Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 13.5 Review: Huge improvements make for a stellar laptop
Quick verdict: Microsoft has made virtually no design changes to the Surface Laptop 4, but like your mother used to tell you, it’s what’s beneath the Surface that counts.
- Fast performance
- Good battery life
- Choice of AMD or Intel processors
- Design really hasn’t changed beyond colours
- Not all colours in all configurations
- Two ports isn’t enough
The Surface Laptop 4 is, as the name suggests, the fourth laptop in Microsoft's Surface Laptop line. If you were to put the Surface Laptop 4 in the same colour next to one of its predecessors, you'd be hard pressed to pick the difference at a visual level. While Microsoft has innovated with some interesting form factors such as the Surface Pro X in recent years, its core lines such as the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop seem to have been stuck in design purgatory.
Ordinarily, that might suggest that the Surface Laptop 4 was just a dull "speeds and feeds" kind of upgrade with little to recommend it. However, the effect of those upgrades is pretty remarkable, leading to a laptop that's genuinely great.
- Choice of 13.5- or 15-inch displays
- Range of colours, but not for all configurations
- Comfortable keyboard
The Surface Laptop design hasn't undergone any major physical changes in its fourth generation. The Surface Laptop 3 introduced the option for either a larger 15-inch display or smaller 13.5-inch screen, and that's still an option that's open to you.
You still get just two ports, one USB A type port, and one USB C type port, along with a headphone jack and that ever-present custom Surface Charger port that Microsoft has used ever since the original Surface Pro generations. The USB C port isn't Thunderbolt compatible, which is annoying in a laptop that's meant to work well for professionals, and I'll repeat the same criticism that I had with the prior model here. Two ports total is stingy, and while buyers can always opt for docks to add more, that's a cable-heavy and ugly solution that could be solved with extra onboard connectivity.
Likewise, the display is unchanged, with the 13.5-inch model (as reviewed) using a 3:2 aspect ratio 2256x1504 pixel screen. The 15-inch model matches it with a 3:2 201ppi screen, which equates out to 2496x1664, so you're getting the same clarity, just differing quantities of screen real estate.
What is new for the Surface Laptop 4 is a range of colour choices, or at least their names.
The Surface Laptop 3 shipped in Sandstone, Cobalt Blue, Platinum or Black finishes, while the Surface Laptop 4 can be procured in Ice Blue, Sandstone, Platinum or Black.
However, just like the prior generation, you can't actually get every colour in every configuration, with the AMD-based models notably limited to mostly the Platinum colour, although the higher-end 15-inch AMD model can be ordered in Black instead. The Ice Blue colour only exists as a specific Intel Core i5 variant with a 13.5-inch display and not at all otherwise.
It gets even more confusing from there, because if you want that fuzzy "alcantara" material keyboard, that only exists in the Ice Blue and Platinum finishes, but if you prefer the metal finish keyboard, that's only available in Sandstone, Matte Black or Platinum.
Microsoft says that these colour choices are the result of consumer buying patterns, but how can it know what colours consumers buy if those colours simply don't exist?
- 11th Gen Intel processor performs admirably
- Fast Windows Hello unlock
- Comfortable keyboard
Quite how nippy the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 is for you will depend on the model you buy, and that's always the case for most manufacturers where there's even a smidge of internal component choice.
Specifically, Microsoft produces the Surface Laptop 4 with either the AMD Ryzen 5 4680U processor, those are the lower cost models, or a range of 11th generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors. RAM sits at 8 or 16GB for the 13.5-inch model, or 8, 16 or 32GB for the 15-inch model, although you cannot get 32GB RAM on any AMD-based variant.
Microsoft sent through a mid-range Intel Core i5 model, specifically the $1,999 Intel Core i5 13.5-inch 8GB RAM/512GB storage model in matte black. That's the configuration with the most colour choices, if that matters to you, but the matte black delivers a no-nonsense visual style if you feel that a sandstone or ice blue model might not deliver the right business message.
PC makers all tend to use the same parts, not surprisingly, but configuration and tweaking can make a difference when it comes to performance. Here's how the review model of the Surface Laptop 4 compared against a range of Surface devices and comparable priced laptops across a range of benchmarks:
While it may seem as though the Surface Laptop 4 is being outclassed by the Surface Book 3 there, that's for a model with a 10th Gen Core i7 processor, compared to the 11th Gen Core i5 model in the Surface Laptop 4.
It's also an impressive performer in the mobile graphics space, and while this isn't a gaming laptop in any real sense, you could throw mid-range games titles at it with little issue.
Physically, the design of the Surface Laptop 4 makes it a pleasant laptop to use. The opening hinge feels sturdy, but not in a way that makes it difficult to open, and the Windows Hello compliant camera always picked me up before I'd had a chance to fully open the system up, which was nice. In an era of so many Zoom meetings, it might have been nice if Microsoft had opted for a full 1080p camera rather than a 720p model, however.
Likewise, while the keyboard really isn't any different from the Surface Laptop 3, that still does mean that you're getting a solid and easy to use set of keys for all your typing needs. My only wish here is that the power button wasn't nestled just above the backspace key, as I found I sometimes hit it when typing rapidly on the keyboard.
- Better battery life for AMD models
- Intel battery life is no slouch
- Surface Charger remains a love-hate prospect
The variability in processors and configurations also leads to an interesting situation when it comes to battery life. While the AMD models of the Surface Laptop 4 are cheaper than their Intel counterparts for the most part, all models share the same battery specifications, and AMD's processors sip at the power banks a little more discretely than Intel's do.
The end result of this is that Microsoft claims that the AMD Ryzen 5 models can manage up to 19 hours, while the AMD Ryzen 7 models can manage up to 17.5 hours. Meanwhile, the Intel equivalents top out at a claimed range of up to 17 hours for Core i5 variants, or up to 16.5 hours if you opt for the Core i7 models.
All of these are "up to" figures beloved of computer makers, because they represent a best case scenario that you may not hit in real world usage. To put that to more of a test, I ran our standard suite of tests across the Surface Laptop 4's battery, using PCMark 10's gaming test to get a brutal figure, and our own video streaming test to get a higher-end mark for a lower workload. Video processing is a pretty easy task for most laptops these days, but it's good to see where the range falls relative to workload against PCMark's much tougher test.
Here's how the Surface Laptop 4 compared in both tests:
At first glance, the Surface Laptop 4 might appear to be mid-range, but taking both figures into account gives you a better picture. It's right up there for the video streaming test in terms of battery life, but massively ahead of everything that beats it in that test when it comes to PCMark's harder battery test runtime. For that test, it's second only to the Dell XPS 13 2020 by a few minutes, but flipping back to the video test, it ran for nearly 2.5 hours longer than the Dell could manage.
Or in other words, the Surface Laptop 4 is a true battery endurance beast. If you need portability and battery life along with the performance of an 11th Gen Intel Core i5 processor, this is the laptop you should buy.
When the battery does start running dry, you'll need to make sure that you have the supplied Surface charger to hand. There's no real difference here in Microsoft's strategy, and while I do like the fact that the Surface charger connects magnetically, so anyone tripping on the cable won't send the Surface Laptop 4 crashing to the ground, it's galling that you can't also opt to charge via USB C if that's the charger you have handy.
Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 13.5-inch?
- Buy it if want a Surface device with great performance and battery life.
- Don't buy it if need more ports or a detachable keyboard Surface.
At one level, the Surface Laptop 4 really is just a specifications bump, with little in the way of operational improvement in the design, and many of the same catches that have been present in Microsoft's Surface family for years now.
However, it's a specification upgrade that, at least for our review model, delivers some really great performance and battery life upgrades, and that's ultimately what you need out of a productivity laptop.
Pricing and availability
PricePricing for the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 varies depending on specifications. At the time of writing, the entry level AMD model with a 13.5-inch display had pricing starting at $1,599, while the highest-end Intel Core i7 15-inch model would cost you $3,999. The 13.5-inch Intel Core i5 model with 8GB RAM/512GB storage as tested retails for $1,999.
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman