The Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 15-Inch Review: Refreshing Ryzenby Brett Howse on May 6, 2021 8:00 AM EST
When the Surface Laptop was first announced, it was a remarkably interesting design. Microsoft continued to advocate for their 3:2 aspect ratio displays, and the Surface Laptop was the first notebook to offer that aspect ratio in modern times. In addition, the design team outfitted the Surface Laptop, which at the time was only offered as a 13.5-inch size, with an Alcantara keyboard deck which was unique in the space.
Microsoft then refreshed the Surface Laptop, and added a larger 15-inch model as an option, as well as offering models with and without the Alcantara keyboard deck, at least in the 13.5-inch lineup. The 15-inch has never offered the fabric option. Unlike Microsoft’s Surface Book, which is made out of a magnesium alloy, the Surface Laptop has always been made out of aluminum. The advantage here for the Surface Laptop is that it is less expensive, and the aluminum finish allows for anodized finishes in a variety of color options. For 2021, the Surface Laptop 4 13.5-inch is available in Platinum, Ice Blue, Matte Black, and Sandstone, while the larger 15-inch model is just available in Platinum and Matte Black. The review unit is the black version, and it looks amazing, but be warned, it is more difficult to keep clean than the platinum model.
Two things can be true at once, and it is both fair to say that the Surface Laptop 4 is a well-designed, attractive notebook, and that it is in need of a bit of a facelift. Microsoft has not altered the overall design since the original Surface Laptop shipped, other than to add a larger model, so the Surface Laptop 4 still has rather large display bezels compared to recent designs from other manufacturers. The 3:2 display aspect ratio is still a win, but it is no longer unique to the segment, with other players now offering taller displays as well. The rest of the Surface lineup all features one cool trick, but the Surface Laptop 4 is just a laptop. There is no 360° hinge, no detachable display. But, not everyone wants that, and as a pure laptop, the Laptop 4 can surpass the other designs in areas like weight, and usability in the traditional laptop mode.
Microsoft has always offered a great keyboard in the Surface Laptop line, and this continues with the 4th generation, offering 1.3 mm of key travel, a logical key placement, easy to use function keys, and three levels of backlighting. The trackpad is also about as good as you can get in the PC space, and the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 offers a large trackpad without going so crazy on the width that it interferes with using the keyboard. As someone who likes the Alcantara, it is a bit of a shame that they do not offer it at all on the 15-inch models. The anodized aluminum feels good, but almost all notebooks in this segment offer the same anodized finish, so the fabric did offer something unique.
While the port selection is not robust, the Surface Laptop 4 does offer enough for most people, with a single USB Type-A port on the right, alongside a Type-C port. If you need additional expansion, Microsoft does offer a Surface Dock which connects over the Surface Connect charging port. Sadly, Microsoft has refused to support any form of Thunderbolt on any Surface devices, meaning the USB Type-C port is USB-only, but it does include native DisplayPort, as well as charging. Microsoft offers some Type-C video and audio adapters as well, if you need to connect to something other than DisplayPort.
Overall, the design does work well, even if it is looking a bit familiar. The Surface Laptop 4 offers a premium feel, and at 1.5 kg / 3.4 lbs, this 15-inch notebook is lightweight as well. Microsoft hasn’t updated the design in a few generations, but still, several years in, the Surface Laptop 4 is still a good-looking notebook.
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Eletriarnation - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - linkIt really is. You don't actually need any at all, this little company called Apple was the first to figure it out.
hanselltc - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - linkThey've also figured out how to make touchpads that makes everything else feel like compressed trash dug up from an abandoned landfill, so there's that.
Gam3r01 - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - linkHaving purchased a 2nd hand Surface Laptop 3 last week, in my experience one USB-A was limiting. I do not own a single USB-C device and re-installing Windows and installing Linux from a USB stick without the use of the built-in keyboard and trackpad was annoying. As was backing up the system with a USB bootable recovery program (that also lacked the wifi driver).
To install Windows, rather than use the latest image, I resorted to the official MS SL3 recovery USB, which included the drivers during setup, but incurred hours of Windows updates. For Linux I used the Grub ‘toram’ option and fumbled with swapping keyboard and mouse in and out of the single port, as well as using the onscreen accessibility keyboard. Then for a backup/recovery (lacking input drivers and a wifi driver), I repartitioned the drive and backed up to a spare partition.
Easy when you know how, but it was frustrating, especially as I sold by only USB hub (built into a monitor) last month.
Be Safe, peace.
Alistair - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - linkWell said, that's an example of the kind of problem I've had also.
Dug - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - linkSo what you are saying, is you didn't prepare. You used the wrong software, and you don't have a usb hub that 99% of the population has.
Holliday75 - Monday, May 10, 2021 - linkHe also explained a situation in which 99% of computer users would not even understand let alone run into. Been in IT 20+ years and rarely have to work like that. If vendors considered these things they would probably be throwing away millions in profit.
dontlistentome - Friday, May 7, 2021 - linkThat's why Apple give you none.
This is a premium device. People who can afford it buy a bluetooth mouse or a mouse with a usb C dongle.
I've had thinkpad laptops with thunderbolt for 4 years now. I use a TB3 dock at home and work, have usbc charging cables for my Android and ipad and have multiple usb drives that have dual a/c connectors. Heck, my car is all USB-C now for Android auto.
Linustechtips12#6900xt - Friday, May 7, 2021 - linkI have an HP x360 2in1 with a ryzen 4700u and 8GB of ram that I will upgrade to 16-32GB here soon but besides the point, it has a power dc jack, USB-c with HDMI, DisplayPort, power and data transfer, an HDMI port and a headphone jack, ohh and an sd card slot that I basically never use but anyway I dock it with a USB-C hub and a monitor over HDMI all connected to a usb-c hub that I have with 3 USB 3.0 and 1 HDMI and another sd card slot, I plug into power using the dc power jack and im set to go with 2 cables to plug in. point is, on the go I maybe use a wired mouse if I game, but most of the time I use a USB port for data transfer and that about it, 1 USB port with a USB-c and another power jack is honestly perfect for me at least.
ballsystemlord - Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - linkI agree. We need at least 2 USB-A ports.
eastcoast_pete - Thursday, May 6, 2021 - linkThanks Brett! Agree on most of your points. Questions, comments: Is the memory user upgradable? It doesn't seem to be, which would be a major minus for a "premium" laptop. Other Comment: Regarding your Handbrake tests, I would stay away from the "Hardware" ones unless you can add information on the size of the resulting file and the quality. One aspect where NVIDIA is (still?) far ahead of AMD's GPUs is the encoding ASIC; since Turing, NVENC has become downright usable (comparable quality to software encoding at about 1.2 x the file size, much faster) whereas AMD's solution is clearly inferior in quality. If that has changed in recent months, I'd love to know.
Lastly, I didn't like AMD replacing the number of iGPU cores with cranking up the frequency (from previous Ryzen APUs), and it's now biting them in the rear. An 10- 11 core design like the older gen would have beaten Xe.