PC

Microsoft misses the mark with Surface Laptop 3

This year's Microsoft Surface launch event in October saw the tech giant expand its Surface line-up to include a dual-screen Android smartphone, a thinner Surface tablet powered by a mobile chip and a pair of true wireless earbuds.

But these exciting new devices are coming here only next year, if that. The ones that have already been launched in Singapore are iterations of existing products Surface Pro 7 and Surface Laptop 3.

The latter now comes in a 15-inch variant in addition to the existing 13.5-inch model. This aluminium clamshell notebook is available here in platinum and matt black, unlike its predecessor, which lacks the black option for local consumers.

I tested the matt black Surface Laptop 3. It looks sleek and handsome, with a minimalist design that reminds me of Apple's laptops. Its metal body feels solid and well-made, and is surprisingly light at around 1.5kg.

Much attention has been paid to the laptop's design. For instance, the lid can be opened using only one hand. The power key to switch on the laptop is at the left of the Delete key, which keeps its usual position at the top right corner. Since typing relies heavily on muscle memory, it was important that Microsoft retain the Delete key's usual location at the top right corner.

Besides the bigger touchscreen and chassis, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is identical to its 13.5-inch sibling. Both have too few ports for my liking, which is vexing, given the larger laptop's ample dimensions.

There is a single USB-A port, which is handy for users who have yet to upgrade their storage drives to USB-C variants.

The previous version's miniDisplayPort has been replaced by a USB-C port that can also be used for charging. There is no Thunderbolt 3 port, which is a major omission for a premium notebook.

I would have been appeased had Microsoft simply added more USB ports or made the trackpad larger - it is the same size as the one in the 13.5-inch version.

Also, the ample space at the sides of the keyboard could have been used for dual speakers. Even the battery size is identical to that of its 13.5-inch sibling. And how about having a dedicated graphics chip?

  • FOR

    • Solid metal chassis

    • Portable for its size

    • Good, spacious keyboard

    AGAINST

    • Relatively few ports for 15-inch model

    • No Thunderbolt 3 port or Wi-Fi 6 support

    • Middling integrated graphics

    SPECS

    PRICE: $2,488

    PROCESSOR: AMD Ryzen 5 3580U (2.1GHz)

    GRAPHICS: AMD Radeon Vega 9

    RAM: 16GB DDR4

    SCREEN SIZE: 15 inches, 2,496 x 1,664 pixels

    CONNECTIVITY: USB Type-C, USB Type-A, Surface Connect port, headphone jack

    BATTERY: 49.4 watt/hour

    RATING

    FEATURES: 3.5/5

    DESIGN: 4.5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3.5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    OVERALL: 3.5/5

Alas, it seems to me that Microsoft has not made full use of the 15-inch form factor. In fact, you lose something with the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, compared with the 13.5-inch model.

First, the 15-inch version sold in stores here comes with an AMD processor, which does not support the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard, unlike the 13.5-inch model's Intel chip. Only the 15-inch models sold to businesses can use Intel chips.

Second, the 15-inch model comes only with a metal palm rest, without the option for an Alcantara one such as that found in the 13.5-inch.

The AMD processor is a quad-core chip that does a good job with office productivity tasks.

In the PCMark 10 benchmark, the Surface Laptop 3 scored 3,818, which is good, but slightly lower than the latest Intel Core i7 processor.

More promising is its 3DMark score of 898 in the Time Spy benchmark, which is almost as fast as an entry-level dedicated notebook graphics chip by Nvidia. But this level of performance is still inadequate to play the latest games at more intensive settings.

It fared relatively well for a 15-inch laptop in a video-loop battery test, lasting 6hr 40min with screen brightness set to maximum.

The new 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 feels like a missed opportunity by Microsoft to compete with the Apple MacBook Pro.

While it is no doubt a very good laptop, it could have been much more if only Microsoft had aimed higher.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2019, with the headline 'Microsoft misses the mark with Surface Laptop 3'. Print Edition | Subscribe