On paper, the Surface Laptop 4 is a Surface Laptop 3 with better chips.
In look and feel, very little has changed from the last generation. Sure, there are differences here and there: the Laptop 4 is ever-so-slightly thinner, and there’s a new “Ice Blue” color option. But you get the same 3:2 touchscreen, the same port selection, and the same design.
The big changes are on the inside. You can configure both the 13.5-inch and 15-inch Surface Laptop models with either Intel’s 11th-Gen processors or AMD’s Ryzen 4000 processors. Microsoft promised that these improvements would deliver significantly better performance and battery life than the previous Surface generation.
So this review will largely focus on the new system’s performance. But my priority wasn’t to compare the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 that we received to its predecessor. For one, the Laptop 3 set a low performance bar — it had mediocre battery life, and couldn’t even play a 4K 60FPS video without stuttering, so even a competent budget laptop would blow that out of the water. But more importantly, there’s another company out there that recently made a huge chip upgrade to its flagship models, which has left most other 2020 chip upgrades in the dust: Apple, with its Arm-based M1. So my big question when looking at AMD’s new Ryzen 7 Surface Edition (also known as the AMD Ryzen 7 4980U Microsoft Surface Edition because of course it is) is: Does it beat Apple’s M1?
The answer is no. For the most part, it’s still not quite as good. But that may not matter to Surface Laptop 4 buyers — at least, not yet.
First, a quick tour of the Ryzen 7 Surface Edition. This chip isn’t AMD’s top gun; it’s part of the Ryzen 4000 generation, and the Ryzen 5000 mobile series has been out for a few months now. It’s a bit disappointing to see that the Surface is still using the older Ryzen chips, since much of the new generation is based on a new architecture (Zen 3, to the 4000 series’s Zen 2) that has delivered performance gains.
Of course, that doesn’t make the Ryzen 7 4980U a bad chip. Ryzen 4000 chips outperform Intel’s 10th Gen Comet Lake processors across the board. The 4980U in particular has eight cores, and AMD’s excellent Radeon integrated graphics. Note that the M1 also has eight cores, but those cores aren’t created equal. An easy way to think of it is that AMD’s chip has eight all-around-pretty-good cores, while Apple’s chip has four high-performance cores and four weaker cores. You’ll see that difference reflected in our benchmark results later on.
In addition to that processor, the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 I reviewed comes with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. It costs $1,699. The most comparable M1 MacBook Pro is also $1,699. If you’re not looking to spend that much, you can get the 15-inch Laptop 4 for as low as $1,299 for 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which puts it neck-in-neck with the entry-level MacBook Pro, but with a bigger screen. The 13.5-inch Laptop 4 is priced more closely to the fanless MacBook Air, starting at $999 for a Ryzen 5 4680U, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. Then, there are the Intel models. You can get a 13.5-inch system with a Core i5 starting at $1,299 (also with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage), and a 15-inch system with a Core i7 starting at $1,799 (16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage). It’s all quite confusing, so I recommend visiting Microsoft’s site for yourself to mix and match.
To see how our test system stacks up, I ran various synthetic benchmarks as well as a 5-minute, 33-second 4K video export in Premiere Pro. See the results below:
Surface Laptop 4 15-inch benchmarks
|Cinebench R23 Multi||8144|
|Cinebench R23 Single||1242|
|Cinebench R23 Multi looped for 30 minutes||8077|
|Geekbench 5 CPU Multi||7028|
|Geekbench 5 CPU Single||1163|
|Geekbench 5 OpenCL / Compute||14393|
|PugetBench for Premiere Pro||176|
Right off the bat, this system is a huge improvement over the Surface Laptop 3. It took 16 minutes and 33 seconds on the video export, where its predecessor took over three hours. (16:33 is a slower time than we’ve seen from many Intel models, but that’s expected since AMD chips don’t support Intel’s Quick Sync.) The Laptop 4 also beats multi-core synthetic results we’ve seen from Intel’s top Tiger Lake chips in the MSI Prestige 14 Evo and the Vaio Z, as well as the 16-inch Intel-based MacBook Pro,
But the more interesting comparison is to the M1 machines. The Surface Laptop 4 solidly beats both the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air on Cinebench R23 Multi, and that task alone — it lost to both machines on every other test we ran, including all three Geekbench tests, the Puget for Premiere Pro benchmark, and the Premiere Pro export. That may seem confusing but (again) it makes sense when you think about the architecture of both chips — the Ryzen chip does better on the task where it can show off all eight of its powerful cores. That indicates that you’ll do well with the Surface Book if you’re running heavy multicore workloads, where you’re more suited to the M1 if you’re primarily doing pretty much anything else.
Of course, that’s far from the whole story. The reality is that most people who want a 15-inch screen probably don’t care if there’s a better-performing 13-inch machine floating around. And the MacBook that’s comparable in size — the MacBook Pro 16 — is significantly more expensive than the Surface Laptop 4, and comes with older Intel chips. So why am I comparing this device to M1 systems, you may ask? Really, I’m benching this laptop against an imaginary 16-inch M1 MacBook Pro, which (rumor has it) will launch sometime in the third quarter of this year. Given the results I’m seeing here, the release of a machine like that would make the Surface Laptop 4 a tougher purchase to justify.
That said, there are two big advantages the Ryzen-powered Surface Laptop 4 could very well have over a 16-inch M1 MacBook. The first is battery life. I got an average of 10 hours and 52 minutes using this device as my primary driver, which is some of the best battery life I’ve ever seen from a 15-inch laptop, and one of the best results I’ve seen from a laptop this year. That beats both of the M1 MacBooks, and destroys the 16-inch Intel MacBook as well. If there’s an area where Microsoft really makes its case, it’s here.
The Laptop 4 also knocks cooling out of the park. The Laptop 4’s fans did a really excellent job cooling the system. Throughout my fairly standard load of office multitasking (including around a dozen Chrome tabs, Spotify streaming, and the like), the chassis remained downright cold. During the more intense tests I ran, the CPU remained steadily in the mid-70s (Celsius) with occasional spikes up to the mid-80s — jumps up to 90 were rare. I was able to run our 4K video export several times in a row without any negative impact on results, and I didn’t see a huge dip in Cinebench results over a 30-minute loop either.
If you’re a fan of the 15-inch Surface Laptop’s design, you’ll be happy to know it hasn’t changed much. One of the big advantages of this device is how thin and light it is, at just 0.58 inches thick and 3.4 pounds. For context, it’s almost a pound lighter than the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and over half a pound lighter than the lightest Dell XPS 15. It’s actually only a bit heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
With that said, those who aren’t diehard Surface fans may find the Laptop 4’s design a tad dated. In particular, the bezels around the 3:2 screen are quite chunky. That makes sense on a convertible device like the Surface Book 3 or the Surface Pro 7, which you need to be able to hold as a tablet, but doesn’t fit as well on a clamshell. If you put the Laptop 4 next to any member of the XPS line, you’ll see how much sleeker and more modern the latter looks. That doesn’t mean the Laptop 4 is ugly; it’s just falling further behind other Windows laptops each year.
The port selection is also the same, which is good news and bad news. The Laptop 4 retains a USB-A port, which I stubbornly believe is still a necessity for modern laptops (looking at you, Apple and Dell). But there is just one, and neither the Intel or AMD model supports Thunderbolt on their lone USB-C ports, which is disappointing on a laptop at this price. The Surface Laptop could certainly do with more port options, even if it’s competitive with what Apple and Dell are offering in terms of numbers. (In addition to the USB-A and USB-C, you get a headphone jack and Microsoft’s proprietary charging port.)
The Windows Hello webcam is fine, delivering a serviceable picture, and the dual far-field microphones had no trouble picking up my voice. The speakers, which now support Dolby Atmos 9, sound quite clear, with good volume and bass and percussion that are audible (though not booming). Despite having Atmos speakers, our Laptop 4 unit didn’t come preloaded with Dolby Atmos software or anything similar to tune the audio.
My least favorite part of this laptop is the keyboard. It’s just a bit flat and mushy for my taste. I respect that some people prefer wider, flatter keycaps, of course. But I would take an XPS 15, MacBook, or Surface Book keyboard over this one — it’s just not quite as snappy or satisfying.
Overall, it’s tough to identify a true competitor to the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4. Put it next to a Windows workstation like the $1,200 entry-level Dell XPS 15 and the Surface wins on power, battery life, and weight. It’s a good purchase for someone who wants an excellent combination of efficiency and multicore performance in a 15-inch chassis, but doesn’t need the grunt of a discrete GPU.
But that window of opportunity may be closing, because there’s very likely a larger M1 MacBook Pro on the way. I think there’s a good argument that people in the group described above (who don’t need a device right this second) should sit back and wait to see what Apple does in the next few months before committing to Microsoft’s machine, provided they don’t have a hard preference for operating systems.
On the other hand, even if the larger MacBook Pro is spectacular, there are some advantages the Laptop 4 will certainly retain (it runs Windows, and it’s built like a Surface Laptop) and some it will probably retain (it’ll likely be lighter than the MacBook Pro 16). And, of course, plenty of people need a laptop right now. In today’s market, among today’s 15-inch laptops, the Surface Laptop 4 is a pretty damn good buy. Microsoft didn’t change much about the outside — but on the inside, it really pulled through.
Photography by Monica Chin for The Verge