Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 isn’t going to dethrone the Apple MacBook Pro as the king of the 15in castle but it’s bound to make the brand (here in South Africa, at least) keep a hand to its neck. Slick design, excellent battery life and that excellent Matte Black hue make this one Microsoft royalty.
It’s been a long time coming but Microsoft’s own computing hardware is finally in South Africa. It’s not the whole roster (at least, not yet) but it’s now possible to purchase both the Surface Laptop 3 and the Surface Pro 7 here.
We’ve long held that Microsoft makes some of the best, most underrated computer peripherals, a tradition that stretches back more than a decade to the company’s first black optical mouse. You know the one, with the red light at the back? That attention to detail and devotion to quality has long been apparent in the company’s Surface range of hardware but we haven’t been allowed to play in that particular pool. Not officially. It’s nice that the pool’s no longer closed to South Africans.
Does it come in black?
Because… well, the Surface Laptop 3 is one hell of a starting point for Microsoft to come into the country on. Build quality rivals the mighty Apple and even in terms of design… okay, so the Stuff team is about 85% goth (Speak for yourself – Brad) so the straight lines and soul-sucking inkiness of the Matte Black edition made us fall in love almost instantly. There’s also a Platinum version available to South African users and, if you happen to head overseas, you’ll find a few that are finished in Alcantara. We’re just fine with the wholly brushed metal look and feel, though.
Construction is solid throughout, with little give in the keyboard (which you so often find with less well-engineered notebooks) or the lid. The 15in 2,256 x 1,504 PixelSense display that Microsoft is so justifiably proud of has no flex at all when opening or closing. The angles are crisp without being sharp but it’s not all wine and roses. Like the MacBook Pro, Microsoft’s skimped on ports here.
There are only two for human interfaces, a USB-A and USB-C. Which, technically, cover your bases but it’s not really enough. The 3.5mm headphone jack and Microsoft’s own (awesome) Surface Connect charger port does little to make up for the lack. But then there’s the actual performance…
Ryzen to the challenge
Which is better than we expected — even though Microsoft’s own hardware ‘reference designs’ are supposed to be a showcase for Windows 10 performance. AMD’s Ryzen 5 chipset was the beating heart of our review unit. It’s not the absolutely top-end model – there’s also a version with a Ryzen 7 but we found AMD’s chipset to be plenty for standard office tasks. We’re less impressed with graphics performance but the on-chip Radeon Vega 9 is no slouch.
We also had 16GB of RAM inside, as well as 256GB of storage. Again, this isn’t the very top of the range but then you’re looking at pricing around R46,000 for the mega-Ryzen setup. Along with the gorgeous (but weirdly-sized) 2,256 x 1,504 PixelSense touchscreen display — which has a ‘productivity-boosting’ 3:2 aspect ration — the Surface Laptop 3 is in-freaking-credible as a strictly office machine.
While our review model was packed with AMD’s Ryzen processor tech, there are also Intel variants for the fanperson-ish of you out there. You can snag a Surface Laptop 3 with a 10th-gen Core i5 or Core i7 processor, but then you’re restricted to the 13in models – which aren’t quite as battery efficient as this beastie. All-day battery? Sure, as long as you’re not spending your workday running games. Office tasks only? You’ll get home with battery to spare.
Staying on track
The Surface Laptop 3 is fantastic to use — which is just as well, because you’re going to be using it for a long time. The keyboard has a decent amount of travel and feels appropriately solid enough to get a little thumpy. We like that in a keyboard. But the trackpad might be the real start of the interface show — It’s smooth, accurate, incredibly generous. These are prime qualifications for a decent mobster, but we’ll accept them from Microsoft’s trackpad as well. Navigation is better here than on many competing machines– we think it’s the size, mostly.
But there’s one interface more that we haven’t explored and that’s because it’s a damned shame to touch it. The 15in 2,256 x 1,504 PixelSense display is crisp, clean and incredible to look at but it’s also a touchscreen. One that we barely used because the panel looks far too good to smudge.
Of course, you could also use Microsoft’s Surface Pen (which’ll set you back R2,000), if you’re worried about fingerprints, but that’s more for the company’s Surface Pro 7 in its tablet orientation. You can certainly use the Pen to annotate onscreen but in a laptop form factor, it’s a little hard on the wrists. Still, compatibility is nice — even if we didn’t feel inclined to make use of it much.
Hard to port
The Surface Laptop 3, so far, sounds mighty attractive. But there are areas to criticise and they’re the same places where Apple gets flack from us. The port selection is just dismal on this machine, which is a real pity because it has everything else going for it. But no, Microsoft had to go all skimpy on the ports, didn’t they? There are a few — one USB-C, USB-A and 3.5mm each, as well as the company’s own Surface Connect hole on the right-hand side. There’s enough to get by but you really want to add a hub if you’re peripheral-heavy. And that’s an extra expense.
But the Surface Connect almost redeems the whole thing. The Surface Connect charge port is reminiscent of Apple’s old MagSafe charger connections. Yeah, it’s proprietary but you also can’t kick your laptop to the floor using nothing but a cable. The charger cable slides in, where it’s magnetically held in place. The slightest tug pulls it out, but as long as you leave the wire alone it’ll keep sending power to the Surface Laptop 3 without issues.
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Verdict
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is one hell of a notebook, an Apple MacBook Pro for people who don’t like Apple but better. Better because it comes in Matte Black, a colour option we were especially taken with but if you’re a little less goth than we are, there’s also a Platinum shade here in SA. It’s got all the battery life you could want, the screen in gorgeous, there’s enough power (as long as you’re not after a dedicated gaming setup) for anything you’d like and it’s built like a computerised tank.
About the only issue we have are the lack of ports and the price — The Surface Laptop 3 range starts at around the R23,000 mark here at home but that’ll get you a 13in machine with an Intel Core i5 inside. If you want to play with the big boys, expect to pay around full-spec Apple MacBook Pro pricing — over R40k. Apparently quality really isn’t cheap.
Screen 15in PixelSense (2256 x 1504) touchscreen
Processor AMD Ryzen 5 3580U
Storage 256GB SSD
GPU AMD Radeon Vega 9
Ports 1 x USB-C, 1 x USB-A, 1 x 3.5mm Audio, 1 x Surface Connect
Connectivity Bluetooth 5.0, WiFi 5 802.11ac