Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 review: a genuine MacBook competitor

The roster of Surface devices has grown quickly after Microsoft introduced its first machine back in 2012, and the new Surface Laptop 3 is the latest addition.

This machine is available in two different sizes – 13.5in and 15in. The smaller model is the one we’ve examined here, and in many ways it’s a better option than its bigger stablemate.

The 13.5in Surface Laptop 3 is available with prices that range between £899 all the way up to £2,114, which makes this laptop better value than the 15in model – that notebook starts at £1,079.

The premium laptop market is busy with big names that offer strong competition, though: the Dell XPS 13 costs £1,449 for a similar specification, and the Apple MacBook Air is a perennial contender that costs £1,299.

The design language of the Surface Laptop hasn’t changed – this machine is still made from stunning, milled aluminium with no seams, no screws and a smart, tapered base, and it’s still got smart, tiny touches – like the little lid overhang that allows the computer to open with one finger.

There may not be a design revolution, but the Surface still looks brilliant – easily the equal of the MacBook and the Dell.

Instead of changing the design, Microsoft has tweaked some of the aesthetic options. Last year’s burgundy has been binned; this year, the platinum, black and blue options are joined by a new gold shade. The familiar Alcantra fabric isn’t standard now, either –that soft material is only available on the blue and platinum models, with aluminium used elsewhere. It’s more visual versatility than rivals. The MacBook comes in space grey, gold and silver, while the Dell’s available in silver, white or gold.

This new Surface weighs just under 1.3kg and is 14.5mm thick – virtually identical to the MacBook and a little thicker than the Dell. We’re talking about fine margins here, though: it’s still an incredibly slim, light laptop. Build quality is exceptional, too. This machine is strong enough to survive life on the road, although a protective sleeve is a good idea just to avoid any scuffs or scratches.

The only notable external change is the omission of mini-DisplayPort. Microsoft has swapped this outdated connection for USB Type-C, which is more useful – it can charge accessories, connect to other devices and power external displays. It’s joined here by a full-size USB 3.1 port.

Both rivals include Thunderbolt 3, though, and the Surface doesn’t. That’s a mistake, because it means you don’t get Thunderbolt’s better bandwidth – so you can’t run multiple monitors, charge beefier accessories or use external GPUs or desktop docks.

Nevertheless, We’re still impressed with the Surface Laptop 3 design: it might not have changed much, but it still looks and feels fantastic – as good as the MacBook and better than the XPS 13.

Microsoft’s keyboard is the best on the market. The buttons are large, with a slight concave shape that holds fingers comfortably, and they’ve got 1.3mm of travel – more than the shallow butterfly switches on the MacBook, and enough to provide a real sense of movement.

The buttons are light, which makes it easy to type quickly for long periods, and the buttons don’t feel weak or hollow – instead, they’re solid and well made. The machine’s build quality helps, too, because it means the buttons hammer down into a robust base.

It’s better than the MacBook keyboard, which feels like it’s barely moving – and it’s more tactile and comfortable than the Dell’s chiclet unit. We’d be happy to type away on the Surface for hours and hours. The touchpad is 20 per cent larger this year, and it’s a glass device with full gesture support. It’s a pleasure to use.

As before, the Surface display uses a 3:2 aspect ratio rather than the 16:9 ratio used on rivals – so this panel is taller than the MacBook and Dell efforts. It’s a double-edged sword. You’ve got more vertical space for working with documents and web browsers, but more obvious letterboxing when watching films.

The 2,256 x 1,504 resolution and 13.5in diagonal deliver a density level of 201ppi. That’s high, and it means that the screen is crisp enough for photo work, web browsing and media duties – but it’s not as good as the MacBook, which is a little sharper, and it’s not as high as the Dell’s 4K options.

Quality levels are exceptional. The panel has top-tier colour accuracy, high contrast and enough brightness to work well inside and outdoors. Its colour temperature is great, and it rendered the sRGB colour gamut with aplomb. In virtually every benchmark, it’s fantastic. The screen makes photos, movies and games pop with vibrancy, and it’s easily got enough quality to handle photo work. The only issue is that this panel supports the sRGB colour space but not DCI-P3 – the colour space used for some design and HDR tasks.

The speakers are fine, too, with plenty of volume alongside a crisp, clear mid-range and a snappy high-end. There’s not much bass, but these speakers are easily good enough for background music, podcasts and video on the go.

The Surface deploys new Intel 10th Gen processors with Core i5-1035G7 and Core i7-1065G7 models available depending on price. The model we’ve reviewed has the Core i7 processor. It’s got four cores with Hyper-Threading, and it runs at 1.3GHz with a Turbo peak of 3.9GHz – so it dynamically adjusts speeds depending on workload. In this model it’s paired with 16GB of memory, a 256GB SSD and Intel’s Iris Plus graphics.

It’s two steps ahead of the MacBook, which still relies on dual-core Intel 8th Gen processors. The Dell is a tougher challenge: that machine has 10th-Gen hardware, too, and it has a six-core chip with a higher Turbo speed but with more conservative boosting.

In Geekbench tests the Surface returned single- and multi-core results of 5,312 and 17,409 points – scores that outpace both rivals. That’s around 1,000 points better than the MacBook in the single-core test – and about 10,000 points ahead in the latter benchmark.

The Surface and Dell machines are closer, although the Surface takes a tiny lead in Geekbench and in some games. It’s a good bill of health for Microsoft’s machine. We’ve used the Surface Laptop 3 for web browsing with loads of tabs, for running multiple Office applications simultaneously, for watching movies and even for low-intensity Photoshop work – and the Surface handled it all.

The Iris integrated graphics chip will run games like League of Legends, Overwatch and World of Warcraft at 1080p, too, although you may have to dial back some settings for smooth gameplay. For these kinds of everyday tasks the Surface is superb – just as good as the Dell, and far better than the MacBook.

The Surface’s chip is still a modest part, though, so it won’t be able to handle high-end photo-editing or video processing, and it’ll struggle with running lots of work tools at once. If you’d like to save cash, the Core i5-1035G7 is a good option – that chip still has the power for everyday browsing and Office tasks, although you’ll have to cross basic photo-editing off the list.

The Intel options inside the 13.5in Surface are also better than the AMD chips inside the 15in Surface, with faster scores in Geekbench. The specification is rounded out by a fast SSD and by future-proofed WiFi 6. The former component keeps the machine feeling snappy, and the latter serves up rapid wireless connectivity.

Battery is one area where the Surface is middling. In a low-intensity work benchmark with the screen at half-brightness the Microsoft laptop lasted just short of 12 hours, but upping the brightness saw that result fall to just over eight hours.

In the office, you’ll probably make it through a full day unless you’re hammering the components – but you’re only going to handle the commute if you tone down the screen and run less-intensive tasks.

In video-playback tests at full- and half-brightness the Surface lasted for ten hours and nearly 13 hours. The Dell XPS 13 with its energy-sapping 4K screen managed a whopping 12 hours in a video playback test, and you’ll get several more from the Dell’s 1080p variants – expect 15 hours at work and when handling media. The MacBook, meanwhile, matched the Microsoft when it came to battery life.

There’s one boon when it comes to the Surface’s less than top-notch battery: it can charge to nearly 80 per cent of its capacity in an hour.

Verdict

Microsoft hasn’t made wholesale changes to the Surface laptop, but it didn’t need to – the subtle upgrades work well and the machine remains superb. It’s still one of the best-looking laptops available, with MacBook-matching design in a wider range of colours. It’s still light and sturdy, and the screen is fantastic.

The keyboard is one of the best we’ve ever used, and the trackpad is responsive. The addition of USB-C is welcome, and internally the Surface outpaces the MacBook and is a viable option for mainstream work.

It’s not perfect, though. Battery life is middling – the Dell is better in that regard. The lack of Thunderbolt is disappointing, and you can’t get all of the colour options at entry-level prices.

The Surface’s value is inconsistent, too. Its entry-level prices undercut both rivals, and the machine we’ve reviewed is cheaper than an equivalent Dell. However, increasing the SSD size increases its price dramatically. We’d seriously consider whether a 512GB or 1TB drive is necessary on a mainstream machine with so much cloud storage readily available.

In most departments, though, the Surface Laptop 3 is impressive – and, thanks to its extra CPU power and smaller design, this 13.5in model is better than the 15in version.

If you want OS X, then the MacBook remains reasonable. If you want longevity, the Dell is better. But if you want a fantastic, premium Windows experience, the Surface Laptop 3 is the best option right now.

The Surface Laptop 3 is on sale with prices starting at £879

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