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Surface Laptop 5 (13-inch) review: As elegant as ever, but Microsoft can do better

This year's Surface Laptop 5 is Microsoft's latest and greatest notebook. It's the 13 model and it's the first to feature the Intel 12th configs CPU. The 12th configs is the first CPU to be built by Microsoft for the Surface Laptop and it's a nice addition to the notebook's already impressive lineup of hardware.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SAM RUTHERFORD: 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 as 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. 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 3x2 displays for enhanced productivity. Our 13.5-inch review unit weighed in at 2.86 lbs and measure 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 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.

Now, I know this is a pretty minor change in the grand scheme of things, but the extra bit of color coordination is nice. Meanwhile, the Surface Laptop 5 is 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 did notice that the larger model has slightly deeper key travel. And while its touchpad, which measures 4.5x3 inches, isn't quite as large as what you 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 this 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 has an AZ support for wired audio. So you still get a 3.5 millimeter 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 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 with getting rid of the surface connect port free up room for another USB-C jack, which is both smaller and more versatile, I find it's weak magnets and awkward shape actually make it more difficult to use than USB-C.

Like its chassis, the 13-inch Surface Laptop 5 features the same 2256x1504 PixelSense touchscreen Microsoft used on the previous model. And that's totally fine. As 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 that pretty much every phone made in the last few years has similar display tech, Microsoft isn't exactly breaking new ground here.

That said, while its image quality is strong, the Surface Laptop 5 display is starting to show its age. 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 much in the way of 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 a bummer.

That's said, with scores that are around 20% higher in PCMark 10 compared to the Surface Laptop 4, it's hard to be too upset. Just to get your hopes up about doing any hardcore gaming. Because both models are restricted to Iris Xe integrated graphics. In Overwatch 2, I deliver the settings to medium in order to get a somewhat stable 60 FPS. Though, you can eke out a little more performance, if you want 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.

As for battery life, with a time of 12 hours and 39 minutes, the Surface Laptop 5 turns in a respectable, though, not outstanding results. In comparison, last year's 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 fared better with a mark of 1,525 as did other ultraportables from this year, including the Lenovo Yoga 9i at 1,422 and the M2 MacBook Air at 1,705. I also got to say that 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. In the end, 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-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 official Xbox gaming laptop probably won't ever happen. But I still 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 512 gig SSD instead of just a 256 gig drive. That said, you don't get a 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 3x2 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. But that's just me. What do you want to see in the next Surface laptop? Let me in the comments down below. And as always, don't forget to like, subscribe, and stay tuned for more news, reviews, and hands-ons from Engadget.