Microsoft’s AMD Surface Laptop Review Roundup: Strong Performance, Middling Battery Life

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This year, for the first time since it launched the Surface product family back in 2012, Microsoft debuted a design from an x86 CPU manufacturer other than Intel. While the company has built non-x86 Surface machines before, the ARM-derived variants in the family exited the market after the Surface 2 and only returned again this year. The AMD Surface Laptop is just one SKU, and is only available in a 15-inch form factor, but it still represents an exciting win for the smaller CPU manufacturer. So how does the platform compare to Intel?

We’ve rounded up reviews from Anandtech, The Verge, and Gizmodo. As a quick refresher, the Ryzen 3780U and 3580U are specially binned semi-custom parts AMD built specifically for Microsoft. These chips are still based on AMD’s 12nm Ryzen+ refresh from last year, which means they’re built on older silicon than the 7nm chiplet-based parts AMD is shipping in desktop. They do, however, offer more graphics performance in a 15W envelope than AMD has previously shipped, with an additional compute unit enabled on both SKUs. Historically, however, AMD systems have been more memory bandwidth-bound than compute-bound. Microsoft seems to have sampled the Ryzen 5 3580U to everyone, so that’s the machine on-bench at all three publications.

Of the reviews we’ve rounded up here, Anandtech has the largest focus on benchmarks as you might expect. The Verge and Gizmodo rely more on text descriptions.

General Remarks

There are a lot of things about the AMD Surface Laptop that aren’t particularly different compared to previous product generations. Build quality is still excellent, though the Alcantara fabric is missing and nobody likes the oil-friendly aluminum that Microsoft chose to tap instead. There are two USB ports now, one USB-A and one USB-C. The Surface Connect port now supports fast charging and the laptop is equipped with a 65W charger.

The good features of the Surface product family, like build quality and display quality, are very much in-evidence with this AMD system. Overall performance is good. Performance in tests like Cinebench multi-threaded and PCMark 10 are both quite favorable to AMD:

Graph by Anandtech

Anandtech didn’t have an Ice Lake system to compare against, but the Ryzen 7 3850U generally holds its own against the last generation of Intel parts. GPU performance is pretty solid for integrated, but keep in mind that you’re dealing with multiple limiting factors: It’s an APU (no discrete GPU), it’s limited to a 15W TDP, and it’s limited to two channels of DDR4-2400. You can squeeze some recent AAA games out of this laptop if you really push it, but it’s not going to be a major gaming system.

AMD’s Surface Laptop showing anodized aluminum. Photo by Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

There’s no Thunderbolt 3, since that’s an Intel standard, but all three publications missed the feature. The lack of an SD card slot also frustrated The Verge, which called the port selection “quite poor.” The Verge also notes that the laptop performs quite poorly in Adobe Premiere Pro when exporting a video clip in 4K H.264, writing:

I attempted to export a 5 minute and 33 second video from Adobe Premiere Pro in 4K H.264 resolution and the estimated time to completion was over three hours. After 51 minutes it had completed just 25 percent of the export and I gave up. For comparison, an old 2016 MacBook Pro with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and an AMD Radeon Pro 450 graphics card was able to export the same video out of Premiere in 17 minutes and 55 seconds.

The other thing the Laptop 3 surprisingly struggled with was playing 4K 60FPS video from YouTube. Whether I used Chrome or Microsoft’s own Edge browser, the video would stutter and choke, despite the fact that I had plenty of bandwidth to stream it. I can’t remember the last laptop I tested that couldn’t play back 4K video smoothly from YouTube, and it’s beyond disappointing to see a brand-new premium computer struggle with it. For what it’s worth, the 13.5-inch Laptop 3, which has an Intel processor, had no trouble playing 4K 60FPS YouTube videos on the same Wi-Fi network.

It’s not clear why this problem surfaced. Anandtech and Gizmodo don’t note any problems with 4K video playback or any odd performance slowdowns, but neither make specific reference to Premiere Pro, either.

Battery Life: An Achilles Heel

Battery life on the AMD Surface Laptop is acceptable, not great. Battery life has improved substantially from previous AMD laptops, but it’s not great. Anandtech’s battery life graph (normalized for battery size) is shown below. This shows absolute efficiency by system rather than the actual run-time measured at the wall.

Graph by Anandtech

A normalized run-time of 10.54 hours is sufficient to knock out some of the Intel systems, including an 8550U without a dGPU, but it’s clear that AMD is still playing catch-up to Intel in terms of battery optimization. That’s not very surprising. AMD began putting a serious push on battery improvements relatively recently compared to Intel, which began focusing on this target market back in 2012 with its ultrabook initiative. Anandtech specifically notes that AMD has made major improvements over the Ryzen 2000 family, but still has a ways to go.

Conclusions

Everyone basically agrees that this is a major win for AMD. Securing a premium SKU in the Surface Laptop family will raise the visibility of the company’s solutions and encourage other OEMs to optimize for its products. Anandtech writes that: “Overall, the Surface Laptop 3 15 is a great laptop. It keeps all of the design cues of the smaller generation and just makes it a bit bigger, retaining the same thin & light design and keeping it easy to travel with. Microsoft has forged a solid partnership with AMD, and the Ryzen APU that’s at the heart of this laptop brings with it great GPU performance and good CPU performance, even though it is at the cost of overall battery life.”

The Verge is more circumspect in its approach. “Still, if you were hoping that the 15-inch Laptop 3 would be more than just a bigger Surface Laptop, I’m sorry to report that you’ll be disappointed. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, more powerful 15-inch laptops available, such as Apple’s MacBook Pro, Dell’s XPS 15, or even Microsoft’s own Surface Book 2. I don’t know if Microsoft needed to make a 15-inch version of the Surface Laptop, but it did, and it mostly did a good job with it.”

Gizmodo is the most positively-inclined towards the new AMD laptop, writing: “If you value portability and don’t need half a dozen CPU cores and a big discrete GPU, the Surface Laptop 3 is a rarity that hits a perfect balance I didn’t know I needed until I had it in my lap. AMD (and Microsoft) have produced a GPU and CPU seemingly as good as Intel’s very best. It’s absolute proof that AMD can and should start appearing in more laptops, especially the big flashy ones.”

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Read more here: ExtremeTechComputing – ExtremeTech

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