Why doesn’t the Surface Laptop 4 have the latest Ryzen processors?

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 offers a rare opportunity for benchmarking nerds: a chance to test rival AMD Ryzen and Intel Core processors in the same device. But unlike with our AMD/Intel CPU comparison using the Surface Laptop 3, this time it’s an unfair fight: in the Surface Laptop 4, Intel’s latest 11th-gen Core Tiger Lake processors take on AMD’s older Ryzen 4000 Mobile processors, instead of the company’s latest Ryzen Mobile 5000 chips.

Why? Because AMD and Microsoft jointly develop “Surface Edition” versions of the Ryzen processor for the Surface Laptop 4. That cycle started more a year ago, according to Microsoft, before Ryzen 5000 was available.

Microsoft nevertheless claims that the Surface Laptop 4 will offer as much as 70 percent more performance than its predecessor, the Surface Laptop 3. In some tests under some configurations, Microsoft says, performance could nearly double—and our preliminary benchmarks seem to bear that out.

That’s nothing to sneeze at. The Surface Laptop 3 featured the Ryzen 7 3780U and the Ryzen 5 3850U. Both were quad-core parts. The Ryzen 5 4680U and the Ryzen 7 4980U featured in the Surface Laptop 4 are 6- and 8-core Ryzen processors, respectively. Performance will likely increase sharply just from the added core count.

The fact that these are Surface Edition chips is meaningful, too. AMD and Microsoft’s original Surface Edition partnership (the Ryzen 7 3780U and the Ryzen 5 3850U for the Surface Laptop 3) produced semi-custom parts that tweaked the existing Ryzen architecture and added numerous features, from extra compute units and better responsiveness, to an on-die pen controller and more. “When looking for the right processor to power the all new Microsoft Surface Laptop 3, we wanted the best graphics performance in a single processor,” Microsoft distinguished engineer Pavan Davuluri said in a news release at the time.

AMD vice president Jack Huynh later told PCWorld that Microsoft and AMD had essentially rebuilt the Ryzen firmware, optimizing it. The tweaks also improved battery life—though as our review of the Surface Laptop 3 (Ryzen 5) showed, not nearly as much as in the Surface Laptop 3 (Ice Lake). 

What we’re seeing this time around is something different. Microsoft is claiming that the Ryzen versions of the Surface Laptop 4 will exceed Intel’s 11th-gen Core in battery life, even though both consume roughly the same power. (AMD’s Ryzen 4000 Mobile processors consume 15W; Intel’s Tiger Lake processors define an “operating range” range of between 12W and 28W.)

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That lives up to the promise AMD’s Huynh made in 2019: “We didn’t spend the past three years just to do one project,” Huynh said then. “This is the beginning of a long-term partnership with the Surface team. Just like what we did with Xbox. We don’t enter into these co-engineering projects to go small.”