Surface Laptop 4 Review: Microsoft plays catch-up with Intel Tiger Lake
Unsurprisingly, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 has Intel Tiger Lake, also known as 11th-generation, and AMD Ryzen 4000, although consumers have an option of either one in either model. Intel’s Tiger Lake chips now come with Iris Xe integrated graphics, a marked improvement on Iris Plus Graphics, which was already a solid improvement over the previous generation. As far as AMD goes, Ryzen 4000 is built on a 7nm process now and brings its own performance improvements. For this review, I’ve been using the Intel model.
Navigate this review
- Specifications overview
- Design, build quality, and Ice Blue color
- Display and audio: What’s the Surface Laptop 4 like for streaming media?
- Keyboard and touchpad: How does the Surface Laptop 4 handle input?
- Performance and battery life: Can the Surface Laptop 4 handle real work?
- Conclusion: Is the Surface Laptop 4 worth buying?
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4: Specifications
|Specification||Microsoft Surface Laptop 4|
|CPU||Intel Core i7-1185G7|
|Graphics||Intel Iris Xe|
|Display||13.5-inch PixelSense display, 2,256×1,504, 201ppi, 3:2, Surface Pen support|
|Body||12.1×8.8×0.57” (308x223x14.5mm), 2.79lbs (1,265g)|
|Memory||16GB LPDDR4x RAM|
|Cameras, video, and audio|
|Battery||45.8WHr (Up to 17 hours)|
|Material||Aluminum, Alcantara keyboard deck|
About this review: Microsoft loaned me the Ice Blue 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4 with 16GB RAM, 512GB of storage, and Intel’s Core i7-1185G7, but they did not preview or exercise any control over this review.
The 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4 actually starts at $999.99, and that will get you an AMD Ryzen 5 4680U Surface Edition CPU, along with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD. In fact, aside from a separate $1,199.99 SKU that gets you 16GB RAM, that’s all you can get in the 13.5-inch model with AMD. The rest comes with Intel. It’s also worth noting that the AMD-powered models only come in the Platinum color.
The rest of the models — aside from the top-end model that has a Core i7-1185G7, 32GB RAM, and a 1TB SSD for $2,299.99 and comes in Matte Black — come in all four colors: Platinum, Ice Blue, Sandstone, and Matte Black. If you go the Platinum or Ice Blue route, you’ll get Alcantara fabric on the keyboard, while Sandstone and Matte Black are straight-up aluminum.
For the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4, it’s just aluminum, and your options are only Platinum and Matte Black. For that model, the only AMD processor offered is the Ryzen 7 4980U Surface Edition, and that comes in the $1,299.99 base model with 8GB RAM and 256GB of storage, along with a $1,499.99 model with 8GB RAM and 512GB of storage and a $1,699.99 model with 16GB RAM and 512GB of storage. The rest use an Intel Core i7-1185G7, and once again, the top-end model comes with 32GB RAM and 1TB of storage.
As far as other spec differences between the two Surface Laptop 4 models, there’s not much. The 15-inch version is bigger and heavier, naturally, and it has a 2,496×1,664 display, giving it the exact same 201ppi pixel density. Indeed, the battery isn’t even any bigger in the 15-inch version.
Design, Build Quality, and Ice Blue color
I was happy to open the package and see that Microsoft had sent me the Ice Blue model, as it’s the new color introduced with the Surface Laptop 4. It replaces Cobalt Blue in the Surface Laptop lineup, and that was the last of the original colors that were still being made, other than the Platinum color that exists across the Surface brand. Ice Blue comes with the Alcantara keyboard, something that was originally a staple of the Surface Laptop lineup.
Microsoft is definitely trending toward more subtle colors, unlike bold colors like Burgundy and Cobalt Blue. When I asked about this, I was told that that’s simply this year’s trend. The Redmond firm could decide to go all-in on bold colors again next year if it wants to. But for now, don’t expect the next Microsoft Surface Laptop in Poppy Red.
The shade of blue is so pale that you could probably mistake it for gray, and it’s a nice subtle touch. If gray laptops seem a bit dull, and they usually are, the blue tint adds just a tiny bit of flash to it. On top of that, there’s the mirrored Surface logo stamped in the lid. As usual, the branding is one of the sexiest parts of the laptop.
Other than the color, the look of the chassis of the Surface Laptop hasn’t changed much over time. With the Surface Laptop 3, the USB Type-C port was added, but that’s about it. However, some things have changed, although again, these changes were made in the last generation of the product.
For one thing, the weight distribution changed. If you put a Surface Laptop 2 and a Surface Laptop 4 next to each other, you’ll be able to feel how much easier it is to open the Surface Laptop 4 with one finger. The additional weight in the base makes it easier to use on your lap as well.
Another change is that you can open up the base and replace the storage now. Replaceable storage is something that we’re seeing across the Surface lineup now, and it’s for businesses. It’s not meant for you to get around Microsoft’s exorbitant prices for storage tiers. Instead, this is more about being able to destroy storage when you recycle the product, or to service it.
While you could replace or upgrade the storage yourself, Microsoft warns against this and says you should have an authorized repair center do it. That means that if you do it yourself, you’re probably voiding your warranty.
The port selection hasn’t changed. On the left side, there’s a USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A and a USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C port, both of which are good for data transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack on the Surface Laptop 4.
Sadly, there’s still no Thunderbolt. While Microsoft has rejected Thunderbolt throughout the life of Surface, its excuse this time is that there’s an AMD-powered variant of the Surface Laptop 4. Since Intel owns Thunderbolt, Microsoft doesn’t want to go the extra mile to add it to AMD-powered PCs. To be clear, it is possible.
Still, most OEMs simply put Thunderbolt in their Intel-powered configurations and not in the AMD-powered ones. It’s interesting because Microsoft has these reasons for not giving us modern technology like Thunderbolt, and they seem fine until you realize that its competitors solved these problems ages ago.
Another example of this is the Surface Connect port, Microsoft’s proprietary charging port that’s found on the right side of the Surface Laptop 4. Surface Connect is a magnetic charging port that’s USB 3.2 Gen 2, so it supports the same 10Gbps data transfer speeds. It also has the same limitations as the USB Type-C port, meaning you can’t connect dual 4K displays.
Again, this is something that other OEMs have solved. Sure, business customers want to keep the port so that they can use the same docks and peripherals they’ve always used. Still, companies like HP, Lenovo, Dell, and Acer all slowly moved their commercial lineups to USB Type-C entirely years ago.
Display and Audio: What’s the Surface Laptop 4 like for streaming media?
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 comes with a 13.5-inch 2,256×1,504 display, giving it a 3:2 aspect ratio. Yes, that’s the same aspect ratio as every modern Surface. The pixel density is 201ppi, which is actually significantly lower than the Surface Book 3 (260ppi) and the Surface Pro 7 (267ppi). I don’t think it makes a difference though. There’s no noticeable pixelation, so the lower pixel density only results in longer battery life.
The colors are good too, although it’s not as vibrant as the OLED display that you’ll find on HP’s 13.5-inch 3:2 Spectre x360 14. Microsoft has always focused more on accurate colors than vibrant ones. It’s also fairly bright, enough to comfortably work outdoors. This is an issue that I’ve had with Surface PCs before because Microsoft really does love glossy displays. And if you combine glossy and dim, that makes it hard to use outside.
Interestingly, the clamshell laptop has both touch and pen support. While touch comes in handy from time to time, I’ve never found a practical use for a pen with a clamshell laptop like this in all of my years reviewing Surface Laptops. If you’re thinking a pen might be useful, get a convertible.
As you can see, the bezels on the Surface Laptop 4 aren’t particularly small. Honestly, if you were looking for narrow bezels, you’re probably not looking for a Microsoft Surface. That’s more in the Dell XPS territory.
The top bezel includes a webcam and an IR camera. Sadly, the Surface Laptop 4’s webcam offers just 720p resolution. The webcam resolution is one thing that hasn’t changed here, and it’s a shame. With so many people working remotely, a quality webcam is more important than ever. For reference, the Surface Pro 7, Surface Pro X, Surface Book 3, Surface Studio 2, and even the Surface Go have 1080p webcams. Microsoft has been using a 1080p webcam in the Surface Pro lineup since the Surface Pro 3 in 2014.
One thing that’s been improved in the Surface Laptop 4 is audio quality. This year, the new Surface Laptop has speakers that have been tuned with Dolby Atmos. These speakers are not only clear, but they’re fairly loud for listening to music or streaming video. They’re loud enough that it’s uncomfortable to listen to them at 100% volume, which is really all that I ask for. If you have to use anything at 100% under normal conditions, it’s not good enough. With the speakers on the Surface Laptop 4, a comfortable volume is around 50%.
Keyboard and Touchpad: How does the Surface Laptop 4 handle input?
The keyboard itself is something that hasn’t changed much since the original Surface Laptop debuted. The keys themselves still feel like they’re made of plastic (because they are), but it does seem like Microsoft has tinkered with the resistance a bit. It feels very comfortable, and it feels accurate. In my weeks of using the Surface Laptop 4, I clearly made fewer errors in typing than I normally would.
The keyboard is covered in Alcantara fabric, a stable of the Surface Laptop since it debuted. This is something that a lot of people hated. In fact, that’s why with the Laptop 3, Microsoft started offering models without it. I’ll tell you a bit of a secret though. I like the soft feel of the Alcantara on my palms. It’s a nice touch that makes the Surface Laptop 4 unique.
The only problem is, of course, that it’s harder to keep clean. It’s recommended that you use a damp, lint-free cloth with mild soap to keep it clean. For stains, it’s recommended that you clean it within 30 minutes.
If you don’t want to deal with that hassle, you’ve got options. On the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4, the Sandstone and Matte Black models have aluminum keyboards. For the 15-inch model, Platinum and Matte Black are aluminum. The only ones that come with Alcantara are the 13.5-inch Platinum and Ice Blue models.
Another thing of note about the keyboard is that this is where the power button is. This is different from almost any other Surface. The Surface Pro, Surface Book, and Surface Go all keep their power buttons on the side. That’s because those are tablets or can be used as such. The Surface Laptop series also doesn’t have a physical volume rocker. You’ll have to know all of this if you have to use the power and volume keys to boot into recovery because it does work the same way. You just have to use the keys on the keyboard.
It’s got a Microsoft Precision touchpad, meaning it’s fast and responsive. This isn’t really a concern anymore, as pretty much any modern laptop has a Precision touchpad. I’m more concerned with how Microsoft tends to make noisy touchpads. Seriously, if you’re trying to work in a super-quiet room, people will hear you click.
The good news is that it’s better than Microsoft’s tablets. Presumably, this is because the Surface Laptop 4 just had a more solid base. Microsoft just loves its clicking sounds.
Performance and Battery Life: Can the Surface Laptop 4 handle real work?
The Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 that I was sent includes an Intel Core i7-1185G7, 16GB RAM, and a 512GB SSD. While it’s pretty specced out, you could get it with 32GB RAM and 1TB of storage if you want. I just don’t know who looks for 32GB of RAM if they’re not also looking for a dedicated GPU.
In the 13.5-inch model, you’ve also got the option of an AMD Ryzen 5 4680U Surface Edition or an Intel Core i5-1135G7. The AMD processor is the one that’s used in the base model, but keep in mind that while Ryzen 4000 is good, it’s a last-gen product. Every other OEM is using Ryzen 5000 now. For a Core i5, the entry point is $1,299.99.
The Intel processors are from the Tiger Lake family. That means that they come with Iris Xe graphics. If you don’t know what Iris Xe graphics are, you’re in for a treat. With last year’s Ice Lake and the move to the 10nm process, Intel finally started taking its integrated graphics seriously with Iris Plus Graphics. Iris Plus was nearly twice as fast as its predecessor, and now Iris Xe is nearly twice as fast as that.
That means on a regular old ultrabook with integrated graphics, you can do things like play FHD games or edit photos. You can even do some light video editing. Of course, if you’re recording 4K 60fps video, you probably already know that you need dedicated graphics.
One other thing worth noting is that while both the Core i5 and Core i7 have the ‘G7’ suffix, the Iris Xe graphics in the Core i7 are a bit better. It has 96 execution units instead of 80.
As far as battery life goes, I got about eight hours of my regular usage from the Surface Laptop 4. That’s pretty much what I was expecting out of this machine, so there’s no surprise there. I put the screen at 33% brightness and the power slider at a notch above battery saver. Regular usage included working through the Edge browser, some photo editing in Photoshop, Skype, OneNote, Slack, and a handful of other productivity apps.
For benchmarks, I used PCMark 8, PCMark 10, Geekbench, and Cinebench.
|Microsoft Surface Laptop 4|
|Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15|
Ryzen 7 3780U Surface Edition
|Microsoft Surface Pro 7+|
|Microsoft Surface Book 3|
Core i7-1065G7, GTX 1650
|PCMark 8: Home||4,331||3,360||3,521||3,344|
|PCMark 8: Creative||4,777||3,687||4,192||2,857|
|PCMark 8: Work||3,925||3,095||3,403||3,289|
|Geekbench||1,551 / 5,829||880 / 3,235||1,358 / 5,246||1,318 / 4,775|
|Cinebench||1,295 / 5,194||883 / 3,999||1,235 / 2,854||1,167 / 3,555|
As you can see, the Surface Laptop 4 is one of the most powerful products that the Redmond company is selling right now.
Conclusion: Is the Surface Laptop 4 worth buying?
Here’s the deal with the Surface Laptop 4. It’s an awesome laptop with fantastic build quality and great performance. The big deal-breaker is that it doesn’t have Thunderbolt 4. It’s tough to ignore the fact that this doesn’t come with an Intel Evo sticker, meaning that it doesn’t pass Intel’s tests for being a great ultrabook.
This is where you ask yourself if Thunderbolt matters to you. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter. When you take Thunderbolt out of the equation, you’re left with a pretty great laptop. Also, I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain just a little about the lack of a cellular option.
Like I said earlier, I’m quite smitten with the Alcantara fabric, but a lot of people hate it. That’s why there are aluminum options too. One thing that all options have in common is that they’re pretty, whether you’re buying the stealthy black color, the warm yet subtle Sandstone, or the classic Platinum.
Honestly, the rest of the boxes are checked. The Surface Laptop 4 has a great keyboard, a solid 3:2 display, a pretty design, and even removable storage. Starting at $999, the Surface Laptop 4 is worth buying as long as you don’t need Thunderbolt.