Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch, Intel) Review: The ultimate laptop I’ve always wanted

Surface Laptop 3

The late-2019 Microsoft Surface Lineup is quite diverse. Each device has a little bit of everything you might be looking for in a Windows 10 PC, depending on your needs. There’s the slim-bezel, always-connected Surface Pro X, the slightly refined Surface Pro 7 2-in-1, as well as the traditional clamshell Surface Laptop 3 — now in both 13-inch and 15-inch sizes.

While I’ve already reviewed the Surface Pro X, you may recall that I wasn’t quite happy with that purchase. For many reasons, I ended up returning it and picked up the Intel version of the Surface Laptop 3, which Microsoft calls the “Surface Laptop 3 for Business” instead.

After a month of use in my life, this Surface Laptop 3 really shaped up to be quite different from the Surface Pro X. It ended up becoming the ultimate laptop that I’ve long wanted. From its awesome 15-inch display, as well as the build quality, and the Intel Ice Lake processors under the hood, I find that this Surface Laptop 3 is quite amazing. Let me dive deeper and explain why.

Editor’s Note: This Surface Laptop 3 was not provided to us for review by Microsoft. Arif purchased it on his own. The opinions are his own and are not influenced by Microsoft.

All-aluminum, all-around beautiful

The marquee feature of the Surface Laptop lineup has always been the Alcantara keyboard. I own an original Surface Laptop, and I will say that it has benefits of feeling luxurious — but the downsides of getting dirty over a long period of use.

For 2019, though, Microsoft decided to make the Surface Laptop 3 a bit more traditional. The company now offers the device with an aluminum enclosure, as well as the traditional Alcantara. A few 13-inch models have the aluminum enclosures, but all 15-inch models, (and the one I am reviewing) only come in aluminum. This is something I’m glad they’ve decided to do.

Much like I said with the Surface Pro X, the design and build quality on the Surface Laptop 3 is really the highpoint of the device. As a large 15-inch laptop without a dedicated graphics card, it is quite portable and compact. On the technical side, the weight comes in at around 3.4 pounds and its thickness at 0.57 inches. Compared to the 15-inch MacBook Pro (0.61 inches thick, 4.02 pounds) that’s quite slim. It’s also well lighter, but thicker than the Dell XPS 15 (4 pounds,  0.45 inches thick.)

In my personal use, I had no trouble throwing the Surface Laptop 3 in a sleeve and traveling to Manhattan with it to take the photos that you’re seeing in this review. It is quite lappable, and I whipped it out while riding the MTA, and it didn’t quite get in the way of the people sitting next to me. It really is the ultimate travel companion.

Overall, the aluminum build quality on the Surface Laptop 3 really shines through. It’s really tough, and there’s no bending or creaking in the chassis when I pressed down on it. There’s even no bending in the venting area above the keyboard deck, an area that is usually quite fragile on other laptops

I also want to mention that the Surface Laptop 3 has a beautiful sloped design when it’s closed shut. It goes from thick in the back to thin in the front. There’s even no notch in the front of the chassis of the laptop. The corners of the display are also rounded and are an absolute pleasure to touch. Oh, and thanks to the use of magnets, opening the lid is quite easy with just one hand. That’s something that you can’t quite do on a MacBook or other laptops.

Finally, as I highlighted in my how-to post, the SSD inside the Surface Laptop 3 is technically upgradeable. This isn’t something I plan on doing myself, but it does seem straightforward for technical-savvy people. If you remove the rubber feet on the bottom, you’ll be able to release and lift up the keyboard deck to find the SSD. It’s quite cool, but I don’t see this as something everyone will end up doing. Panos Panay actually showed this off during the Surface Event, but the process is technical, and Microsoft recommends for you to do it through authorized retailers only.

A display built for productivity

The other highlight feature on the Surface Laptop 3 is its touch screen display. Coming in at 15-inches, in the 3:2 aspect ratio, and with a resolution of 2,256 x 1,504, the display panel is quite amazing for productivity. Compared to other sized laptops which sport a 16:9 aspect ratio, the Surface Laptop 3’s panel is quite tall and is great for getting any type of work done. It’s also plenty vibrant and bright, especially for watching movies late at night.

For me, in my daily workflow, I often stack my windows side-by-side, with a primary Microsoft Chredge session with WordPress on the right of the screen, and a second session with whatever extra tabs I need on the left. On other laptops with smaller displays, doing this would often cut out and limit the size or scope of my open web pages, but the Surface Laptop 3 is different.

With the Surface Laptop 3’s big 15-inch display, opening up a window in a split-screen view almost makes it seem like it’s full screen. It really helps in boosting my workflow and cuts out the need for me to use a secondary monitor. Most times, I often found myself using the Surface Laptop 3 outside of my home office, and on my sofa — or in other places around the house or in coffee shops for work for just this reason.

But as great as that sounds, there is one thing I do want to mention: The bezels on the Surface Laptop 3 are thick. Coming in at around 0.39 inches, it definitely is not as slim as what you might find on Dell XPS 15, or the Surface Pro X. However, because this is a 15-inch screen in the taller 3:2 aspect ratio, I am forgiving of this. There’s a ton of space on the screen to make up for it.

Lots of Intel power under the hood, even for some light gaming

The big difference between the Surface Laptop 3 for Business (which I am reviewing) and the consumer Surface Laptop 3 is the Intel chipset under the hood. Consumer versions of the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 come with options for either the AMD Ryzen 5 3580U with Vega 9 Graphics or the AMD Ryzen 7 3780U with Vega 11 Graphics. These processors and graphics are both custom-tuned by AMD and Microsoft for the Surface Laptop 3. Many had high hopes for this, but reviewers have reported issues with the chipsets such as battery drain, driver-issues, and poor gaming performance.

With all that in mind, I ended up picking up the Surface Laptop 3 for Business instead, which has a quad-core 10th Gen Intel Core i5 Processor under the hood. It also comes with a total of 8GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. This is the base model, which starts at $1,100.

Anyway, despite being the base option, this quad-core Intel processor really is quite powerful. I never had any issues when browsing the web, or in any of my day-to-day tasks, and it also holds up well for basic multi-tasking productivity tasks. The Geekbench scores can attest to this, as seen below. On that end, The surface Laptop 3 for Business even comes ahead of the consumer Surface Laptop 3 with AMD processors.

Device NameSingle-Core ScoreMulti-Core Score
Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch, Intel Core i5-1035G7)5,27517,522
Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch, AMD Ryzen 5)3,95911,612
Surface Pro X (Microsoft SQ1)3,52411,440
Surface Pro 7 (Intel Core i5-1035G4)5,34216,567

However, since the Intel processor under the hood comes with the company’s improved Iris Plus graphics, I was able to get more out of the CPU than I hoped. I pushed it a bit and played some games like the freshly-released Halo Reach, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. In both cases, the gaming performance was very surprising for a laptop with just integrated graphics. The Ice Lake CPU pushed out about 20-27 FPS in these games when set on their respected high settings. On lower settings, frames improved to around 30 FPS solid.

The Intel-based Surface Laptop 3 obviously isn’t meant to be a gaming laptop, but it is really hard to not ignore the advancements of Ice Lake. Basic gaming is indeed an option on this Surface Laptop 3, but you’ll obviously need to choose the lowest possible settings or medium, at best. It’s still quite surprising, in all the good ways, though.

Battery Life is just alright, but the instant-on is the real highlight feature

For all that Ice Lake power under the hood of the Surface Laptop 3, there is one down-side — battery life. While Microsoft advertises that the Surface Laptop 3 for Business can get to about 11.5 hours of battery, I never really reached that limit.

I was never one that liked running these technical tests on my laptops, so I instead ran the Surface Laptop 3 through my day-to-day tasks. In my web browsing work-flow, it did last me through my 8:30 AM-2:30 PM workday as I had hoped, but only if I kept the screen to 20% brightness and the”Recommended” option on the battery meter. At best, I would estimate this lead to around 7-hour battery life. I hoped to stretch the battery longer at one point, but I ended up needing to run for the charger, as a 20% charge only held on for an hour.

For streaming video, however, the Surface Laptop 3 fell under what I hoped. I sat down on Black Friday and binge-watched The Man in the High Castle, and with the screen at 40% brightness, WiFi turned on, and all other applications closed, the Surface Laptop 3 lasted me only 6 hours or roughly 4 and a half episodes.

At the end of the day, though, the battery life on the Surface Laptop 3 never really bothered me. With support for quick charge, the laptop can go from  0%-80%  charge within an hour. There’s also the added benefit of the USB-C port supporting charging, which means that I could grab a PD-power bank and charge my laptop up from anywhere. I also really enjoyed the “Instant On” feature, similar to the Surface Pro X. After putting the Surface Laptop 3 to sleep, it right away logs you in as soon as you open the lid, much like I described in my impressions video below.

Ports for (almost) everything

Microsoft has long been hesitant to adopt USB-C on its top-line devices. However, for 2019, all the Surface devices finally have what many have dubbed the one port that does it all.

On its left side, the Surface Laptop 3 sports both a USB-A port, as well as a USB-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side of the Surface Laptop 3, meanwhile, sports the Surface Connect Port, which now supports fast charging.

Unfortunately, the USB-C port is not Thunderbolt 3 compatible. That means you won’t be able to connect up an external GPU to the Surface Laptop 3, or drive two external 4K displays. As this is a 15-inch laptop, that is quite disappointing for me. This feature is seen on Apple’s MacBook devices, as well on the Dell XPS 15, which are the Surface Laptop 3’s main competitors.

As someone who is used to the expandable MicroSD card storage on the Surface Pro lineup, it’s also upsetting to not see something similar on the Surface Laptop 3. I really would have appreciated the expandable storage, as I’m sporting the base model with only 128GB of SSD storage. In just one month of use, and installing Steam and my other software, I already filled it up, and there’s only 24GB left on the SSD.

But not all is lost. Unlike the Surface Pro X, which sports all USB-C, there is a traditional USB-A port on the Surface Laptop 3. I’m someone who hasn’t yet adopted USB-C monitors, or USB-C to USB-C cables for use with my phone, so I do appreciate the inclusion of the older USB-A port as well.

Dual far-field studio mics for top quality web calls

Alongside the addition of USB-C, another new feature on the Surface Laptop 3 this year are dual far-field studio microphones. These are located along the top of the laptop, near the Windows Hello IR webcam. Microsoft talked up this feature on stage during the Surface event, but I think a lot of reviewers seem to have neglected it in their final reviews.

I do want to touch on it for a few reasons. First of all, the studio mics are really great for use with Cortana or Alexa on Windows 10. I was able to rest the Surface Laptop 3 down in my dining room table, and walk into my living room, but summon Cortana from across the room and ask the assistant about the weather before putting on my jacket.

Secondly, these dual far-field studio mics are great for web calls. I have many online friends who I like to chat with on Skype, and this microphone is a godsend for me. My friends told me that when I chatted with them, it felt like I was in the room with them.

In an era where slim-bezels and display panels are important, microphones are usually an afterthought on laptops. But seeing as though this Surface Laptop 3 is something that will be used in businesses for Skype of Microsoft Teams calls, it’s great to see Microsoft paying attention to detail.

Speakers hidden in the keyboard, but still good enough for a party

Another new feature in the Surface Laptop 3 this year are its improved speakers. According to Microsoft, the Surface Laptop 3 sports Omnisonic Speakers with Dolby Audio Premium. These speakers are hidden underneath the keyboard deck and aren’t front-facing like the MacBook Pro, but are still really loud, and good enough for a party.

In my testing, I fired up Spotify and played the song Vegas by Onda Norte. I started the song at a low volume and turned it up to around 70%. The bass in the song was quite noticeable at higher volumes, and the keyboard deck started vibrating a bit. However, at around 90% the music did seem muffled. Other songs with lyrics like Fall Out Boy’s Alone Together fared much better, and thanks to the Omisonic speakers, I easily made out the change in instruments and the pitch in voices. For a speaker embedded in the keyboard deck, the sound isn’t as bad as it seems.

The keyboard and trackpad: awesome

A laptop is nothing without a keyboard or trackpad, and as usual, Microsoft does not disappoint in this area. The trackpad and keyboard on the Surface Laptop 3 are really unmatched and quite comfortable.

As I touched in in my hands-on review, the typing experience on the Surface Laptop is quite similar to the Surface Pro Type Cover. However, since the keys are on top of a solid aluminum chassis, pressing on keycaps has softer and slightly more springy feedback. It’s also a point to mention that the power button is embedded on the keyboard next to the delete key, so touch typists may need to be careful when speed-typing to avoid turning off the screen.

Anyway, In my tests, I was easily able to jam through posts in WordPress without any issue. In Bing’s typing test, I achieved a score of 56 words per minute, followed by 62 words per minute when repeating the test. That also came in with an accuracy of 92%, and above the average speed of 36 words per minute reported on TypingTest.com.

The touchpad is also something that Microsoft improved over the last Surface Laptop 3. It’s around 20% larger and smacks in the middle of the chassis. I really like this location, as it leaves room to rest your palm on the sides of the laptop. As for the surface of the touchpad itself, it is quite smooth and really great for navigating through Windows 10 and using gestures. I never once had an issue with it.

You can ink on it too

One of the highlight features of the Surface lineup has always been its support for touch-screen displays. Other laptop makers like Dell will charge you a premium to get a touch panel on devices like the XPS 13, but on Surface devices, it’s a stock feature. Microsoft’s Surface devices also support inking with a pen, which as awkward it might be to draw on a laptop screen, is quite cool.

Although the Surface Laptop 3 has no “official” place to store the Surface Pen, I did try out inking on the device. I fired up Fresh Paint and colored in some lines on a painting of a tiger. For this task, the screen was quite wobbly, but I was able to rest my palms on the display panel and draw without creating lines on the screen. It’s a neat feature to have, as sometimes, users might want to ink on a PDF on the screen, or just annotate an item in OneNote.

I also want to point out that the Surface Laptop 3 does have some “unofficial” places where one could store the Surface Pen. That includes the top left bezel of the screen, or alongside the Surface Connect port on the right side of the device. I wouldn’t recommend this, however, as it might damage the device.

A great Surface that’s worth buying

Putting my review to an end now, I’ll say the Surface Laptop 3 for Business is the great laptop I’ve always wanted. It sports an awesome 15-inch display that’s great for multitasking and inking. It also has a super-premium and solid design that is absolutely gorgeous. Compared to the consumer version, the device also benefits from Intel’s Ice Lake CPUs and there’s plenty of power under the hood. The extra $100 for the Intel processors was well worth the price.

I’ll also want to mention something that others have pointed out. There might not be a dedicated GPU inside the Surface Laptop 3, but there is another Surface device for that. If you’re looking for a serious device for gaming, buy the Surface Book 2 instead. The Surface Laptop 3 is rather a device for productivity and light gaming.

In fact, I loved my Surface Laptop 3 so much, that I ended up selling my Surface Pro 2017 to pay off for it. This is simply one of the best purchases I’ve ever made, and unlike the Surface Pro X, I’ll never look back and regret it. Good job, Microsoft!

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