Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch (Core i7) review: This is the one you should buy

It boasts an all-day battery, leading-edge performance, a great screen, and a more modern design.
  • Mark Hachman (PC World (US online))
  • 02 December, 2019 22:21

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7), also known as the Surface Laptop 3 for Business, finally delivers on what Microsoft has traditionally promised with its Surfaces: a great screen, a great keyboard, and great battery life. 

The Surface Laptop 3 with Intel’s 10th-gen Core i7 chip achieves roughly 10 hours of battery life. This is more than enough to get you through your workday, and siginificantly longer than what was achieved by the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 with AMD’s Ryzen 5 CPU, or the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 with Ryzen 7. Other than the CPU and storage variations, the Surface Laptop 3 units we’ve tested are largely identical. 

We still admire what AMD has accomplished with its current Surface Edition chips, and look forward to next year when its 7nm process kicks in. For now, however, this Surface Laptop 3 with an Intel Core i7 is the only Surface Laptop 3 we’d recommend. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Ice Lake rear Mark Hachman / IDG

Our Surface Laptop 3 (Ice Lake) test unit shipped in Platinum, with a metal chassis.

Surface Laptop 3 for Business (Core i7) basic specs

  • Display: 13.5-inch (2256x1504) PixelSense; 15-inch (2496x1664) PixelSense (as tested); both touch-enabled
  • Processor: 13-inch,15-inch: quad-core Core i5-1035G7/Core i7-1065G7 (Ice Lake)
  • Graphics: 13-inch,15-inch: Iris Plus
  • Memory: 13-inch: 8GB/16GB LPDDR4x; 15-inch: 8GB/16GB/32GB DDR4 (16GB as tested)
  • Storage: 13-inch,15-inch: 128/256/512/1TB (256GB as tested)
  • Ports: USB-C, USB-A, Surface Connect, 3.5mm jack
  • Camera: 720p (user-facing); Windows Hello enabled
  • Battery: 45.8Wh (as reported)
  • Wireless: 13-inch/15-inch: 802.11ax 2x2 MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Pro (business)
  • Dimensions: 13-inch: 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 in. (14.51mm); 15-inch: 13.4 x 9.6 x 0.57 in. (14.69 mm)
  • Weight: 13-inch: 2.89 pounds; 15-inch: 3.36 pounds (tested), with charger: 4 pounds
  • Color: Sandstone (metal, as tested), Matte Black (metal), Cobalt Blue (Alcantara) and Platinum (Alcantara, metal)
  • Price: Orders start at at $1,099 at Microsoft.com; $1,599 as tested

Pay close attention to the Surface Laptop 3 prices: There’s a massive $400 bump between the SL3’s 256GB and 512GB SSD configurations. One of the new features of the Surface Laptop 3 is its ability to swap out the SSD, though it’s not exactly user-serviceable

We’ve previously reviewed the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 5) as well as the Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 7), both of which are the “consumer” versions of the Surface Laptop 3 for Business. The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 consumer models use a semi-custom “Surface Edition” of the AMD’s older Zen+ Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 chips, while the 13-inch consumer and 13-inch/15-inch Surface Laptop 3 for Business use Intel’s 10th-gen Ice Lake chips. (Full disclosure: Intel sent us this Surface Laptop 3 for review, not Microsoft.)

There are other, somewhat substantive differences between the consumer and Business models: the operating system (Windows 10 Pro, versus Windows 10 Home), as well as the wireless. Intel’s chip is paired with an 802.11ax radio, while the AMD chips come with 802.11ac. The first standard offers up more potential bandwidth (9.6Gbps vs 6.9Gbps) as well as broader wireless coverage. The Surface Laptop 3 for Business models also cost about $100 more than a similarly-spec’d consumer model at retail, though recent discounts have pushed the disparity to about $210.

alt primary Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Ice Lake Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 3 is fairly light for its size.

Chassis: The Platinum option spurns fingerprints

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 offers various chassis options that include either a solid metal finish or the now-traditional Alcantara fabric inside. We tested the Surface Laptop 3 for Business (Core i7) in the Platinum color. Though we would have preferred the lovely “Sandstone” option, it’s not available in the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.

I actually prefer the look and feel of metal under my palms. It does get a little chilly on your lap, but its conductivity surely helps with cooling. The Platinum model doesn’t soak up fingerprints like the Matte Black option does, and the keyboard and touchpad contrast nicely with the chassis itself.

Surface Laptops have always aspired to be more than just computing devices, and the sleek swathes of metal that inform the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 are lovely both to view and to hold. The Surface Laptop 3 joins other laptops in its class that have moved to lighter materials, and slimmed down their internal components. It feels surprisingly light. Even Microsoft’s 65W charger is tiny. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 fabric or metal Mark Hachman / IDG

Metal or fabric? It’s your choice, though which you choose also determines which configuration of the Surface Laptop 3 you’ll receive.

At the same time, the Surface Laptop 3 is sturdy beyond concern. It’s a standard clamshell design: It folds back to about 45 degrees off the horizontal plane like previous models, but it doesn’t go completely flat. 

The fan plays a slightly larger role

Microsoft paid attention to cooling in the Surface Laptop 3. Note that in all three Surface Laptop 3s that we reviewed, all of the Windows power settings were set to maximize battery life and presumably keep the fan noise at a minimum. In the Ryzen 5 consumer model, the fan was nearly nonexistent, though it ramped up a bit more with the Ryzen 7 model. With Intel’s Ice Lake, I noticed a faint fan hiss of quietly blowing air in the background. It blew noticeably louder under certain testing scenarios, but there were no great spikes in noise. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 venting Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 3 15-inch (Ice Lake) has a more prevalent fan than the AMD Ryzen-based models, though it’s not ubiquitous. Underneath these bumpers lie a pair of Torx screws to access the SSD—though Microsoft restricts this feature to professional repair staff. .

When the Surface Laptop 3’s fan was called to action, it turned off nearly instantly after the benchmark completed. Moreover, while the bottom of the chassis got warm, it never came close to being hot, let alone uncomfortable, even with the more powerful Core i7 in play. 

Laptop displays have improved over the years, but the Surface displays, including the one on the Surface Laptop 3, remain among the very best. Microsoft’s bold PixelSense display on the Surface Laptop 3 for Business puts out a blazing 377 lumens, more than most of its competition does. The 201 pixels-per-inch (ppi) density of the Laptop 3’s 15-inch model remains the same as the prior generation’s 13-inch model. (Microsoft didn’t offer a 15-inch Surface Laptop 2). 

At the top of the display, a tiny 720p camera sits alongside depth sensors for logging in almost instantaneously with Windows Hello. The camera doesn’t offer a built-in physical shutter, so paranoid types will have to satisfy themselves with some good old-fashioned black tape. The image quality is certainly good enough for videoconferencing, and I was logged in routinely using my face.

The camera also plays a role in the Surface Laptop 3’s new “instant-on” capability, which brightens the screen and turns on the camera in just a whisker after opening the Laptop from standby. It’s darn convenient.

Adding USB-C is a plus

The other noteworthy addition to the Surface Laptop 3 is the new, long overdue USB-C port, which replaces the miniDisplayPort found on most previous Surface devices.  (As we were writing this, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 for Business page claimed the device had a miniDisplayPort; it doesn’t.)

Because Microsoft left the USB-A port alone, you won’t have to worry about connecting legacy USB hard drives, printers, and other devices. But if you’re an existing Surface owner who bought a miniDP-to-HDMI dongle, it’s obsolete with the new product line. So, too, is Microsoft’s Surface Connector-to-USB-C dongle, or the much cheaper ecosystem of third-party chargers. But there are literally dozens of USB-C hubs to choose from, which offer much cheaper I/O options than the Surface Dock.

Because it now sports USB-C, you can charge your Surface using a USB-C charger, rather than just the Surface charger. The ubiquity of Surface chargers has been a Surface strength, as one Surface charger basically fits all Surface devices. Still, there’s even less of a chance now that you’ll be without a plug in a pinch.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Ice Lake left side Mark Hachman / IDG

A USB-C port replaces MiniDP in the latest iteration of the Surface Laptop, the Surface Laptop 3 for Business.

This Surface Laptop 3 adds quick charging: up to 80 percent charge in an hour. We’re told by Microsoft that quick charging works across USB-C, though you’ll need the same power that Microsoft’s Surface charger provides (60W) to enable this.

In testing, though, the Surface Laptop 3’s fast charging fell short of Microsoft’s expectations. We drained the battery, then gave it 60 minutes to charge. It reached 66 percent using the stock charger on the Surface Laptop 3 for Business.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Ice Lake right side Mark Hachman / IDG

The magnetic Surface Connector, a staple of the Surface line, is still embedded in the right-hand side of the chassis and serves as an I/O connection for the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7).

Microsoft chose not to add Thunderbolt functionality to the USB-C port, which means that the Surface Connector, will be your primary display output to a Surface Dock. Assuming you have a Dock, that’s not critical. One underappreciated deficiency of any Surface device to date has been the inability to output to a pair of 4K monitors, at eye-pleasing 60Hz rates. The Surface Laptop 2 struggled to meet a 4K/60Hz setup with a secondary 1080p monitor, too. For those who loved productivity, this was a big deal.

Mark Hachman / IDG

I was extremely pleased to see the Surface Edition-based Laptop 3 simultaneously output to its own display, a 4K/60 setup, and a 1080p monitor with aplomb. As Thunderbolt I/O interfaces become more common, however, it’s possible the lack of Thunderbolt may become a deficiency Microsoft will be forced to solve.

A decent keyboard and built-in speakers

Picking apart keyboard subtleties usually boils down to the spacing between the keys (the pitch), and the amount of play in the keys (the key travel). Surface keyboards are generally quite good, and the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is no exception. Spacious keys provide a comfortable landing pad, with good resiliency. The 19mm key pitch remains unchanged. The Laptop 3’s key travel feels somewhat lesser than in the Surface Laptop 2, though, and it is: 1.3mm versus 1.5mm. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Ice Lake keyboard Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft rearranged some of the Surface Laptop 3’s function keys and slightly reduced the key travel. Unlike the Matte Black model, however, the Surface Laptop 3’s Platinum chassis barely attracts fingerprints. Plus, it’s just plain pretty.

A quick digression about Surface keyboards: The Surface Book series still provides what I consider to be the premier Surface typing experience. The first-gen Surface Book’s keys (with 1.6mm key travel) extend upward from the chassis, while the top of the Laptop’s keys are level with the chassis. That means the Laptop’s keyboard actually rests in a valley of sorts, stretching your fingers a bit further. It’s a subtlety, but subtleties distinguish good keyboards from great ones.

Microsoft also inexplicably rearranged the function keys on the Surface Laptop 3’s top row, moving the backlight key to the far left and the screen brightness keys to the middle. We like the small guide bumps that were added, though.

The Surface Laptop 3’s touchpad is 20 percent larger than the previous model’s, and it’s smooth and clickable across virtually its entire surface—less than a finger’s breadth at the top. To be fair, you’ll probably unconsciously accommodate a trackpad that isn’t entirely clickable, but it demonstrates Microsoft’’s commitment to the basics. 

Microsoft generally isn’t shy about audio, either. The Surface Laptop 3 sports a pair of “omnisonic” speakers backed by Dolby Audio Premium. Wandering through Windows’ audio controls can be a bit of a scavenger hunt. Are they in the included Realtek audio app? Part of the Control Panel? Regardless, these are speakers you may actually enjoy—which is saying something for laptop speakers. The Laptop 3 produces bright midrange sound, and discernable (though underpowered) bass.

Somewhat surprisingly, Microsoft restrained itself on the Surface Laptop 3’s extraneous crapware, although worthless bits like Farm Heroes Saga make an appearance. We wish Microsoft did more with the Surface app that it bundles with Surface devices. While it provides a nice summary of the system specs and basic configuration options for the Surface Pen (sold separately), it would be great to see something a bit more comprehensive. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 surface app Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s probably time to freshen up Microsoft’s Surface app. 

Next page: Performance benchmarks and conclusion

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Performance: Exemplary

Reviewing the Core i7 version of the Surface Laptop 3 helps us complete a circle--compare it against its Ryzen-based cousins. This is the first time Microsoft has featured an AMD processor inside one of its laptops, and not only was it a mobile Ryzen, but a custom mobile Ryzen. Even better, we had were able to test both the Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 versions, and therefore make an apples-to-apples comparison: Ryzen 7 versus Core i7. 

The Intel Core i7-1065G7 microprocessor in our unit is a quad-core chip that runs at a base frequency of 1.3GHz and throttles up to 3.9GHz when needed. Intel, finally rolling on its 10th-gen, 10nm Ice Lake architecture, also claims its integrated graphics is better than AMD’s own—an area that’s traditionally been one of AMD’s strong suits. On paper, Intel probably has an edge. Or does it?

We’ve compared the Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3 to both Ryzen-driven Surface Laptop 3s. We’ve included the Surface Laptop 2 for a generational comparison, as well as competitive notebook PCs from third-party manufacturers.

Visually, we’ve used Intel blue to highlight the Ice Lake-powered Surface Laptop 3, and shades of red to show off the Ryzen-powered machines.

The Surface Laptop 3 that Microsoft shipped us maximized battery life and minimized performance using the power/performance slider available via the Windows taskbar, even plugged in. We thought that was odd until we saw the anemic battery life numbers. But we wondered how dialing up the performance, especially when plugged in, would affect the rankings. So you’ll see a red outlined bar indicating the benchmark recorded under “Best Performance” settings. It’s a lot of data, but it should help you decide whether the Surface Laptop 3 is right for you.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 power settings Mark Hachman / IDG

We tested the Surface Laptop 3 using the default settings (shown here), but also adjusted the performance to see what effect it might have.

One real-world performance note: While other reviews note that the Surface Laptop 3 struggles with 4K/60-frames-per-second playback on sites like YouTube, that appears to have been fixed, perhaps with a software update. Our Ice Lake-based Surface Laptop 3 wasn’t affected at all, 99 percent of the time. There was a tiny bit of judder at rare moments.

We test using a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, beginning with the PCMark test suite. We’ve selected three: the PCMark 8 Work and Creative tests, as well as the updated PCMark 10 benchmark. Both of the former tests are somewhat older. The Work benchmark focuses on office tasks, while the Creative benchmark leans more heavily into mainstream gaming, video editing, and photo processing. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake pcmark 8 creative Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) tops everything else we tested in this PCMark test.

We’d expect to see substantive gains over the Surface Laptop 2. Surprisingly, only the  Creative benchmark produced those results. The Work test is where Intel’s Ice Lake machine, highlighted in blue, still smokes the Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen chip. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake pcmark work Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

While the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) is about a midrange performer overall, it smokes the Ryzen PCs on our list.

UL’s updated PCMark 10 suite also proves that the Ice Lake Core i7 chip can hold its own, though the scores are somewhat clustered together. AMD’s Ryzen chips keep up here, though.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake pcmark 10 Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

PCMark 10 is a modern benchmark tracking everything from how fast apps start up, to photo editing, to spreadsheets. It’s a good overall marker for everyday PC performance, and the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) comes out on top.

One interesting bonus: Applications seem to launch fast with the Surface Laptop 3, and that might be because of the SSD Microsoft chose. Using CrystalDiskMark 4.0.3, random 4K reads (using the 4KQ32T1 setting) on the Surface Laptop 3 are a whopping 455.9 MBps, somewhat more than three times as fast as the 133.8 MBps reported by the Surface Laptop 2 and also substantially more than the 279.2 MBps reported by the Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 7). Random writes were 397.7 MBps. Sequential reads were a blistering 2,266MBps, with 1,575MBps writes. The Surface Laptop 3’s responsiveness is noticeable, and we certainly didn’t expect a sharp jump in SSD performance versus the Ryzen platform.

Maxon’s Cinebench test stresses the CPU in rendering a fixed CGI scene, showing how well the Core i7 chip performs under load. Intel’s Ice Lake Core i7 again comes out on top, showing how well the Surface Laptop 3 will perform under computationally intensive apps and utilities. Its single-core performance is 182, compared to 152 for the Ryzen 7 Surface Edition, a 20-percent increase in performance.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake cinebench Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

The Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) tops the charts again in our Cinebench test of CPU performance.

For our next benchmark, we use the open-source HandBrake tool to transcode a full-length movie into a format suitable for viewing on an Android tablet. It’s basically a prolonged CPU stress test to complement Cinebench’s quick burst. Even with the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7)’s fairly constant fan, it cools itself well enough to maintain its elevated performance levels over time. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake handbrake Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

In our HandBrake test, the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) is the quickest, though with AMD’s chips right on its heels. 

Finally, we get to see how well AMD’s mobile Vega chip performs in 3D graphics. I didn’t have time to play many games, but the benchmarks show that you should be able to play everything that we tested on the Ryzen 7 version of the Surface Pro 3, and then some. (Both Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Crackdown were playable. With Wolfenstein’s presets set to Low, the game ran at close to 60 frames per second at 720p resolution, and about 30 to 34 fps at 1080p resolutions.)

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake 3dmark sky diver Mark Hachman / IDG

The slightly higher scores exceed the Surface Laptops with Ryzen chips, but by just a handful of frames per second on most games. They’re still comparable to low-end discrete GPUs.

The 3DMark Fire Strike scores indicate that the Radeon Vega 9 GPU compares with the downclocked Nvidia GeForce MX150, which is impressive for integrated graphics, with Core i7’s Iris Plus a bit above it. 

The surprisingly heartening number is battery life. Microsoft has traditionally portrayed the Surface Laptop as an always-on, always-connected device, and the first two Surface Laptops performed quite well in this regard. Even the Ryzen 5-powered Surface Laptop 3 pushed over 8 hours. The Ryzen 7 version fell short, at 7 hours, 25 minutes. But the Surface Laptop 3 with Ice Lake came in at just about 10 hours, which is a business day and then some. 

Higher-resolution screens tend to consume more power, and pushing performance can negatively affect battery life and other performance numbers. Screen brightness also matters—we test using a comfortable 250-260 nits of luminosity, but Microsoft tests at 150 nits. This could all be offset with a larger battery. But the 45.8Wh battery inside the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is the same as on the other models, so we’d have to ascribe the battery life improvements largely to the Intel’s Ice Lake processor. 

Bottom line: worthy of an Editor’s Choice

When we began testing the Ryzen 5-powered Surface Laptop 3, our original thesis was that the Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3 might be the better bet. That has since been confirmed. Moreover, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 for Business demonstrates the battery life that we expect of a business laptop, as well as a Surface. Battery life of over eight hours is simply a fundamental requirement, and the reason that the Surface Laptop 3 for Business clears the bar and wins an Editor’s Choice award. Keep in mind that there’s nothing stopping you, as a consumer, from buying this business laptop, either!

We’d still like some clarification in the ports department. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 would have been nice, or perhaps an updated Surface Dock to take advantage of the Surface I/O port. But being able to work comfortably in a multi-monitor setup is a big improvement. 

There aren’t too many 15-inch notebook PCs that aim toward the high end of the consumer/productivity space without aiming at gamers. HP’s Spectre series is worth a hard look. The HP Spectre x360 15T featured on our performance charts offers some compelling features at an equally attractive price. Those who are more inclined toward brutal efficiency should also look at recent introductions like the Acer Swift 3 (available via Amazon)—we like the functionality Acer included for under $1,000, even if you won’t like the display and keyboard as much. Lenovo’s affordable Thinkbook 13s (available via Amazon) is also worth considering.

There’s one more interesting twist: the pricing. The Surface Laptop 3s with Ryzen chips inside are—for this generation, anyway—clearly not the best choice. Perhaps recognizing this, Microsoft discounted the consumer Surface Laptop 3s by about $200 or so in places, sweetening its deal.

While we haven’t tested every possible configuration of the Surface Laptop 3, the results with three of the top versions lead us to conclude you’ll be more than happy with a Surface Laptop 3 with either an Intel Core i5 or the Core i7 model we reviewed. This is the Microsoft Surface that we’ve been waiting for.