Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review: it’s a bigger Surface Laptop

The 15-inch version of the Surface Laptop 3 represents the biggest change to the clamshell laptop since Microsoft launched the first Surface Laptop in 2017. And yet, it is remarkably similar to the prior models, despite the fact that it’s bigger and has a completely different processor.

That similarity has made it difficult to determine who exactly this version of the Surface Laptop 3 is for. It’s not as light and portable as the 13.5-inch Laptop 3, Acer’s featherweight Swift 5, or LG’s Gram 15. At the same time, it’s not nearly as powerful or capable as many other premium-priced 15-inch laptops, such as Microsoft’s own Surface Book 2, the Dell XPS 15, Apple’s MacBook Pro, or any number of 15-inch gaming laptops.

After spending about a week testing it, I think the $1,199 ($1,699 as tested) Surface Laptop 3 15 is for someone who likes the design and build of the other Surface Laptop models, but feels too constrained by the 13.5-inch screen. Or maybe it’s for someone who really likes a 15-inch 3:2 aspect ratio screen, but doesn’t want to lug around the monster that is the Surface Book 2.

Aside from its strange positioning among laptops currently available, the Surface Laptop 3 15 does have several excellent qualities. But it also has a few areas that could use improvement.

Editor’s Note: This review is specifically focused on the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. We’ll have a separate review of the 13-inch model soon.

Good Stuff

  • Excellent keyboard and trackpad
  • Sturdy build quality
  • Good performance for everyday productivity tasks
  • 3:2 aspect ratio screen is great for productivity
  • Relatively little bloatware out of the box
  • Windows Hello facial login works great

Bad Stuff

  • Only two USB ports
  • No Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • Below average battery life
  • No SD card slot
  • Matte black model gets full of fingerprints almost immediately
  • Struggles editing and even playing back 4K video

If you’ve seen the first two Surface Laptops, you’re going to find the Surface Laptop 3 15 very familiar looking. It is essentially the same design, just stretched to larger dimensions. It’s less than 15mm thick at its thinnest point and tips the scales at 3.4 pounds. That’s not very heavy, especially for a 15-inch laptop, but it’s over half a pound more than the 13-inch model, and a pound or more heavier than LG’s Gram 15 or the Acer Swift 5. Still, it’s a very easy laptop to carry around all day, and it slips into my backpack or shoulder bag with ease.

The Laptop 3’s chassis is entirely aluminum – not the magnesium that you’ll find on the Surface Pro – and its build quality is a solid as you’d expect from a premium-priced laptop. There’s little no chassis flex when I pick up the laptop with one hand, and I can open the screen with just a single finger. The 15-inch model has a fully aluminum top deck – no fancy Alcantara fabric here – which makes it feel much like any other aluminum laptop. I miss the soft touch of the fabric cover under my palms when I type, but if you had concerns about the fabric wearing over time, that problem is eliminated here.

Unfortunately, while the black color on my review unit looks striking out of the box, it accumulates fingerprints almost immediately, which makes it look greasy and gross. I’ve resorted to calling the finish Fingerprint Matte when describing it to my coworkers.

One interesting difference with the fully aluminum deck that I didn’t notice on prior Surface Laptop models is something called “touch current” when the laptop is plugged in and charging. When the Laptop 3 is plugged in, I can run my fingers over the deck and feel something like a vibration effect. Microsoft says this is normal behavior and that its internal standards for touch current are stricter than the regulatory standards. It’s not a bad thing, just weird.

Microsoft also says it has done some work to make this generation easier to service and upgrade than prior Laptop models, but that doesn’t mean you can just crack the Laptop 3 open and get to upgrading. The only part that actually can be upgraded is the SSD and Microsoft says it’s not user-replaceable – you’ll have to take the Laptop 3 to an authorized service center to get the work done.

The 15-inch model’s larger size provides two noticeable benefits over the 13.5-inch Laptop 3. The obvious one is you get a bigger screen: a 15-inch, 2496 x 1664-pixel touchscreen with support for Microsoft’s Surface Pen (not included). The other benefit is a larger touchpad below the keyboard.

Like the 13-inch Laptop 3, the screen on the 15-inch model is excellent. It’s bright, with great viewing angles and it has the Surface-signature 3:2 aspect ratio that makes productivity work much easier than on 16:9 screens. I also appreciate the fact that it’s a touchscreen, even if this isn’t a 2-in-1 convertible and it’s not the primary way I interact with the laptop. Being able to casually reach up and tap the screen is a convenience I miss when I use laptops that lack touchscreens.

By far, my favorite part of the Laptop 3 is its keyboard. This is perhaps the most comfortable laptop keyboard I’ve ever typed on, with excellent key spacing, travel, and feedback. I hate to call something perfect, but at the same time, I can’t think of a single way Microsoft can make this keyboard any better than it already is. Apple could learn a lot here.

The Laptop 3’s touchpad is also very impressive. It’s large and smooth, with a glass finish and excellent gesture and tracking support. It has no issues with palm rejection and is perhaps the best touchpad experience on any Windows laptop right now. Apple’s MacBook Pro 15 still takes the crown for the largest touchpad you can get, but there’s nothing to complain about with the Surface Laptop 3’s touchpad.

For I/O, the Laptop 3 has a single USB-A port, a single USB-C port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect charging port. This is the first year the Laptop has included a USB-C port, which replaces the old Mini Display port on prior models. You can use it to charge the laptop, connect an external display, or transfer data at USB 3.2 speeds (10Gbps). But it doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, which means you can’t use even faster external storage drives, a Thunderbolt 3 docking station, or an external graphics card. Virtually every other laptop at this price point includes Thunderbolt 3 support and the lack of it on the Surface Laptop 3 limits what you can do with the computer, which is frustrating.

Also missing is an SD card slot, which would have been a nice addition to the 15-inch version. Overall, the port selection on the Laptop 3 is quite poor, even if it’s better than prior Surface Laptop models.

Under the hood is where the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 separates itself from the other Surface Laptops. Instead of the typical Core i5 or i7 Intel processors, the 15-inch model has an AMD Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 chip with up to 32GB of RAM. It’s the first Surface product with an AMD processor and one of the few laptops you can even get with an AMD chip. Like the Intel chips in other thin and light laptops, these AMD processors are four-core 15W chips, with the main difference between them being a slightly higher clock speed on the Ryzen 7.

Microsoft has boasted about its customized graphics chips that come packaged with the Ryzen processors that have an extra core to provide more power than you typically get with integrated graphics. But that doesn’t mean the Surface Laptop 3 15 can play AAA games or handling graphically intensive tasks such as video editing.

The unit I’ve been testing has a Ryzen 5 processor with Vega 9 graphics and 16GB of RAM. It has plenty of power for productivity tasks, such as juggling dozens of tabs, working in Office, switching between virtual desktops, and using apps like Slack and other modern office mainstays. But when I tried to play games on the Laptop 3, it quickly hit its limit, and couldn’t provide playable framerates at even low resolutions and detail levels in games like Battlefield V, Star Wars Battlefront II, or even Overwatch. The one outlier in the games I tested was Forza Horizon 4, which managed to be quite playable at 1920 x 1200 resolution and low details. It’s clear that Microsoft and AMD worked together to optimize the game as best they could for this hardware. But for the most part, a gaming laptop the Surface Laptop 3 is not.

Likewise, the Surface Laptop 3 is not the right choice if you’re looking for a video editing laptop. I attempted to export a 5 minute and 33 second video from Adobe Premiere Pro in 4K H.264 resolution and the estimated time to completion was over three hours. After 51 minutes it had completed just 25 percent of the export and I gave up. For comparison, an old 2016 MacBook Pro with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and an AMD Radeon Pro 450 graphics card was able to export the same video out of Premiere in 17 minutes and 55 seconds.

The other thing the Laptop 3 surprisingly struggled with was playing 4K 60FPS video from YouTube. Whether I used Chrome or Microsoft’s own Edge browser, the video would stutter and choke, despite the fact that I had plenty of bandwidth to stream it. I can’t remember the last laptop I tested that couldn’t play back 4K video smoothly from YouTube, and it’s beyond disappointing to see a brand-new premium computer struggle with it. For what it’s worth, the 13.5-inch Laptop 3, which has an Intel processor, had no trouble playing 4K 60FPS YouTube videos on the same Wi-Fi network.

None of these results are terribly surprising (aside from the 4K video playback issues) when you consider the AMD processors in the Laptop 3 are relatively low power (15W, compared to the 45W chip in the MacBook Pro) and a current 15-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,200 more than the Laptop 3 15. But hopefully they provide some context as to what this laptop is capable of and what it is not.

Despite its relatively low power, the Surface Laptop 3 15 doesn’t have exceptional battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours of usage, but its tests are with the display at a dim 150 nits. At a more practical brightness level, with the brightness slider set to about 50 percent, I’ve been getting less than six hours of battery life on average while using the Laptop 3 for my typical daily workload of lots of browser tabs, Slack, email, Twitter, Word, and other productivity apps across a handful of virtual desktops. That’s less than I typically expect from 13-inch thin-and-light laptops, so I’m a bit disappointed with the 15-inch Laptop 3.

Fortunately, the Laptop 3 now has fast charging, so you can get up to 80 percent charge in less than an hour, according to Microsoft. In my tests I was able to get from zero to 39 percent in 30 minutes with the 65W charger that came in the box and a full charge in just over an hour with a 87W USB-C charger.

On the plus side, the Laptop 3’s fans are quiet the vast majority of the time, and even when they do kick on, they aren’t nearly as loud as a MacBook Pro’s or other more powerful laptops. The Laptop 3 remains comfortable to hold and never gets too hot, either.

If you are looking for a 15-inch laptop for productivity, writing, and other modern work-related tasks, the Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent choice, provided you don’t need all-day battery life. I really love the display’s extra size and its aspect ratio compared to other 15-inch laptops, and the keyboard and touchpad combination are the best you will find on any laptop. The Laptop 3 has the same level of fit and finish as Microsoft’s other Surface devices and it fits right in a modern workspace or coffee shop. It is an excellent thin-and-light computer for doing productivity work on.

Still, if you were hoping that the 15-inch Laptop 3 would be more than just a bigger Surface Laptop, I’m sorry to report that you’ll be disappointed. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, more powerful 15-inch laptops available, such as Apple’s MacBook Pro, Dell’s XPS 15, or even Microsoft’s own Surface Book 2. I don’t know if Microsoft needed to make a 15-inch version of the Surface Laptop, but it did, and it mostly did a good job with it.

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