Final Words

The Surface Laptop was a fine device when it launched, and the Surface Laptop 2 improved it quite a bit with the addition of quad-core processors. But both had their success hampered somewhat by some bad design decisions, which Microsoft has thankfully corrected with the Surface Laptop 3 family.

Perhaps the most notable change here is the material itself. The Surface Laptop 2's Alcantara keyboard deck was an interesting choice: it offered an extremely comfortable typing surface, but some customers were concerned about its durability, and others were likely turned off by the look of it. For the Surface Laptop 3, Microsoft is providing more choice to their buyers by offering models with the fabric and without, at least on the 13.5-inch version. And for the 15-inch model, which is what we've reviewed today, it is only offered with an anodized aluminum finish.

The other major drawback with the original design was the lack of connectivity. Both the Surface Laptop and Surface Laptop 2 offered just a single USB port, which wasn't going to be sufficient for everyone. For the Surface Laptop 3, Microsoft has finally heeded requests to change this, and dropped the Mini DisplayPort connection for a USB-C port (with DP alt mode). This is a small change, but one that is going to be welcome practically every single time, and significantly widens Microsoft's audience.

The addition of a USB-C port not only adds expansion, it also offers a second, non-proprietary way to charge the laptop, which is going to be useful to many people. If there is one outstanding concern it's that we still miss out on Thunderbolt 3 support here, but while that would also be a welcome addition to a premium laptop offering for 2019, for most people it’s less of a concern than just getting a USB-C port to begin with.

Ultimately, by addressing those two original design decisions and adding a new, larger 15-inch offering, the Surface Laptop 3 lineup is in a much better place than its predecessors, and a much larger range of users are going to find it worth their consideration.

The Surface team continues to make some of the nicest devices around, and the Surface Laptop 3 upholds that tradition. The attention to detail on items like having every single device tested to ensure the initial opening of the laptop can be done with one finger is the kind of fanaticism not normally seen in the laptop space. The entire design is sleek, smooth, and light, and the color options are a welcome way to add even more choice for consumers.

By sticking with a 3:2 display, the proportions of the laptop are just better, and Microsoft has nailed the weight balance when held in any orientation. The added vertical of the display also lets you get more done with the device.

Now to discuss arguably the biggest decision Microsoft made with this generation of Surface Laptop: tapping AMD for their AMD Ryzen Microsoft Surface Edition processors. Only found on the consumer 15-inch models, this is a significant departure from prescient for Microsoft, and it comes at a bit of a strange time in terms of product cycles. Still, it's a partnership that Microsoft and AMD have said will take place over multiple years, so Microsoft is clearly planning for the long-term here.

There is no doubt that AMD’s APUs offer significantly more graphics performance than any of the previous generation of Intel U series chips could muster. Microsoft and AMD have even gone one step further with the Surface Edition APUs, adding even more GPU grunt by enabling another CU within the integrated Vega GPU. This cements the relationship. AMD gets to power a premium device, and Microsoft gets to keep a bit of the best to themselves.

What AMD has given Microsoft, in turn, is a potent processor. AMD has a stout GPU in Vega, which works surprisingly well at 15-Watts. But the Zen+ CPU core doesn’t offer the same CPU performance of even the previous gen Core-U series from Intel, leaving the Surface Laptop 3 trailing a bit in CPU tests. Meanwhile, platform power is a mixed bag; Microsoft and AMD have made some incredible strides here in bringing down AMD's platform power, but on the whole even the highly tuned 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is hobbled a bit by a higher platform power draw that eats away at battery life. Even with Microsoft's help, there's only so much AMD can do with their current-generation silicon, especially without LPDDR4X support.

The wildcard for AMD here is that they have finally gotten a Ryzen Mobile APU into a highly visible, premium notebook right as Intel is launching their 10nm Ice Lake processors. Intel is promising better graphics on Ice Lake, along with better CPU performance, all while using less power. This is an issue to tackle in greater depth at another time, but the AMD-powered 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 will be competing with other 15-inch Ice Lake laptops, as well as the Intel-powered 13.5-inch model. So Ryzen and the Surface Laptop 3 will be facing some stiff competition.

Meanwhile, I have to make note of the WI-Fi situation. For all the Surface Laptop 3 gets right, it's coupled with a sub-par Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) solution. We've seen much better Wi-Fi 5 performance in other laptops, never mind the fact that laptops using Intel's latest wares are coming with Wi-Fi 6 support.

It is still good to see Microsoft pairing with AMD on a premium device. There is no doubt that there are customers who would prefer the AMD version, and any improvements the Surface team get added to Windows to further improve the AMD experience are going to benefit all AMD powered laptops. And, looking at the longer term picture, AMD has been providing plenty of headlines this year thanks to their Zen 2 core. So with this set to be a multi-year partnership, the future looks bright for AMD in the laptop space.

Moving back to the Surface Laptop 3, there are some other subtle changes to highlight. Microsoft has moved from soldered-down BGA SSDs to removable M.2 drives, albeit in a 2230 form factor. This does provide the option to replace the SSD if necessary, although accessing it isn't the easiest feat (and not one Microsoft recommends for end-users). The other upshot of this change is that it lets them move back to having four lanes of PCIe data, compared to just two lanes feeding the previous BGA SSDs.

The generous trackpad works well, and is improved by the taller aspect ratio of the display, allowing it to grow along both axis rather than being awkwardly wide. The new keyboard also works well, offering a bit of a quieter typing experience, and still offering great key feel, despite having slightly less throw than the Surface Book 2's keyboard.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to ship excellent displays in all of their devices. The 200 pixels-per-inch density of this Surface Laptop 3 matches the pixel density of the smaller 13.5-inch unit, all the while achieving excellent color accuracy out of box. It doesn’t have quite the display of the Surface Book 2, which is one of the best on any laptop, but it still holds its own.

Overall, the Surface Laptop 3 15 is a great laptop. It keeps all of the design cues of the smaller generation and just makes it a bit bigger, retaining the same thin & light design and keeping it easy to travel with. Microsoft has forged a solid partnership with AMD, and the Ryzen APU that's at the heart of this laptop brings with it great GPU performance and good CPU performance, even though it is at the cost of overall battery life. Plus, if you have been eyeing up the previous generation Surface Laptop 2 and were held up due to the USB situation – or uncertainty about the Alcantara keyboard deck – the new generation does offer fixes there, which makes the Surface Laptop 3 a much more palatable device.

As is typical with Surface devices, the pricing is as premium as the product though. The AMD-powered 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 comes in at $1199, just $200 less than a similarly configured Surface Book 2. AMD got into a premium device, but for customers to attain it, you will need to step up to the premium price level as well.

 
Wireless, Audio, Thermals, and Software
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  • evernessince - Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - link

    You make it sound like last gen Intel mobile products are such a step back when in fact they are identical to current products on the market and Intel's "next-gen" products as well. The performance gains have piddling at best. 8 and 9th gen products for all intents are purposes are the same architecture and nm process. You also left out the fact that an R5 mid range processor is beating some of Intel's i7 high end processors in CPU performance. Battery life could be better but have you done the calculation of performance per mAH of the battery? Or are you just assuming with considering the size of the battery and the performance being afforded? How do Intel laptops with similar performance characteristics and battery size fare? Like any laptop, battery life is dependent on more then just the chip on the device.

    Your comment is misleading, intentional or otherwise.
    Reply
  • 0ldman79 - Sunday, December 15, 2019 - link

    Nah, AMD's battery life still isn't up to par against Intel's 25th Skylake revision, not even the original release.

    AMD is kicking ass on the desktop but the mobile front is still a bit much. Intel has spent billions making laptops more efficient. They've done well. They got the laptop market under their thumb, even today, while they've effectively lost the performance desktop battle.
    Reply
  • The_Assimilator - Monday, October 21, 2019 - link

    Not sure why AMD had such a hard-on to get a CPU that is evidently not mobile-focused, into an extremely mobile form factor. No support for LPDDR4, no built-in WiFi, and an iGPU that isn't powerful enough to make any tangible difference to an Intel offering, just makes for a "why". Reply
  • Irata - Monday, October 21, 2019 - link

    Oh, Ryzen's iGPU does offer a tangible real life difference if the reviewer choses to include the right benchmarks and also show's the Intel iGPU results for them.

    Tech Report's and Computer Base's Ryzen 2500u review do and they show that the tangible difference is 50 to over 100% better fps, greatly better frame times, i.e. the difference between a game being playable, or not.
    Reply
  • TheinsanegamerN - Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - link

    If you have to include “the right benchmarks” to make your APU look good, your product sucks, and you are engaging in the very behavior you accuse anandtech of. Hypocritical. Reply
  • evernessince - Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - link

    Well that depends. The sample size is this review is rather small. Very small in fact. Adding more certainly wouldn't hurt. It's less about adding the right benchmarks then it is getting a more reliable dataset. If another review is showing data that more appropriately demonstrates the GPU's capability, that indicates that perhaps the test suite used here is not ideal. Reply
  • Irata - Thursday, October 24, 2019 - link

    With "the right" I mean proper benchmarks.

    One of the advantages of having a better iGPU is that it allows you to do things that you cannot do with a weaker iGPU. Casual gaming, particularly e-sports titles come to mind. Same for any GPU accelerated software.

    If you do not include any of those in a review (e.g. just compare them on the basis of surfing the web and watching a few videos), then you are hiding these advantages.

    MS segmented their surface laptops into "business" (Intel) where the better battery life is an advantage when you are using it for email, powerpoint, Word, Excel but most likely not causal gaming or content creation.

    For this you have have the AMD based consumer platform with its faster iGPU - have a look at the PC mark scores to see how it scores there. You can also check other reviews for Laptops with other Ryzen APU to see that they do offer a tangible advantage over Intel's iGPU when it comes to being able to still play a game or not.

    That advantage is paid for with lower battery life in idle / low load situations (not necessarily true for higher load), so it really comes down to what is more important to you. I know that for my work laptop, I would value the extra battery life, for a personal one the ability to do a bit of casual gaming would be worth having a shorter battery life (which is still decent, we are not talking Bulldozer here).

    So not hypocritical imho. Just pointing out that a review should include tests for what it was built for / is aimed at.
    Reply
  • m53 - Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - link

    All the benchmarks I have seen so far, the ice lake iGPU is equal or better than AMD APUs for same TDP. On the otehr hand the CPU is tangibly faster with much better battery life and connectivity (wifi6 built-in). Reply
  • Fulljack - Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - link

    Intel doesn't have built-in wifi either. current offering actually still use smaller RF module, due to Intel CNVi. I don't get why Microsoft doesn't release AMD with latest ax chipset, because Intel AX200 does works on AMD system too. Reply
  • GreenReaper - Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - link

    Surely it's because it costs more, and this is meant to be the more affordable option? Reply

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