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Microsoft Surface Laptop 5: frustrating but successful

Microsoft Surface Laptop 5: frustrating but successful

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop series is the direct competitor to the MacBook line. Both series of computers are manufactured by their operating system developers, use advanced components and have an aluminum unibody shell.

We can therefore expect both series to aim high in terms of performance and functionality. It’s hard to argue that Apple has pretty much pulled it off with the latest MacBook Pros. However, Microsoft seems more lazy and I think it is starting to hamper the Surface line.

Even the precision-machined chassis and incredible performance couldn’t make me overlook the overly wide bezels, and nothing could make me forgive its mediocre webcam for the price. It’s a shame, because the system is generally excellent.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 5

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Functions

  • Processor : 12th generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7
  • Screen : 13.5 inch touchscreen with 2256 x 1504 resolution.
  • Memory : 8 GB or 16 GB DDR5 RAM
  • Storage : 256 GB or 512 GB removable SSDs
  • webcam : 720p
  • Battery : Up to 18 hours of use.
  • Connection : 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. 1x Surface Connect port
  • Height and weight : 340 x 244 x 14 mm (1560 g)

What about the build quality?

Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 with closed lid

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

If you want the short answer: it’s the best built Windows laptop you can buy.

If you want a longer answer: Microsoft has managed to create a clean, minimalist computer that no one but Apple seems to be able to emulate. From the slightly reflective Windows logo to the chassis machining, the Surface Laptop can match or beat any Windows-based MacBook or laptop.

Even the aspects you can barely see, like the built-in cooling vents, show a level of dedication to noticeable detail.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 5's cooling vents

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

A note about materials : My test unit was all aluminum. Microsoft also offers configurations with Alcantara on the keyboard. If you hate the feeling of cold metal on your wrists, this might be a good option. But before you buy, I would advise you to think about how this material will withstand your use.

Features and connectivity options

The ports on the Surface Laptop 5 from Microsoft

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

The range of ports on the Surface Laptop 5 is quite expected. It is a good thing. The company recognizes that many USB-A devices still exist, which is why it includes a USB-A port. You also get a USB-C port, with Thunderbolt 4 support, which means it can connect a wide variety of peripherals (storage, power, displays, etc.). Something to satisfy everyone, even if the connection is not very generous.

Microsoft could have added USB ports where the Surface Connect port is. This connector, which hasn’t changed much since the first Surface, is the only one on the right side of the laptop. I have two problems with this port.

First, I’m not a fan of proprietary connectors. It will do a fine job of connecting Surface-branded docks, but USB-C could do just as well while being much more universal.

Surface Laptop 5's included charger

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Second, I’ve seen Surface chargers, like the one that came with this laptop, fail more frequently than chargers from other manufacturers. Not only do the tiny contacts seem prone to corrosion, but the magnets that hold the fin in place seem to lose strength over time. Fortunately, there is another charging method that we will discuss below.

The USB-A port on the Surface Laptop 5 charger

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

The charger itself has retained a very practical feature: a USB-A port. This is useful for charging pretty much anything you want. Still, I would have preferred an extra USB-C port or two instead of the Surface Connect port. This is just the first of the deprecated components we’re going to talk about here.

Surface Laptop 5's screen

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Let’s also talk about screen edges. These black spaces around the plate barely exist on modern smartphones, and almost all laptop, monitor and TV manufacturers have reduced theirs to an absolute minimum. Not Microsoft.

The 2256 x 1504 screen is very nice, bright enough for outdoor use and boasts impeccable pixel density and colors. But all this is marred by the ledges that surround it. Maybe I’m being too picky about this. But if you look at the Lenovo ThinkPad Z16, you’ll see screens that have reduced their bezels to an absolute minimum.

The webcam for the Surface Laptop 5 from Microsoft

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

In the middle of the upper limit is the worst decision Microsoft made for this laptop: its webcam. Windows Hello support is good, but the 720p resolution is less.

An example of a screenshot of Surface Laptop 5 webcam performance

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a recent presentation that the company’s customers are still happy with the 720p quality, and Windows 11’s built-in software processing makes the camera perform better. Statements that can be doubted.

Example of Microsoft Surface Laptop 5's webcam performance

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

That might be forgivable on a cheap computer, but even the basic configuration costs $1279. The configuration I’m testing costs €2,049. A few years ago this point would have been forgivable, but since most of us now spend several hours a week on Zoom or video conferencing, I can no longer excuse bad webcams.

Performance and battery life

The keyboard and trackpad on the Surface Laptop 5

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Let’s go back to a much more positive aspect of the Surface: performance. The model I tested came with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of DDR5 RAM and a 512GB SSD. With this configuration, the Surface Laptop 5 is a powerhouse. It devoured my heaviest Photoshop tasks, handling a large number of Chrome tabs and streaming videos. Best of all, it was consistently quiet and never overheated. Uncomfortably hot wrist rests are one of my pet peeves, but this model lacks them.

The Surface Laptop 5 battery statistics window

Image: Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

The Surface Laptop 5’s passive sleep power consumption is one of the lowest I’ve seen on a Windows laptop.

One annoying quirk I encountered was the reluctance of Windows 11 or the Surface Laptop 5 to provide battery life estimates. A statistic that usually appears in no time was simply missing here. So I had to measure battery life the old fashioned way. The result is an average of around 10-14 hours with mixed use. This includes things like video/audio streaming, web browsing, content writing, and other mundane tasks in a typical workday.

In the extreme case, I drained the battery in about 7 hours trying to run worst-case scenarios and was able to get Microsoft’s promised 18 hours by sacrificing screen brightness, volume and performance.

All in all, I wouldn’t mind leaving my charger at home and getting a full day’s work out of this laptop as long as I charge it overnight. If you need to recharge the critter and you left your charger at home, all is not lost. The included USB-C port can also charge the Surface Laptop 5. A generic 65W charger I tested took the device from nearly zero charge to full charge in about two hours.

Conclusion

I may have come across high standards for this test, and I do. This is a flagship laptop from the company that makes Windows after all. While these resources and the ability to optimize its own operating system showed in things like the computer’s build quality and consistently excellent performance, it fell short when it came to meeting the modern needs of the base like a decent webcam and a modern display design.

If you never video conference or don’t mind the wasted space around your screen, you have before you the best Windows laptop you can buy right now. Even if these things bother you, I recommend weighing them against the excellent performance, build and aesthetics that the computer offers. The Surface Laptop 5 is frustrating, but close to being the leader among Windows laptops.

In alternatives

The ThinkPad Z16 has the same efficiency and build quality while adding a few more creative features. It also has much thinner bezels and similar performance, although its webcam is just as disappointing.

The Acer Swift Edge can’t match the build quality of the Surface Laptop 5. However, it offers a larger 4K OLED display and similar performance for a few dollars less.

The latest addition to Dell’s XPS 13 line seems to be from a more distant era. It has an equally precise design and build quality, but uses every millimeter of the body for the screen or keyboard. It also includes identical configuration options, but will cost more for the same features.

Source: “ZDNet.com”

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