The Surface Laptop 4 Is a Great MacBook Alternative for the Microsoft-Curious

This year’s refresh is focused on internals, so it’s what’s on the inside that counts

Images courtesy of the author

For the last few years, Microsoft has been on a tear building some of the best laptops on the market alongside the most exciting developer tools available. For the last few weeks, I’ve been testing the company’s new 15-inch Surface Laptop 4, which is no exception.

From the outside, the Surface Laptop 4 looks and feels similar to the previous generation of laptops; it’s ultra-thin at 14.7 mm with a tall 3:2 display and comes in a slick set of colors to choose from as well as metal or Alcantara fabric finishes.

But this year’s refresh is focused on internals, so it’s what’s on the inside that counts: You can now choose from an 11th-gen Intel processor or a special AMD Ryzen 4000 “Surface Edition” option that sports a whopping eight cores.

That AMD Ryzen configuration, which I’ve been testing, is an absolute beast. It handles difficult workloads like my Chrome, Docker, and PhpStorm coding workflow with seeming ease while remaining cool, rarely spinning up the fans. On the average laptop, that would be enough to send the fans soaring, but not so on the Surface Laptop 4.

The entire time I tested the Surface Laptop 4, I was rarely able to get it to be hot to the touch regardless of what I was doing on it, which is something I can’t say for most of the 15-inch Intel laptops I’ve tested over the years, including Microsoft’s own Surface Book 3. I couldn’t really make it break a sweat outside of messing around with video editing software, which is a nice change of pace from the usual rocket fans on larger laptops.

Unlike Microsoft’s competing high-end laptop, the Surface Book 3, the Laptop 4 isn’t really designed to be a gaming computer — it only has integrated graphics rather than a dedicated GPU. The integrated graphics are passable and can handle games like Fortnite or Halo on medium graphics, but set your expectations: You’re not going to be getting high-end visuals out of this laptop.

However, in exchange for inexplicably incredible battery life, I was able to get more than a full day’s work out of the Surface Laptop 4 without even trying. And that includes development work and poking around on the web in Chrome. On average, I found I was able to get 11 hours of battery life on the recommended settings, which could likely be pushed higher if you were being conservative or running it in energy-saving mode.

The entire time I tested the Surface Laptop 4, I was rarely able to get it to be hot to the touch regardless of what I was doing on it.

That’s the best battery life I’ve gotten by far in a 15-inch laptop to date, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it felt both surprising and liberating. I’ve been so disappointed by laptop battery life over the years that I generally go in with low expectations. My day-job laptop, the 15-inch 2019 MacBook Pro, struggles to last a few hours even with lightweight productivity work, so I know I need to hover near a power outlet. By contrast, I didn’t have to worry about the Surface Laptop 4 — to the point that I was surprised when I had to charge it.

Not much else about the Surface Laptop has changed on the outside. There are still single USB-C and USB-A ports, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and the special magnetic Surface charger connector (though you can choose to charge the Laptop 4 via the USB-C port). The USB-C port still inexplicably lacks the faster Thunderbolt standard found on other devices, which feels short-sighted for a high-end device.

The 720p webcam isn’t earth-shattering quality-wise, but it’s better than the average laptop, and the dual studio microphones that reduce background audio make a big difference for my all-day meetings. But what always strikes me when I pick up a new Windows machine is just how slick the face-unlock feature (Windows Hello) makes the entire experience. Being able to nigh-instantly log in by looking at my computer is so much easier than messing around with a fingerprint scanner, and it always makes me wonder why Apple still refuses to add it to its own machines — it’s just magic.

There’s no debate in my mind that the matte black option is the best color, but overall, the brushed metal design feels incredibly premium, as if it were cut from the same cloth as a MacBook Pro with Microsoft’s unique spin. Opening it for the first time, the display felt impressive and spacious; I have a soft spot for the taller displays that Microsoft uses, which provide more vertical space for having two full-sized documents or code editors open.

I hadn’t tried the Surface Laptop before this refresh, so it’s hard for me to make a direct comparison, but as someone who uses the hybrid laptop-tablet Surface Book 3, I’ve found the Surface Laptop to be much more comfortable to use day-to-day. It’s lighter, less top-heavy, and still sports a touch screen — it’s just not detachable, but I found myself using the Surface Book in tablet mode less over time anyway.

The elephant in the room here is Apple’s new MacBook Pro, which sports custom ARM-based M1 chipsets that have formidable performance and battery life that x86-based processors are yet to match. While I don’t have an M1 laptop to compare with directly, others have written about this, and it’s hard to ignore when Apple’s custom hardware is yet to see any competition.

That’s going to be on the mind of anyone who’s buying a laptop but especially developers. With Apple pushing the boundaries of next-gen processors right now, what’s Microsoft’s response? It clearly isn’t transforming the industry with its own chips yet, and the Surface Laptop 4 notably uses a last-generation AMD chip as well. This refresh, however, is a decent shot at competing with what the M1 is capable of, delivering outrageous battery life and great performance despite the traditional chip.

I’m not sure that’s enough to tempt away the average MacBook buyer, but for people like me who are impressed with Microsoft’s focus on developer tooling with things like WSL2 or are already in the ecosystem, it’s a heck of a machine that’s worth serious consideration.

The Surface Laptop 4 shows that Microsoft is still dedicated to making its laptops better and squeezing ever more out of traditional processors. The looming question is whether or not it’ll matter when Apple ships its next-gen processors in a 15-inch format. Regardless, the Surface Laptop 4 is a solid buy for any developer who’s Microsoft-curious and even better for those planning to go on cafe-working adventures post-pandemic without battery anxiety.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify. https://twitter.com/ow

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