Surface Laptop 3’s extraneous crapware, although worthless bits like Farm Heroes Saga make an appearance. We wish Microsoft did more with the Surface app that it bundles with Surface devices. While it provides a nice summary of the system specs and basic configuration options for the Surface Pen (sold separately), it would be great to see something a bit more comprehensive.
Next page: Performance benchmarks and conclusion