The 15-inch version of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (starts at $1,299; $1,499 as tested) offers one of the most refined computing experiences of any Windows laptop. With two color options and excellent build quality, it’s a standout big-screen notebook. New for 2021, processor options from both AMD and Intel make this fourth-generation laptop’s performance even better. The Surface Laptop 4 now cinches an Editors’ Choice award as our top pick among premium 15-inch models. It’s ideal for general-purpose computing on a big screen.
The Bread-and-Butter Surface
The Surface Laptop and the Surface Laptop Go are the youngest members of Microsoft’s Surface family of Windows devices, but they’ve quickly become the bread and butter. All of the other Surfaces (the Surface Pro, the Surface Go, and the Surface Book) are futuristic 2-in-1 detachable machines. The Surface Laptop 4 is, as its name suggests, just a straight-up clamshell-style laptop. Its screen doesn’t rotate or detach. Nor is it a gaming powerhouse. Still, with a snazzy design and a keyboard and touchpad far more comfortable than most detachable laptops offer, it’s an excellent example of a classic laptop.
Like its predecessors, the Surface Laptop 4 is available in two screen sizes. The 15-inch version reviewed here complements a smaller 13-inch model, which starts at $999 and is also updated for 2021 with new AMD and Intel processors. The 13-inch starting configuration has an AMD Ryzen 5 4680U mobile CPU, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. CPU options include an Intel Core i5-1135G7 or Core i7-1185G7, as well as RAM and storage upticks (up to 32GB of memory, and up to 1TB of solid-state storage).
Meanwhile, the 15-inch version starts at $1,299 with a Ryzen 7 4980U, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. Our review unit adds a roomier 512GB SSD, for a $200 premium. A Core i7 version is also available, though the option for a discrete GPU on either platform is not. All versions of the new laptop use integrated Iris Xe (Intel) or Radeon (AMD) graphics.
Dell XPS 15 (9500)
Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch
LG Gram 17 (2021)
Microsoft Surface Pro 7
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
The expanded configuration options are a welcome departure from the Surface Laptop 3, which does not have all processor options available for both screen sizes. Plenty of enthusiasts considering the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 will already have a preference for AMD or Intel chips—if that’s you, it’s nice that Microsoft lets you choose. While many laptop OEMs use both AMD and Intel processors in their designs, it’s relatively rare to see the exact same model with a choice of Ryzen or Core processors.
The benchmark tests discussed below show formidable performance from the Ryzen 7. But if you’re still on the fence about which CPU to select, check back soon for an in-depth performance comparison between the Ryzen 7 and Core i7 versions of the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 that goes beyond the scope of this review.
Surface Laptop ‘Color’ Options: Gray or Black
The new configuration options are the only significant difference between the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 and its third-generation predecessor. Physically, the laptops are essentially identical, which is mostly a good thing. The most noteworthy design element is the 3:2 screen orientation, a signature Surface feature that adds space for viewing more of a vertical document like a web page at the expense of horizontal space for watching a movie. More and more laptops are starting to ditch 16:9 or 16:10 widescreen displays and revert to this once-common screen ratio.
The squared-off shape of the Surface Laptop 4’s display makes the rest of the laptop appear elegantly proportioned, with less empty space on the sides of the keyboard deck compared with a widescreen laptop like the 16-inch Apple MacBook Pro. Both the MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS 15 stick with 16:9 orientations. They’re also both significantly heavier than the Surface Laptop 4, which measures 0.58 by 13.4 by 9.6 inches (HWD) and weighs 3.4 pounds. The XPS 15 is 0.71 by 13.6 by 9.1 inches and 4.5 pounds. The 16-inch MacBook Pro measures 0.64 by 14.1 by 9.7 inches and weighs 4.3 pounds, though it provides an additional inch of screen real estate.
The Surface Laptop 4 scores significant points for slimming down, but it’s far from the smallest or lightest big-screen laptop. The LG Gram 17 offers an even bigger screen than the Surface Laptop 4 and tips the scales at under 3 pounds, a more impressive achievement.
The 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 offers only gray or black options, lacking the Sandstone and Ice Blue liveries offered on the 13-inch model, but any color choice is welcome at all in this category. The XPS 15 also offers a choice of colors, but the MacBook Pro and most other competitors do not.
All of these laptops have excellent screens in their base configurations. After all, if screen quality isn’t one of your top priorities, there’s little reason to buy a laptop with such a large one. Microsoft’s PixelSense display in the Surface Laptop 4 is the same excellent one used in the Surface Laptop 3. With a native resolution of 2,496 by 1,664 pixels, the display isn’t quite 4K, but it has a higher-than-full-HD resolution. It nearly matches the resolution known as quad HD, which is 2,560 by 1,440 pixels on a 16:9 screen.
To my eyes, most laptops with a resolution greater than full HD (typically 1,920 by 1,080 pixels) offer equally crisp text and vivid colors. This is certainly true of the Surface Laptop 4, but Microsoft has another trick up its sleeve. The AMD Ryzen-powered version of the 15-inch laptop takes advantage of FreeSync technology for on-the-fly refresh rate adjustments, which means silky-smooth, jerk-free animations and other onscreen motions. Support for variable refresh rates is rare on mainstream laptops, though less so on gaming-focused monitors and laptops, and starting to show up on flagship phones.
The Surface Laptop 4’s display also supports HDR content, as well as 10-point touch input from either your fingers or the optional Microsoft Surface Pen.
Above-Average Keyboard and Touchpad
As ever, the Surface Laptop typing and touching experience is far above average, even when compared with other premium Windows laptops. The glass-topped touchpad is extremely satisfying. At 4.5 inches wide, there’s plenty of room. The pad also lets you move the cursor with precision, and when it comes time to click, there’s a satisfyingly solid response that rivals the feeling of the haptic-feedback-enabled MacBook Pro touchpad.
The Surface Laptop 4’s keyboard isn’t quite as good as the touchpad is, but it’s still plenty comfortable for long typing sessions. There is 1.3mm of key travel, which is adequate, although the key switches are a bit mushy for my taste. Microsoft calls this a “soft-touch feel,” and says it has put a lot of thought into the Surface Laptop 4’s typing experience. I suppose it’s largely a matter of personal preference. What isn’t debatable is that the keyboard lacks a dedicated number pad, which many other large laptops offer. Spreadsheet jockeys who enter numbers all day long will want to consider something like the LG Gram 17 instead—neither the Dell XPS 15 nor the Apple MacBook Pro offers a number pad, either.
The Surface Laptop 4’s audio is slightly improved compared with that of its predecessor. The speaker hardware is the same, but Microsoft has added support for Dolby Atmos 9, which should help with audio processing. In my testing, a brief clip from an action movie played on the Surface Laptop 4 offers more definition at the highest volume setting than the Surface Laptop 3 offers, though bass response is still a bit lacking. The MacBook Pro has superior audio quality, thanks in part to a dedicated woofer.
Video quality from the Surface Laptop 4’s webcam is also decent if unremarkable. Webcams have been a source of much consternation as much of the world has turned to videoconferencing to replace in-person interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic and found the experience to be sorely lacking. The Surface Laptop 4’s camera shoots at a 720p resolution, lower than the 1080p that the Surface Book 3 offers. The camera does feature IR sensors that enable Windows Hello face recognition, for smooth, password-free logins to your Windows 10 account.
Only One USB-C Port
As far as input and output ports are concerned, the decision to keep the Surface Laptop physically unchanged in the fourth generation is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great that the laptop has a headphone jack and a rectangular USB Type-A port, which is rapidly disappearing on competing laptops. The USB-Type-C-only nature of the XPS 15 and MacBook Pro is an obstacle for some users.
The Surface Laptop 4 also has a USB-C port. It can be used to charge the laptop if you’ve got a spare USB-C adapter that puts out at least 65 watts, and it also supports video output using an adapter or special cable. But there’s only one USB-C port, and it doesn’t support the Thunderbolt 4 interface. We typically like to see at least two USB-C ports on premium (above-$1,000) laptops, at least one of which supports Thunderbolt. Microsoft’s decision not to tweak the chassis and add a second USB-C port (or for that matter, a second USB-A) is a mark against the Surface Laptop 4.
Instead of more USB ports, the Surface Laptop 4 has a Surface Connect port. This proprietary Microsoft port can be used to attach the included magnetic power cord, which connects to an AC adapter that has its own USB Type-A port built-in. The adapter USB port, however, is only good for charging a phone or other portable device—there’s no data connection. The Surface Connect port does work with an ecosystem of pricey Microsoft peripherals, including the Surface Dock, which adds a gigabit Ethernet port, four USB 3.0 ports, and an audio output to the mix. The dock’s video output is in the form of two more USB-C connectors with DisplayPort functionality, which means you will still need an adapter or special cable to connect to most external monitors.
Wireless connections on the Surface Laptop 4 include 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) and Bluetooth 5.0. Wi-Fi performance was excellent in my testing, with strong download speeds of 50MBps or more even with just one bar of signal strength showing in the Taskbar icon.
Testing the Surface Laptop 4: Ryzen Performance for the Win
Performance from the Ryzen-equipped Surface Laptop 3 is slightly lacking, so it makes sense that Microsoft has focused nearly all of its Surface Laptop 4 updates on better computing performance. The Ryzen 7 4980U chip in our review unit features eight cores, 16 threads, and a base clock speed of 2.0GHz. This is a special “Microsoft Edition” Ryzen chip that you can’t find on any other laptop. It’s coupled with an integrated Radeon Graphics processor that has eight graphics cores of its own. While it’s a fourth-generation Ryzen part rather than the latest (fifth) generation, it’s still plenty powerful. With so many cores and threads, the Surface Laptop 4 stacks up well against its similarly priced competitors on our benchmark charts. These include the LG Gram 17 and the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1, another 15-inch laptop, which features Intel’s relatively rare Iris Xe Max dedicated graphics solution.
For performance comparisons, I’m also including the MacBook Pro 16-inch and the XPS 15. Those laptops are significantly more expensive than the Surface Laptop 4 and have more powerful components in the configurations we reviewed, so you’d think they would perform better. That’s not necessarily the case, which is why I’m including them here. (See more about how we test laptops.)
From the PCMark 10 results, we can immediately see how competitive the Surface Laptop 4 is on everyday computing tasks. Anything above 4,000 represents excellent performance. Breaking 5,000 is exceedingly rare, but the Surface Laptop 4 manages to do it. The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s storage subsystem. There’s not a lot of variation here; all of the laptops score very well thanks to their speedy SSDs.
More intense workloads, such as editing videos or rendering images, aren’t necessarily what the Surface Laptop 4 is designed to do. That is exactly the type of task for which you’d buy an XPS 15 or MacBook Pro 16-Inch, however. So it’s encouraging to see the Surface Laptop 4 score similarly to these two machines despite their far higher prices.
The Surface Laptop 4 takes just 7 minutes to encode a 12-minute 4K video to 1080p using the Handbrake app, on par with the MacBook Pro, which rings up at $3,899 in the configuration we reviewed.
With a score of 1,550 on the Cinebench R15 test, its 3D rendering prowess is even better than the MacBook Pro’s, and on par with that of the $2,299 XPS 15, which employs one of Intel’s power-user H-series, not thin-laptop U series, 10th Generation “Comet Lake-H” chips.
When it comes to photo editing, the Surface Laptop 4 is no longer at the top of the pack. Both of the similarly priced competitors (the Inspiron and the Gram 17) managed to outperform it on our Adobe Photoshop test, which involves applying a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. While the video encoding and 3D rendering tests are purely CPU exercises, Photoshop taxes a system’s resources differently, which means that laptops with more powerful components don’t always finish more quickly.
Based on these results, prospective Surface Laptop 4 shoppers who are undecided about which processor to choose should feel confident that the Ryzen-powered model delivers outsized performance for the money they’re spending. For those who want to see how the Core i7 version stacks up, we’ll update this review once we’ve had a chance to test it and compare its performance with the results you see here.
Graphics Performance: On Par for Iris Xe
Microsoft doesn’t offer the Surface Laptop 4 with even an entry-level discrete gaming GPU like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti in the XPS 15 we tested. As a result, performance on our 3DMark and Superposition gaming simulation tests is adequate for simple browser-based titles or standalone games like Minecraft, but the Surface Laptop 4 will likely choke on anything more intensive.
Neither of these tests is compatible with Macs, so the MacBook Pro isn’t represented here, and Superposition repeatedly failed to run to completion on the XPS 15. This happens occasionally, and is more to do with a software conflict with this benchmark than any real issue with the laptop.
As for the Surface Laptop 4’s battery life, it lasted nearly 14 hours in our video rundown test, which involves playing a locally stored 720p video file at 50% screen brightness with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned off. This is a fairly forgiving scenario. A full day of web browsing and other similar tasks will likely drain the battery more quickly, but you should still be able to complete most of the workday without plugging in.
Bring On the Big-Screen Surface
The 15-inch Surface Laptop is an excellent big-screen laptop, though it didn’t offer standout performance when we tested it in 2019. The Surface Laptop 4 changes the situation considerably, with essentially the same physical design but markedly better computing performance thanks to its new Ryzen 7 chip. Performance is so good, in fact, that it rivals what we’ve seen from the latest revisions of more expensive alternatives like the XPS 15 or MacBook Pro.
While it’s true that these alternatives offer more configuration options, they come with an added expense that’s not necessarily worth it for value-minded users, given the multi-threaded muscle that the Surface Laptop 4 can bring to bear. Neither of these alternatives offers ancillary advantages like a significantly better screen or a vastly more robust port selection, either. So the Surface Laptop 4 earns an Editors’ Choice award as the best general-purpose 15-inch laptop you can buy right now.
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (15-Inch)
The Bottom Line
A new AMD Ryzen 7 processor brings significant performance improvements to the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 4, making it an excellent choice for general-purpose computing on a big screen.
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