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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  • Reflex - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    This list is silly. Almost all of the things you mention are mostly accessed wirelessly these days. USB-A to USB-C adapters are super cheap and Anker sells a nice line of USB-C hubs that provide additional ports if you truly need them. I have one in my bag due to my Dell laptop having only 2 USB-C ports, but I can't even remember the last time I needed to use it.

    There are excellent actual bluetooth mice out there, I use a Microsoft one.
    Who is using their optical drive on the go, or really at all?
    Your storage is better in the cloud or on the network, again how most people use it nowadays.
    Also, printers, can you even buy a decent printer that isn't wireless now?
    And again, bluetooth keyboards are a thing and they are cheap.

    Just bizarre list. Reads like someone stuck in computing from 15 years ago.

    If this is your list of needs, modern ultrabooks are not for you.
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    Or people reasonably can't afford to repurchase everything. A cheap just to get it done wired mouse can be had for as little as $5 where as a good BlueTooth mouse starts at $20. The kicker is that people already have a wired mouse they could plug-in and use. Yeah, $20 in the grand scheme of things but when you have pay that extra amount five or six times, it starts to get noticed by the masses especially on top of the price of a new ultrabook.

    Ditto for printers. If you've saved up and purchased a unit years ago and is humming along nicely, why replace it with something new? At some point it does make sense to upgrade due to the lack of ink/toner available on the market or it just breaks down, but realistically things can last a very long time.

    My Dell 5540M I'm currently using has two USB-A and one TB3 port and I often find myself limited. I use a lot of hardwired networking to isolated networks so there goes one port dedicated to that. The wired networking port generally gets the TB port even though it is type-A and I'll need an A-to-C adapter. One Type A goes to a wired mouse since it also doubles as a mouse for some systems that either have BT disabled or no wireless connectivity at all (and i'm not going to carry a second one if i don't have to). The remaining type A is often used for removable storage or a wired audio device. Thankfully I still have a dedicated barrel power jack. The TB3 port also supports power in a pinch and I borrowed other people's type-c chargers in an emergency. There are indeed times where I wish I had four USB ports.

    I also do have access to a USB external optical drive which I pull out once or twice year to access an old physical media file. I've probably had this over half a decade with the same relative pace of usage and probably will keep on to it until it break at what point I imagine it'll pass the decade mark. My coworkers know I have it and again a few times a year one will ask to borrow it for a similar one-off data transfer. Migrating data to the network/cloud is a generally a good idea but it takes time, has costs (and monthly costs for the cloud) associated for it and a small amount of skill on the user's end.
    Reply
  • simonpschmitt - Friday, May 7, 2021 - link

    While your desccribed use case seems to need more (USB) ports at times most of it could be managed by a cheap USB-hub.
    Additionally, you must admit that this is beyond propably 99% of computer users out there.
    Most people don't use one mouse for more than one computer.
    Actually everyone I know outside IT does not use wired networking on a mobile device.
    For my sisters (both teachers) and parents (small buisness owners) switching everything possible to wireless was propably the best quality of live upgrade since they use computers.
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Monday, May 10, 2021 - link

    Hubs can be problematic vs. having the port natively in a device. Large capacity hubs or those that can power other devices require AC outlets. Small data only hubs exist but generally are not the highest quality. Hubs also run the risk of some one tripping over a cable and unplugging everything off of that hub (uplink is disconnected) vs. a single device. A single home run to the host device is strongly preferred where every possible. This also applies to various adapters from say USB-C to DisplayPort: a single cable with the proper ends is preferred over a USB-C to female DP port and a DP-to-DP cable. Simply less to go wrong in the single path and you carry around less.

    Wired networking is critical for me as I often work on isolated, wired networks. There have been at times where I've been on two independent wired networks and still had wi-fi going. I realize that my use-case is rather specific but it does drive home the more general idea that the number of USB ports on a system is restrictively small, especially if they're pulling double duty for the likes of power, video, audio and networking.
    Reply
  • PaulMack - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    I've had a Surface for some time and, while the limitation to one USB port is occasionally annoying, it's never been for a mouse. It's a premium device, and it's not unreasonable to spend $/£/€50 on a Bluetooth mouse. I only ever hit the limit when connecting a memory stick and another peripheral, and that's rare when on the move without the dock. Reply
  • MrCommunistGen - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - link

    You can get a pretty inexpensive travel USB-A 3.0 hub for less than $20. I just keep one in my travel bag. A quick search turned up two different 4-port models for $13-15. Reply
  • yankeeDDL - Friday, May 7, 2021 - link

    By "expensive adapter" you mean something like this (25usd)? https://www.amazon.com/-/es/Adaptador-USB-Hub-Mult...

    Using more than 2 USB port at the time is quite rare. Yes, more ports would help, but clearly teh space is rather limited.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Friday, May 7, 2021 - link

    If you're using an external optical drive and a printer then you can probably handle using a hub, too. Reply
  • 29a - Friday, May 7, 2021 - link

    People giving presentations often need more than one USB port which I can see this laptop being used to give a lot of presentations. A flash drive and a Powerpoint presenter are both commonly used when giving presentations, that's two USB ports there. Reply
  • philehidiot - Sunday, May 9, 2021 - link

    Typical use case for a business machine - running software that requires a USB dongle to operate. Removing it disables the software. One port down. Need to charge? Both down. How about people who leave a low profile USB drive in a slot for local back up purposes? If my livelihood is based on what is on that machine, I've got a local backup running as well as cloud.

    Sure, plug in a USB C dongle with a wire and giant block with all the connections you'll need (because having a different one for every use is expensive and fiddly) and you'd better not be using the laptop on your lap on a train or in a car. It'll dangle off your lap, yanking on the port constantly.

    A business laptop, in my humble opinion, should have three available ports as a minimum. But as others have said here, they are likely working on feedback from telemetry and real world use. 95% of people don't use it so screw 5%.

    In my view, a business laptop like this, with such an asking price should be putting in the extras that ensure more than the bare minimum for the majority. The people who have a use case as I have suggested above simply won't buy it, so it won't be their problem.
    Reply

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