The old adage goes that if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Now while that’s often sage advice, obviously there’s a limit to how long you can keep something going — especially a gadget — before it starts to lag behind. And with the Surface Laptop 5, it feels like Microsoft is beginning to test that boundary because while the notebook is as sleek and elegant as ever, even with the inclusion of a new CPU, it’s easy to see where its aging chassis could use a few updates or quality of life improvements. So while I’ll never complain about getting a performance boost, it still feels like Microsoft could do better.
Design, keyboard and ports
I’m not going to spend too much time talking about the Surface Laptop 5’s exterior because it’s the same chassis Microsoft has been using for the last three or four generations. Both the 13 and 15-inch models feature an aluminum body with tall 3:2 displays for enhanced productivity. Our 13.5-inch review unit weighed in at 2.86 pounds and measured just 0.57 inches thick. The whole package is super sleek and in some respects, I can see why Microsoft doesn’t want to mess with the design – it really is a thing of beauty. It’s thin and minimalist just like a MacBook, but different enough that you’ll never get the two confused. Still, I think Microsoft is more than capable of tweaking the current chassis to accommodate new components without ruining its good looks.
New for this year is a sage green color option like we got on the Surface Laptop Go 2. But Microsoft didn’t stop there because the company also made custom wallpapers for Windows 11 that match the system’s exterior paint job. I know this is a pretty minor change in the grand scheme of things, but the extra bit of color coordination is kind of nice.
Meanwhile, the Surface Laptop 5’s keyboard and touchpad don’t leave much to complain about. Keycaps are spaced out well while having nice crisp actuation, though after some hands-on time with the 15-inch version, I noticed that the larger model has slightly deeper key travel. And while its touchpad which measures 4.5 x 3 inches isn’t quite as large as what you’d find on a similarly sized MacBook, there’s still plenty of room to mouse around.
One of the other big changes on the Surface Laptop 5 is its new USB 4.0/Thunderbolt 4 port, which provides increased bandwidth for transferring data or sending video to external displays. Sadly, on both the 13.5 and 15-inch models, there are only a total of two USB connectors: the aforementioned Thunderbolt 4 port and a regular USB 3.1 Type-A slot. Thankfully, Microsoft hasn’t axed support for wired audio, so you still get a 3.5mm headphone jack in addition to the company’s signature magnetic Surface Connect port for charging and docking.
But if you’ll allow me to grandstand a bit, I sort of wish Microsoft would ditch the Surface Connect port entirely. Due to recent regulations from the EU, we’re on the brink of having all phones support USB-C for charging and data, and aside from the proprietary connectors Apple and Microsoft use on MacBooks and Surfaces, laptops aren’t far behind. Not only would getting rid of the Surface Connect port free up room for another USB-C jack — which is both smaller and more versatile — I find its weak magnets and awkward shape make it more difficult to use than USB-C.
Display and webcam
Like its chassis, the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 5 features the same 2,256 x 1,504 PixelSense touchscreen Microsoft used on the previous model and that’s totally fine. It has good brightness that hit just under 400 nits on my light meter along with rich, saturated colors. The one new tweak for 2022 is support for Dolby Vision IQ, which automatically adjusts things like color profiles and contrast based on ambient conditions. It’s a nice touch, but considering pretty much every phone made in the last few years has a similar display tech, Microsoft isn’t [exactly] breaking new ground here.
That said, while its image quality is strong, the Surface Laptop 5’s display is starting to show its age a bit. The bezels are a few millimeters thicker than what we got on last year’s Surface Laptop Studio, which makes things look a bit chunky. You also don’t get support for HDR or high-refresh rates.
But the thing that’s lagging behind the most is its 720p web camera, which is passable at best. You don’t get support for any of Microsoft’s Windows Studio effects like you do on the Surface Pro 9 5G and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 1080p webcams should be the baseline on premium notebooks. Thankfully, Microsoft has kept the built-in IR cameras for Windows Hello facial recognition, which still works great.
Inside, the new 12th-gen Intel CPUs offer a big jump in performance. The downside is that unlike the previous generation, there aren’t any AMD-based configs, which is kind of a bummer. That said, with scores that are around 20 percent higher in PCMark 10 compared to the Surface Laptop 4, it’s hard to be too upset.
Just don’t get your hopes up about doing any hardcore gaming, because both models are restricted to Iris XE integrated graphics. In Overwatch 2, I had to lower settings to medium in order to get a somewhat stable 60 fps, though you can eke out a little more performance if you’re willing to lower the game’s resolution or turn on upsampling. But regardless of what you do, this thing isn’t really meant to play AAA titles.
Battery life and ports
As for battery life, with a time of 12 hours and 39 minutes, the Surface Laptop 5 turned in respectable though not outstanding results. In comparison, last year’s 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 fared better with a mark of 15:25, as did other ultraportables from this year including the Lenovo Yoga 9i at 14:22 and the M2 MacBook Air at 17:05.
As a longtime Surface user, I appreciate that Microsoft kept the bonus 5-watt charging port built into the included power adapter, which is really nice for powering up small peripherals like a mouse or wireless headphones. And I should mention that if for some reason you lose or forget your charging brick at home, you can still top up the Surface Laptop 5 via USB-C.
While the Surface Laptop 5 hasn’t gotten a boatload of updates, it still has a really elegant design and the addition of new 12th-gen Intel chips and a Thunderbolt 4 port provide a big bump up in speed and usability. Sure, it might not have the sharpest webcam or a ton of ports, but if all you need is a streamlined ultraportable for general productivity, the Surface Laptop 5 packs all the essentials into a very sleek package.
It is somewhat telling, however, that Microsoft only sent out the 13.5-inch model for review, because there are even more changes I’d like to see on the 15-inch version. I know my dream of getting an Xbox gaming laptop probably won’t ever happen, but I think there’s a ton of potential to transform the bigger Surface Laptop 5 into a really great all-rounder by adding support for discrete graphics and a few more ports.
But the hard part comes when trying to decide between the 13-inch Surface Laptop 5 and something like the XPS 13. For the same $1,000 starting price, Dell’s notebook comes with a similar CPU and a larger 512GB SSD instead of just a 256GB drive, but no touchscreen (though you can upgrade to one if you want). That means you have to choose between getting a slightly better value in the XPS 13, or opting for a taller 3:2 touch display with the Surface Laptop 5.
Still, if all you want is a stylish ultraportable with a nice screen for productivity, Microsoft’s latest clamshell has a lot to like. I just hope next year we get a full refresh instead of just a simple spec bump.
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