Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 Review

Microsoft’s Surface line has long served as a guiding light for the quality standards other laptops and (especially) 2-in-1 makers should look to. With the Surface Laptop 5, it feels like Microsoft has pivoted, building a machine that fancies itself a Dell XPS competitor while bearing a design more appropriately squared off against basic Chromebooks. It’s a weird space for Microsoft to be, especially when its prices sit in the upper end of the market.

The Surface Laptop 5 line starts at $999 for a model with a 13.5-inch display, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and an Intel Core i5-1235U processor. That rises all the way up to $1,699 for a model with a Core i7-1255U, 32GB of RAM, and a 512GB storage drive ($200 more than the comparable Dell XPS 13 with a 1TB storage drive). The 15-inch model comes exclusively with the higher-end Core i7 processor and ranges from $1,299 for an 8GB+256GB model to $2,399 for a 32GB+1TB model, once again playing far too close to the fire that is Dell’s XPS 15. Dell’s XPS 15 line also bumps for U-series processors to higher-performance H-Series variants and can include dedicated graphics while staying below Microsoft’s prices.

Let’s take a closer look and see what Microsoft has actually put on the table.

Surface Laptop 5 – Design and Features

The Surface Laptop 5 feels well built, with a stiff aluminum construction that doesn’t have a lot of give to it. There’s little in the way of style to the design, though. It’s a big, flat slab of gray-on-gray metal any way you look at it – from above, from below, and even looking at the keyboard deck you’re confronted with broad swatches of bare aluminum. It’s attempting nothing interesting with form. The corners have a large radius and the base has a slightly taper toward the front edge, but that’s the extent of it.

There’s venting along the back edge of the base, just below the display hinge. The speakers are hidden in the hinge area as well, going completely under the radar. The design ought to make it harder to accidentally suffocate the cooling systems in some common circumstances, such as setting the laptop on a pillow or couch, but it’s still a lot easier to do than it would be on a Zenbook 14 OLED or other comparable laptop that vents out the side or top.

With the laptop opened up, the Surface Laptop 5 bares its blandness completely. It simply wastes tons of space. The trackpad is a fairly sizable one, at about 4.5 x 3 inches, but it’s only a little bigger than that found on the Dell XPS 13, a much smaller laptop, and even falls short of the touchpads on the Asus ZenBook 14 OLED and MacBook Pro 14-inch which are also smaller laptops. Meanwhile, there’s a ton of empty space all around it.

Microsoft also went with the simplest keyboard layout. While some compact laptops may be excused for only going with the basics because they don’t have room for more keys, the Surface Laptop 5 has more than one-and-quarter inch on either side of the keyboard that it could have devoted to extra functions, like a column for Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down, or perhaps even squeezed a numpad into. Instead, it’s just more empty space. All this space makes for some uncomfortable placement of the keys, too. The keyboard starts incredibly far up the chassis, which can lead to the soft tissue of the wrists resting on the edge of the laptop rather than the palm resting at the sides of the trackpad.

The keys feel a little dull to press, not having the same sort of pop some other devices offer. It’s still easy to type on, making for quick text entry, but not a joy to use like the ZenBook 14 OLED’s keyboard. Similarly, the trackpad doesn’t feel particularly noticeable, and yards on being bad. It doesn’t depress uniformly (though to be fair, almost none do), and the result is an inconsistent feel.

What’s more criminal is the display, which has 0.4-inch bezels on the sides and top and more than a half-inch of bezel below. This serves to make the display area not only look incredibly dated, but it also makes the laptop larger than it ought to be. The frame has a 16.25-inch diagonal, while it’s only offering a 15.0-inch display (not the 15.6-inch you might be used to seeing when you come across a 15-inch laptop). For comparison, the Dell XPS 13 Plus has just 0.1 inches of bezel around its display. At least Microsoft continues to include a Windows Hello facial recognition sensor in the top bezel… but so did Dell in half the space.

The Surface Laptop 5’s display followed the 3:2 aspect ratio Microsoft has been pushing lately, which gives extra vertical screen real estate that’s handy for documents and the like. It also hits a sharp 2,496 x 1,664 resolution, with touch and stylus support, though the clamshell laptop design doesn’t lend itself well to great touch or stylus experiences.

The display is a bright one, able to reach up to 420 nits in HDR content and hold at about 392 nits for non-HDR content. It can do this alongside a fairly dim black level as low as 0.32 nits, making for a contrast ratio that’s a bit better than you’d usually see from an IPS display. While the display supports Dolby Vision IQ, a version of Dolby Vision that takes ambient light into account and optimizes the picture, the laptop doesn’t appear to have system-wide HDR support. The problem here is that not all services will recognize the laptop as HDR capable, such as YouTube. Though the display will manage to put on a great show with bright highlights and vibrant colors, it would likely have better (if not more accurate) visuals if it was actually receiving the HDR metadata. Good as it is, I can’t help but point back to the Asus ZenBook 14 OLED’s DisplayHDR 600 True Black-certified panel, which offers brighter highlights and substantially darker blacks at the same time on a laptop that costs much less than Microsoft’s.

The display is also held back a bit by its motion. All that’s available here is 60Hz (or 59Hz to be more accurate), while last year’s Surface Pro 8 saw Microsoft bump up to 120Hz to deliver extra smooth movement, which can be quite pleasant while scrolling through content, but that feature isn’t present here.

At least the speakers are worth some note. They offer pointed, clear audio that’s great for listening to narrated content because voice comes through exceptionally well. It even manages to remain crisp while playing busy music, where other laptop speaker systems might have a tendency to get crunchy and start sounding more like a racket than music. There’s even modest stereo separation.

Despite its spacious size, the Surface Laptop 5 is taking tips from other ultrabooks by delivering a truly lackluster selection of ports. There’s one USB-A 3.1 port, one USB-C 4.0 / Thunderbolt 4 port, and a headphone jack on the left side of the laptop. Meanwhile, the right side just has Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port for charging and special docks. There’s certainly plenty of room for more ports, but that would have gone against the laptop’s apparent theme of dead space. At least the USB-C port supports charging, so you don’t have to rely on the Surface Connect port.

Surface Laptop 5 – Software

As you’d expect from a Microsoft product, the Surface Laptop 5 comes running pure, unaltered Windows 11. There are no particular embellishments or extra software packages bundled in to make the experience unique for the Surface Laptop 5, and that may be for the best. Many manufacturers tack on software that doesn’t always serve the user, and sometimes it can present conflicting settings with the operating system-level settings.

Surface Laptop 5 – Gaming and performance

The Surface Laptop 5 isn’t built to be a performance monster. It would have been nice to see a little more oomph, but this laptop is going for a marathon rather than a sprint. Its big size would lead me to think it might be packing in a huge battery, but Microsoft is only using a 47Wh battery, which is smaller than the 50Wh battery packed into the compact Dell XPS 13. The real battery champion is Microsoft’s choice of a U-Series processor from Intel that doesn’t beg for a lot of power at all times. In PCMark10’s battery benchmark, the Surface Laptop 5 was able to stretch out for an impressive 13 hours and 15 minutes. It also recharges rapidly.

I can feel the lower performance levels fairly consistently, with some apps taking long enough to launch that I wonder whether the computer registered my double-click. There’s occasional stumbling as well, such as the display sometimes appearing to stutter, or drop its refresh rate, making for an unpleasant experience scrolling and mousing around. Seeing a 60Hz refresh rate is already disappointing enough at this price, and a slow pixel response time doesn’t make it any better, but not even getting it to remain consistent is a real letdown. It can also struggle with multiple video streams. If I moused over a YouTube thumbnail and saw the small preview of the video, the video in the main player would sputter about.

If you want a laptop for gaming, you can just about forget it on the Surface Laptop 5 unless you’re going to stream from the cloud. There are loads of laptops for similar prices that simply spit in the face of this one. You might not enjoy as much battery life from gaming-oriented laptops, but you can see performance multiple times faster. For instance, the Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition cost about $1,650 when we reviewed it, and it simply blows past the Surface Laptop 5 while maintaining a respectable battery life of over nine hours in our testing.

The Surface Laptop 5 had a poor showing in our 3DMark and Unigine Heaven benchmarks, and it couldn’t even break out of a single-digit frame rate average running our Total War: Three Kingdoms benchmark at 1080p Low settings. For comparison, the Asus ROG laptop previously mentioned had an 89fps average at 1080p Ultra in the same benchmark.

Given how pricey the Surface Laptop 5 can get, it’s almost a wonder what advantage Microsoft thinks this laptop has. It might have a big display for a 3.44-pound laptop, but it’s kind of bulky and there are more exciting displays available for less (such as the ZenBook 14 OLED that’s gone for as little as $500). It’s not offering high value for its performance, as there are Dell Inspiron systems that would dunk on it. The Inspiron 16 Plus packs a 12th gen Intel Core H-Series processor (two performance levels up the stack), double the memory, double the storage, and dedicated Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 graphics for $200 less than the configuration Microsoft sent me for testing. Meanwhile, an Inspiron 16 with specs close to this Surface Laptop 5 would be just $1,049. Heck, there’s even a Dell XPS 15 with a Core i7-12700H, 16GB of DDR5 memory, 512GB of storage, and an RTX 3050 Ti GPU for $50 less than the model I’m testing, and it’s not even a pound heavier. And for comparison’s sake, the Surface Laptop 5’s SSD performs in league with many PCIe 3.0 SSDs, and not with the PCIe 4.0 SSDs you might get from other laptops.

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