Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 review: For Surface fans only | PCWorld – PCWorld

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The Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 generally prioritizes aesthetics over performance, which isn’t always a bad thing. On paper, there are many rivals that offer more value.
Put simply, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 5 is Microsoft’s answer to your question: What laptop should I buy? The Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s laptop for everyone, its Toyota Camry, remaining virtually unchanged for generation after generation. Your only choice is the size — 13.5-inch or 15-inch — and what configuration you prefer.
If you’ve read our review of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4, you know almost exactly what to expect. The Surface Laptop 5 is nearly physically identical (with a sliver of difference here and there) to its predecessor, in both the 13.5-inch and 15-inch editions. Microsoft gave us the 15-inch version for review.
The key changes are largely internal: an upgrade to Intel’s 12th-gen Core (“Alder Lake”) and the addition of Thunderbolt 4, which is tied to that processor’s capabilities. The latter is subtly significant, as it eliminates the dependence on Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Dock and allows you to choose from the broader ecosystem of Thunderbolt docks instead. Thunderbolt and/or a Thunderbolt dock provides a sizeable upgrade in external I/O bandwidth, and that allows you to connect a multitude of legacy devices including two 4K, 60Hz displays. That significantly increases the Surface Laptop 4’s productivity possibilities.
The other interesting change that the Surface Laptop 5 brings with it is the elimination of an AMD Ryzen processor option, which in previous generations provided options for performance and battery life. Unfortunately, Microsoft simply settled on Intel’s 12th-gen Core (Alder Lake) for the Surface Laptop 5.
Mark Hachman / IDG
Microsoft made a more subtle change in the display with the addition of Dolby Vision IQ, a technology more commonly found in TVs to optimize high-dynamic range (HDR) content. Dolby IQ uses what the Laptop’s light sensor tells it about the ambient light in the room, and tries to adjust the display output to give you the best experience. (For more, see PCWorld Australia’s Dolby IQ explainer.)
Microsoft also continues to provide a Surface Laptop for Business option, which provides the only option for those who prefer Windows 11 Pro, versus Windows 11 Home. For consumers, the advantages are minimal. But Business customers receive a slightly upgraded processor option, Windows 11 Pro, and better support. (The difference between the Core i7-1255U and Core 17-1265U is 100MHz.) Improved support may be important, as more of the Surface Laptop’s components are now replaceable, including the motherboard, battery, and more — but (officially) only by an approved technician.
Michael Crider/IDG
Head to Microsoft US (or Microsoft UK) for discounts.
Microsoft’s base pricing has not increased over the Surface Laptop 4’s introductory price, which earns praise in a world where “inflation” is now a common topic.
I’ve used Surface Laptops as test beds for various Windows iterations for years now, so the latest 15-inch Surface Laptop 5 feels more familiar than anything else. Many compare the Surface Laptop to an Apple MacBook, and the monolithic aluminum chassis feels incredibly sturdy as you pull it out of the box. Forget stickers, RGB lighting, or special-purpose buttons — Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 5 is designed to be plain, simple, and productive. You can buy the 13.5-inch Laptop 5, with an option to coat the chassis in black Alcantara fabric, but you’ll probably prefer the metal configurations instead.
As mentioned above, the Surface Laptop platform has traditionally included a single USB-C port alongside a USB-A port on previous iterations. In the Surface Laptop 5, that USB-C port has been upgraded to Thunderbolt 4, in addition to the legacy Surface Connect port on the right side of the laptop. That means that you now have three charging options: a legacy Surface Dock or Surface Dock 2; a new (though admittedly pricey) powered Thunderbolt dock; as well as the 65W charger that ships inside of the box.
Our review unit shipped with a Core i7 inside, keyed to the “Recommended” power setting within Windows 11. That’s typically the lowest-performance setting, optimized for long battery life. Still, you’ll be really hard-pressed to hear any sort of fan noise at all on these default settings, even under severe loads. Even set to maximum performance, there’s only a faint, pleasant hiss. That’s a credit to both Microsoft and Intel engineers, which optimized the internal components in accordance with the new Intel Evo specification. Our tests do show that there’s a bit of thermal throttling, however, where the Laptop will self-regulate its performance to prevent overheating. We’ll talk more about that in our performance section.
Mark Hachman / IDG
Remember, Microsoft says that its customers have told it that they don’t changes to the Laptop platform — though you may wonder a bit at the hefty screen bezels that total about 3/8 of an inch on the sides and slightly more at the top. Rivals who extend their displays to nearly the end of the chassis won’t get any competition here. Several years ago, that sort of thing was ignored. Now, you can’t help but raise an eyebrow.
Still, there’s no denying that Microsoft’s Surfaces continue to offer one of the most dynamic and attractive displays around. Rival laptops waffle between 1080p and 4K displays; Microsoft wanders somewhere between with 1504p and 1664p displays on the 13.5-inch and 15-inch Laptops, using an uncommon 3:2 screen ratio. Our 15-inch review unit generated 384 nits of screen luminance (we consider 250 nits or so ideal for indoor use) which allows the Laptop 5 to be used outside on the sunny days that linger on the West Coast. Microsoft also got rid of the display brightness nonsense with the Surface Laptop 4 — then, Microsoft would dim the display on battery. Now, the Laptop 5 runs as bright on battery as plugged into the wall.
Mark Hachman / IDG
The Laptop 5 continues to offer a pair of color profiles — Vivid and sRGB — that continue to deliver great color accuracy. The Surface Laptop 5 does not offer a 120Hz option (either dynamic or fixed) however, since Microsoft doesn’t see the Laptop as much of a “creator” product as a Surface Pro 9 tablet or Surface Laptop Studio, which do. It’s still compatible with Microsoft’s Pen Protocol (MPP). however.
Microsoft also offers Dolby Vision IQ, new for the Surface Laptop 5, which interacts with the Laptop’s lighting sensor to provide a more dramatic experience, modulating the display brightness to punch up the display’s output. We didn’t notice any dramatic improvement due to this feature, but it’s possible it needs some fine-tuning.
In addition to the Thunderbolt port and the handy legacy USB-A port for a mouse, Microsoft preserved the 3.5mm headphone jack it eliminated in the Surface Pro 9. There are no microSD or SD card slots, though those can be added via a USB-C dongle. There are no Kensington or other locks at all.
Mark Hachman / IDG
We were happy to see that the Surface Laptop connected via a Thunderbolt dock to a pair of 4K displays, delivering the expected 60Hz refresh rates to both screens.
All of these aspects are virtually unchanged from the Surface Laptop 4, and that’s a good thing. We’d characterize all three aspects as decent to very good.
Microsoft Surface keyboards used to be among the best in the industry, but Microsoft reduced the key travel to 1.3mm. Personally, I equate the deeper key travel on Lenovo laptops and premier HP devices to deeper cushioning on a running shoe. It’s fair to say that 1.3mm travel is still comfortable. Otherwise, the Surface keyboard remains unchanged, with a top row of narrow keys devoted to common laptop functions and that’s about it. There are three levels of backlighting.
Mark Hachman / IDG
The Surface Laptop 5 trackpad is still excellent, clickable nearly to the top. Gestures worked as expected.
Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to have settled on a 720p webcam as the default resolution for the Surface Laptop lineup, even though other Surface products, such as the Surface Pro series, have adopted the superior 1080p resolution. Like all Surface devices, Microsoft uses a depth camera and Windows Hello to log you in via biometrics. Even after just a few seconds of training, it does an excellent job of recognizing you, though our history of older Surface devices indicates that you’ll need to retrain it over time, especially if you’ve grown a beard or shaved it. A PIN serves as a backup.
Microsoft seems to have resolved some of its issues with the camera on the previous Surface Laptop 4. A new face-finding feature on the Camera app attempts to balance lighting and color around your face, rather than the scene at large. The camera appears to capture more of the scene, as well. On balance, it’s an overall improvement even if the resolution is slightly lacking compared to the competition. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s new Studio Effects (face tracking, background blur, and more) that it developed for Windows 11 22H2 requires an Arm processor that, for now, that the Surface Laptop 5 lacks.
Mark Hachman / IDG
The audio experience on the Surface Laptop 5 has noticeably degraded from the prior generation, however: the maximum volume has decreased, and the overall soundscape sounds flatter than before. Microsoft still includes its Omnisonic speakers with Dolby Atmos backing them up, but either the wattage decreased or something’s slightly muffling the speakers. Overall, they’re still decent, but I’d probably say that I’m now more inclined to listen to music using headphones than the Laptop’s speakers, a break from the past.
Microsoft’s crapware-free “Signature” Editions of laptops that it sold on its Web site may have disappeared, but Microsoft has never loaded up its Surface devices with unwanted apps, to its credit. In fact, during the setup process, you can specify what you’re going to use the Surface for (entertainment, family, gaming, etc.) and it will suggest apps and websites to help you get started. Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video appeared on the Surface Laptop 5 after I told Windows that I would use it for entertainment during the setup process.
Mark Hachman / IDG
At this point, virtually every standard “X86” PC processor from Intel or AMD will run Windows and most apps just fine, though you’ll find some glitches along the way. Memory matters more than processing power when browsing, and the Laptop 5’s 16GB easily provides enough for dozens of tabs. The lack of a discrete GPU means that any game playing will be limited, though you’ll be able to play games using 2D sprites and some basic 3D games.
I was a little disappointed to see that the Surface Laptop dropped 120 out of 11,581 frames playing back a test stream from YouTube, especially because YouTube (sensing the capabilities of the hardware) only delivered a 1664×936 stream instead. That may mean that overall streaming performance is less than expected.
Keep in mind that, for whatever reason, Microsoft sets the Windows power/performance slider to prolong the battery life at the expense of performance, even when plugged in. Simply adjusting it to full performance can give you a massive performance boost under certain scenarios, so we tested that, too. You’ll find the Surface Laptop 5’s standard test scores marked in red; we ran separate tests with the “best performance” setting, and we’ve outlined those scores with a black bar. As you’ll see, in some cases it makes a massive difference.
On the other hand, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop will slightly thermally throttle itself, slowing itself down to prevent overheating. We saw this in the CPU, where performance dropped 5 percent over time, and in the GPU, where the laptop’s graphics performance dropped about 8 percent.
We consider the $1799.99 Surface Laptop 5 to be a somewhat pricy but otherwise mainstream laptop, so we’ve compared them to others: the $900 Acer Swift X, the $1,200 Acer Swift 3X, the $1,715 Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 9310, and the $1,210 HP Envy 14. The Dynabook Portégé X40-K1437 is a $1,769 business laptop, while the $1,765 Lenovo Slim 7 Pro X is a prosumer laptop with a lot to offer. We’ve also highlighted the $1,129.99 Surface Laptop 4 in orange, to show how the Surface Laptop 5 compares to its predecessor.
Our standard benchmark suite includes a choice of real-world and synthetic benchmarks, with an eye towards trying to evaluate both applications you use and those you may not. Our first, PCMark 10, tests both office work, light gaming, CAD, photo editing, performance during video calls, and more. At default settings, the Surface Laptop 5 is simply anemic, comparably. Dial up the performance, though, and performance jumps by 28 percent. Suddenly, it’s a contender.
Mark Hachman / IDG
We use Cinebench, a synthesized benchmark, to try and determine how well the laptop will perform on an application which leans hard into using the entire processor’s capabilities. Notice all of the AMD Ryzen laptops clustered at the top. The 12th-gen Core laptops at the top use Intel’s P-series processors, which offer greater performance. There’s a clear gap between the 11th-gen and 12th-gen Core laptops, but Microsoft isn’t exactly dominating the segment. Remember, too, that the Surface Laptop 5 doesn’t offer a Ryzen option.
Mark Hachman / IDG
Handbrake, a real-world video transcoding tool, does the same — but with an emphasis on prolonged work, so that we can see how long the laptop will perform using sustained workloads. This is a good test of both prolonged performance, but also how well the laptop can cool itself to sustain a prolonged workload.
Mark Hachman / IDG
Finally, we use 3DMark as a way to evaluate the performance of the integrated Iris Xe 3D core and its implications for some light gaming. Only pay attention to the top four scores here if you’re interested in purchasing a laptop with a discrete GPU — which is a perfectly fine idea if other aspects like battery life hold up. Here, the 12th-gen Core chip within the Surface Laptop 5 shows definite improvement over the Surface Laptop 4 and its Ryzen CPU.
Mark Hachman / IDG
Because the scores for the Surface Laptop 5 were sometimes lower than the Surface Laptop 4, we wondered why. Could it be the internal SSD was slowing the machine down? Using CrystalDiskMark 8.0.1, we tested the Surface Laptop 4 and 5. The Surface Laptop 5’s SSD measured noticeably faster: 882.46MB/s read and 779.65MB/s writes for the Surface Laptop 4, and 2,252MB/s reads and 1,933MB/s writes for the Surface Laptop 5. We have to conclude that the Ryzen chip simply made more of a difference.
Of course, we also tested the battery life of the Surface Laptop 5, with a looped 4K video that ran until the battery expires. One key is that we use a much brighter display that we think is typical for the average user, rather than the extremely dim screen brightness that Microsoft uses in its rated battery life. We believe that our tests more directly correspond to real-world usage, with expected battery life significantly less than the 17 hours that Microsoft claimed.
Mark Hachman / IDG
Mark Hachman / IDG
It’s a tough sell. Microsoft’s Surface displays are always a strong suit, and we’re unabashed fans of the simple, unadorned design. A Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of SSD storage demands some sort of a premium. But remove that display, and a device like the 14-inch Acer Swift X costs $500 less and offers more everyday PC performance, far better graphics, and exceptional battery life.
In fact, Microsoft’s decision to eliminate AMD’s Ryzen from this generation of Laptops looks a bit short-sighted, in retrospect. Our performance numbers simply show Ryzen chips clustering near the top of the performance charts. As we’ve shown, though, turn up the Windows performance slider! Doing so elevates everything the Laptop has to offer, and considerably so.
Essentially, Surface devices have always commanded a premium. That’s fine, especially in niches (the Surface Pro tablet, the excellent Surface Laptop Studio) where the competition isn’t as fierce. As someone who uses laptops daily, the smooth, spacious design absolutely resonates. But with now three generations of Surface Laptops that Microsoft has left virtually unchanged, it’s best to conclude that Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 5 emphasizes design, not value or raw performance. Take your pick: buy the Microsoft Laptop 5 if you’re in the first camp. Otherwise, look elsewhere.
As PCWorld’s senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.
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About the author

Subhashree Panda

Subhashree Panda

Subhashree has a Master's in Robotics and is fascinated by artificial intelligence. She covers the latest advancements in AI, machine learning, and robotics. Subhashree is also a robotics hobbyist and enjoys building small robots in her free time.