Is the Surface Laptop 4 good for programming?

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The Surface line of laptops has changed alot during the past couple of years. Where as once they were merely lightweight 2-in1's that ran the latest version of Windows, they are now some of the best portable laptops that you can buy competing against heavy hitters like the Dell XPS and HP Envy lines.

The Surface Laptop 4 has continued to improve and to iterate on their previous models and in this latest release, they have kept the best of the previous model and increased performance and battery life. If you're a remote or freelance programmer, or a student, then the Surface Laptop 4 might be the next laptop for you to consider.

Highlights

Surface Laptop 4 side view

Let's talk about the good with the Surface Laptop 4 before anything else, because there's alot that Microsoft got right with this particular iteration.

The most notable change with the 4th version of the popular model is with it's new choices of processors. The Surface Laptop 4 can be configured with a custom AMD Ryzen™ 5 processor or AMD Ryzen™ 7 processor this time around. You can still pick up an 11th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7 model as well, but with the new Ryzen chipsets, you are looking at improved overall battery life as well as AMD Radeon Graphics. More on performance down below.

Here are a few more of the standout features:

- Powerful 11th gen Intel Core processors
- Custom AMD Ryzen processor
- Moderately powered base model
- HD camera with Studio Mics
- Dolby Atmos
- Alcantera keyboard option
- Solid aluminum frame
- 16+ hours of battery life

Microsoft has continued the tradition of combining design aesthetics, high quality displays and powerful processors into a portable package that any developer, student or professional can use as their daily driver.

Spec Sheet

The Surface Laptop 4 comes in a variety of configurations.

OS Windows 10 Home
CPU AMD Ryzen™ 5 4680U Mobile Processor with Radeon™ Graphics Microsoft Surface® Edition (6 cores)
AMD Ryzen™ 7 4980U Mobile Processor with Radeon™ Graphics Microsoft Surface® Edition (8 cores)
Quad Core 11th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-1135G7 processor
Quad Core 11th Intel® Core™ i7-1185G7 processor
Storage Removable solid-state drive (SSD) options: 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB
Memory 8GB, 16GB or 32GB LPDDR4x RAM
Display Screen: 13.5” PixelSense™ Display
Resolution: 2256 x 1504 (201 PPI)
Aspect ratio: 3:2
Touch: 10 point multi-touch

Screen: 15” PixelSense™ Display
Resolution: 2496 x 1664 (201 PPI)
Aspect ratio: 3:2
Touch: 10 point multi-touch
Graphics Surface Laptop 4 powered by Quad Core 11th Gen Intel® Core™: Intel® Iris® Xe ?Graphics
Surface Laptop 4 powered by AMD Ryzen™ Microsoft Surface® Edition: AMD Radeon™ Graphics
Ports 1 x USB-C
1 x USB-A
3.5 mm headphone jack
1 x Surface Connect port
Battery 15 inch Intel CPU - Up to 16.5 hours of typical device usage
13.5 inch Intel CPU - Up to 17 hours of typical device usage
15 inch AMD Ryzen CPU - Up to 17.5 hours of typical usage
13.5 inch AMD Ryzen CPU - Up to 19 hours of typical usage
Wireless Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax compatible Bluetooth Wireless 5.0 technology

This time around, Microsoft has released a base model that makes it a strong contender in its class coming in at around $999.

That means that at the lowest end, you will still get a machine with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage space and an 11th Gen Intel processor or AMD Ryzen processor, which is more than enough to handle even a senior programmer's day to day work.

Performance

Let's talk performance. Because this is where laptops can either make or break themselves. The Surface Laptop 4 comes adequately prepared to take on the many other laptops in its particular niche and category.

That includes the Dell XPS, the HP Envy x360 and even the MacBook Air with the M1 processor. And that's a bold statement to make, seeing as how the M1 is dominating most of the benchmark tests currently.

Let's talk Intel chips first, because this might be where the Surface Laptop 4 can come ahead of the competition.

The Surface Laptop 4 comes equipped with either an Intel i5-1135G7 or an Intel i7-1185G7. These are the latest 11th Gen chips from Intel and they rank high in terms of performance.

These Tiger Lake chips can compete with Apple's M1 chipset accordingly to recent benchmark tests. They don't completely dominate, and in some cases Apple's chips come way ahead. But the fact that Intel's chips do in fact perform better than Apple's under certain conditions, isn't something that should be brushed off.

As for the AMD Ryzen models? They're a high-performing and battery efficient option that definitely can rival the top Intel chips. At least when it comes to multi-core processing.

In single-core processing, Intel scored significally higher typically.

Whichever route you choose to take with regard to CPU though, you are still going to be getting a decently powered machine that can run any and all of your developer tools.

Display

Both the 13.5 inch and 15 inch models of the Surface Laptop 4 come equipped with a 3:2 aspect ratio PixelSense display coming in at 201 PPI.

The 13.5 inch model has a resolution of 2256 x 1504 while the 15 inch model has a resolution of 2496 x 1664.

With a popular aspect ratio, high resolution and a bright screen (at around 427 nits), the Surface Laptop 4 is a pleasure to stare it, even if you're a programmer who mainly stares at a coding editor all day long, such as myself.

As a web developer however, I can highly appreciate the bright solid colors and clarity of the screen, particularly when I'm working on more complex designs.

And lastly, as impressive as the PixelSense displays are on Surface laptops, we can't forget that these devices are also impressive 10-point touchscreen displays. From a usability standpoint, Windows 10 isn't necessarily the most ideal touch-friendly interface. The buttons are small and certain actions, like dragging fixed windows don't translate well into touch gestures.

But the responsiveness of the touchscreen is definitely impressive. Actions such as scrolling and zooming in and out, are smooth and fluid overall.

Paired with a Surface Pen, the Surface Laptop 4 provides 4096 points of pressure sensitivity, ensuring smooth lines and impressive response times as well.

Keyboard and Trackpad

The Surface line of laptops has always been highly regarded when it comes to its keyboard and trackpad. It's one of the best in its category due to the well-spaced out chiclet keys and decent key travel.

The keyboard is pretty much the most important tool for any programmer. It's where the magic happens essentially. And often times, it's also the part of the laptop that will take the most beating on a daily basis.

Thanks to the aluminum chassey of the Surface Laptop 4, there is very little "give" when you are typing. It's a solid experience through and through.

The Surface Pro keyboard cover that I use on my daily driver, is essentially the same design as the Surface Laptop 4's and after 3 years of constant abuse, it still performs like the day that I bought it. Keys are still rigid and I've never lost a keycap.

The same can be said for the trackpad as well. The Surface Pro and Surface Laptop models both come with spacious glass trackpads with gesture support and palm rejection.

I personally only use the trackpad when I'm navigating. By that I mean that I don't use an external mouse or keyboard of any kind. And that is absolutely due to the fact that the trackpad is incredibly responsive to even the most subtle gestures.

The combination of a sturdy keyboard and a sensitive trackpad make the Surface Laptop 4 a total pleasure when it comes to bouts of fast focused work.

Battery Life

The most notable standout improvement in the Surface Laptop 4 is with its impressively high estimated battery life. Estimated time in this case ranges from 16.5 hours with the 15 inch Intel model to a surprisingly high 19 hours with the 13.5 inch AMD Ryzen model.

Those numbers while impressive, haven't always been the most accurate when it comes to Surface devices.

I currently do most of my work on the Surface Pro model with an i5 processor, and while the battery life is estimated at around 13.5 hours of video playback time, with my current workload as a .NET developer I get around 6 hours on a really good day. Mind you that on an average day, I'm typically running the following:

- Visual Studio
- SQL Server
- Inkscape
- Photoshop
- 100+ browser tabs
- 100+ Explorer windows

Having said that, many users online estimate that they are getting around 11-13 hours of battery life with the Surface Laptop 4, which for a moderately spec'd out laptop is very good.

With those numbers, you can easily get around 1 to 2 days of solid work before needing to charge up again.

The most impressive part of the battery life though is that Microsoft managed to get that kind of longevity from a 45wh battery. Considering that the best battery life comes with the Ryzen chipset and that Microsoft worked with AMD in creating that particular CPU, it makes sense that battery life optimizations are in place from the ground up.

Downsides

The Surface Laptop 4 isn't perfect by any means. It isn't the highest specd machine that can play the latest and greatest games at the highest of frame rates. But that's not what it's claiming to be.

The downsides here are minimal for the most part. The Alcantara fabric keyboard cover, while great to look at and very comfortable on the wrist, can begin to show its age rather quickly, especially if you choose a lighter color.

And if you go with the AMD Ryzen configuration, you will have to deal with software compatibility issues on occasion. This isn't a Surface Laptop issue though, as these problems have always been there.

Good for programming?

A programmer is only as good as the tools that they use. And in the realm of laptops, the Surface Laptop 4 couldn't be more well equipped and versatile to handle the job.

Even at the lowest specs, the base model is more than enough power to handle any IDE that you can throw at it. And starting at 256GB of SSD storage, with expandable card storage if needed, you won't be deleting your Steam library to make room for your files anytime soon.

I've been using Surface laptops and tablets for over 6 years now and I've never looked back. The portability factor and solid construction ensure that I can take my work wherever I go. The keyboard and smooth trackpad ensure that I don't have to bring external hardware with me. And the biggest issue that I always had with my Surface laptops, the battery life, has finally been addressed in this iteration.

The perfect portable computing device probably isn't real, but the Surface Laptop 4 sure does come close.

Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.

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