Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 review: Still good, but updates are minor
- Robust industrial design
- Thunderbolt 4 works well for data and charging
- Nice colour range
- Only a 720p camera
- Surface Connect port feels increasingly redundant
- No AMD options any more
The Surface Laptop 5 is, as its predecessors were, Microsoft's answer to what a MacBook would look like if it was a Windows machine.
That means you get a really nicely built laptop, but one that's tied more to Microsoft's way of thinking than Apple's. I've long been a fan of the Surface Laptop over the Surface Pro, if only because the keyboard is standard, but in its fifth generation Microsoft hasn't done much more than swap out an older processor for a newer one.
That is a well-established business model for most laptop makers, but it's not one that leads to exciting designs, especially if past issues aren't resolved.
That's very much the story of the Surface Laptop 5. It's physically good, but beyond the addition of newer Intel processors there's not much that really stands out.
Buy Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 products
Design: Seems very familiar
When I reviewed the Surface Laptop 4 Microsoft sent through the Matte Black 13.5 model to test out. For the Surface Laptop 5, it did exactly the same thing. Honestly, while I no longer have the Surface Laptop 4 around to compare, if you put them side by side, you'd really struggle to pick the differences.
Like its predecessors, Microsoft sells the Surface Laptop 5 in either 13.5-inch or 15-inch configurations. New this year is a Sage finish if you like alternative colours, although once again you've got to hunt and peck as to what configurations actually exist in each colour style.
Officially the Surface Laptop 5 can be yours in Platinum (either Alcantara or Metal finish), Sage, Black or Sandstone finishes.
However, not every colour can ship with specific processor, storage or RAM configurations. If you step up to the larger 15-inch model, you're limited to just Platinum or Black finishes, and only the Platinum model offers configuration choices to you at all. If you opt for the Alcantara Platinum model, you're also dropping down from a Gorilla Glass 5 display to Gorilla Glass 3, which could have implications if you do a lot of work in riskier environments.
The core Surface Laptop experience hasn't massively changed with this generation, then. Is that a sign of a well-established design doing well, or Microsoft resting on its design laurels in a slightly lazy way?
While there's an element of perspective there, I do think there are areas where Microsoft needs to switch it up to keep the Surface Laptop 5 worthwhile. As an example, while I love the thin and light design that still feels very robust, I don't love the limited port selection.
On the left-hand side you've got a single USB-A 3.1 port, a single USB-C 4.0/Thunderbolt port and a 3.5mm headphone jack… and that's all you get.
The right side houses the familiar Microsoft Surface Connect port for charging, which was a nice addition when Microsoft put it on the original Surface devices a decade ago.
Given the existence of Thunderbolt with power delivery on the Surface Laptop 5, the Surface Connect port feels like wasted space that could have gone to a few more connection ports to keep the device more in the kinds of pro spaces its pricing would suggest.
The 13.5-inch display remains unchanged from the previous generation, which means that you do get a 3:2 aspect ratio screen, a little nicer for laying out your spreadsheets. Unfortunately it also means you get a 720p capable webcam.
The past few years have made good quality web cameras a must for most workers, especially remote workers, and it's disappointing that Microsoft has stuck to a more basic camera for the Surface Laptop 5. If you want a better camera, Microsoft's basically saying that you'll have to buy the Surface Pro 9 – and then pay even more for a keyboard cover.
Performance: 12th Gen Intel is a fine choice for basic productivity work, but it's not much faster
Like the very similar Surface Pro 9 line, the Surface Laptop 5 uses Intel's 12th Generation Core i5 or Core i7 processors. That's a shift from last year's models that offered either Intel or AMD-based systems. It's also a rather light upgrade in performance terms. That was borne out when I benchmarked the Surface Laptop 5 and compared it to prior Surface systems.
The model that Microsoft sent me was running a 12th Gen Intel Core i7 2.6GHz processor with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, marking it out as one of the higher tier configurations you can buy. Here's how it compared:
The jump up from prior models is there, but it's not exactly a huge improvement, or one that might have large-scale impacts on how you're going to work on a device like this. It's a sign of how well embedded the design and idea of the Surface Laptop is that all you're essentially getting is an expected specification bump because Intel made its processors just that little bit better.
OK, that's perhaps a little harsh, because this is still a nicely functional laptop. The inclusion of Thunderbolt 4 does give it some scope for additional high speed data work if that's part of your needs.
I tested with a Caldigit TS4 Thunderbolt 4 Dock and had no issues at all with external displays, storage drives or other connected peripherals at all. The trade-off for that Thunderbolt compatibility is of course that there's no cheaper AMD options this year.
Battery: Doesn't live up to its promises
Microsoft's claim for the Surface Laptop 13.5 as tested is that it'll manage up to 18 hours of usage. If you opt for the bigger 15-inch model, that drops to a claim of up to 17 hours.
Battery life claims are always highly variable, with most ultra light laptops tending to come in well below their manufacturers' claims unless your usage pattern is very light indeed.
I put the Surface Laptop 5 to the test with Finder's video battery test, a light usage scenario, as well as PC Mark 10's more gruelling gaming battery test. The Surface Laptop 5 isn't a gaming laptop to speak of, but that test does put significant strain on battery resources, so it's a good representation of a heavy usage scenario.
Here's how the Surface Laptop 5 compared against existing and prior Surface generations.
That's not a good look for the Surface Laptop 5's battery endurance, falling well short even on the lighter video-only test. That does still represent nearly 12 hours of usage, and my own more ad-hoc use of it does suggest that it's a solid workhorse for daily usage.
Like all Surfaces ever, the primary suggested charging method is via the supplied Surface charger and its magnetically attaching power cable. However, because it's a full Thunderbolt 4 capable device, power delivery over USB C is also supported, which does make the Surface connector on the right-hand side feel increasingly redundant.
Should you buy the Microsoft Surface Laptop 5?
- Buy it if you like the industrial design above all else.
- Don't buy it if you want the fastest or most flexible ultrabook style device.
Microsoft has been down the path of keeping with a design for a few years more than it should. That was the story for the Surface Pro for the longest time, and it appears it's doing the same with the Surface Laptop 5.
It's a fine physical design for long-term use, but it's also limited in port configuration, and it's only a little more powerful than its predecessors, while providing less battery life. That doesn't feel like a particularly compelling argument to buy one against the many competing laptops you could have at this price.
Pricing and availability
The Surface Laptop 5 sells in Australia with pricing starting at $1,699 for the 13.5-inch model or $2,149 for the 15-inch model. The model tested was the 13.5-inch model with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which retails at $2,699.
How we tested
Microsoft loaned me a Surface Laptop 5 to review, which I did over a 2-week period. In that time I ran multiple benchmark runs over it to gather comparative data, as well as using it for a range of productivity tasks on a day-by-day basis to evaluate where it worked best.
As a product reviewer I've got more than 20 years of experience covering the consumer tech space including all Apple products released in that timeframe. I'm a multi-time Australian IT Journo award winner, including winner of the 2022 Best Reviewer award.
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