Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch (Ryzen 7) review: The price tag climbs, but battery life drops

A Surface with less than eight hours of battery life just doesn't cut it for a modern $2,000 machine. But AMD's Ryzen 7 Surface Edition performs admirably well.

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Performance: A mixed bag

We were honestly excited to review the Surface Laptop 3 both from a system as well as a chip perspective. This is the first time Microsoft has featured an AMD processor inside one of its laptops, and not only was it a mobile Ryzen, but a custom mobile Ryzen. Even better, we had two Ryzen chips to choose from.

Unfortunately, the architecture that AMD and Microsoft used for their Surface Edition chips wasn’t the Zen 2 architecture giving Intel a run for its money on the desktop in the form of Ryzen 3000-series CPUs. Instead, it’s the older Zen+ architecture. AMD has published the Ryzen 7 3780U specs: It’s a 4-core, 8-thread chip, with a base clock of 2.3GHz on up to 4.0GHz turbo. It also integrates a 1,300MHz Radeon Vega 9 GPU with 11 GPU cores, giving it a little more oomph for games. And you know what? It’s not half bad.

Unfortunately, we weren’t given a 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 for review—or, even better, a 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 for Business version. Both use Intel’s 10th-gen Ice Lake Core chip, and would have allowed a direct comparison between the two architectures. As you can see from the spec list near the top of the review, the Surface Laptop 3 for Business uses an improved memory type, LPDDR4x, and Wi-Fi 5 (also known as 802.11ax).

Instead we compared it to a Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1 we’re currently reviewing, which uses the same Core i7-1065G7 “Ice Lake” chip as the high-end Surface Laptop 3 for Business does. Our Ryzen 7 was designed to compete with a Core i7, and it does pretty well. We’re eagerly anticipating AMD’s next-gen 7nm mobile Ryzens, due next year.

We’ve included the Surface Laptop 2, of course, for a gen-over-gen comparison, as well as competitive notebook PCs from third-party manufacturers. We’ve tried to illustrate the performance differences in the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 with a Ryzen 7 (red) and with the Ryzen 5 (orange), with earlier Surface Laptops in shades of yellow. Blue represents Intel’s Ice Lake chips, as represented by the Dell XPS 13 7390.

The Surface Laptop 3 that Microsoft shipped us maximized battery life and minimized performance using the power/performance slider available via the Windows taskbar. We thought that was odd until we saw the anemic battery life numbers. But we wondered how dialing up the performance, especially when plugged in, would affect the rankings. So you’ll see a red outlined bar indicating the benchmark recorded under “Best Performance” settings. It’s a lot of data, but it should help you decide whether the Surface Laptop 3 is right for you.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 power settings Mark Hachman / IDG

We tested the Surface Laptop 3 using the default settings (shown here), but also adjusted the performance to see what effect it might have.

One real-world performance note: While other reviews note that the Surface Laptop 3 struggles with 4K/60-frames-per-second playback on sites like YouTube, that appears to have been fixed, perhaps with a software update. Our Ryzen 7-based Surface Laptop 3 wasn’t affected at all.

We test using a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, beginning with the PCMark test suite. We’ve selected three: the PCMark 8 Work and Creative tests, as well as the updated PCMark 10 benchmark. Both of the former tests are somewhat older. The Work benchmark focuses on office tasks, while the Creative benchmark leans more heavily into mainstream gaming, video editing, and photo processing. 

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch Ryzen 7 pcmark 8 work Mark Hachman / IDG

Ironically, every Surface Laptop we’ve tested has generated abysmal results for this test, which replicates the functionality in Microsoft Office and Skype. In everyday use, though, you shouldn’t notice any dramatic slowdowns.

We’d expect to see substantive gains over the Surface Laptop 2. Surprisingly, only the  Creative benchmark produced those results. But the Work test is where Intel’s Ice Lake machine, highlighted in blue, smokes the Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen chip. 

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch Ryzen 7 pcmark 8 creative Mark Hachman / IDG

The faster Ryzen 7 SE chip and its improved Vega GPU help propel the Surface Laptop 3 to the top of the heap in the Creative test, however. Such a dramatic shift!

UL’s updated PCMark 10 suite also proves that the AMD/Microsoft Ryzen chip can hold its own. Unfortunately, we don’t have a direct comparison against Dell’s Ice Lake notebook on this test.

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch Ryzen 7 pcmark 10 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Ryzen 7-based Surface Laptop 3 climbs higher in the PCMark 10 test. The results are closely bunched, though.

One interesting bonus: Applications seem to launch fast with the Surface Laptop 3, and that might be because of the SSD Microsoft chose. Using CrystalDiskMark 4.0.3, random 4K reads (using the 4K32T1 setting) on the Surface Laptop 3 are 279.2.2 MB/s, somewhat more than twice as fast as the 133.8 MBps reported by the Surface Laptop 2. Sequential reads were a blistering 2,046MBps. The Surface Laptop 3’s responsiveness is noticeable.

Maxon’s Cinebench test stresses the CPU in rendering a fixed CGI scene, showing how well the custom Ryzen chip performs under load. While the single-core score was 144, we’re more concerned about what Cinebench reports when all cores are under load. Here, the AMD-based Surface Laptop 3 compares favorably to an 8th-gen “Whiskey Lake” Intel Core chip, but still trails Ice Lake’s Core i7.

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch Ryzen 7 cinebench r15 Mark Hachman / IDG

Intel’s 10th-gen Core i7-1065G7 still tops the heap here, but dial up the Ryzen 7’s performance setting, and you get somewhat close (there’s a 9 percent difference). The mobile Ryzen chip inside the Surface Laptop 3 is a quad-core CPU, the same as most of the others here. The Core i7-8565Us measured are here are part of Intel’s Whiskey Lake generation, while the Core i7-8250Us are the earlier Kaby Lake-R.

For our next benchmark, we use the open-source HandBrake tool to transcode a full-length movie into a format suitable for viewing on an Android tablet. It's basically a prolonged CPU stress test to complement Cinebench’s quick burst, and it can provide insight on the Ryzen 5 3580U’s performance as well as the effectiveness of Microsoft’s thermal design decisions. Here, the Surface Laptop 3 excels, which we’d chalk up to the Surface Edition chip and its excellent cooling.

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch Ryzen 7 handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

Handbrake offers the best testimonial to the Surface Laptop 3’s engineering—there’s a massive 17 percent improvement over Dell’s “Ice Lake” chip!

Finally, we get to see how well AMD’s mobile Vega chip performs in 3D graphics. I tried two games on the Surface Laptop 3: 2017’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and Crackdown 3, both twitchy shooters. Though neither had integrated benchmarks, both were playable out of the box. With Wolfenstein’s presets set to Low, the game ran at close to 60 frames per second at 720p resolution, and about 30 to 34 fps at 1080p resolutions. Crackdown 3 also ran at 720p at about 32 frames per second, with everything set to low.

(During Wolfenstein play, error messages would pop up occasionally, claiming that the game had run out of video memory. Wolfenstein also featured an AMD Radeon logo in the opening credits, implying that the game was optimized for the AMD architecture.)

The 3DMark Fire Strike scores indicate that the Radeon Vega 9 GPU compares with the downclocked Nvidia GeForce MX150, which is impressive for integrated graphics. Unfortunately, the Iris Plus GPUs inside of the 10th-gen Ice Lake chips topped it—but really not by much.

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch Ryzen 7 3dmark sky diver Mark Hachman / IDG

While there’s still a gap between the Surface Laptop 3 and Intel’s Ice Lake chip, dialing up the performance on the Ryzen 7-powered Surface Laptop 3  matches up well against the  Ice Lake Core i7. For reference, the Nvidia GeForce MX150 laptops they sit next to use a downclocked version of the MX150 discrete GPU, while the others (the Huawei Matebook 13, for example) use an upclocked version of the same GPU.

The crushingly disappointing number is battery life. Microsoft positions the Surface Laptop as an always-on, always-connected device, and the first two Surface Laptops have performed quite well in this regard. Even the Ryzen 5-powered Surface Laptop 3 pushed over 8 hours. In our tests, the Ryzen 7 version fell short, at 7 hours, 25 minutes. (With performance dialed up, it was 392 minutes, or an anemic 6 hours, 32 minutes.)

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Ryzen 7 battery life colored correctly Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 3’s battery life decreases with the more powerful Ryzen 7 processor installed. Notice how sharply this Surface Laptop’s battery life breaks with its predecessors.

Higher-resolution screens tend to consume more power, and pushing performance can negatively affect battery life, too. So can screen brightness—we test using a comfortable 250-260 nits of luminosity, but Microsoft tests at 150 nits. This could all be offset with a larger battery. But the 45.8Wh battery inside the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is on the small side compared with other laptops we’ve tested, though consistent with earlier 13-inch models. It appears that the Surface Pro X may be the Surface with long battery life that customers are hoping for.

We loop a 4K video over and over to measure battery life, and that’s the traditional way Microsoft has measured it, too. With the Surface Laptop 3, however, Microsoft moved to a mix of scripted Web browsing and Office applications. While we can’t replicate this exactly, we can measure using a similar battery test in PCMark 10. That yielded a  battery life of 6 hours and 57 minutes. If Microsoft had simply included a bigger battery, especially in the 15-inch model, this wouldn't be an issue: trimming battery life from 10 hours to 9 hours, for example, would still suffice. But any way you cut it, a Surface device that costs more than $2,000 needs to last longer than the average business day.

Bottom line

Our thesis that the Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3 for Business might be a better bet still holds true—although the Ryzen 7’s performance makes that a much more challenging statement to defend. At just $100 more, the Surface Laptop 3 for Business offers a similarly configured model as our test unit, with a Core i7-1065G7 inside it as well as improved wireless capabilities. That’s the same Core i7-1065G7/16GB/256GB configuration as in the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390, which we’ve tested. 

What rating would we assign the Surface Laptop 3 as a whole? It’s taken some necessary steps into the future, granted, with the addition of USB-C. Thunderbolt is probably due in a 2020 revision. The cooling remains excellent.

There aren’t too many 15-inch notebook PCs that aim toward the high end of the consumer/productivity space without aiming at gamers. HP’s Spectre series, though, is worth a hard look. The HP Spectre x360 15 we reviewed with a powerful discrete GPU has been discontinued, but the HP Spectre x360 15T featured on our performance charts is still being sold, and at a competitive price that might steer you away from the Surface. Those who are more inclined toward brutal efficiency should also look at recent introductions like the Acer Swift 3—there’s a lot of functionality there for under $1,000, even if you won’t like the display and keyboard as much. Lenovo’s ThinkBook is also worth considering.

The disparity in value is what I can’t help landing on with the Ryzen 7 version of the Surface Laptop 3. It’s significantly more expensive than the Ryzen 5 model, yet battery life drops under 8 hours. Performance improves somewhat. If you’re deciding upon which Surface Laptop 3 to buy, we’d suggest either the Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 5) model instead, or else another laptop suggested above.

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