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Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen
High-end look and feel
USB C port
Keyboard feels great
Not enough ports
Nonstandard screen resolution
The Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 ticks all the boxes if you’re looking for a premium Windows 10 experience, with hardware and trim options to fit most needs.
The Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 is the third generation of Microsoft’s flagship laptop line, as the name would suggest, and it represents an overall improvement over the earlier generation in just about every category. The most obvious change here is the option to ditch the Alcantara fabric, although my test unit stuck with the old signature Surface look. You also have a number of classy color options, two screen sizes, and a handful of speedy processors to choose from.
Regardless of configuration, each Surface Laptop 3 comes equipped with the same excellent keyboard, webcam, and big trackpad, along with a beautiful PixelSense display that’s more designed for getting work done than consuming media.
I recently unboxed a Surface Laptop 3 and set it up to use as my daily carry for a week. I tested things like ease of use, screen quality, and viewability in various conditions, performance in handling various daily tasks, and even tried to squeeze in a little gaming. Microsoft is up against some pretty stacked competition in this category, so I wanted to see if the Surface Laptop 3 is really worth its fairly high price tag.
The Surface Laptop 3 is available in both 13.5- and 15-inch configurations, with my test unit falling into the 13.5-inch category. It’s also available in a number of colors, with and without the signature Alcantara fabric, and with a handful of different processor and storage options. For this review, I looked at the affordable Core i5-1035G7 version, equipped with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM, with a platinum finish and an Alcantara-covered deck.
The basic design of the Surface Laptop 3 is sleek, slick, and professional. It doesn’t do much to stand out, with fairly basic lines, an aluminum body that’s thicker toward the back, and some fairly tame color choices, but it really is a nice looking piece of hardware both closed and opened.
Favoring a minimalist aesthetic, the Surface Laptop 3 lid is featureless aside from a mirror-finish Windows logo. There is no text here. In fact, the only text on the entire laptop is found on the underside, with a simple Microsoft wordmark, made in China notice, UL certification, and model number.
The keyboard is nice and snappy, with comfortably spaced keys and just the right amount of travel.
Following through with the minimalist design, the right side of the laptop features the proprietary Surface Connect port and nothing else. The left side features a single USB A port alongside a USB-C port, and that’s it, no more ports or connectors. Around back, you’ll find a fairly chunky grille that helps the laptop breathe.
Flip the Surface Laptop 3 open, and you’ll find either a smooth aluminum deck or the soft Alcantara fabric that used to be standard in the Surface Laptop line. My unit included the fabric, and it was a fairly pleasant platform during long typing sessions.
The keyboard is nice and snappy, with comfortably spaced keys and just the right amount of travel. Below that is an oversized touchpad that was a pleasure to use.
The display is one area where the Surface Laptop 3 really shines. It sticks with the 3:2 ratio that we saw in the older Surface Laptop 2, with a resolution of 2496x1664. That results in a screen that’s a bit taller than most laptops, and a resolution that falls between full HD and 4K. The relatively high resolution, combined with the fairly small screen, results in a beautiful display with bright colors and sharp images. Viewing angles are great as well.
The touchscreen functionality also works flawlessly, with support for both 10-point touch and the same stylus pen that’s designed for other Surface devices. The caveat with the pen is that the laptop hinge doesn’t allow the screen to fold flat or twist around, so writing on the screen is always a bit awkward. The touchscreen feels great when used with a finger though, with buttery-smooth scrolling and fantastic accuracy.
While the display looks great, it’s better suited to work than it is to consuming content. Due to the oddball aspect ratio, watching high definition video content results in big black bars on the top and bottom of the display, and you’ll run into the same basic issue if you want to use this laptop as a video editing platform. Not a deal breaker, but not a great look either.
If you spend more time in a word processor, performing tasks like writing code, or even surfing the web, the abnormally tall screen is more likely to be a benefit than a drawback. After a few days with the Surface Laptop 3, I appreciated the ability to display more content on the horizontal axis, especially due to the small physical size of the display.
Due to the oddball aspect ratio, watching high definition video content results in big black bars on the top and bottom of the display, and you’ll run into the same basic issue if you want to use this laptop as a video editing platform.
With an 8th gen Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and integrated graphics, the Surface Laptop 3 is built to be a mid-level performer. It lacks the specifications for tasks like heavy video editing work or serious gaming, but it’s perfectly equipped for most other types of work. If you’re looking for something that can handle a little more, the Surface Laptop 3 can be juiced up with a Core i7 processor, up to 16GB of RAM, and even a discrete Nvidia GPU.
While the specifications of my test unit are pretty easy to read, and line up with my experiences using the laptop over the course of a week, I ran it through a battery of tests just to get some hard numbers. First up, I installed PCMark and ran the standard benchmark test. The results were pretty decent, with an overall score of 3,996, which places the Surface Laptop 3 just shy of where PCMark pegs a standard gaming laptop.
Digging deeper into those results, the Surface Laptop 3 scored best in the essentials category, with a score of 8,009. This category covers things like how long it takes for apps to start, how well the laptop handles streaming video, and how suitable it is for tasks like videoconferencing.
The Surface Laptop 3 also scored well in the productivity category, with an overall score of 6,322. It performed surprisingly well in spreadsheet manipulation tasks and also did quite well in basic word processing, with fast save and load times and speedy cut and paste action.
Digital content creation is the area where the Surface Laptop 3 performed the worst, although it did fairly well considering the low amount of onboard RAM and the lack of a discrete video card. It scored 3,422 overall in this category, with decent performance in photo manipulation, mediocre video editing scores, and poor rendering scores. If you need to perform any of those tasks, you may want to upgrade to a version of the hardware that includes a discrete video card, as the configuration I tested is likely to leave you frustrated.
The Surface Laptop 3 isn’t really designed for gaming, at least not in the configuration I tested, but I fired up GFXBench anyway to see how the numbers stack up. First up, I ran the basic T-Rex benchmark, which isn’t very demanding. That resulted in an impressive 207fps, so I ran the more intense Car Chase benchmark, which resulted in a fairly decent 39.6fps.
In addition to benchmarks, I like to put laptops through a bit of a torture test by running Capcom’s worldwide hit Monster Hunter, which is notorious for its poor optimization. That wasn’t in the cards this time, as the tiny 128GB SSD in my test unit simply didn’t have enough space to fit the game. Even after stripping out all the chaff, I was still left with only about 80 GB of free space.
Instead of Monster Hunter, I opted to boot up the fast-paced stylish shoot-and-slash Devil May Cry 5. The results were a bit disappointing, as the game was more or less unplayable with default settings. I reduced the resolution, lowered a bunch of other settings, and was able to achieve a fairly steady 30fps, but I felt anything but stylish as Nero clunkily engaged with demons in a lower resolution world than I would have liked.
Once again, you should probably check out one of the Surface Laptop 3 configurations that includes discrete graphics if you want to do much gaming. As configured, my test unit was fine for lightweight indie titles and older games, but trying to play any recent AAA games was an exercise in frustration. Coupled with the small SSD that could only hold a couple of games at a time, and my test unit is definitely better suited to word processing than gaming.
As the results of the PCMark benchmark I mentioned in the previous section would seem to indicate, the Surface Laptop 3 is ready to go to work even in the low-spec configuration I tested. I prefer a larger screen for my day to day tasks, but the tall display somewhat offset that issue. I also found the keyboard to be very comfortable for long typing sessions, with the Alcantara fabric brushing softly against my wrists.
The touchpad is massive and centrally placed, but I never managed to misclick when typing, even with my large hands. The size of the touchpad is great for maneuverability, and it was quite accurate as well. There are no physical buttons, but the left and right clicks accessed by tapping the bottom corners of the pad registered flawlessly each time.
The touchscreen is just as responsive and smooth to operate as the touchpad. It isn’t as useful as it could be, since there’s no way to flip this laptop around into a tablet position, but I still find it quite useful to be able to swap between touchscreen and touchpad on the fly in order to accomplish various tasks.
The biggest hit to productivity comes in the form of an overall lack of connectivity. This laptop only has two USB ports, one of which is USB-C, a headphone jack, and a Surface Connect port. There’s plenty of space to fit additional ports, or a card reader, or any number of other useful things, any of which could help in various productivity tasks, but Microsoft chose to omit those options.
You might expect a laptop this size, and with these specifications, to sound hollow and tinny, but that isn’t the case. The sound here is remarkably bold and loud, with no discernable distortion even at the highest volumes. I listened to a variety of music via YouTube and Spotify, and I was uniformly impressed at how good everything sounded.
The Surface Laptop 3 does include a headphone jack if you want better or more precise sound, but the built-in speakers are strong enough that you might not have to.
The Surface Laptop 3 is compatible with Wi-Fi 6, which means it can connect to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks and take advantage of additional speed if you have a Wi-Fi 6 router. Its connection speeds were fast enough just through normal use, but I also ran a speed test.
The results of the speed test were impressive, with a maximum download speed of 596Mbps and an upload speed of 63Mbps. As a baseline, my desktop measured a maximum download of 600Mbps via a wired connection at the same time.
Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop 3 doesn’t include an Ethernet port, so you’re stuck with the wireless connection unless you want to buy an adapter and dedicate one of the USB ports to that function.
The Surface Laptop 3 has one of the best webcams I’ve seen in a laptop, and especially in a laptop this size and at this price point. It includes a 720p HD webcam that generates a remarkably clear picture that’s perfectly suitable for professional teleconferencing. I didn’t notice any issues with distorted color or graininess, and I was impressed with its overall performance.
The camera also supports Windows Hello, which is a nice touch. While I would have liked it if this laptop came with a fingerprint sensor, some of that blow is softened by the ability to use Windows Hello to log in.
The Surface Laptop 3 has one of the best webcams I’ve seen in a laptop
The battery life in the Surface Laptop 3, at least in the configuration I tested, is excellent. I was able to run it all day in a mixture of standby and regular use when away from the office without ever having to stop and charge. It also has a fast charge feature that brings it up to about 80 percent charge in an hour, if your daily usage is more power-intensive than mine.
In addition to just using the Surface Laptop 3 normally over the course of a week, I also ran a couple complete-drain tests, running the laptop from 100 percent to shutdown. For these tests, I set the performance to high, screen brightness to 50 percent, connected to a 5GHz Wi-Fi network, and streamed YouTube videos. When operated under those conditions, I saw about 12 hours of battery life on average, which isn’t too far from the 11.5 hours Microsoft advertises.
It’s important to note that my test unit had a core i5 processor and integrated graphics, which will naturally sip power compared to a more powerful i7 processor and discrete Nvidia graphics. If you opt for a more powerful configuration, the trade-off is that the battery will probably drain faster.
The Surface Laptop 3 comes with Windows 10 Home 64-bit, and it’s just about as pure a Windows installation as you’re likely to find. When attempting to free up space during my performance tests, there was very little worth getting rid of. It does come with a trial of Microsoft Office and a few apps like Skype pre-installed, but that’s about it. The start menu does have a few tiles that feature games, but they’re just links to the store and aren’t actually pre-installed.
If the thought of clearing bloatware off a brand new laptop makes your skin crawl, the Surface Laptop 3 might be just the device you’ve been looking for.
With an MSRP of $1,000 and a street price around $899, the Surface Laptop 3 configuration that I tested is a bit on the expensive side. Take a look at the mid- and high-end configurations, and the pricing just climbs higher. You can definitely find a laptop with similar specifications for less, but that laptop won’t be a Surface Laptop 3.
That is to say, this is an expensive piece of hardware, but it’s also a high-quality device with a fantastic display, comfortable keyboard, big, accurate touchpad, one of the best webcams I’ve seen built into a laptop, and you won’t find that Alcantara option anywhere else.
Microsoft faces a lot of competition in this category, and some of the stiffest comes from HP’s impressive Spectre x360 line. Like the Surface Laptop 3, you can get the Spectre x360(view on Amazon) in both 13-inch and 15-inch form factors, and in a variety of hardware configurations. For as close of an apples to apples comparison as possible, we’ll look at the HP Spectre x360 13-ap0045nr, which can be had direct from HP for $1,000. That puts it right in line with the $1,000 MSRP of the Surface Laptop 3 I tested.
In raw specifications, these laptops are fairly similar. They both feature 8th generation Core i5 processors and integrated graphics, and they both have 8GB of RAM. The HP comes with a larger 256GB SSD.
Where the Surface Laptop 3 has an understated metal design with a few choices of color, the Spectre x360 is a two-tone gem-cut beauty that really stands out in a crowd. The dimensions of the HP are more in line with a standard laptop thanks to its 16:9 aspect ratio, which results in a smaller deck. The touchpad is decently sized but strangely off-center, and of course, there’s no option to replace cold metal with soft Alcantara.
Where the HP shines is its 360-degree hinge and the inclusion of an HP Active Pen. The display of the Surface Laptop 3 looks better to my eyes, but you can actually use the HP as a tablet if you want.
The choice between these two laptops is ultimately too close to call, and it really comes down to personal preference. If you’re a fan of the 3:2 aspect ratio, the Alcantara fabric option, and prize a prettier screen higher than tablet functionality, then the Surface Laptop 3 is a strong contender.
You get a beautiful screen, comfortable keyboard, Alcantara fabric, and decent performance even at the minimum configuration.
The Surface Laptop 3 isn’t for everyone, but it’s a fantastic laptop that has a lot going for it. It faces strong competition from HP and others, but the combination of a fantastic PixelSense display, a comfortable keyboard and massive touchpad, great touchscreen controls, and a variety of configurations make it a worthwhile option. If you’ve been looking for a smaller laptop with a screen that’s a bit taller than the average, or you’re just craving a clean Windows 10 install without a nightmare of bloatware to wade through, this is the laptop you’ve been seeking.