Over the years, Microsoft’s Surface team has become quite a driver of innovation in the PC space. While the original Surface Pro was mostly just a curio, Microsoft continued to iterate through designs, and eventually found their breakthrough product with the very popular Surface Pro 3 convertible tablet. Since then, Microsoft has been able to further build off of the Surface brand's success with additional and interesting designs, including the Surface Book with its detachable display, the Surface Studio all-in-one, and the Surface Pro X which pushes the Surface Pro design into a new, more modern take on the convertible tablet.

But with a burgeoning brand, Microsoft has also developed some more conservative devices under the Surface family, and this is most evident with Microsoft's Surface Laptop lineup. The Surface Laptop, now in its fourth generation, has never felt like it was as innovative as the other designs, but the most conventional member of the Surface family does something that no other Surface device can: cater to a wider market looking for a more traditional laptop design. As a result, the Surface Laptop has become a quiet workhorse of sorts for the Surface family, filling the need for a traditional clamshell laptop while still finding just enough space to put the Surface flourish on the complete package.

Today, we are looking at the latest generation Surface Laptop 4 to see how the changes under the hood impact the experience of Microsoft’s thin and light clamshell laptop design.

Compared to other popular laptop lineups, the major points of differentiation with the original Surface Laptop were the inclusion of an Alcantara keyboard deck, and a 3:2 aspect ratio display. While neither of those choices were revolutionary, Microsoft’s decisions have, in fact, moved the industry forward. We are seeing many more devices being offered with taller displays, either 3:2 or 16:10, and although the Alcantara keyboard deck has not been replicated by other manufacturers, devices like the all-leather HP Spectre Folio is certainly another device attempting to try a material other than metal to provide a premium laptop feel. And of course, Microsoft hasn't stopped there, and has continued iterating on the Surface Laptop family through now what is several generations.

That brings us to the latest edition of the Surface Laptop, the aptly named Surface Laptop 4. Following their previous decision with the Surface Laptop 3 to source CPUs from both Intel and AMD for their laptops, Microsoft has opted to do the same once more. So depending on which version a given laptop is, it might contain either an AMD Ryzen 4000 "Renoir" APU or an Intel "Tiger Lake" 11th gen Core CPU. This kind of diversification means that the two laptop lines are quite different at times – Intel tops out at half as many CPU cores as AMD, for example – but for Microsoft it gives them a lot of options for performance and pricing, and of course it doesn't leave them beholden to any one CPU vendor.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
Model Tested: 15-inch Ryzen 7 4980U / 16 GB / 512 GB
  13.5-Inch 15-Inch
Processor Intel Core i5-1145G7

Intel Core i7-1185G7

AMD Ryzen 5 4680U
Intel Core i7-1185G7

AMD Ryzen 7 4980U
Memory 8GB/16GB/32GB LPDDR4X-3733MHz
Graphics Intel: Intel Iris Xe Graphics
AMD: AMD Ryzen Microsoft Surface Edition Radeon Graphics
Display 13.5" 2256x1504 3:2 PixelSense
Touch and Pen support
Individually calibrated panels
15" 2496x1664 3:2 PixelSense
Touch and Pen support
Individually calibrated panels
Storage 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB PCIe NVMe
Removable M.2 Drive
Networking Wi-Fi 6 802.11ax - Intel AX200 Series
Bluetooth 5.0
Audio Omnisonic Speakers
Dolby Atmos
Battery 46 Wh
65 Watt AC Adapter with USB-A Charge Port
Right Side Surface Connect Port
Left Side USB Type-A
USB Type-C
Headset Jack
Dimensions 308 x 223 x 14.51 mm (12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 inches) 339.5 x 244 x 14.69 mm (13.4 x 9.6 x 0.57 inches)
Weight Fabric: 1.26kg
Metal: 1.29kg
1.54kg
Camera Front: 720p Camera and Windows Hello support
Dual far-field Studio Mics
Extras Surface Pen and Dial (sold separately)
TPM 2.0
Pricing Starting at $999 USD Starting at $1099 USD
 

For today's review, Microsoft has sent over the AMD-powered version of the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4. Compared to last year's AMD-powered 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, it's a big step up in a few regards. The switch to Ryzen 4000 mobile APUs brings with it some significant power savings, not to mention a potentially sizable performance boost thanks to the Zen 2 CPU architecture and doubling the total CPU core count from 4 to 8. Even annoying little discrepancies, such as the AMD model only shipping Wi-Fi 5 have been taken care of this time around, and now all models ship with Wi-Fi 6.

And although the Surface Laptop 4 refresh is only a refresh of the internals, that is the one area where the Surface Laptop 3 needed the most help, and the Surface Laptop 4 includes most of what you would expect in a new device for 2021. Storage is all user-replaceable now, with up to 1 TB M.2, whereas Surface leveraged soldered BGA storage for several of the last generations. Memory is up to 32 GB, although strangely only on the Intel-powered devices. Microsoft continues to include a USB Type-A port, along with a USB Type-C, and the Surface Connect port. The Surface team continues to avoid Thunderbolt 4, for reasons that make little sense, but at least they have started to include the Type-C port.


The semi-custom Ryzen 7 4980U which reports itself as a 3780U

Otherwise, like last year's models, the choice of Intel or AMD still comes with some interesting tradeoffs. For the 15-inch laptops, the Ryzen 7 SKUs are the de facto budget option once again, with our $1699 review laptop coming in at $100 cheaper than the equivalent Intel option. This is despite the 8 vs. 4 CPU core advantage, which means the "budget" AMD option packs a lot more CPU processing power, at least on paper. Though the entire matter is somewhat moot at this second, since Microsoft is completely sold out of 15-inch Intel models.

The Intel models do have something else going for them, however, and that's the sheer age of the platform. Tiger Lake is essentially a generation newer than Renoir, despite the fact that both are going into the latest Surface Laptop. So this means that they not only ship with Intel's latest Willow Cove CPU architecture, but the latest-generation Xe-LP graphics as well. And though the benefits of these vary with the workload, it definitely keeps Intel more competitive than an otherwise high-level look at the specs would tell you.

Microsoft, more than any other device manufacturer, tends to update products on their own schedule, rather than trying to synchronize with the annual processor updates from both Intel and AMD. And while this offers some advantages, it also means that the long-delay between updates can render a good product difficult to recommend for a large part of its shelf life. This is something that hampered the Surface Laptop 3 – where Microsoft launched the Ryzen 3000 "Picasso" based device mere months before AMD launched their long-awaited next-generation “Renoir” APUs. And thus the AMD-powered Surface Laptop 3 quickly found itself rendered uncompetitive with newer AMD laptops.

This is risk that, unfortunately, is even more present for the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft is just now shipping Ryzen 4000, all the while AMD has already shipped products with the new 5th generation "Cezanne" APU, featuring the latest Zen 3 cores. So like the Surface Laptop 3 before it, the Surface Laptop 4 is starting its life with some questionable choices on the AMD front.

The good news, at least, for Surface fans looking for an AMD powered notebook is that none of this takes away from what the now last-generation Renoir can do. AMD’s Renoir platform was the star of 2020, fixing the power draw issues of Picasso, as well as making the previously-mentioned core count increase. AMD’s Vega GPU is also quite strong – enough so that AMD has chosen to continue using it with Cezanne. So, while it is disappointing to see a newly launched laptop in 2021 feature the last-generation AMD processor, the AMD Ryzen 4000 is still a strong choice, especially as the step between Ryzen 4000 and Ryzen 5000 is a relatively small one.

Design
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  • richardshannon77 - Monday, May 10, 2021 - link

    I've been working at home for the past year using a grand total of 0 type-A ports on my laptop. I have a type-C connection to a type-C dock and a type-A BT dongle attached to that for my mouse. I suspect that this is along the lines of what the gods of technological advancement had in mind. At this point, it's type-C for the win. Although, I can't figure out where to put my 3.5" floppies :/ Reply
  • saratoga4 - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    Perfectly fine to have 1 USB-C port, but since its used for charging there should be at least two other ports. Doesn't matter what they are, just give me the ability to have a thumb drive and mouse while charging.

    This is something the (much smaller) Dell XPS 13 devices do a lot better. My older model has charging, 2x USB and TB. They apparently had so much space left over they even threw in an SD card slot. A 15" laptop shouldn't have so much less.
    Reply
  • s.yu - Sunday, May 9, 2021 - link

    For a second I thought that was an iPP there. Turns out there's 1A, 1C and the headphone jack, that's bad but not unusable. Reply
  • Kevin G - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    I think you're looking at it backwards as computer manufacturers have learned one thing: consumers will continue to buy products they don't like if there are no alternatives at the prices they want. Consumers have given up fighting as pricing has become the dominant factor and people don't want to spend more, especially in a market whose pricing has been slowly creeping up of late.

    The reduction of the number of ports historically has made sense for the most part: USB has won out. However with Type-C that can also carry power, things do get more complicated as you can lose a data port for a peripheral when you need to charge the unit. Devices that only have two USB ports feel anemic in this regard as users do notice when they'll have to pull double duty in a crunch.
    Reply
  • Alistair - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    Some of what you said makes sense. But removeable batteries and storage are next level, not USB port level priorities. Come On. Apple charges $800 for 1TB storage that I can buy for $100 to add to the Surface. Bam, I'm interested in the Surface. Because my phone lacks a removeable battery, I generally upgrade every 24 months as the phone won't last. Removeable batteries enable 3 and 4 year ownership. These are not "USB port" level myopia. Reply
  • Kamen Rider Blade - Friday, May 7, 2021 - link

    The point is that Renoir offers more ports internally on it's SoC.
    1x USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-C
    5x USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
    2x USB 2.0 Type-A

    That's what is natively available, why not implement all of those USB ports?

    MS doesn't want to maximize the features or ports on Renoir, that's their choice.

    But to the end user, it's cheapening out on features that are available on the SoC and not used.
    Reply
  • grant3 - Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - link

    Your guarantee is now broken: I would buy a surface laptop if they included a single additional thunderbolt port.

    You're probably right that -many- people do not care about ports, but that is changing quickly as people set up their work-from-home hardware and start to realize how damn vital having a hub to connect their monitors and other peripherals is.

    Apple, Dell, and other makers got the memo years ago. They give their premium 15" laptops at least 3+ ports. Microsoft apparently thinks it can replicate Apple's "Remove features and raise the price" approach to hardware success, but haven't clued into the fact that it only works when they simultaneously offer -some- compelling alternative to the hardware they removed.
    Reply
  • Eletriarnation - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    They could have rearranged the layout and added to the BoM cost to get in a second Type-A port which probably >95% of the user base won't ever need. Or, they could tell that <5% to buy a hub and deal with it. Reply
  • drothgery - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    Lots of people use external devices; I've got a TB3/USB-C dock that I connect my home or work laptop to that's chained to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, power, and wired internet.

    Pretty much no one uses optical media on laptops (or desktops, to be honest), which is why you have to use an external drive for it even on big clunky gaming laptops.
    Reply
  • Calin - Friday, May 7, 2021 - link

    The volume and weight of an optical disk for laptops compares to a 48Wh battery.
    You could easily fit one more 2.5 inch SATA SSD _and_ another 20Wh of battery inside that, or SSD plus one M2 plus on SODIMM, and so on.

    Even if 17" gaming laptops are huge, their internal space is at a premium due to the cooling necessary for the CPU and GPU. In this case, the volume and weight of the optical drives give you another 20% cooling capacity.

    One of my university colleagues had a computer (in a tower case) with a CD drive (650 MB) and a 420MB hard drive. Even if that would have been a laptop, losing so much volume to removable media larger than the hard drive would have been a win.
    Not so much for the present - 9GB double side double density DVDs or 50GB BluRays do not compare well to even 256GB SSD of the low end devices.
    Reply

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