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Hands on: Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 review

Are these the new MacBook Pro killers?

What is a hands on review?
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3
Both Surface Laptop 3 models are available for pre-order now.
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

While the 13-inch model update is not much more than a spec bump with a new aluminum finish, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is one of Microsoft's 2019 show-stealers. AMD's Ryzen debut in a flagship machine cannot be overstated, particularly with specially designed silicon in tandem with Microsoft's hardware team.

For

  • New 15-inch form factor
  • AMD's flagship laptop debut
  • Excellent new aluminum finish

Against

  • No Thunderbolt 3 still
  • Rather minor 13-inch update

Microsoft went and doubled down on its traditional flagship laptop, the Surface Laptop 3, with its improved 13-inch model getting 10-nanometer (nm) Intel performance and its new 15-inch model sporting a custom-built AMD Ryzen processor (CPU).

One of these products is clearly much more exciting than the other, and it shouldn't be a surprise which one it is. That's because the 13-inch is little more than a spec refresh, while the 15-inch isn't just a new form factor but marks possibly the highest-profile appearance of AMD silicon in a laptop to date.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Microsoft went and doubled down on its traditional flagship laptop, the Surface Laptop 3.

(Image credit: Future)

Price and availability

Both Surface Laptop 3 models are available for pre-order now, and will hit store shelves starting October 22. The 13-inch model begins at $999 / AU$1,699 (about £810) – just like before – and the 15-inch model starts at an notable $1,199 / AU$1,999 (about £970).

In the 13-inch iteration, you’ll have a 10nm, quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of memory (RAM) and a removable 128GB solid-state drive. They can be upgraded to an Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM and up to a 1TB SSD.

As for the 15-incher, it comes with an AMD Ryzen 5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and that 128GB SSD. This laptop can be equipped with up to an AMD Ryzen 7 CPU, up to 32GB of RAM and as much as 512GB of SSD space.

While these laptops aren't precisely specced to match the MacBook Pro line, they're shockingly close. With that in mind, Microsoft is relentlessly undercutting its primary competition, which should make this holiday shopping season fairly interesting.

Image 1 of 9

The keyboard is squishier than one might expect.

The keyboard is squishier than one might expect.
(Image credit: Future)


Image 2 of 9

The design is basically identical to last year's model.

The design is basically identical to last year's model.
(Image credit: Future)
Image 3 of 9

The USB-C implementation is unfortunately not Thunderbolt 3, but simply USB 3.1.

The USB-C implementation is unfortunately not Thunderbolt 3, but simply USB 3.1.
(Image credit: Future)
Image 4 of 9

The design is basically identical to last year's model, except for a new aluminum finish that comes in sandstone or silver colors.

The design is basically identical to last year's model, except for a new aluminum finish that comes in sandstone or silver colors.
(Image credit: Future)
Image 5 of 9

The design is basically identical to last year's model.

The design is basically identical to last year's model.
(Image credit: Future)
Image 6 of 9

Its improved 13-inch model getting 10-nanometer (nm) Intel performance and its new 15-inch model sporting a custom-built AMD Ryzen processor (CPU).

Its improved 13-inch model getting 10-nanometer (nm) Intel performance and its new 15-inch model sporting a custom-built AMD Ryzen processor (CPU).
(Image credit: Future)
Image 7 of 9

The laptop is still measuring 12.1 x 8.8 x .57 inches.

The laptop is still measuring 12.1 x 8.8 x .57 inches.
(Image credit: Future)
Image 8 of 9

The laptop is still measuring 12.1 x 8.8 x .57 inches.

The laptop is still measuring 12.1 x 8.8 x .57 inches.
(Image credit: Future)
Image 9 of 9

The bigger touchpad is a welcome improvement.

The bigger touchpad is a welcome improvement.
(Image credit: Future)

Design and feel

When discussing about the 13-inch Surface Laptop 3, there really isn't much to say. The design is basically identical to last year's model, except for the inclusion of USB-C and a new aluminum finish that comes in sandstone or silver colors.

The former finish is certainly great, feeling both smooth and sturdy, though Microsoft is still offering the option of Alcantara fabric coating the keyboard deck as well. Still, the USB-C implementation is unfortunately not Thunderbolt 3, but simply USB 3.1, meaning we get the versatility of the port standard minus the enhanced speed that Thunderbolt 3 offers.

The laptop is still measuring 12.1 x 8.8 x .57 inches (308 x 223 x 14.51mm) and weighing 2.76 pounds (1.25kg). However, the keyboard is squishier than one might expect, with deep key travel but not a ton of punch on the return of each key press. The bigger touchpad is a welcome improvement, at the very least.

Meanwhile, the 15-inch model is only available in the aluminum finish, in your choice of sandstone, silver or black colors. The laptop feels very light for its size, weighing just 3.4 pounds (1.54kg) and measuring 13.4 x 9.6 x .57 inches (339.5 x 224 x 14.69mm).

That makes it apparently half a pound lighter than the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

All the same findings concerning the 13-inch aluminum laptop's feel as well as its keyboard apply to the 15-inch model. Basically, we would like a keyboard with slightly stronger feedback when our fingers leave the keys.

With that said, both of these laptops do have fine touch displays. Both attain a pixel density of 201 pixels per inch, or ppi as well as keep Microsoft's signature 3:2 aspect ratio. The 13-inch version stays with its  2,256 x 1,504 resolution, while the 15-inch model clocks in at 2,496 x 1,664 pixels.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

The USB-C implementation is unfortunately not Thunderbolt 3, but simply USB 3.1.

(Image credit: Future)

Performance

Microsoft, for some reason, didn't let us take the Surface Laptop 3 into a corner to put it through rigorous testing. We guess this isn't all that surprising, but we can look at the specs to get some idea of what to expect from the latest Surface Laptop.

Now, the 13-inch model is pretty standard fare. Equipped with the latest 10nm Intel Ice Lake processors – up to an Intel Core i7-1065G7 – you can expect the 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 to keep up with current Ultrabooks like the latest Dell XPS 13. And, don't forget that those Ice Lake processors pack the latest Intel Iris graphics, so you may be able to get some light gaming done on this thing. That's something we plan to test as soon as we get it into our testing labs.

The 15-inch model, however, is certainly worthy of attention. Packed with custom "Microsoft Surface Edition" Ryzen processors, we expect to see some robust performance out of this device, even if the chips are limited to a 15W power draw. Now, don't get us wrong, it's not like we're seeing the first AMD Ryzen 3rd Generation mobile processors here – the Ryzen 5 3850U and Ryzen 7 3780U are still based on the Zen+ architecture. But, because they're packing a unique graphics core, Microsoft claims that this 15-inch laptop will have more GPU power than any other laptop in its class.

What we don't know is what to expect out of these graphics. Will we be able to run AAA games at 1080p? Or, dare we dream, native resolution? Because we haven't come across these processors before, we don't know, but stay tuned to TechRadar, because we'll definitely be putting these "Microsoft Surface Edition" processors through their paces.

In addition, unlike the Intel-powered 13-inch model, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 can be equipped with up to 32GB of RAM. This, paired with the potent graphics should make this one hell of a laptop for creatives and professionals.

Microsoft is also claiming that both models of the Surface Laptop 3 will be able to last up to 11.5 hours without requiring to recharge. We're taking this with a grain of salt until we can see it for ourselves, but at least the Surface Laptop 3 comes with fast charging technology, and should be able to reach 80% battery capacity in under an hour.

Finally, just like the Surface Pro 7, the Surface Laptop 3 is compatible with 802.11ax networking, or WiFi 6. We haven't seen many routers that utilize this technology, but at least it’s heartening that the Surface Laptop 3 is future proof when it comes to networking.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

The design is basically identical to last year's model.

(Image credit: Future)

Early verdict

The 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 is a minor update over the previous iteration, but with a shiny new chassis option that drops the rubber banding around the display. USB-C is also a welcome improvement, but a half-baked one at that.

Meanwhile, the 15-inch model has us pretty excited, what with its new, custom-built processor that should put AMD on the map in mobile computing. It also has the MacBook Pro beat in terms of lightness and price.

We can't wait to fully test either laptop, but we'd be lying if we said weren't more excited for one over the other. We think you know which one we're talking about by now.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.