Since the introduction of the Surface convertible tablet, Microsoft has been getting more and more serious about its line of hardware options every year.
The recent Surface Pro and Surface Laptop options are a further extension of this and it looks like we're even getting a phone next year. No wait, we're not supposed to call it a phone... it's a "dual screen device that fits in your pocket."
Anyway, Microsoft has a lot of gear out there...
The Surface Laptop 3 is completely new in a number of ways but more or less the same in many others - don't worry though; it's still a great laptop.
To start with, it's now available with a 15" screen, although here I'm reviewing the more conventional 13.5" version. What's less conventional is the 3:2 aspect ratio of that screen - much more square than I'm used to. This certainly gives the impression of more available workspace, although it does take some getting used to when it comes to watching wide-screen video. Even Netflix means big black spaces top and bottom.
Well worth putting up with though, because the display is excellent - super clear and bright as you need. In fact, I really enjoy watching video on this device, not just because of the great picture quality but it sounds pretty sweet too. Now weirdly, I seem to be a bit of a lone ranger on this one. Most other reviews I've read are critical of the speaker placement; underneath. Everyone seems to think just because you have the space, you should have the speakers up top somewhere. With the Suface Laptop 3's screen being so tall, the bottom half of the device is obviously also much longer than the keyboard itself. Critics have been quick to suggest this extra real estate should be used for some in-your-face speaker setup but I genuinely like the more ambient effect of the downward firing array. It does a good job of simulating a surround-sound environment, rather than a more one-directional signal being blasted directly at you.
Where Microsoft has made the most of the extra palm rest is with the touchpad. Because it's larger than many others, you can be a lot more accurate with cursor placement and it's also much easier to differentiate between left and right clicking. Holding and dragging is less fiddly for fat-fingered operators like me too. The real endorsement of this touchpad is that I'm still using it. I've been working on the Laptop 3 for a couple of weeks now and usually touchpads drive me insane after a day or so and I'm reaching for my wireless mouse. Not this time.
Speaking of the palm rest area, on previous Surface devices you'd expect to see a lot of fabric-feel Alcantara, which is certainly unique and comfy to the touch. However, the latest crop of Surfaces has hardened up a bit, quite literally. It seems Microsoft may be having second thoughts about the durability (and wipe-ability) of its velvety Alcantara and many of the latest devices offer aluminium options instead. I'm not overly fussed either way, although I must say the metal, especially in black, does seem a bit more classy and business-like. As always, the build quality on the Surface Laptop 3 is top-of-the-line; sturdy, precise and seamless. At the same time, it feels slim and light to carry around.
The other major talking point when it comes to the way the Surface Laptop 3 looks is what's missing; ports. You get one USB-C, one USB-A and a headphone jack. That's it. Oh, obviously there's a Surface Connect slot to put the charger into but seriously, what are they trying to prove here? People love plugging things into their computers. Why make it hard for them? The more ports the better, I say - although I actually don't care about the headphone jack. The bluetooth devices I connected to listen with operated flawlessly, with no lag at all.
It goes without saying the Surface Laptop 3 offers plenty of wireless connectivity, including the new Your Phone app, a recent Microsoft feature that lets you display your phone's photos, messages, notifications and screen on your computer. It works instantly and seamlessly on the Laptop 3. In fact, I found everything worked pretty seamlessly. This is what you'd expect from a 10th gen i5 Intel processor with 8GB of RAM... although that's not necessarily the configuration you're dealing with if you opt for a different screen size or storage option. Interestingly (interesting if you're a nerd anyway) Microsoft has started dabbling with other CPU options; the 15" versions are based on AMD's Ryzen 5 or 7 chips.
Price varies wildly depending on screen size and storage options too - starting at $1,899 right up to $4,849. Just a warning, I'd avoid settling for only 128GB of storage, given the 256GB version I'm using right now is using up over 50GB on system files and default apps alone. To be frank, these days I'm not even sure I'd be comfortable buying a phone with only 128GB of storage, let alone a laptop.
The camera is what it is; about standard for a laptop. In saying that, I've been impressed with its ability to pick out the subject clearly, even when there's a lot of backlight (ie: a window). Video quality is actually above average, well, above average for 720p anyway. The best thing about the camera is the Windows Hello facial recognition log-in function; this seems to work faster and more consistently than ever before.
Like its other Surface stablemates, the Laptop 3 is very hard to fault. It looks good, it's light and extremely reliable. What it lacks in ports and physical connectivity, it more than makes up for in battery life and display quality. Sure, there may be other laptops out there with similar specs for less money, but Surface is now a proven brand offering excellent performance and reliability - that's the kind of confidence that's worth a few extra bucks.