- Build quality remains excellent
- Windows Hello works quickly and reliably to unlock PC
- Replaceable SSD storage is much appreciated
- Display bezels make the entire unit look dated
- Webcam is still just 720p
- Surface Connect Port remains a mixed blessing
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop line is essentially its direct competitor for Apple’s MacBook line. Unlike most MacBook-to-Windows comparisons, this one’s pretty apt. Both are made by the developers of their OS, both use premium internal components, and both feature unibody aluminum shells.
As flagship laptops, you’d expect both lines to be aiming high for component selection, performance, and features. It’s hard to argue that Apple usually integrates all three of those tentpoles into its new MacBook Pro releases. Microsoft, however, seems more complacent, and I think that fact is starting to hold back the Surface Laptop line.
All of the precision-machined cases and blazing-fast performance here couldn’t make me ignore the distractingly large bezels, nor could anything make me forget about its comically outdated webcam. That’s all very unfortunate because the Surface Laptop 5 is an excellent system, overall. Microsoft just made it hard to appreciate that by stubbornly retaining some components for a third sequential generation.
|Processor||12th-Gen Intel Core i5 or Core i7|
|Display||13.5-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 2256 x 1504|
|Memory||8GB or 16GB of DDR5 RAM|
|Storage||256GB or 512GB removable SSDs|
|Battery||Up to 18 hours of use|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.1|
|Ports||1 x USB-C 4.0/Thunderbolt 4, 1 x USB-A 3.1, 3.5mm headphone jack. 1 x Surface Connect Port|
|Size and weight||12.1″L x 8.8″W x .57″H | 2.8lbs|
How’s the build quality?
Short answer: The best-built Windows laptop you can buy.
Longer answer: Microsoft nailed clean, minimalistic quality in a way that basically no one but Apple seems to replicate. From the softly reflective Windows logo to the sharp-looking (but not actually sharp) machining of the outer case, the Surface Laptop can match or beat any MacBook or Windows-based laptop.
A note about materials: My review unit was the all-aluminum model. Microsoft offers configurations with Alcantara material on the keyboard deck. If you hate the feel of cold metal on your wrists, it could be a great option. But, I’d consider the trials and tribulations you put your laptop through, and how that material will hold up to them before buying.
More: The best laptops: Does Apple take the crown?
Features and ports
Microsoft’s port selection on the Surface Laptop 5 is very middle-of-the-road. That’s a good thing. It acknowledges that plenty of USB-A peripherals still exist, so it includes a single USB-A port. Likewise, you get one USB-C port, with Thunderbolt 4 support, meaning it can connect a whole slew of peripherals (storage, power, displays, etc.) all on its own. It’s a sensible mix, if not a plentiful one.
More: Laptop docking stations: The best ones, are they universal, and what they do
One place Microsoft could have added USB ports was where its long-standing Surface Connect Port lives. This I/O, which has remained mostly unchanged since the first Surface, is the only one on the laptop’s right side. I have two issues with this port.
First, I’m almost never a fan of proprietary connectors, which this very much is. It’ll do a good job connecting Surface-branded docking stations, but USB-C could do just as well while being much more universal.
Second, I’ve seen Surface chargers like the one included with this laptop fail at a higher rate than standard barrel-type plugs, or other magnetic options, like Apple’s MagSafe chargers. Not only do the tiny contacts seem prone to corrosion, but the required magnets that hold the Surface Connect fin in place seem to lose strength over time. Luckily, there’s a second charging method we’ll discuss below.
The charger did retain one thing I’m very pleased about: a USB-A port (seen above) that’s handy for charging just about anything you’d like. Still, I’d have preferred an extra USB-C port or two in place of the Surface Connect port. It’s only the first of the outdated components we’ll discuss here.
For the next of those aged components, let’s talk about bezels. Those black spaces around a screen barely exist on modern smartphones, and nearly all laptop, monitor, and TV makers have shrunk theirs to a bare minimum. Microsoft saw this trend and said “…nah.”
More: The best portable monitors: Work from anywhere
The 2256 x 1504 display does look very nice. It’s bright enough for outdoor use, well-saturated, and dense enough that individual pixels take some squinting to see. But, it’s all held back by the wasted space surrounding it. Maybe I’m being too fussy over this. But, if you look at Apple’s latest MacBook Pro or the equally premium Lenovo ThinkPad Z16 I recently reviewed, you’ll see displays tickling the physical edge of the lids they’re mounted on.
Squarely in the center of that oversized top bezel is the worst decision Microsoft made for this laptop: its webcam. I should note the Windows Hello support it offers is appreciated for its rapid log-ins. What isn’t appreciated is the outdated 720p resolution.
A Microsoft representative claimed during a recent presentation that the company’s customers were still satisfied with 720p quality and that Windows 11’s built-in software processing would make the camera look better. I’m doubtful of the first point and disagree completely with the second. It still just looks like a 720p webcam, period.
This might be forgivable in a budget model. But, even the base config Surface Laptop 5 is $1,000. The configuration I’m testing is $1,700. A few years ago, this rant would have been overblown. But with most of us spending multiple hours per week on Zoom or in video conferences, I can’t excuse mediocre webcams any longer.
More: The 10 best webcams: Join your next Zoom call in HD
Performance and battery life
Back to a far more positive aspect of the review: performance. My review unit packed a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of DDR5 RAM, and a 512GB SSD. With this configuration, the Surface Laptop 5 is a beast. It flew through heavy-duty Photoshop tasks, handled any number of Chrome tabs, and seamlessly streamed video during all of that. Better yet, it remained consistently whisper quiet and cool to the touch, especially on the keyboard deck. Uncomfortably warm wrist rests are a pet peeve of mine, but not one this model triggered.
One annoying quirk I ran into was the unwillingness of Windows 11 or the Surface Laptop 5 to provide a battery life estimate in hours and minutes. A stat that usually pops up in short order was just absent here. That left me to time the battery life the old-fashioned way. The result was an average of about 10-14 hours with mixed-use. This included things like streaming video/audio, browsing the web, writing content, and other mundane tasks a typical workday includes.
At the extremes, I could deplete the battery in about 7 hours if I tried to create a worst-case scenario or could eke out the full 18 hours that Microsoft rates the model at by sacrificing some screen brightness, volume, and performance.
More: The 5 best portable power banks: Top up your mobile devices
Overall, I’d have no qualms about leaving my charger at home and expecting to get a full workday from this laptop, as long as I topped it up overnight. If you do need a charge and you left your proprietary charger at home, all is not lost. The included USB-C port can charge the Surface Laptop 5, too. A generic 65W charger I tested took the unit from nearly dead to full in about 2 hours.
I might have seemed like I had high standards for this review, and I did. This is a flagship laptop from the company that makes Windows, after all. While those resources and ability to optimize for its own OS did show in aspects like the Surface Laptop 5‘s continually excellent build quality and performance, it faltered when it came to basic modern necessities like a decent webcam and a contemporary display layout.
If you never video conference or wasted space around your display doesn’t bother you, you’re looking at the best windows laptop you could buy right now. Even if those things do irk a bit, I’d recommend balancing them against the exceptional performance, build, and aesthetics. The Surface Laptop 5 is frustratingly close to being that universal leader among Windows portables Microsoft wants it to be. But, if they want that crown, I hope they update the components that held this generation back when it comes time to design the Surface Laptop 6.
Alternatives to consider
The ThinkPad Z16 shares a similar rigid, satisfying build, while adding a bit more creative detailing. It also features far smaller display bezels, and equal performance, though its webcam was equally disappointing.
Review: Lenovo ThinkPad Z16
The Acer Swift Edge can’t match the Surface Laptop 5’s build quality. However, it offers a larger, 4K, OLED display and equal performance for $100 less. If you prioritize function over form, it’s a worthy consideration.
Review: Acer Swift Edge laptop
Dell’s latest entry in the XPS 13 lineup looks like it comes from further down the timestream. It features equally precise design and build quality, but uses every millimeter of its body for display or keyboard. It also includes identical configuration options, but will cost more on a 1:1 configuration basis.