Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 13 review

Roland Moore-Colyer
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Say hello to one of 2019's best laptops
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Say hello to one of 2019's best laptops

A fantastic ultraportable that's almost devoid of innovation

LET'S CUT TO THE CHASE: Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3 13 is an excellent ultraportable. Hardly surprising as Microsoft took our favourite laptop from last year, tweaked a but a few design details and added improved innards.

It's arguably devoid of any design imagination, but that means diddly squat when the folks at Redmond have once again created one of the best thin and light laptops around. That's all you need to know if you're in a hurry.

Still here? Then come with us to pick over some of the nuances that have *ahem* surfaced from our time with the machine.

Design
As the third-generation Surface Laptop is pretty much the same as the first two gens in terms of looks, we'll keep things brief here.

Much like the Surface Laptop 3 15, the 13in model comes with a hard drive that can be easily upgraded by licensed technicians. And it has dropped the mini DisplayPort found on previous models and gone for a USB-C port in its place.

The addition of USB-C connectivity was what we've been waiting for Microsoft to do to the Surface Laptop, and it was a bloody shame the Surface Laptop 2 didn't have one.

With the USB-C, you can get display output, Ethernet, and power through a single cable if it's plugged into a compatible monitor, which means you don't have to always lug around the charger if you don't need to.

However, like the 15in model, the port isn't Thunderbolt 3 compatible, which is disappointing and somewhat baffling given the 10th-gen Ice Lake chip at the Surface Laptop 3's heart.

Microsoft's reason is a lack of demand for such connectivity: "Our connector is USB-C only, which supports the vast majority of peripherals that our customers use. Thunderbolt is primarily useful today for external GPU docks. We have not seen accessory makers adopt Thunderbolt broadly enough to justify the tradeoffs required to support it. We will continue to evaluate this based on customer feedback and ecosystem trends."

Aside from the new port, the other two significant changes are to the keyboard and trackpad.

Like it's larger sibling, the 13in laptop has key travel of 1.3mm, a slight reduction on its predecessor. However, the keys are simply fantastic to type on; they have enough snap and tactile feedback to make touch typing easy, with the shallower travel making it easier for those light of touch to trigger actuation on the keys.

We've already waxed lyrical about the keyboard on the Surface Laptop 3 15, and it's the same shorty here. This is pretty much our favourite laptop keyboard.

Our review model came with the bare aluminium finish which is rather lovely in a MacBook Pro-like way. But unlike the 15in laptop, there's still the option to get an Alcantara clad keyboard deck, though you'll need to go for the cobalt or 'Platinum' options, as the gold and black only offer the aluminium finish.

We have a soft spot for the Alcantara finish, as not only does it feel lovely, it's also something that continues to set the Surface Laptop apart from other ultraportables.

The trackpad has been increased by 20 per cent, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it's noticeably bigger than that on the Surface Laptop 2.

It was already a fantastic trackpad, so having more space means it's even better to use, and again is one of our favourites in terms of smoothness and responsiveness.

And that's it. There's nothing more of note in terms of the Surface Laptop 3 13's design.

We'd have liked to see Microsoft have done more or squeezed in an extra port or fingerprint scanner. But otherwise, this remains a lovely, well-made device that perfectly taps into the minimalist design without borking functionality.

Display
We're going to zip through this section pretty sharpish too, as the 13.5in PixelSense display on the Surface Laptop 3 13 is basically the same as its predecessor.

With a resolution of 2256x1504, the screen is sharp and kicks out plenty of brightness and decent contrast, with vivid colours.

It's a joy to gawp at when watching videos, web browsing or playing the odd game. Colour reproduction isn't quite up to scratch for professional photo editing and colour grading, but Microsoft isn't touting the Surface Laptop 3 as a creative pro device, so that's fine.

Where Microsoft keeps winning with the Surface Laptop 3 is with the 3:2 aspect ratio which offers more vertical screen space than 13in laptops with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

It's not a movie-friendly aspect ratio, but for getting stuff done it's excellent, especially when it comes to dealing with a deluge of emails or hacking out documents; it's no surprise that more 13in machines like Dell's 2019 XPS 13 2-in-1 are adopting the same aspect ratio.

So the screen is great. But it's also a tad disappointing. While the likes of HP and Dell are adopting HDR-compatible displays or equipping screens with anti-glare coatings, Microsoft is still dragging its heels as the PixelSense panel has neither of those.

And it wouldn't kill Microsoft to slim down the screen bezels a bit as well. While the Surface Laptop 3 13's lid is very slim, we're sure Redmond's finest minds could trim the bezels and fit a 14in display into the Surface Laptop's chassis. Maybe next year.

Performance, storage and battery life
It's at its guts where the Surface Laptop 3 13 gets interesting.There are two Intel Ice Lake 10-nanometre processors on offer, both with the top-end Iris Plus integrated GPUs: the Core i7-1065G7 and Core i5-1035G7. RAM comes in at 8GB or 16GB of LPDDR4x. Storage goes from 128GB up to 1TB.

That all means prices vary from £879 all the way up to £2,114, at the time of writing, which has seen Redmond slice a good bit off the original price tags.

Our review unit came with the Core i5 chipset and 8GB memory, and 256GB of storage, which comes at a price of £1,139; hardly cheap but fair for this spec.

Thanks to a new process node, the Core i5 offers a good performance hike over the old eighth-gen CPU in the Surface Laptop 2. In Geekbench 4 is managed a single-core score of 5,384, while the multi-core score came in at 17,157. That far outpaces its predecessor and the likes of the Dell XPS 13 from earlier on in the year.

It also soundly beats the custom Ryzen 5 CPU in the 15in model, lending a testament to how much more capable the Ice Lake architecture is over AMD's Zen+ architecture; had Microsoft waited for Ryzen laptop chips using the Zen 2 architecture, then things could have been different.

For everyday tasks the Surface Laptop 3 13 flies by, and thanks to the improved integrated graphics it can handle some video editing work if one doesn't expect super-fast renders.

But don't be fooled into thinking the Ice Lake chip delivers hefty graphical performance, as while the Iris Pro beats the Intel UHD graphics in the older machine, it's far from a gaming GPU.

We threw the PC release of the enhanced Halo Reach at it, and playable frame rates were only achieved at lower settings, which was a tad deflating.

But it did manage to run The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim decently at 1080p with high settings enabled, so it's not a bad machine for running older or 2D games in between bouts of emails.

All this adds up to quite a healthy upgrade over the Surface Laptop 2 in terms of top performance, though we expect you'd be hard pushed to notice a massive difference in basic tasks.

We also feel the CPU performance of the Ice Lake chip is a better option over that of the Surface Laptop 3 15's Ryzen chip, even though the latter might offer a bit more GPU performance in some games; we didn't have the scope to do a proper head-to-head test.

Basically, you won't be disappointed in the Surface Laptop 3 13's overall performance, which is more than enough for an ultraportable.

Nor will you be disappointed by the battery life.

We've always been impressed by the battery life of most Surface devices. So while we didn't clock the 11 hours Microsoft promises, we did find that for average office-based work, our Surface Laptop 3 13 got us through nearly a day's worth of use or around some seven hours of electrical juice before it gasped for a charge.

Speaking of charging, the Surface Laptop 3 now supports fast charging which can deliver 80 per cent battery capacity in under an hour. It's improved Instant On feature is also a boon, with the laptop waking up from sleep as soon as you raise the lid; a small thing but one that makes using the laptop a joy.

In short
As we said earlier, the Surface Laptop 3 13 in an excellent thin and light laptop. If you're looking at upgrading from an older model or need an ultraportable Windows 10 laptop, then you'd be mad not to consider the Surface Laptop 3 13.

We feel it's also the better choice over the 15in model, offering better performance for everyday tasks, and the display ratio means there's still plenty of screen space to play with.

The only real issue we have is a lack of innovation and progress in the design. One of Redmond's main Surface designers told us how the design has been dictated by making the Surface machines as easy to use as possible. We can't deny that's the case with the Surface Laptop 3 13, especially with the keyboard and trackpad.

Microsoft has shown it can think differently with the Surface Neo and Surface a Duo, so it could surely do the same for its laptops.

We suspect the Surface Laptop 4 could shake things up, especially as Intel should have refined 10nm processors out by then.

But in the meantime, the Surface Laptop 3 13 is one of the best ultraportables you can buy right now. µ

The good
Boosted performance, fast charging, USB-C - finally.

The bad
No Thunderbolt 3, some models are very expensive, no HDR display.

The ugly
As lovely as it is, the design lacks innovation.

Bartender's score
8/10

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