Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15-inch (Core i7) review: This is the one you should buy

It boasts an all-day battery, leading-edge performance, a great screen, and a more modern design.

Credit: Mark Hachman / IDG

Performance: Exemplary

Reviewing the Core i7 version of the Surface Laptop 3 helps us complete a circle--compare it against its Ryzen-based cousins. This is the first time Microsoft has featured an AMD processor inside one of its laptops, and not only was it a mobile Ryzen, but a custom mobile Ryzen. Even better, we had were able to test both the Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 versions, and therefore make an apples-to-apples comparison: Ryzen 7 versus Core i7. 

The Intel Core i7-1065G7 microprocessor in our unit is a quad-core chip that runs at a base frequency of 1.3GHz and throttles up to 3.9GHz when needed. Intel, finally rolling on its 10th-gen, 10nm Ice Lake architecture, also claims its integrated graphics is better than AMD’s own—an area that’s traditionally been one of AMD’s strong suits. On paper, Intel probably has an edge. Or does it?

We’ve compared the Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3 to both Ryzen-driven Surface Laptop 3s. We’ve included the Surface Laptop 2 for a generational comparison, as well as competitive notebook PCs from third-party manufacturers.

Visually, we’ve used Intel blue to highlight the Ice Lake-powered Surface Laptop 3, and shades of red to show off the Ryzen-powered machines.

The Surface Laptop 3 that Microsoft shipped us maximized battery life and minimized performance using the power/performance slider available via the Windows taskbar, even plugged in. We thought that was odd until we saw the anemic battery life numbers. But we wondered how dialing up the performance, especially when plugged in, would affect the rankings. So you’ll see a red outlined bar indicating the benchmark recorded under “Best Performance” settings. It’s a lot of data, but it should help you decide whether the Surface Laptop 3 is right for you.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 power settings Mark Hachman / IDG

We tested the Surface Laptop 3 using the default settings (shown here), but also adjusted the performance to see what effect it might have.

One real-world performance note: While other reviews note that the Surface Laptop 3 struggles with 4K/60-frames-per-second playback on sites like YouTube, that appears to have been fixed, perhaps with a software update. Our Ice Lake-based Surface Laptop 3 wasn’t affected at all, 99 percent of the time. There was a tiny bit of judder at rare moments.

We test using a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, beginning with the PCMark test suite. We’ve selected three: the PCMark 8 Work and Creative tests, as well as the updated PCMark 10 benchmark. Both of the former tests are somewhat older. The Work benchmark focuses on office tasks, while the Creative benchmark leans more heavily into mainstream gaming, video editing, and photo processing. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake pcmark 8 creative Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) tops everything else we tested in this PCMark test.

We’d expect to see substantive gains over the Surface Laptop 2. Surprisingly, only the  Creative benchmark produced those results. The Work test is where Intel’s Ice Lake machine, highlighted in blue, still smokes the Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen chip. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake pcmark work Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

While the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) is about a midrange performer overall, it smokes the Ryzen PCs on our list.

UL’s updated PCMark 10 suite also proves that the Ice Lake Core i7 chip can hold its own, though the scores are somewhat clustered together. AMD’s Ryzen chips keep up here, though.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake pcmark 10 Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

PCMark 10 is a modern benchmark tracking everything from how fast apps start up, to photo editing, to spreadsheets. It’s a good overall marker for everyday PC performance, and the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) comes out on top.

One interesting bonus: Applications seem to launch fast with the Surface Laptop 3, and that might be because of the SSD Microsoft chose. Using CrystalDiskMark 4.0.3, random 4K reads (using the 4KQ32T1 setting) on the Surface Laptop 3 are a whopping 455.9 MBps, somewhat more than three times as fast as the 133.8 MBps reported by the Surface Laptop 2 and also substantially more than the 279.2 MBps reported by the Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 7). Random writes were 397.7 MBps. Sequential reads were a blistering 2,266MBps, with 1,575MBps writes. The Surface Laptop 3’s responsiveness is noticeable, and we certainly didn’t expect a sharp jump in SSD performance versus the Ryzen platform.

Maxon’s Cinebench test stresses the CPU in rendering a fixed CGI scene, showing how well the Core i7 chip performs under load. Intel’s Ice Lake Core i7 again comes out on top, showing how well the Surface Laptop 3 will perform under computationally intensive apps and utilities. Its single-core performance is 182, compared to 152 for the Ryzen 7 Surface Edition, a 20-percent increase in performance.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake cinebench Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

The Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) tops the charts again in our Cinebench test of CPU performance.

For our next benchmark, we use the open-source HandBrake tool to transcode a full-length movie into a format suitable for viewing on an Android tablet. It’s basically a prolonged CPU stress test to complement Cinebench’s quick burst. Even with the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7)’s fairly constant fan, it cools itself well enough to maintain its elevated performance levels over time. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake handbrake Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake

In our HandBrake test, the Surface Laptop 3 (Core i7) is the quickest, though with AMD’s chips right on its heels. 

Finally, we get to see how well AMD’s mobile Vega chip performs in 3D graphics. I didn’t have time to play many games, but the benchmarks show that you should be able to play everything that we tested on the Ryzen 7 version of the Surface Pro 3, and then some. (Both Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Crackdown were playable. With Wolfenstein’s presets set to Low, the game ran at close to 60 frames per second at 720p resolution, and about 30 to 34 fps at 1080p resolutions.)

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Core i7 Ice Lake 3dmark sky diver Mark Hachman / IDG

The slightly higher scores exceed the Surface Laptops with Ryzen chips, but by just a handful of frames per second on most games. They’re still comparable to low-end discrete GPUs.

The 3DMark Fire Strike scores indicate that the Radeon Vega 9 GPU compares with the downclocked Nvidia GeForce MX150, which is impressive for integrated graphics, with Core i7’s Iris Plus a bit above it. 

The surprisingly heartening number is battery life. Microsoft has traditionally portrayed the Surface Laptop as an always-on, always-connected device, and the first two Surface Laptops performed quite well in this regard. Even the Ryzen 5-powered Surface Laptop 3 pushed over 8 hours. The Ryzen 7 version fell short, at 7 hours, 25 minutes. But the Surface Laptop 3 with Ice Lake came in at just about 10 hours, which is a business day and then some. 

Higher-resolution screens tend to consume more power, and pushing performance can negatively affect battery life and other performance numbers. Screen brightness also matters—we test using a comfortable 250-260 nits of luminosity, but Microsoft tests at 150 nits. This could all be offset with a larger battery. But the 45.8Wh battery inside the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is the same as on the other models, so we’d have to ascribe the battery life improvements largely to the Intel’s Ice Lake processor. 

Bottom line: worthy of an Editor’s Choice

When we began testing the Ryzen 5-powered Surface Laptop 3, our original thesis was that the Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3 might be the better bet. That has since been confirmed. Moreover, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 for Business demonstrates the battery life that we expect of a business laptop, as well as a Surface. Battery life of over eight hours is simply a fundamental requirement, and the reason that the Surface Laptop 3 for Business clears the bar and wins an Editor’s Choice award. Keep in mind that there’s nothing stopping you, as a consumer, from buying this business laptop, either!

We’d still like some clarification in the ports department. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 would have been nice, or perhaps an updated Surface Dock to take advantage of the Surface I/O port. But being able to work comfortably in a multi-monitor setup is a big improvement. 

There aren’t too many 15-inch notebook PCs that aim toward the high end of the consumer/productivity space without aiming at gamers. HP’s Spectre series is worth a hard look. The HP Spectre x360 15T featured on our performance charts offers some compelling features at an equally attractive price. Those who are more inclined toward brutal efficiency should also look at recent introductions like the Acer Swift 3 (available via Amazon)—we like the functionality Acer included for under $1,000, even if you won’t like the display and keyboard as much. Lenovo’s affordable Thinkbook 13s (available via Amazon) is also worth considering.

There’s one more interesting twist: the pricing. The Surface Laptop 3s with Ryzen chips inside are—for this generation, anyway—clearly not the best choice. Perhaps recognizing this, Microsoft discounted the consumer Surface Laptop 3s by about $200 or so in places, sweetening its deal.

While we haven’t tested every possible configuration of the Surface Laptop 3, the results with three of the top versions lead us to conclude you’ll be more than happy with a Surface Laptop 3 with either an Intel Core i5 or the Core i7 model we reviewed. This is the Microsoft Surface that we’ve been waiting for.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Surface Laptop

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?