The Surface Laptop 3 is a jack of all trades

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Mon October 21, 2019

So let's talk Surface Laptop 3. It's the latest laptop from Microsoft that keeps a traditional clamshell design, and this year the company has two variants. A 13-inch Laptop 3 that sticks with Intel processors and a 15-inch Laptop 3 that opts for an AMD Ryzen chip that was designed by both AMD and Microsoft.

At the unveiling, Microsoft was keen on talking about performance and what the 15-inch should be able to pump out.

I've been testing a stunning matte black 15-inch and it's great. There have been a few hardware bumps, but the design is sleek, and it's lighter than a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

However, like the MacBook Pro, the Laptop 3 in its 15-inch variety doesn't come cheap. It starts at $1,199 with an AMD Ryzen 5 3580U chip, 8 GBs of RAM and 128 GBs of solid-state storage. The price of the 15-inch Laptop 3 rises to $2,099 for a Ryzen 7 3780U, 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage.

Let's discuss the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.

Here's what I've been testing

Before diving into the design, performance and, most importantly, what it's like to use in the real world: Let's spill the beans on this model.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch

  • AMD Rysen 5 3580U Processor
  • 16 GBs of RAM
  • 256 GBs of storage

It's the black metal variant, but it also comes in platinum. This exact configuration costs $1,699 and is the middle tier of the 15-inch variants from Microsoft. The top of the line $2,099 model ups the processor to the Ryzen 7, keeps the RAM at 16 GB and increases the storage to 512 GB.

Move over fabric, hello matte black

Notably, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 drops the fabric (a custom alcantara blend) that the Laptop 2 made famous, and slides in matte black. More precisely, it's a metal finish that feels great.

And, while matte black can show fingerprints when the light hits it right, the Laptop 3 hides them most of the time. Notably, the design looks nice and is basically one piece. Clear of exposed seams and screws, it looks like a long rectangle of aluminum with tapered designs.

Like a binder, the thickness of the Laptop 3 dwindles toward the front, and make no mistake, it's sleek. It clocks in at just 3.4 pounds and is 14.69 millimeters thick. Branding is minimal, and that is in line with the Surface brand. There's a shiny black Microsoft logo on the top case, and the bottom has Microsoft written out with small regulatory details. It's not meant to stand out, at least with flashy logos.

But contrary to other 15-inch Windows laptops, this doesn't scream gamer. Unlike Acer or ASUS, which might add piped LED lighting, this sits in the background with a sleek design, allowing you to dive right into work. In fact, this review was written on the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.

The matte finish also makes it easy to carry the Laptop 3, although, for someone buying this, I'd recommend a sleeve to prevent scratches. There are four legs made out of rubber material to ensure no scratching on the bottom panel.

There's a core lengthwise vent on the bottom that faces the front. You'll notice it kick up a little with some high task processes like gaming in Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto 5, massive Excel sheets or when there are about 40 open Chrome tabs.

Once you open the laptop, you'll be presented with the 15-inch PixelSense display that keeps bezels around, all sized, a terrific keyboard and a larger trackpad. Microsoft is following Apple here, so a bigger trackpad is a win for everyone. Bezels on a laptop don't bother me too much, but it feels like wasted space. Yes, Microsoft kept the 3:2 ratio, which gives you room for a ton of rows and to display a lot on a 15-inch screen, but it seems like they could have stretched this a bit more.

The top bezel serves the largest purpose as it contains sensors and a front facing camera. And yes, this enables Windows Hello for a secure face unlocking experience. It worked flawlessly, and with the instant-on functionality, it's a big win.

Additionally, ports are minimal on the Surface Laptop 3. Microsoft still uses a proprietary charger on the right side, and the left side gets a headphone jack, a USB-A port and (finally, finally, finally) a USB-C port. And while it's not rated for Thunderbolt 3, I'm happy to see USB-C on a Surface. It's also arriving on the 13-inch Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Pro X. We'll have reviews on those soon.

As you might guess, I'm a happy camper with the design. I wouldn't change much. As a Surface should, the 15-inch Laptop 3 feels like a high-end computer. And while it's cheaper than a MacBook Pro, I fully believe it can go head-to-head against it on the design front.

Feels like a trusty keyboard

Typing is super important to me, as one might guess. I've had a mixed experience with Butterfly on the Mac, but the Laptop 2 sticks out as a great PC to type on. With a laptop, you're aiming for a machine that is comfortably efficient, whether it's home, in a classroom, at an office, on a train, the subway, an airplane or even a coffee shop.

While the travel (aka the keypress) is slightly reduced on the Surface Laptop 3, it's still a punchy typing experience. It's quiet, with the space bar making the most noise.

The keys are square with rounded edges, and the design doesn't taper off that much in the center. And as expected, these can easily be backlit with the touch of a key. You also get dedicated controls for volume (mute, up and down), play and pause for content, brightness, home, page up or down and a delete. There's also a power key, but you won't use it much.

The trackpad, which is 20% larger, makes a difference for playing a game of Fortnite (thank goodness for Chapter 2, right?), editing an image in Photoshop or designing your next all-star presentation. There is tap to click on the trackpad and you can also physically click the device, but don't expect it to be as quiet as the keyboard. It's not as loud as an older Windows laptop, though.

The trackpad performed well in my typical test of cutting out an image in Photoshop. The 15-inch MacBook Pro trackpad basically doubles the size of the one on this Surface and I miss how that one extends to the edges.

But you're not just limited to the keyboard or trackpad on Laptop 3.

A sharp display that you can touch

As any Windows 10 PC should be, the Laptop 3's display is a touchscreen. It supports a full 10 points of touch and even packs support for Surface Pen. Keep in mind, though, this isn't a 2-in-1, so it won't lie fully back. It's nice to quickly scroll through a webpage or an Excel sheet with just a flick of a finger.

The display is a 15-inch PixelSense with a resolution of 2,496x1,664 with 201 pixels per inch (or PPI). It's sharp and bright. I also like the 3:2 ratio, which has become a classic feature of a Surface device. It doesn't stretch content, but gives you a larger workspace. And if you're a creative who's editing photo and video, more space on a 15-inch portable machine can be crucial.

Color accuracy was on point here as well, with vivid vibrancy in test photographs and content streamed from YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and Plex. Blacks look nice as well, with strong contrast from PixelSense. It's on par with the Laptop 2 and other Surface devices.

Instant-On is terrific

One last item before we dive into the AMD Ryzen 5. Mac users probably won't be impressed, but from first open, the Laptop 3 instantly turns on. And it's really quick. You just flip open the screen and you're in. Windows Hello might have already unlocked it before you find the optimal position for your setting.

It goes back to the feeling of an ultrabook, but also in line with the idea of a how a Surface wants to let you get more done. Microsoft didn't add features that might slow you down or take a while to set up. Speeding up getting into Windows 10 on the Surface Laptop 3 is a good way to go in this direction.

How does the AMD Ryzen 5 perform?

Arguably the biggest change from Laptop 2 to Laptop 3, and specifically with the 13-inch Laptop 3 versus the 15-inch Laptop 3 is processor choice. While the 13-inch sticks with Intel Core processors, Microsoft opted for AMD Ryzen for the 15-inch Laptop 3. It's actually a custom Microsoft Surface Edition of the AMD processor. You can either get a Ryzen 5 3580U or Ryzen 7 3780U processor. I've been testing the former and find it dependable.

This laptop handled my normal tasks with ease: Browsing with both Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome with several tabs, reading through email in Outlook, using productivity apps like a CMS, light photo editing or batch creating in Photoshop. On the GeekBench benchmarking standard, my variant of the Surface Laptop 3 15-inch scored a 364 on the single-core score and 1,722 on the multi-core score. By comparison, a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage scored a 1,033 on single-core and a 4,104 on multi-core. That's a big difference, even when you consider the different operating systems.

So the Surface Laptop 3 isn't a full-fledged gaming PC, and it's also not a full graphics heavy machine for 8K rendering. But is it designed to be that? Not really, but that's not to say that I couldn't do those. I enjoyed several Fortnite games, some even on the Ultra mode for graphics. Sure, I had one or two dropped frames, but it performed well and chugged along. I was also able to play Grand Theft Auto 5, Stormworks and Tower 3D Pro. I had many more dropped frames with an intense game like GTA V, but Tower 3D Pro and Stormworks performed pretty well. I lowered the settings to make the experience more optimal.

I'm not 100% sold on Ryzen as the ultimate processor for every 15-inch laptop out there. Maybe it will become a standard for ultrabooks, but for now, it's not the solution for a gaming rig or heavy processing situations.

With more typical productivity use cases, like for a student, professional or personal use, I'd say you can comfortably get away with using it. Chrome froze up only once or twice, and I threw a lot at it with several other apps open at the same time. The Surface Laptop 3 15-inch aims to be that kind of in-between laptop. Sure, you can stretch it for gaming and other heavy processes, but it's not going to necessarily shine there.

Sound and battery life

Given that it's a fully sealed design, you might ask yourself: where does the sound come from? Well, it gives you a wide soundstage effect, since it kind of flows out. But mainly, the speakers will shoot out through the keyboard and from the gap between the display case and main panel. It's a good system, and even at 60% you can get a full audio experience. It's on par with other 15-inch laptops.

In terms of battery, Microsoft says the Laptop 3 should get up to 11.5 hours of usage. You should also be able to hit around 80% battery with 30 minutes of charging. I found that I hit the latter when I was doing light tasks or when the lid was closed. I also fell short of 11.5 hours with around 10 hours of usage that was mostly productivity. When I threw gaming at the device, like a few matches of Fortnite, it cut it down to about 8.5 hours.

The solution is to bring the charger with you. A relatively small brick is included, and you can easily throw it into your bag.

Bottom line

By all means, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is a sleek laptop for its size. And it can handle productivity tasks with ease. I especially enjoyed the typing experience on the updated keyboard. It has a sharp display with a unique-to-Surface ratio that lets you do more within the confines of a 15-inch panel.

I'm mixed on the AMD Ryzen 5, though. Even with an ample 16 GB of RAM, the benchmarking scores, along with my usage, left me lackluster when trying to push it with gaming or more intense processes. So I wouldn't go for the Laptop 3 if you want a purely creative or gaming machine. You're better off looking at the Surface Book 2, a MacBook Pro or even the 13-inch Laptop 3 with an Intel Core system.

From a price perspective though, a 15-inch starting at $1,199 is epic. You'll need to be smart with how you store your data with only 128 GB, but for productivity and personal use, the 8 GB of RAM should give you a solid experience.

For a productivity machine for light editing and light gaming, it's worth a shot. The vibrant display, sleek design and solid battery life won't disappoint for those uses.

In the end, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 feels like a jack of all trades, master of none. Not a bad thing, but not a category winning trait, either.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.