The original 15-inch version of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 arrived in late 2019, receiving warm enough reviews to merit at least a cautious look from those who think Microsoft knows best when it comes to portable computing hardware. My colleague Scott Gilbertson called it a perfect choice if you “plan to use it to watch Netflix, edit documents, and browse the web.” How’s that for a rousing recommendation?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the original Surface Laptop 3 was the fact that it was part of Microsoft’s new trend of dabbling in alternatives to Intel CPUs. Only unlike the hot wet garbage that is the Qualcomm-chipped Surface Pro X, the Surface Laptop 3 runs with AMD. An Intel-powered version was also available at launch, but it was marketed as the Surface Laptop 3 for Business—the subtext being not for Consumers. But is that a smart way of looking at it? Which version should you get? AMD or Intel?
First, let’s dispense with the obvious: This is a near-twin to the AMD-powered Surface Laptop 3, only with a different CPU and a few changes in fairly minor components (such as a different wireless chipset). It has the same ultra-bright 15-inch touchscreen (with a 3:2 aspect ratio and 2,496 x 1,664 pixels of resolution), and the same 3.4-pound, 17mm-thick chassis. It also has the same dearth of ports: one full-size USB and one USB-C port, and that’s it. Configurations vary, but the system I received for testing had 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 1.3GHz Core i7. As with the AMD version of the system, graphics are integrated.
While I don’t have Gilbertson’s complete benchmark results for direct comparison, I can tell you that the tale of the tape heavily tips performance in the favor of the Intel model. AMD’s Ryzen 5 is hardly known for being a barnburner, and you can expect a sizable speed boost by moving up to the Core i7—at least when running high-end applications. You won’t have the world handed to you by the Intel-based Surface Laptop 3, but you will see real-world performance gains of roughly 10 percent over recent-model Core i5 systems and a solid 20 percent over most Ryzen machines. And, as a bonus, although the Surface Laptop 3 is equipped with integrated graphics, I got scores on gaming, VR, and photo manipulation benchmarks that were in line with (or better than) recent model laptops equipped with an Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU. Finally, I scored 7 hours, 46 minutes of battery life on my full-screen video playback test, which is at least as good as the AMD unit gets.
As with the AMD version, the keyboard is solid and responsive, and the touchpad is outstanding (as well as huge). I initially had some issues with the responsiveness of the touchscreen, but some firmware updates sorted that out after a few reboots. At just 3.4 pounds, the machine is decidedly on the light side for a 15-inch laptop, though most laptops in this category tend to have more features and connectivity options. On the plus side, the system isn’t particularly loud under load and manages to stay relatively cool.
All told, “Intel Inside” gets you some clear benefits to the AMD model, but (at current prices) you will pay an extra $200 for an equivalently-equipped machine. That’s not cheap, but I don’t think it’s a tough sell when it comes to upgrading. The performance boost on nearly every dimension justifies the outlay—at least if you’re determined to go with a Surface Laptop 3 no matter what. Savvy comparison shoppers will see that the Surface Laptop 3 is relatively expensive no matter what CPU you outfit it with. Though it’s a solid system in its own right, your money will stretch further if you look elsewhere.