If you’re having trouble figuring out whether to get the 2-in-1 Windows tablet hybrid or a traditional laptop, we’re here to help.
For some of the best Windows hardware on the market, look no further than Microsoft’s Surface brand. Best known for innovative, tablet-like hardware designs, Microsoft has expanded its Surface line over the years and now offers a full family of computers, from a standard laptop to a giant desktop.
The company was an early innovator in mobile-friendly hybrid PC hardware. It’s hard to find a PC-maker today that doesn’t ape the Surface’s kickstand-packing, detachable-keyboard-rocking design. It’s also hard to find a nicer Windows experience than what the Surface offers. The problem is one of choice; with such a diverse family of premium computers, which is best for your needs? Not to worry—we’ve sorted through the options and found the best Surface for everyone.
Updated for June 2020: We’ve added the new, much-improved Surface Go 2.
It isn’t as smart or stylish as the transforming, flexible models that made the Surface brand famous, but sometimes (maybe most of the time) what you really need is a laptop. Tablets, kickstands, and clicky magnetic keyboard covers don’t work well in every situation, which is why the Surface Laptop 3 is the best pick for most people.
The Surface Laptop has a gorgeous, 13.5-inch high-resolution display, a lovely keyboard, a stellar glass trackpad, and a slim case. Ports are one place where the Surfaces skimps (like MacBooks), but you now get a USB-C port along with your good old-fashioned USB-A port. It also has a magnetic charging port. If you’re a klutz who trips over your power cord all the time, this can be a lifesaver. It severs the connection between the wall plug and the computer before the laptop goes flying across the room like a Frisbee.
Last year, Microsoft added a 15-inch model to its Surface Laptop line. The 15-inch model comes in two flavors: one with an AMD Ryzen chip or one with an Intel processor. Microsoft says it worked closely with AMD to tune the chip for the best possible performance. It’s not going to edit your next 4K feature film, but it’s plenty powerful enough for most of us working on documents, browsing the web, and checking email. The Intel variant is more powerful, but it’s also a little more expensive.
Microsoft gives you some great tech standards, like a Windows Hello IR camera that lets you log in to Windows with your face lickety-split. Once you get used to that, it’s hard to ever go back to typing in your password. Even fingerprint sensors feel like a chore after this.
The original Surface design, with its kickstand and keyboard cover, is still a joy all these years later. The Surface Pro 7 bridges the gap between laptop and tablet pretty well.
No matter which configuration you land on, each Pro has 10th-generation Intel chips and an improved 12.3-inch high-res touchscreen with a document-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio. You also get a USB-A port, a magnetic charging port, a Windows Hello–compatible webcam, and a MicroSD slot for expanding the onboard storage. The Pro 7 update adds a long-overdue USB-C port, but it does not support Thunderbolt 3.
If you want your Pro purchase to last as long as possible, spring for the $1,200 configuration with a faster i5 chip and a larger hard drive.
You Need the Keyboard: If you want the full Surface tablet experience, you’ll need to buy one of Microsoft’s Type Cover keyboards. This accessory is essential but not included. Tack on an additional $130 for a simple black cover or $160 for a fancier, Alcantara-covered version.
The most affordable, smallest member of the Surface lineup is the 10.5-inch Surface Go 2 (8/10, WIRED Recommends). If your needs are minimal, or you prefer tiny computers, this is what you should buy. Despite its slower Intel chips, it gets the job done. This second-generation model fixes our main complaint with its predecessor by providing the all-day battery life you need.
Because of its excellent Surface Pen compatibility, the Go is awesome for note-taking, and with a Type Cover attached, it’s a surprisingly good, if tiny, tablet and laptop hybrid. It might not be able to take on the iPad Pro in terms of sheer computing power, but the Go 2 is well priced and good enough for most college students, or anyone who has the budget for a second, portable computer.
The tantalizingly priced $399 version might not be a great pick if you need the Surface Go 2 to serve as your main computer. Its smaller, slower storage drive and limited RAM could make multitasking and demanding apps feel slower. If you can, spring for the $630 configuration instead. Like the Surface Pro, the Go 2 does not include a $100 Type Cover keyboard or Surface Pen, so remember to pick those up with your tablet purchase.
This transforming powerhouse is the only Surface device with an optional graphics chip that’ll boost core performance, speeding up everything from Adobe Premiere to SolidWorks. The full-size, laptop-style keyboard (with better key travel than the Go’s clip-on-type cover) makes typing easier, and the screen detaches at the press of a button to become a tablet when watching movies or annotating documents with the Surface Pen.
This is the closest analog to Apple’s MacBook Pro series. Thanks to standard 10th-gen Intel processors and an optional discrete Nvidia GPU inside the keyboard dock, you’ll get amazing performance for a portable device. Plus, you get the expected suite of Surface goodies—Windows Hello, a gorgeous high-res screen, a luxurious backlit keyboard, and a big, silky-smooth glass trackpad.
The Surface Book 3 comes in a 13-inch or 15-inch package. We haven’t finished our testing, but Microsoft is claiming battery life up to 15.5 hours and 17.5 hours, respectively.
Even though the Surface lineup has never been as diverse as it is now, there are still some imperfections that may impact your enjoyment of a shiny new Microsoft computer. The first annoyances begin when you add a device to your cart. If you’re grabbing a Surface hoping to use the famous, fabulous Surface Pen with it, you’ll need to buy it separately. In years past, the Surface Pro and the Surface Book included the Pen, but that’s no longer the case.
Ports are another mixed bag for Surface devices. You’ll find USB-C ports throughout the Surface line, but there’s still no support for Thunderbolt 3. You get the connector support but not the full speed. Despite the USB-C ports, Microsoft stuck with its magnetic Surface Connect charger (confusingly, you can charge with USB-C too). If you miss Apple’s MagSafe era this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re looking forward to a one-connector future, Microsoft hasn’t properly delivered on that yet.
If you’re a little short on cash but still want to pick up a Surface, check out the Surface All Access program. Microsoft lets you buy a new Surface on an installment plan, for as little as $25 per month, and packs in Office 365 for the entire two years you’re paying off your device. Surface Pro and Go also get a Type Cover out of the deal. You’ll need to submit an application.
There aren’t any right now. Microsoft released the Surface Go 2 and Surface Book 3 in May 2020, and the rest of the lineup was refreshed in late 2019. We don’t expect updates to the Surface family again until later this year.
If you’re rough on your gadgets, get the Microsoft Complete extended warranty. Starting at $149, it gives you additional warranty coverage, plus two accidental damage claims with a $49 deductible. Given how much a Surface costs, it’s worth the peace of mind to add this protection to your new device.
All Rights Reserved for WIRED Staff