Review: Microsoft's Intel-based Surface Laptop 3: Third time's the charm

Here's my non-reviewer's review of the 13.5-inch Intel-based Surface Laptop 3 after one week of use.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: MJF

When Microsoft first announced that it was going to make PCs in 2012, I was excited. I always wanted -- and was willing to pay for -- a truly premium Windows laptop, which I assumed would work better than the competition because it was from the maker of Windows. But it wasn't until this year's Surface Laptop 3 that I got even close to my wish.

Microsoft initially got into the hardware business, execs said, to create new hardware categories. (The publicly unsaid reason: To try to prod PC makers to make better Windows devices.) That said, I still expected Microsoft to make the best Windows hardware.

I test-drove the first Surface Laptop, the first Surface Book, a couple Surface Pro 2-in-1s, and the Surface Go tablet I was not bowled over by any of these devices. While some sites claimed Surface Laptop (2) was the best Windows laptop, there's no way I would ever claim the same. It was a decent Windows laptop, but PC makers had raised their game and were making far better and more interesting PCs. 

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I had low expectations

That brings me to Surface Laptop 3. Microsoft announced three variants: The AMD-based 15-inch Surface Laptop 3; the Intel-based 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 3 and, belatedly, the Intel-based 15-inch Intel-based Surface Laptop 3 for business customers (but which just about anyone can buy). Microsoft sent some sites review units of these devices over the past two weeks. I guess mine got lost in the mail. To be serious, if I were Microsoft, I wouldn't have given me one, either. I have not liked any Microsoft PCs I've had the chance to try for a variety of reasons. 

To do my "non-reviewer's review," I bought the Intel Core i7, 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 3 with 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, and it was shipped to me on Oct. 22. It set me back $1,741 (including tax). Yep, for me, that's quite a pricey Notepad machine. But I was curious if Microsoft finally figured out how to make a laptop, so I -- knowing about the 30-day return policy-- took a chance and bought one of the best configurations that "normal" people might buy.

Going in, I had low expectations, to be honest. I figured I'd be sending this thing back in a few days after I got it. But, as of today, after using this device for a week, I like it! A lot! So much so that I am wondering if I'm going to keep it and make it my new daily driver. (I'm still mulling this over, as I've got my eye on one other laptop that I want to try out before I commit.)

The good: This is a beautiful, drool-worthy device. The build quality of this thing is noticeable. It feels premium. I bought the "Sandstone" (think "rose gold") all-metal one with no fuzzy Alcantara keyboard. That was the right choice for me. After a week of constant use, there are no fingerprints and no grease marks. (That's not the case with the all-black metal version, from things I've read.) Also: No dings, no nicks, even though I've carried this with no protective sleeve in my messy carry-all on several occasions. (Again, not the case for the all-black metal versions, according to reports.)

Is it lappable, though?

One word: 


Look, mom! No knee-crossing to balance necessary!


OK. Another word: Finally! 

Microsoft has figured how to properly weight a 3:2 aspect-ratio laptop so that it doesn't feel like it could fall off my lap at any moment. My lap hasn't changed (much -- thanks, craft beer) since the release of the first Surface Laptop. But these devices have. They still weigh roughly the same, at about 2.8 pounds, as they have since Microsoft introduced Surface Laptop. But something has changed in the design that makes them able to be used far more easily on a lap. This doesn't matter to everyone, but to people like me who have to use laptops on their laps in the field to write late-night posts, memos, and long emails, it is a game-changer. 

Is it powerful enough?

I am not the person you want to follow if you are trying to figure out if the Surface Laptop 3 is powerful enough for your workload. My usual set of apps is lightweight: Notepad, TweetDeck, a browser or two, Spotify, Skype, a few web apps and maybe Microsoft Teams. 

But for my usual workflow, this laptop performed solidly and with a battery life (not benchmarked, just anecdotal) of about 6.5. to 7 hours. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours of "typical usage" (not just constant video playback). So, getting more than half of the claimed amount -- for me -- is a big improvement. My guess as to why I got about half is: When I am using a PC, I am using it constantly. Many people use PCs more intermittently than I do.

The Intel-based Surface Laptop 3 comes with one USB-A, one USB-C (non-Thunderbolt), a headphone jack, and a Surface connector port. The Surface connector charges the device in an OK way, but not as fast as Microsoft is claiming in my experience. It has taken me a couple of hours to go from near-zero battery to a full charge. (Because the Surface connector doesn't signal when charging is done, I had to keep checking to see how much charge it had achieved.)

The keyboard on this device is really solid. I actually had a bit of adjustment time because the keys felt like they were spaced slightly further apart than on other Windows laptops I've tried lately. In addition, the 20% larger trackpad means the space on the device between the bottom of the PC and the home row of the keys is substantially bigger. The trackpad performance is fantastic, though; yay for Microsoft Precision trackpads.

Other things I liked about the Surface Laptop 3 (which came running Windows 10 1903 when I purchased it): Instant-on actually works! You open the laptop, Windows Hello sees a corner of your ear, and suddenly you are in. No key presses required. Overnight, the battery doesn't lose much charge, meaning Microsoft has finally started to figure out its own power settings. 

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I didn't try the touch screen almost at all, as to me, it's superfluous on a laptop. But 10-point touch is built-in. I also didn't try a pen for the same reason (not needed on a laptop, in my non-artistic opinion). The built-in webcam works fine. The built-in speakers seem solid. The full spec sheet from Microsoft for Surface Laptop 3 is here.

Some feedback for the Microsoft folks

The Your Phone companion app experience on this device was a real chore to get working. This needs to "just work" for people with iOS and Android (especially Android) phones who want to be able to see and interact with the photos, messages, notifications, and ultimately calls. It took me a couple hours and multiple PC/phone app resets to get it to pair properly. This needs to be much easier for "normal" users.

Also, can you make this laptop any lighter in weight? Because it is 3:2, it feels heavier and bulkier than some of the 16:9 ratio laptops -- even when they weigh roughly the same. And as long as Microsoft continues to use the proprietary Surface Connect connector, how about a way to indicate a device is fully charged? Right now, it's impossible to tell unless you peek inside, as far as I know.

To me, the Intel-based Surface Laptop 3 is the first PC in the Surface line that I feel lives up to the premium reputation. It's not inexpensive, but it is a device I'm proud to own.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission from some of the products featured on this page. Neither the author nor ZDNet were compensated for this independent review.

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