Surface Laptop 4 review: Microsoft returns to form with a solid notebook

Microsoft's Surface Laptops have delivered once again.

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Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 pcmark 10 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 4’s day-to-day performance is largely middle-of-the-road, until you rev it up.

We use Maxon’s Cinebench benchmark to test CPU-intensive workloads, especially over the short term. At any performance setting, the Ryzen processor powers through this once-intensive workload in just seconds. This has been Ryzen’s strength, especially because the Ryzen 7 4980U contains twice as many cores as the chip inside the Surface Laptop 3.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 cinebench r15 Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s in CPU-intensive tasks that the Surface Laptop 4 shines.

What we do see, however, is some evidence of throttling under heavy workloads. UL publishes more intensive R20 and R23 benchmarks, and the latter offers the ability to run the benchmark in a loop for 10 minutes. That allows us to gauge whether performance deteriorates as the Laptop heats up. The answer is yes, though not much: A single run of the Cinebench R23 benchmark produced a score of 9,101, versus a score of 8,589 over the prolonged loop—a 5.6-percent decrease.

The free HandBrake utility provides another example of prolonged workloads. We use the open-source tool to transcode video from an uncompressed format to something that can be watched and stored on a tablet—a prolonged task. Like Cinebench’s R23 loop, it measures both prolonged CPU performance and how well the Laptop 4 cools itself. The Surface Laptop 4 handles this task superbly at both default and performance settings.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

In our HandBrake transcoding test, the Surface Laptop 4 excels.

To evaluate the Laptop 4’s integrated graphics for gaming, we turn to UL’s 3DMark and its Time Spy benchmark, which we use for testing gaming laptops, too. Here, we can see that the Surface Laptop 4 shouldn’t be used for high-end gaming, as framerates just won’t keep up. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 3dmark time spy Mark Hachman / IDG

In 3D graphics, it’s clearer that Intel’s Xe chips offer much stronger competition than in earlier years. 

We also used UL’s built-in stress test to see whether the GPU would maintain its performance during prolonged periods of gaming. If frame rates diverge by more than 3 percent over the course of the test, the laptop fails. Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop 4’s frame rate was consistent 96.8 percent of the time, barely failing.

Real-world gaming tests were more favorable. Microsoft’s own Forza Horizon 4 offers a superbly detailed benchmark, allowing you to set target frame rates (30 fps is good, 60 fps is better) and set the resolution and video quality. Repeated testing produced 36 fps at 1080p resolutions at High settings, and a bare 31 fps at Low settings at 2496x1664, the native resolution of the Surface Laptop 4.

forza horizon 4 benchmark surface laptop 4 microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

You can pick and choose various resolution and quality levels, but we think running Forza at 1920x1200 at Medium settings offered both satisfactory frame rates and image quality. (Though the “target” is 60 fps, 30 fps works well in this racing game.) Notice, though, that Forza concludes that the Surface Laptop 4 is limited by its integrated GPU.

Likewise, the third-person battle simulator, Total War:Troy, yielded 48 frames per second at 1900x1200 (essentially 1080p, but adjusted for the 3:2 ratio of the display) at Medium settings using the “Battle” benchmark.

Battery life was the other major source of potential improvement. Although the version of the Surface Laptop 3 that was powered by Intel’s 10th-gen Tiger Lake chips performed well, the Ryzen versions disappointed. We never expected the Surface Laptop 4 to meet Microsoft’s claims, because the battery-life estimates (17.5 hours?!) were predicated on a very dim 150 nits of screen brightness. We prefer using 250 nits, which the Surface Laptop 4 can’t reach on battery power. An average battery life of just over 10 hours doesn’t come close to Microsoft’s lofty claims, but it makes for a solid all-day machine.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop 4 redeems the battery-life shortcomings of its predecessor, though you’ll still find many other laptops that do better. 

Conclusion: should you buy?

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 (Ryzen 7) is undoubtedly a solid offering compared to other laptops in this generation. Its design is as good as ever, and while its performance is mixed, it often finishes at the top of the heap. Battery life, has improved, even if you’ll find that Microsoft has sneakily lowered the screen brightness when running on battery power. It remains premium-priced, but you get a lot for the money. 

If you own a Surface Laptop of any stripe and were considering an upgrade, we’d certainly recommend it. The Surface Laptop 4 has improved in the critical areas of performance and battery life, especially as a direct Ryzen-to-Ryzen upgrade. 

Is it the best Surface Laptop 4? We’re waiting and hoping to see what Intel’s Tiger Lake model has to offer, as we did with the Surface Laptop 3. This time, however, we’re expecting a much more even battle.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Surface Laptop 4 marks a dramatic improvement for this clamshell notebook over the prior generation, though its Ryzen processor may be overshadowed by the competing Tiger Lake model.

    Pros

    • Significantly improved battery life
    • Enormous performance improvement from prior generation
    • High-resolution display
    • Good keyboard

    Cons

    • Surface Connector is used in place of Thunderbolt
    • A bit pricey
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