Note: While the ExtremeTech publishing system only allows us to list one author per story, sometime-ET author Jessica Hall also spent significant time with the Surface Laptop 3 and contributed her own experiences, thoughts, and evaluation of the laptop to this review.
The Surface Laptop 3 is the third iteration of Microsoft’s “standard” laptop and one of the all-around nicest systems I’ve ever used. I’ve hammered on the Surface Laptop family in the past because I didn’t think the hardware deserved the price premium. I was curious, however, to see what kind of additional value Ice Lake could bring to the system. One of the reasons I dislike the high prices on the first two generations of Surface Laptop is that users were stuck with Intel integrated graphics from the Skylake era. The Core i7-1065G7 brings far more graphics horsepower to the table than previous Intel CPUs — hopefully improving the Surface’s value proposition in the process.
Objectively, the Surface Laptop 3 is a very nice laptop. I’ve had fewer bugs or issues with this system than any OEM laptop I can ever remember testing, and while I can’t claim to love literally every detail, I like it far more than most.
The system we’re reviewing today is technically a Surface for Business laptop rather than the standard consumer Surface, but the only difference as far as I can tell is that Microsoft sells 15-inch systems with Intel CPUs in the Surface for Business section, while its consumer division uses Ryzen CPUs in all 15-inch systems.
Intel Core i7-1065G7
2256×1504 3:2 Display
Platinum (Metal) Finish
All Surface for Business systems are currently out of stock at Microsoft.com, but this configuration retails for a base of $1,699. As of 3/25, it was on sale for $1,549.
Note: It is not clear if the Surface Laptop 3 uses a 15W configuration or the optional 25W “TDP Up” mode. We’ve assumed the latter.
I’ve got a pair of laptops here to compare against that should make interesting competition for the Surface Laptop 3. First up, and the oldest system here, is a Razer Blade Stealth from early 2016. Like the Surface Laptop 3, the Razer Blade Stealth is a thin machine with a high-resolution display and an integrated GPU.
Razer Blade Stealth (2016)
12.5-inch, 2560×1440 Display
Intel Core i7-6500U (2C/4T, 2.5GHz – 3.1GHz)
256GB PCIe M.2 SSD
The Razer Blade Stealth (link to current model) is a plausible stand-in for the kind of machine a Surface Laptop 3 customer might be upgrading from. While it has a much smaller panel than the SL3, it emphasized many of the same traits — long battery life, a high-DPI display, thinness, and as much performance as could be squeezed into the form factor.
Next up is a very different type of comparison:
Alienware 13 R3 (late 2016)
13.3-inch, 2560×1440 OLED display
Intel Core i7-7700HQ (4C/8T, 2.8GHz – 3.8GHz)
16GB DDR4-2400 RAM
512GB PCIe M.2 SSD
GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB)
The Alienware 13 R3 (late 2016) was an upper-midrange gaming laptop when new, and it maintains solid frame rates in titles released today. Its 45W CPU means that the Alienware 13 R3 will very likely be faster than the Surface Laptop 3 in any performance tests — the question is, by how much? I also wanted to compare the Surface’s excellent LCD against the OLED panel on the Alienware. How does a relatively early OLED compare with a brand-new LCD after several years of use?
The Surface Laptop 3’s display is excellent and continues Microsoft’s long trend of top-notch displays in its Surface line. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the 3:2 aspect ratio, but it’s excellent if you work in office applications or value vertical space. I was never bothered by the letterboxing on video content.
I can’t give you specific colorimetry measurements on the panels, but I compared all three systems in identical viewing conditions using the same browser (Chrome) and the same content at both 100 percent and 50 percent system brightness. This does not calibrate the panels to an external standard like 200 nits — it means I compared them at the 50 and 100 percent mark of their own individual ranges.
At 100 percent brightness, the Alienware 13 R3 easily beats both the Surface Laptop 3 and the Razer Blade Stealth. This is to be expected, given the nature of an OLED panel, which emits light directly and can, therefore, be completely off when displaying black. LCDs use backlights, which means the depth of black you see on screen is a function of how good your panel is at blocking its own backlight. We watched clips from Stargate: Atlantis, Downton Abbey, and Avengers: Infinity War on all three panels.
While our rankings didn’t change at 50 percent brightness, the degree of difference did. If I was comparing on a 100-point scale, at 100 percent brightness, the three panels might have rated, say, 92 (Alienware OLED), 84 (Microsoft Surface Laptop 3), and 75 (Razer Blade Stealth). At 50 percent brightness, the gap between them would be more like 92, 89, 86.
I don’t typically use the Alienware OLED at full brightness because I’ve been leery of wearing out the panel and my battery. Furthermore, the panel Alienware uses is calibrated for vivid, eye-popping color at the expense of accuracy. This approach has sold Samsung hundreds of millions of Galaxy devices and I enjoy the way color looks on the OLED. But it isn’t very accurate and shouldn’t be mistaken for such.
The 1440p display on the Razer Blade Stealth is the least attractive of the three, but that honestly doesn’t feel like a very fair criticism. The Surface Laptop 3 has the best LCD I’ve ever seen on a laptop and the Alienware is an OLED. The Razer isn’t bad, in any sense; it just isn’t quite up to the standard of the first two.
The Surface Laptop 3 speakers are top-notch. You’re never going to get standalone speaker performance out of a laptop, but Microsoft devotes more internal space to its speakers than other companies and you can hear the difference. There’s some additional technical data available in this Reddit thread, though the author points out that his testing was done on demo units in a store.
Highs are crisp and clear on the Surface Laptop 3. Distortion from low bass is nonexistent, even at 100 percent volume. The laptop is surprisingly resonant — while the bass response is a bit flat at the bottom, the Surface Laptop 3 doesn’t sound nearly as thin as most laptops do. Mids and vocals are also strong. If you want a laptop with speakers that can plausibly fill a (small) room and sound good doing it, the Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent choice.
We tested the Surface Laptop 3, Alienware R13, and Razer Blade Stealth with the following songs:
Taylor Swift – You Need to Calm Down
Velvetine – The Great Divide
Allie X – Paper Love
The Prodigy: The Day is My Enemy
Home Free – Man of Constant Sorrow
Disturbed – The Sound of Silence
Alan Walker – Sing Me to Sleep
ES Posthumus – Nara
Collectively, these pieces of music cover a wide range of styles and frequency ranges. The Surface Laptop 3 excels at all of them. Neither highs nor lows distort, even at maximum volume, in any content we tested.
Compared with the Surface Laptop 3, the Alienware R13 had roughly the same amount of bass but less emphasis and clarity at high frequencies, and isn’t as loud overall. If the Surface Laptop 3 were a 9/10, I’d rate the Alienware as a solid 7 — it’s not quite as good, but you could watch a movie on it with another person and you’d be able to hear everything.
The Razer Blade Stealth just isn’t as nice. While the system has reasonably good tweeters, there’s no bass response to speak of. If we rated sound solutions in terms of their similarity to butter, the Surface Laptop 3 is an actual, bovine-based, butterfat emulsion while the older Alienware is a solid margarine brand you’ve heard of before, like “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” The Razer, or at least the Razer’s bass response, is best-classified as “Memories of Bass.”
Typing, Trackpad, Feel, and Flexion
The Surface Laptop 3’s keyboard is comfortable to type on. I prefer it to the Alienware 13 and definitely more than the Razer Blade Stealth. The trackpad is far better than either the Razer or the Alienware. Both of these systems have downright awful trackpads that are much too sensitive. If I have to use either of these systems without a mouse, I tend to leave the trackpad off and to rely on the touch screen instead. In contrast, I only use a mouse on the Surface Laptop 3 when I’m gaming.
The Surface Laptop 3 wins the flexion test, displaying absolutely zero despite being a 15-inch laptop. The Alienware has always flexed, on account of the plastic in its construction. The Razer Blade Stealth doesn’t flex, but it’s also the smallest laptop of the three and the least susceptible.
One of the only things I genuinely dislike about the Surface Laptop 3 is the way it handles its Fn keys. On most laptops, the top-most keys are reserved for F1-F12, and the secondary laptop functions are mapped to the FuNction (FN) key. On the Surface Laptop 3, the Fn key is a toggle switch and the media and system control functions are primary. The actual F1-F12 function is secondary.
This works perfectly well for typing, but it rather sucks if you play games like World of Warcraft and want to remap the keys for other purposes. You can use the toggle switch to have F1-F12, but if you then need to take a screenshot, lower the volume, or change the screen brightness, you’ll have to hit the Fn key (to switch back), adjust the desired setting, and then hit the Fn key again to regain use of F1-F12. It’s not remotely handy.
Two other minor complaints: I dislike half-height arrow keys and I detest the power button also being on the keyboard next to the delete key, where you can whack it reaching for Ctrl-Alt-Del. The F1-F12 issue could be an annoyance for anyone who relies on software keystrokes that use those functions but also uses the media buttons at the same time. The other two are strictly personal taste.
While I’ve included some performance benchmarking in this review, it’s not the primary focus. I’ve spent more time describing various aspects of how the laptop feels and looks compared with emphasizing performance testing. That’s not an accident. Laptops are a much more integrated product than your typical desktop CPU, and while I’m not saying that performance doesn’t matter (obviously it does), we’re taking a look at three systems broadly separated in time and sold into somewhat different markets, not comparing between multiple systems fighting for shelf space today.
With that said, we’re interested in two specific trends: How does the Surface Laptop 3 compare with the Razer Blade Stealth in the 15W / 25W TDP space, and how well does it compete against the 7700HQ — a CPU from several generations back, but with more thermal headroom?
One thing to be aware of, regarding gaming on a Surface: The laptop doesn’t like all of the lower resolution modes it needs to run at in order to deliver playable performance. 1080p works in every title I tested, but some games will run in forced windowed mode with the desktop visible in the background if you pick a resolution the GPU doesn’t like. I was able to find a playable option in every case. The 16:10 aspect ratio is the closest mathematically to the Surface’s 3:2, but 4:3 is an option as well.
Cinebench R20 shows the 7700HQ ahead of the Core i7-1065G7 by about 13 percent in multi-threaded, but the Ice Lake CPU returns the favor in single-threaded, where it leads the 7700HQ by 1.23x. The Razer Blade Stealth does its best, and we should all be kind to it.
PCMark 10’s Extended test appears to show the Core i7-7700HQ with a decisive advantage — but let’s break those tests down and see where it’s coming from.
The Surface Laptop 3 clearly winds up losing the way it does because it’s being run over in Gaming. The gap between the Alienware and Surface is much smaller in every test and the SL3 even wins the Essentials benchmark by a solid margin. This test is clearly lightly threaded given how well the Razer competes, and Ice Lake shines in these scenarios.
The Alienware 13 R3’s SSD is the most-worn and has never been wiped via Secure Erase, which could be degrading its performance a bit. The Surface Laptop 3 clearly benefits from the improvements to PCIe storage over the last few years.
Very few people would run these kinds of 3D renders on a laptop, but I included them for a reason: I wanted to see if relative performance between the Surface Laptop 3 and the Alienware 13 R3 would change as both systems heated up. The answer, in a nutshell, is no. Sustained clock speeds during the Blender 1.0Beta 2 benchmark were 3.39GHz (Alienware), 2.98GHz (Razer) and 2.5GHz (Microsoft). The 7700HQ maintains a consistent leadership position, but neither the Surface nor the Razer shows an unexpected falloff.
GPU performance is tougher to compare. The Razer Blade Stealth might rival a ham sandwich’s performance if you can find a way to render 3DMark with a little mayo and tomato. Ice Lake is capable of achieving genuinely playable frame rates in at least some games, but settings that stretch Intel Gen 11 are a cakewalk for the GTX 1060. There’s not a ton of point to running comparative benchmarks when we know exactly which way they’ll go in every single case.
When I saw the Razer Blade Stealth unable to hit playable frame rates in a nine-year-old game, I decided to save both it and I some torture and dropped it from our other comparisons.
Shadow of Mordor offers frame rates that are multiples of the base resolution of the display, making it impossible to find a common resolution between the two systems. The 1280×960 resolution on the Surface Laptop 3 is 1.2MP, while 1696×964 works out to ~1.6MP for the GTX 1060. Despite this decidedly unequal workload, the Alienware wallops the Ice Lake CPU. At the same time, however, Shadow of Mordor is playable at these settings on the 1065G7.
Finally, here’s Metro Last Light Redux. Again, the Surface Laptop 3 isn’t capable of putting up a fight against the GTX 1060, but it delivers the playable frame rates that the Razer Blade Stealth is incapable of approaching.
Here’s how I’d think about GPU performance:
If the most gaming you’re going to do is WoW Classic, League, Stardew Valley, or FTL — in other words, very old games or very, very lightweight ones — older Intel GPUs like the Razer Blade Stealth’s are adequate. For most intents and purposes, systems like the Razer Blade Stealth do not play games.
If you want a system that could be described as “gaming-adjacent,” with the capability to run some older AAA games at reasonable frame rates/detail levels, the Surface Laptop 3 has enough graphics power to get the job done. It’s a laptop that can run some games, but not a gaming laptop.
If you want an actual gaming laptop, buy a laptop with a discrete GPU. The GTX 1060 is four years old this year and beats the pants off the 1065G7, but draws vastly more power to do it.
Note: The 4K version of the Razer Blade Stealth from 2016 was widely panned for poor battery life. The QHD version wasn’t nearly as bad. While it didn’t set any records, it wasn’t abysmal, either.
Amusingly, while the Alienware 13 R3 started with a much larger battery than either of the other systems, according to PCMark 10 it’s also quite degraded, at 30 percent wear. The remaining capacity is 53.8, almost in-line with the other two systems. The Surface Laptop 3 has a 46Whr battery while the Razer Blade Stealth is only slightly smaller, at 44Whr.
We used PCMark 10’s Video and Office battery life benchmarks for our testing. All systems were set to Balanced performance, with screen brightness at 50 percent. Wi-Fi was left connected, with all three laptops in maximum “Battery Saver” mode.
We can’t make any statements regarding industry battery life trends from 2016 to 2020 using just one data point from each time period, but there are a few things about the Surface Laptop 3 that impressed me. It’s not just that the battery run-time is significantly longer than the Razer Blade Stealth; it’s that the overall experience of using the laptop is also much better.
The Razer Blade Stealth is completely silent in normal, low-power operation and can ramp its fans to a deeply obnoxious pitch. This laptop’s sonic signature is proof that a quiet dental drill is not necessarily a better dental drill.
I have permanent hearing damage in my left ear caused by previous close-range chronic exposure to white noise and am leery about how much fan noise I expose my ears to now as a result. The Alienware 13 R3 is so loud when gaming, I will not use the laptop for that purpose without capping the frame rate at 30-40 fps.
To be crystal clear: The Alienware 13 R3 has nothing to do with the fact that I have hearing loss and I am not claiming that using the laptop in its default configuration will cause hearing loss.
Limiting the Alienware to a reasonable noise level also limits how much of an improvement the GTX 1060 can provide. In games like World of Warcraft, which I played on both systems, I typically limit the Alienware to 35fps in order to keep the fan noise to a tolerable level and my lap from igniting. Gamers who typically play with headphones on don’t need to worry about any of this, obviously.
The Surface Laptop 3 doesn’t pack anywhere near the GPU performance of the Alienware 13 R3, but it doesn’t get anywhere near as loud, either. While the fan pitch is higher than I like, it doesn’t have the Razer Blade Stealth’s drilling note.
Performance Analysis: More Than Meets the Eye
There are some really interesting trends in the data that we’ve gathered. Reviews from 2016 show that the Razer Blade Stealth’s CPU performance was well-regarded. Compared with the Surface Laptop 3, however, the Razer is a putz. Part of that is because Intel stepped up to quad-core chips with Coffee Lake, but not all of it. Ice Lake’s single-threaded performance is 1.36x higher than the Core i7-6500U and some of that gain is going to carry over into multi-threaded scenarios.
The Alienware 13 R3 is a really interesting match-up against the Core i7-1065G7. Statistically, it’s about 1.13x – 1.2x faster than the top-end Ice Lake CPU. There are two ways to look at those results and both are valid.
First, the Alienware 13’s 35W CPU has held up far better than the Core i7-6500U. It’s unambiguously faster than the Core i7-1065G7 in every rendering test and most of PCMark 10. If you want to buy a laptop with a good chance of lasting some years, a higher TDP CPU is obviously helpful.
Second, Intel has done an excellent job improving Ice Lake’s performance-per-watt. The Core i7-1065G7 has a 15W TDP with a 25W option while the Core i7-7700HQ is a 45W chip. While TDP can’t be treated as a proxy for power consumption, the Surface Laptop 3 is scarcely thicker than the Razer Blade Stealth but provides dramatically more performance.
As far as GPU performance is concerned, the Razer Blade Stealth isn’t capable of any meaningful gaming whatsoever. It can handle titles like WoW Classic or League of Legends, barely. You won’t mistake the Intel Core i7-1065G7’s GPU for a discrete card, but you can do some gaming on this solution, especially at lower resolutions. The Alienware’s GTX 1060 remains a potent performer, but if you care about fan noise you may find yourself locking down your frame rates.
Each of these three systems represents a different balance between performance, battery life, noise, and weight. The Razer Blade Stealth is the lightest, smallest laptop, but it also has weak battery life and an unfortunately tuned fan, with no gaming capabilities.
The Alienware 13 R3 has a gorgeous display and by far the highest gaming performance, while the Surface Laptop 3 blends the benefits of a metal construction and a 15W/25W CPU for better battery life with a 10nm SoC from Intel and a much-improved iGPU.
A Fabulously Balanced Laptop
The Surface Laptop 3 isn’t a gaming laptop, but it can play older titles and modern games with more modest GPU requirements. It won’t blow your socks off, but it’s a much faster solution than any previous GPU Intel has ever shipped.
Gaming is the weakest link in the Surface Laptop 3’s armor, and when even gaming performance has improved by this much, that chink isn’t very wide. We’ll see what happens with AMD’s Ryzen Mobile 4000 15W CPUs when those arrive, of course, but Intel has still delivered very real improvements over its own previous GPU architecture.
Is it perfect? No. The price is high for the limited amount of included storage and Microsoft wants a whopping $400 for 256GB(!) of additional SSD capacity. Objectively speaking, there are other laptops with better specs than this one for less money. If you want to game, specifically, there are laptops in this price range with much faster GPUs. At the same time, the Surface Laptop lineup has improved in some significant ways since the first systems shipped. According to iFixit, the Surface Laptop 3 is also far more repairable than the original. The Surface Laptop earned iFixit’s first 0/10 score, while the SL3 is rated 5/10.
But what the Surface Laptop 3 does offer is a remarkably well-balanced system. Sound, audio, keyboard, and trackpad are all excellent, and the 3:2 form factor is much nicer for Word or Excel than 16:9. The GPU performance uplift and overall CPU performance increase relative to 2016 is downright impressive, and we’re glad to see Intel fielding a much better GPU overall with Ice Lake in 2020.
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