Ian Knighton/CNET

Microsoft's Surface line of laptops is bigger than ever, with four variations to choose from. These include the Surface Pro 7, the heart and soul of the family, as well as the brand new Surface Pro X. But it's the new, 13.5-inch clamshell Surface Laptop 3 that faces the most competition. The Dell XPS 13 has been refined to perfection, and HP stepped up its game this year with the Spectre x360. Then there's the MacBook Air, which relaunched last year and caters to the exact audience that Microsoft is after with the Laptop 3. 

8.0

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch, 2019)

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Like

  • The Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 looks and feels like a luxury laptop, even if it's nearly identical to last year's model.
  • It also gets a solid power boost from Intel's new processors.
  • Finally, it has a USB-C port.

Don't Like

  • Battery life, while not bad, takes a hit.
  • The $999 starting price only applies to one color variant.
  • There's finally a USB-C port, but it doesn't support Thunderbolt.

With all that heat from all these directions, Microsoft has done an admirable job with the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 3. It nails almost everything you want in a mainstream, portable laptop. It's thin and light, has a fantastic trackpad and keyboard combo and, thanks to a processor upgrade, offers an notable power boost over 2018's Surface Laptop 2.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch, 2019)

Price as reviewed $1,299 (£1,269, AU$1,999)
Display 13.5-inch 2,256x1,504 (201 ppi, 3:2 aspect ratio) pen and touch display
PC CPU 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-1035G7
PC Memory 8GB 4,267MHz LPDDR4
Graphics 128MB dedicated Iris Plus Graphics (64CU)
Storage 256GB SSD
Ports 1 x USB-C, 1 x USB-A, headphone jack, proprietary power
Networking Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5
Operating system Windows 10 Home 1903

But certain drawbacks make it hard to give the Laptop 3 an unqualified recommendation over its competition. The biggest one is battery life. While far from awful, it's far below that of the MacBook Air and HP Spectre ($600 at Amazon) x360, as well as a step below last year's Windows Surface Laptop 2

So it comes down to what you're after in a laptop. If battery life is your top priority, you're better off with one of the aforementioned long-lasters. If you don't need to have a marathon machine, the Surface Laptop 3 gives you a lot to love. 

Now playing: Watch this: Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 is still a delight
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A familiar feeling 

This is an incredibly well-designed laptop. The black aluminum version we tested is striking and, despite its susceptibility to thumb prints, never stops being satisfying to use. The Alcantara-fabric models for which the Surface Laptop line is synonymous are even more distinct. The 2,256-by-1,504-pixel, 3:2-aspect ratio touchscreen is the same first-class display as its predecessor. And, at 2.79 pounds (1.26 kilograms), it's an admirably light laptop.

So what's the problem? I could have copied and pasted that whole paragraph from our review of the Surface Laptop 2. There's little in the design to set the Surface Laptop 3 apart from its predecessor. 

So if you own or have used a Surface Laptop 2, you won't get blown away by the Surface Laptop 3. But if you bought your last laptop before the Surface Laptop line even existed, the Laptop 3 is a dazzler.

Ian Knighton/CNET

The 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 3 technically starts at $999 (£999, AU$1,699). For that price you'll get a machine powered by a 10th-generation Ice Lake, quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Here's one catch: In the US, this configuration is only available in the Platinum Alcantara variant.

The newer metal options -- black or gold, introduced last year -- start at $1,299 (£1,269, AU$1,999), as does the Cobalt Blue Alcantara option. For the extra 300 bucks, you'll also get 256GB of storage instead of 128GB. 

This is a bummer. The platinum Alcantara model looks classy, but it's disappointing that you have to splash out so much extra if you want the Laptop 3 in any other color. The black variant is, as noted, gorgeous. Paying premium for a metal finish is fair, but there's no reason for there not to be a cheaper black, gold or blue Surface Laptop 3 with 128GB storage -- as is the case with the $1,099 (£1,299, AU$1,699) MacBook Air model. 

If you're after a higher-spec configuration, the 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 is available with a more powerful Intel Core i7 chip, 16GB RAM and either 256GB ($1,599, £1,549, AU$2,649), 512GB ($1,999, £1,949, AU$3,299) or 1TB ($2,399, £2,349, AU$3,949) of storage. That last option is only available in black, though. There's also a 15-inch version of the laptop, which comes with AMD processors for consumers and Intel for business. It starts at $1,199 (£1,119, AU$1,999) and tops out at $2,099 (£2,049, AU$4,399).

Ian Knighton/CNET

Obviously, what model of laptop you go for depends on what your storage needs are. Personally, thanks to various streaming services and Google Drive, I store next to nothing on my computers. For someone like me, such a well-designed and respectably powered machine is a steal at $999 -- but I also have the luxury of not needing more than 8GB RAM for my job-related applications. Still, $1,299 for what's on offer is a perfectly good deal.

And hey, who ever said beauty was cheap?

What's new?

Much of what's notable about the Laptop 3 was present in last year's Laptop 2. What's new this year? A few improvements, and one drawback.

First, the bump up to Intel's 10th-gen processor is significant. Microsoft claims the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 3 is three times more powerful than the 2019 MacBook Air; that's not difficult given how underpowered the Air is, with its old dual-core processor compared to the quad-core in the Laptop 3. More important, our benchmarking showed dramatic improvement over last year's Laptop 2.

Anecdotally, the Laptop 3 always felt spry and zippy. I also tested the laptop's gaming performance, since Intel's new Iris graphics are claimed to be an improvement over previous integrated graphics. They generally fall into the same class as Nvidia MX150/MX250 graphics. Don't expect to play any blockbuster games on here, but I was able to play Overwatch on medium graphics settings at 1080p with only occasional dips below 30 frames per second. That means this'll be a good machine for World of Warcraft, Counter Strike and similarly well-optimized games. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

You might be able to get away with Photoshop on the base-level 13.5-inch Laptop 3, and light video editing on the i7 version. But there's no dedicated graphics card on either model, so creatives looking for a machine on which to do the bulk of their video editing are best opting for something with more power. 

That's to be expected, though. For a thin-and-light laptop, the power on offer here is above average. But it comes at a cost. As noted, the Surface Laptop 3 is significantly more powerful than the identically-priced MacBook Air and a good deal more so than last year's model. But battery life is the sacrifice.

In my looped video-stream test, I got far more battery life out of the MacBook Air: 13 hours and 27 minutes for the Air versus just over 8 hours for the Laptop 3. Once again, given the Air's ultralow-power Y series processor, that's unsurprising. Disappointingly, the Laptop 3's battery life was shorter than the Surface 2's and is slightly shorter than the Dell XPS 13's. 

Using the laptop in my daily life, I got between 5 and 6 hours of use out of it before it needed a recharge. Which isn't bad, just OK. Keep in mind, I'm using the i5-version. The i7 may deliver different results.

One last note on battery is a new fast-charge capability. Microsoft says you can go from 0 to 80% in an hour: I got 74%, which I'll call close enough. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

The next big improvement is ports. One of our few issues with last year's machine was the lack of a USB-C port. Microsoft has wisely ditched the Mini DisplayPort connection and replaced it instead with USB-C port, which complements the USB-A port. It does mean you'll need a dongle to connect to an external display via HDMI over the USB-C connection if your monitor doesn't have a Thunderbolt or USB-C alt-mode connection, which still isn't very common. There's also the 3.5mm headphone jack and Microsoft's proprietary charger. However, the USB-C port does not support Thunderbolt speeds, which means it won't work with certain external GPUs. 

And finally, the trackpad is 20% bigger. It feels super-smooth and has just the right amount of grip, and the extra, ahem, surface area is welcome. The keyboard is also excellent, with just the right amount of distance between keys and and a satisfying 1.3mm travel. 

I have a confession: I'm one of those freaks who actually loves the shallow keyboards on Apple's new MacBook Air and Pro laptops -- but I prefer the Surface Laptop 3's keys even over those.

With some more juice, the Surface Laptop 3 would be hard to beat in this ultracompetitive category. As it is, though, the strong trackpad/keyboard combo, improved performance and snazzy (though little changed) design make the Laptop 3 worth the price tag. 

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2019
8,002
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2
11,983
Dell XPS 13 (2019)
13,833
Lenovo Yoga C930
13,978
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch, 2019)
17,346
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390
17,544

Note:

NOTE: Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU (multicore)

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2019
260
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2
589
Lenovo Yoga C930
635
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch, 2019)
645
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390
733
Dell XPS 13 (2019)
738

Note:

NOTE: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch 2019 Apple MacOS Mojave 10.14.5; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8210Y; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 1536MB Intel UHD Graphics 615, 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2019) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8565U; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 512GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Core i7-1065G7; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,733MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics; 512GB SSD
Lenovo Yoga C930 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 12GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8250U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics 620; 256GB
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch, 2019) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1903); 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-1035G7; 8GB LPDDR4 SDRAM 4,267MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel Iris Plus Graphics; 256GB SSD
8.0

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch, 2019)

Score Breakdown

Design 9 Features 7 Performance 8 Battery 7