Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 review: The 4 best and 3 worst features

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Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 review: The 4 best and 3 worst features

With powerful performance and a keyboard that types like a dream, the Surface Laptop 5 is easily the best MacBook alternative.

Jackson Chen / Inverse

Microsoft has really embraced the “if it ain’t broke” mentality when it comes to the Surface Laptop 5 — and I'm not complaining.

The Surface Laptop 5, available in 13.5- and 15-inch models, is a refreshed version of one of Microsoft’s most popular Surface devices, updated with the latest 12th Gen Intel chips and a Thunderbolt 4 port.

I have been testing the highest-end 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 5 with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD ($1,699.99) in sage green. The new colorway is more subtle than in Microsoft’s product shots, leaning more toward gray with a tinge of metallic green. As someone who prefers neutral colors, this is a slick way to add the right amount of color while maintaining a refined look. Unchanged is the clamshell's polished wedge design and lightness; even after five generations, the silhouette still rivals the aesthetics of Apple's popular MacBooks.

I can’t help but appreciate the minimalist approach Windows took with the Surface Laptop 5’s design.Jackson Chen / Inverse

In the week I have been using the Surface Laptop 5 as my daily laptop, it felt like a seamless transition away from my 13-inch MacBook Pro. The Surface Laptop 5’s battery did a great job keeping up with the deluge of Firefox tabs I usually have open while working, as well as lasting through some long photo editing sessions in Lightroom.

The Surface Laptop 5 may not be decked out in RGB lighting or sport an Apple logo, but it’s still a solid choice for anyone looking for a reliable and easy-to-use work laptop. Personally, what made me keep coming back was the Surface Laptop 5’s well-designed keyboard that types like a dream.

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Surface Laptop 5 (13.5") tech specs:

  • Display: 13.5 inches (2,256 by 1,504) 60Hz PixelSense touchscreen
  • Processor: up to a 12th Gen Intel Core i7-1255U CPU
  • Graphics: Intel Iris Xe Graphics
  • Memory: up to 32GB LPDDR5x RAM
  • Storage: up to 1TB of SSD
  • Battery: up to 18 hours
  • Camera: 720p HD front-facing camera
  • Ports: 1x Thunderbolt 4 USB-C, 1x USB-A, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack, 1x Surface Connect port
  • Colors: platinum, matte black, sage green, sandstone

The 15-inch Surface Laptop 5 also goes up to 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, but it only comes in platinum or black.

The best of Surface Laptop 5

4. Smooth typing

Microsoft’s Surface Laptops have a reputation for having some of the best keyboards out there and that’s no different with the Surface Laptop 5. The keyboard offers a distinct and tactile responsiveness, while still feeling like you can glide across the keys. Each keystroke feels accurate and smooth. For me, this really highlighted a stark difference compared to the soggy mess that is the butterfly keyboard on older MacBook Pros.

The trackpad’s size feels just right — it’s spacious but not too large that the palm rests areas are cramped. I tend to bump up the cursor speed and the sensitivity of trackpads a smidge from factory settings. I did the same on the Surface Laptop 5 and although the trackpad's sensitivity made it very responsive — particularly with the two- and three-finger gestures — using a fast three-finger swipe to switch between apps was almost (but not quite) as reliable and convenient as the ol’ reliable Alt+Tab.

The trackpad felt very intuitive with its sensitivity and many gesture controls.Jackson Chen / Inverse

I did have one gripe with the Surface Laptop 5’s trackpad, which was clicking. I was left between pressing down for a somewhat clunky “ka-chunk” or doing a dainty tap to click. The two options felt like polar opposites in terms of sensitivity, but I’m sure I would’ve adjusted fine with more time.

3. Solid battery life

From fully charged, the Surface Laptop 5 lasts just about a full workday before needing to recharge. For me, that includes everything from daily Zoom meetings and Slack in the background to multiple Word documents open at the same time, along with dozens of Firefox tabs. I usually charge the Surface Laptop 5 once it automatically hits Battery Saver mode at 20 percent, which then takes just under an hour to get to 80 percent charged with the Surface Connect charger.

Microsoft says the 13.5-inch version of the Surface Laptop 5 gets up to 18 hours of typical device usage, but it’s closer to between 8–10 hours in my experience. Your own workload could mean longer or shorter battery life. Naturally, the battery life drained faster when I was editing photos in Lightroom with the highest display brightness setting than when I was surfing the web. Still, I was able to edit photos for a few hours with Spotify in the background, so the Surface Laptop 5 definitely has a healthy battery range that will get you through the workday.

The Surface Laptop 5’s battery life kept up just fine with my daily workload.Jackson Chen / Inverse

It's worth noting that the Surface Laptop 5 doesn’t have any AMD models this time around, which is a minor letdown for those looking for optimal battery life. The AMD version of the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4 touted up to 19 hours of battery life, compared to the Surface Laptop 5's max of 18 hours.

2. Finally, Thunderbolt 4!

A Thunderbolt 4 USB-C port may not seem like a big deal, but for Surface Laptops, it's a very big deal. In 2019, my colleague Raymond Wong said the Surface Laptop 3's lack of a Thunderbolt port was "maddening" and then again in 2021 expressed disappointment that the Surface Laptop 4 also didn't have one. Microsoft's reasoning was that Thunderbolt was easily hackable, but I guess has conceded that it’s better than vanilla USB-C.

With Thunderbolt 4, the Surface Laptop 5 can transfer data faster and better connect to 4K monitors. Transferring batches of large files like hundreds of RAW photos off my external hard drive was a breeze and let me get straight to editing without having to wait. The greater bandwidth in the Thunderbolt 4 port also lets you create a dual 4K monitor setup with less latency compared to what previous Surface Laptops offered.

The Surface Laptop 5 is a couple of ports away from being perfect.Jackson Chen / Inverse

1. Ultra-quiet performance

Despite having a built-in fan for cooling, I was shocked by how quiet the Surface Laptop 5 was in my week of testing — I barely heard it. Microsoft says the new 12th Gen Intel chips make the new Surface Laptop 5 up to 50 percent more powerful than its predecessor — more power usually means more heat which means more noise — but it's clear the silicon can handle most workloads you throw at it without any audible signs of struggling.

Since Microsoft sent over the highest configuration of the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 5, I figured I'd push it with somewhat unrealistic stress tests. I opened more than a dozen tabs on Firefox, played a YouTube video in 1080p, had four Word documents open, started a Zoom meeting, streamed music on Spotify, and played around with some sliders for several RAW photos in Lightroom. Even though I normally wouldn’t be doing all of this at once, the Surface Laptop 5 didn’t show any signs of slowing down and barely made a peep with all of this running. The laptop got noticeably warm toward the end of the stress test, but I expected it to given the heavy workload.

The worst of Surface Laptop 5

3. Crummy 720p webcam

Zoom meetings are an ingrained part of the work cycle these days, so it’s a bit disappointing that Microsoft decided to go with a 720p HD webcam. It’s likely to keep the Surface Laptop 5 at a more affordable price point, especially since the Surface Pro 9 has a 1080p camera on the front and the back. The Surface Laptop 5’s webcam struggles in low-light scenarios with a lot of graininess, so make sure you're in a well-lit room before jumping on a video call.

Microsoft may have kept the display rather modest to keep costs down.Jackson Chen / Inverse

2. Slow display refresh rate

The Surface Laptop 5’s display is plenty bright, but it tops out at a 60Hz refresh rate. Again, this could be attributed to staying within a more affordable price point or, more likely, battery drain, but I'm a sucker for high refresh rates so a 120Hz display would’ve been a nice upgrade. And while the touchscreen is plenty responsive and supports the Surface Pen stylus, I often forgot that the display is, in fact, a touchscreen.

1. More ports, please!

It’s great that Microsoft upgraded the USB-C port to Thunderbolt 4, but the Surface Laptop 5 could’ve used some more ports. It feels like the laptop is one or two USB-C ports away from being ideal. I'm glad there's a 3.5mm headphone jack, though, since it's gone on the Surface Pro 9.

Since the Thunderbolt 4 port doubles as a way to charge the laptop, the Surface Connect port feels somewhat redundant. When I first glanced at the ports, I mistakenly thought the Surface Connect port was an SD card slot, which would’ve been way more welcome (even Apple added the SD card slot back into its 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros). In the instances where I have to export media off my SD card and into an external hard drive, a memory card slot would’ve been more convenient than plugging in a dongle and using up one of the USB ports on the left.

The right side of the Surface Laptop 5 feels a little empty with just the Surface Connector port.Jackson Chen / Inverse

The Verdict

At the end of the day, Microsoft's Surface Laptop 5 is a tame (but still solid) update to what was already a very capable and feature-packed work laptop for work or school. The standout for me is definitely the smooth keyboard and it made days in front of the laptop feel like less of a slog. The upgrades are only a subtle step forward, but the Thunderbolt 4 port could seal the deal for some.

Of course, the Surface Laptop 5 is no convertible Surface Pro 9 or gigantic Surface Studio 2+ desktop, but it does sit comfortably in the Surface lineup. The Surface Laptop 5's shortcomings become obvious if you’re looking for a machine that's better for making artwork or editing photos and video since it lacks additional ports and a higher refresh rate. If those features are essential, Microsoft’s happy to sell you a Surface Pro 9 with a 120Hz display or the Surface Studio 2+, which is very much an illustrator's dream canvas with more ports (though no Surface has an SD card slot).

Still, the Surface Laptop 5 combines a wonderful typing experience with solid battery life and excellent performance, making it an easy recommendation. With price points between $999.99 (competitive) and $2,399.99 (you got deep pockets), you can’t go wrong with the Surface Laptop 5 if you prefer Windows and PCs over macOS and MacBooks.

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