The Surface Laptop 4 Is Great, But Ultimately Doomed

Apple's M1 chip has all the advantages

Key Takeaways

  • Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 scores well in battery life and performance.
  • But the identically priced MacBook Air is faster and lasts longer.
  • Apple's M1 chip makes the value of future Windows laptops questionable.
Surface Laptop 4 on a bed of flower petals

Lifewire / Matthew S Smith

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 is among the best Windows laptops you can buy right now, but that's not enough to save them.

I gave the Surface Laptop 4 a strong score in my review for Lifewire. Its battery life, performance, and build quality are excellent, especially for a laptop with a 13.5-inch display. The Laptop 4 is great for travel, but powerful enough to handle photo editing, AI upscaling, and programming. It’s a great laptop by any measure.

Yet my praise is dulled by an unavoidable downside. For all its perks, I can’t recommend the Surface Laptop 4 over Apple’s MacBook Air.

The Surface Laptop 4 Is Fast. The MacBook Air Is Faster.

I tested the Surface Laptop 4 using the GeekBench 5 processor benchmark. The entry-level model I reviewed, powered by a six-core AMD processor, hit a multi-core score of 5,448. 

That’s excellent! The new entry-level Surface Laptop 4 is roughly four and a half times quicker in this benchmark than the original entry-level Surface Laptop with an Intel Core m3-7Y30 dual-core processor, released in 2017. 

Surface Laptop 4 closed on a bed of flowers

Lifewire / Matthew S. Smith

Notebookcheck, which reviewed a Laptop 4 15-inch with the optional eight-core Ryzen 7 processor, saw a GeekBench 5 multi-core score of 7,156. That’s competitive with the Ryzen 7 2700 processor in my gaming PC. 

There's just one problem: the MacBook Air is faster. GeekBench 5 shows the base MacBook Air can defeat the upgraded Surface Laptop 4 in both single and multi-core tests. The $999 MacBook Air trounces the $999 Surface Laptop 4 I reviewed, exceeding its multi-core performance by over 35%. It’s a similar story in graphics, where Apple’s M1 chip is ranked above Radeon RX Vega 11, the best version of Radeon graphics found on AMD’s Ryzen chips.

Apple’s M1 Delivers The Best of Both Worlds

If the MacBook Air is faster than the Surface Laptop 4 in all workloads, even at the base $999 price point, why buy the Laptop 4?

In the past, there was an easy answer: battery life. AMD and Intel processors with more cores and faster clock speeds would use more power. When I reviewed Dell’s 2018 XPS 13, for example, I noted the Core i5 model lasted three hours longer than the top-tier Core i7 variant. This trade-off remains common in Windows laptops. The slowest models typically last longest on a charge, while gaming laptops can consume massive batteries in under three hours.

MacBook Air on a desktop

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

Apple’s M1 doesn’t ask for compromise. In my testing, the Surface Laptop 4 lasted no longer than nine hours on a charge, and seven or eight was typical. Jeremy Laukkonen, reviewing the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) for Lifewire, saw 12 hours of endurance. 

To make matters worse for Surface, Max Tech’s comparison of the Laptop 4 and MacBook Air found the Air has a larger lead in performance when on battery power. 

The MacBook Air is fanless, too, so it’s always silent. The Surface Laptop 4 isn’t loud for a Windows laptop, but it can make a racket when pushed hard.

Windows Is The Only Reason To Buy A Windows Laptop

So, why buy the Surface Laptop 4?

The only good answer is Windows. Around 75% of all PCs worldwide use Windows. That, however, is a big decrease from Windows’ absolute dominance at the turn of the millennium. And as Windows’ desktop market share has weakened, MacOS's has surged. Windows is still important, yes, but many shoppers are willing and able to ditch it.

They’re doing exactly that. Seven of Amazon’s top 25 best-selling laptops are now M1 MacBook variants. Gartner’s Q1 2021 PC shipments report credited Apple with a stunning 111.5% increase, surging past Acer to grab the fourth spot worldwide. 

Windows, itself, lacks direction. Microsoft continues to release updates, but its attempts to add new features, like Continuum and Windows Mixed Reality, have failed to take off. Some features, like Cortana, are all but abandoned. 

And Apple is just getting started; newer, faster chips are expected to power a redesigned MacBook Pro in late 2021. This will doom high-end Windows laptops to fight over shoppers who, for whatever reason, have no choice but to stick with Windows.

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