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It can often feel like you need a degree in advanced mathematics and three years of training before you can decode the model number of a laptop. Microsoft, however, are keeping things blissfully simple – yes, the Surface Laptop 3 is indeed a laptop, in Microsoft’s Surface range, and the third iteration.
But what do you actually get? The Surface Laptop series is an ultrabook that packs high end specs into a slim package, but apart from the odd improvement here and there, it isn’t a wild diversion from the previous iteration. It is though, without question, the best Surface Laptop yet.
What we like about the Surface Laptop 3
Let’s start with the design of the Surface Laptop 3. It’s reassuringly slim, yet still has a solid feel to the build. You get the impression that the odd knock or bump, or even an accidental trip to the floor, won’t bother this laptop too much. Please note that we didn’t hurl it around our office during our hands-on time, but we feel like we probably could have done, if we’d wanted to.
Available in two different finishes, buyers can opt for metal or Alcantara, the felt-like material that has been the calling card of the Surface line-up thus far.
The new line-up also includes, for the first time, a larger, 15-inch model, alongside the standard 13.5-inch model.
Surface Laptop 3 specifications
The 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 3 starts with an Intel Core i5 processor (10th generation, naturally). The base model comes with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, although the series is expandable up to an Intel Core i7 processor, with 16GB RAM and 1TB storage.
The 15-inch model does things slightly differently. For starters, there’s no Intel processor here, with Microsoft choosing to kit out the larger model with AMD chips instead. This range is available with either the AMD Ryzen 5 3580U or AMD Ryzen 7 3780U. RAM wise you’re looking at 8GB, up to 32GB if your wallet can stomach it.
It’s worth noting that unlike the smaller model, the 15-inch variant comes with additional GPU power, so is better suited to gaming (to a point) and creative work.
The screen may not be able to compete with Ultra High Definition laptops, but without a side-by-side comparison, you’ll have few complaints
The display has a resolution of 2256 x 1504, giving it a lower pixel-per-inch count than the likes of the MacBook Air. It may not be able to compete with Ultra High Definition laptops, such as some of Dell’s XPS models, but without a side-by-side comparison, you’ll have few complaints. The screen is also fairly bright, which is a boon when working in a well-lit environment, such as outside.
Nobody in their right mind comes to a laptop expecting excellent audio, but the Surface Laptop 3 manages a big bold sound without submitting to distortion. It’s perfectly capable of producing enjoyable audio for your sneaky Netflix sessions, or a spot of Spotify to keep your spirits up while you work.
What's changed from the Surface Laptop 2
The Surface Laptop 3 has seen some key revisions since the previous model – in one case, quite literally. One of the small changes that we liked was the keyboard, with the keys now sporting a slight concave to their surface, rather than the flatness of the older models. This means that your fingers now naturally pool to the middle of the keys. Whether or not our words-per-minute were notably improved is anecdotal without a side by side test, but it certainly feels natural, and comfortable to type on for long periods.
Changes to the keyboard make it feel natural, and comfortable to type on for long periods
The touchpad, too, has not escaped the designer’s pen, with a healthy 20% size increase. The extra space is appreciated, and has the benefit of now feeling a lot less cramped. No more will your fingers inelegantly bump into each other like giddy children on an ice skating rink.
The late arrival of USB-C
Inexplicably, the Surface Laptop 2, released in late 2018, didn’t feature a USB-C port – an absence that Microsoft were rightly criticized for, and one it has corrected with the newest model. However, if we’re being honest, we wouldn’t have minded a few more ports to play with. Microsoft has approached the Surface Laptop 3 from the same angle as Apple does with its MacBooks when it comes to ports – design over function. Sure, the lines are smooth and it’s a smart looking thing, but designers, please feel free to pepper your devices with a few more holes so we can actually plug in our peripherals.
Laptop designers, please feel free to pepper your devices with a few more holes so we can actually plug in our peripherals.
Aside from the USB-C port, you get a USB-A port, a headphone jack, and a Surface Connect port (that’s a power port, to you and me). The good news of course is that with the addition of a USB-C port, you have another charging option, should you leave your laptop charger at home.
Oh, and one last thing about that USB-C port: it’s not Thunderbolt compatible, so you won’t get the associated speed boost when connecting compatible hardware. Maybe next year?
What We Don’t Like About the Surface Laptop 3
One of the key factors for anyone serious about laptops is battery life. We’re jonesing for the longest lasting hit of power we can get – the less time we spend tethered to the wall, the better. That’s the joy of owning a laptop, right?
Sadly, this is where the Laptop 3 falls down. Microsoft claims around 11.5 hours, but we found it to be closer to 7-8. Not terrible, but compared to the the likes of the MacBook Air, with a solid 12 hours of staying power, there’s definite room for improvement.
Microsoft claims around 11.5 hours battery life, but we found it to be closer to 7-8
Those looking to do some serious image editing or gaming will find that the Surface Laptop 3, or at least the 13.5-inch version, won’t fill that need. A lack of dedicated graphics card means that it’s up to the processor to do all the heavy lifting, so you won’t be able to edit your Oscar-threatening short film or play high-end video games. The 15-inch does pack more of a punch thanks to its AMD Radeon Vega 9 and RX Vega 11 GPU chip options, meaning that you can get more done – if you’re willing to pay for the privilege.
The Surface Laptop 3 ain’t cheap. The 13.5-inch model originally launched with an entry price point of $999, although at the time of writing, you can get it from the Microsoft store for $899. Beware, though – that’s just for the Intel Core i5 version with 128GB storage. Double that to 256GB, and you’re looking at an asking price of $1,099. And if you want the all singing, all dancing, Intel Core i7 model with 16GB RAM and 1TB storage, you’ll get a buck change out of $2,200. Before you spend, check our full guide to the best laptops for designers to see which models (including the MacBook Pros) it's up against.
A lack of fingerprint sensor might bother some, although those who are sick of typing in their password day in day out can opt for Windows Hello facial recognition to unlock their laptop quickly and finger-free.
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