It’s easy to assume that Microsoft’s latest version of the Surface Laptop series is just another drop in the marketplace bucket, considering they haven’t really changed anything or made any significant advancements in the product line. Most online reviewers since the April 2021 launch have said much the same – this is a solid machine made with high quality materials that is a simple generational advancement. That is to say, there is a new generation of processors to choose from!
Here are the specs of the 15″ AMD unit this review is based on.
- AMD Ryzen 7 4980U CPU w/ Radeon RX graphics
- 16GB LPDDR4x (4266MHz)
- 512GB (user-serviceable) NVMe SSD
- 1x USB-C, 1x USB-A, 1x Surface Connect, 3.5 mm headphone jack
- ~17 hours battery life (AMD)
- Up to 3.5lbs total weight
- Matte black finish
I want to write with full disclosure; I personally own the device featured in the photos and in this review. I fully accept any notion of owner’s bias or other such things. It’s been 4 months now since I purchased the device, and I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If you’ve never owned an original Microsoft product, there are always quirks. Odd engineering choices, seemingly pointless new technologies, or just plain whacky designs (I’m looking at you, Arc mouse).
Unlike Apple, Microsoft has never been afraid to really put itself out there in the consumer product space. The MacBook, for example, never had a serious design change between 2011 and 2020! It was only with the introduction of the M1 SoC that Apple took any initiative to try something new. It may seem like I’m making light of many thousands of highly-talented engineers and millions of hours of collective work – I’m not. You should, though, really take a look at the history of Apple’s products to see it takes years for them to make a decision for design changes. This is a blessing and a curse; after all, why change what isn’t broken?
This is where Microsoft has taken a page out of the Cupertino playbook. For better or worse, the Surface Laptop hasn’t changed much this time around.
Even though it’s much the same as previous generations, it still has the same characteristic Surface Laptop quirks. A 3:2 display? A proprietary charging mechanism? Why the insistence on a touchscreen for a device that can’t be used like a tablet? Who is this machine made for? All of these questions answered and more.
First, the star of the show – the display. As with most modern Surface devices, the display on the SL4 is phenomenal. At 2496×1664 resolution, 201 PPI, and sized at 13.4” x 9.6” x 0.58”, the only upgrade I can envision in the future is the possibility of a 4k or retina-like display. It’s sharp, bright, and beautiful. The only competitors to the SL4’s display I’ve personally experienced are Samsung’s fascinating QLED and Apple’s brilliant Retina 4k/5k technology. There is no clear winner in that contest either. I could write an entire post about color accuracy, NIT levels, contrast units, HDR support; you get the idea. For all practical and day-to-day purposes, we have 3 clear front-runners in the display race. The only issue I have with the display is the moderately sized bezels (~0.4″ on all sides). If you look at Dell’s Precision lineup for this year, there almost isn’t a bezel at all! Something Microsoft can definitely work towards.
While it isn’t the most practical touch screen to use, I can’t really skip talking about it in a Surface product review. It’s good. End of story, I think? Again, it’s not the most practical to use touch device, but it sure is useful when I’m feeling too lazy to scroll through content on a webpage. It’s also really handy when I’m working in VScode and have multiple windows open.
I decided to go with the Ryzen 7 version with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which for all of my purposes is more than enough. Your needs and mileage may very, of course. Whether it’s just the modern hardware or the fact that the SL4 is a “first-party” device from Microsoft running their OS, Windows runs better than ever. Web browsing, programming, graphic design, and even a little light gaming works well on the system. You definitely aren’t buying a Surface product to do serious computational loads or AAA gaming! Though if you’re a fan of World of Warcraft like me, it does run pretty well at 1440p/medium settings.
Microsoft has made some pretty lofty claims about the battery life on the AMD SL4 lineup, and they’re mostly correct. I’ve been able to get many days without charging if I’m just web browsing on low brightness/sleeping the machine. I’d say the average on-screen time with multitasking has been around 14 hours. If you’re really looking to stretch out run-time, Apple has the competition beat with the M1 MacBook lineup. I haven’t noticed or had any battery life issues after 4 straight months of usage, which is what we should expect nowadays.
The SL4 keyboard is kind of a mixed bag in my opinion. On my 15″ model, they keys are quite large and very square. Everything is at a comfortable position, the keycaps feel premium, and the backlight is a welcome feature that works as intended. I do have some issues, though. There isn’t an option to get a full size keyboard with a numpad, which is a shame. The keycaps themselves are quite shallow and flat, with only a very slight inwards curve. I’d prefer larger and more curved keycaps, like the Razer Widow 3 I have on my desktop. The caps, not the switches, feel very reminiscent of the 2017-2018 MacBook. The switches themselves are good enough, and very quiet if that’s your thing. I just re-did a type test while writing this and I’m averaging 80-90 wpm; about 10% less than on my full size mechanical keyboard.
Last up for daily performance is the I/O, touch-pad, and comfort ratings. Microsoft has retained the same I/O as the last generation and while it could be better, it could also be much worse (that means you Apple). The single USB-A port is always welcome, and a rarity among this class of laptops today. The single USB-C port is again an interesting choice, one where I would rather have Thunderbolt 3 in all honesty. Having a dedicated (and unfortunately proprietary) charging port is nice since that frees up a USB-C port, so I typically don’t have any I/O issues. If you’re looking to use this machine on a desk however, your best bet is to pick up a dock. But what else is new?
The touch pad is large enough, responsive, and tactile. I really don’t have much to say here, except I always recommend setting up custom Windows gestures out of the box!
Thermal performance is always a contentious issue, and I don’t feel the need to go into specifics here. Overall it’s good enough. As I mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t be buying this machine to fill the role of high end work station or gaming setup. I’ve never had any thermal throttling, but I have had a few times where the aluminum case warmed up enough to cause discomfort. There is an argument to be made that a heat-spreading metal body is a benefit, but it’s hard to justify. I do have an issue with the fan system, as many others have reported. On a more extraneous load, the fan noise is really bad! It has a high-pitched whine at full speed and can be distracting without good noise-canceling headphones. If you’re looking for the quietest possible machine, look towards a fanless system. While it isn’t a deal-breaker for me, it is annoying.
Overall I’d give the AMD Surface Laptop 4’s Daily Performance an 8/10, considering the price point. If they could redesign the cooling system a bit, buff up the keyboard caps/make it full size, and thin the bezel, it would easily be a 9/10. This is as good as it gets, because no machine can ever truly be perfect in my opinion.
As far as “Ultrabooks” are concerned, the SL4 is definitely in the front of the pack. The main competitors in this class at the time of writing are the Dell XPS, Lenovo X1, MacBook Pro M1, or possibly the HP Spectre x360. I’ve had the opportunity to use each of these machines at least once, and the only two real choices against the SL4 are the MacBook and the X1. Let’s line up these 3 units and go over the pros and cons of each. Note: the above image is accurate to prices on 08/10/2021, pulled directly from the manufacturer’s configuration site.
First let’s talk price. Taking in the above image, the most expensive is the Lenovo X1 Gen9, at $1,829 (the eCoupon price?). For once, Apple and Microsoft have really competitive prices at $1,699 each. Not bad if you ask me. Sidenote: I received a free pair of Surface EarBuds with my SL4 purchase as well. They aren’t nearly as good as my AirPods Pro, but you can’t beat free!
The clear winner in raw performance is the MacBook, hands down. BUT that’s only considering native macOS/M1 apps! If you need to use Windows or x86 applications, it’s basically a draw between Microsoft and Lenovo. I could get into multi versus single core performance on AMD and Intel, it’s not worth the fight. For all intents and purposes, they are the same. That is a choice you will have to make yourself, but it’s worth mentioning Intel based systems always draw a higher price.
Let’s talk about build quality. The Surface and the Mac have very similar designs – unibody aluminum, 60% keyboards, high end displays, and a focus on minimalism all around. The X1, up until recently, has a mixed composite frame with some plastic bits and a faux-carbon top cover. The biggest design trade off between these 3 units is the ease of access for the internals, and the amount of I/O available. The X1 absolutely destroys the M1 and Surface with the amount of I/O; sporting x2 USB4 (C), x2 USB-A 3.0, a 3.5mm jack, and HDMI out! So if that’s your thing, there you go.
Clearly I’ve made my choice between the 3 by purchasing the Surface, and that’s for several reasons. First, I’m not the biggest fan of using macOS at home – it just doesn’t sit well with me. Second, the X1 and Mac are only 13″ for the same price! Since there isn’t any major difference in performance and the specs are almost identical, I might as well go with the bigger 15″ model.
If you want to check out any of these 3 units, see the links below.
If you’ve been on the fence about purchasing a new laptop, or a new Ultrabook for that matter, it’s a tough call. The competition this year has been neck and neck, and the biggest considerations come down to personal preference. Are you already in the Apple ecosystem? Then the choice has been made for you, get a MacBook! Do you need a more business/workplace oriented device with lots of I/O? Your best bet is the X1. Or do you prefer a sleek and modern personal laptop with a bigger screen? The Surface is for you. If value or performance per dollar is a big consideration for you, I’d go with the Surface. This by no means is to say that the Surface is a “budget” machine, but in my opinion you get more bang for your buck.
Hopefully this short read has been helpful, and let me know if you think the Surface Laptop 4 may be better than you thought!