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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Which Microsoft Surface Laptop or Tablet Should You Buy?

For some of the best Windows hardware on the market, look no further than Microsoft's Surface brand. Best known for innovative, tablet-like 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.

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? We've sorted through the options and found the best Surface for everyone.

Be sure to read our other buying guides for more, including the Best Laptops, Best Cheap Laptops, Best MacBooks, and our tips on how to choose a laptop

Updated October 2021: We've added the new Surface Pro 8, Surface Go 3, Surface Laptop Studio, and updated details throughout.

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Best for Most PeopleSurface Laptop 4

It isn't as smart or stylish as the transforming, flexible models that made the Surface brand famous, but 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 4 (7/10, WIRED Recommends) is the best pick for most people.

It 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 Surfaces skimp (like MacBooks), but you do get a USB-C port along with your good old-fashioned USB-A port. It also has a magnetic charging port. If you tend to trip 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.

All Surfaces are now available with either an AMD Ryzen chip or an Intel processor. We've tested both, and while each has its strengths and weaknesses, the difference isn't great enough that you'll probably notice the difference. Whether you pick an AMD Ryzen 5 or Intel Core i5 model, your Surface Laptop 4 will easily handle most workloads and applications. For more details on the differences between AMD and Intel, read through our laptop buying guide.

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 go back to typing in a password. Even fingerprint sensors feel like a chore after this.

If you want a larger screen, you can upgrade to the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4, which also comes with the more powerful Ryzen 7 or Intel Core i7 processors.

Specs to look for: 13-inch, Ryzen 5/Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 256/512 GB SSD

Surface Laptop 4 costs $900+ at Microsoft or $900+ at Amazon

Best 2-in-1 LaptopSurface Pro 8

The original Surface design, with its kickstand and keyboard cover, is still a joy all these years later. The Surface Pro 8 (7/10, WIRED Recommends) bridges the gap between laptop and tablet pretty well.

No matter which configuration you land on, each Pro has 11th-generation Intel chips and the 2,880 x 1,920-pixel resolution screen with a document-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio. The screen can be set with 120-Hz refresh rate (120 frames per second), but this will significantly impact battery life. You also get two USB-C ports, a magnetic charging port, and a Windows Hello–compatible 1080p webcam. Disappointingly, there is no longer a MicroSD slot. Our other complaint is battery life, which is shorter than the previous Surface Pro in our testing.

If you want your Pro to be a true hybrid tablet-laptop, you'll also need to buy the essential Microsoft Type Cover keyboard (it's not included). It costs $180 for a fancier, Alcantara-covered version.

Specs to look for: Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD

Surface Pro 8 and Type Cover cost $1,380+ at Microsoft or $1,200 at Amazon (Plus $180 for the Type Cover)

Best for StudentsSurface Go 3

The most affordable, smallest member of the Surface lineup is the 10.5-inch Surface Go 3 (6/10, WIRED Review). 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 third-generation model lacks the all-day battery life of its predecessor, but Windows 11 is a more pleasant touchscreen experience.

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 combat the iPad Pro in terms of sheer computing power, but the Go 3 is well-priced and good enough for most college students, or anyone who has the budget for a second, portable computer.

The $399 version has an appealing price, but it's not a great pick if you need the Surface Go 3 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, get the $630 configuration instead. 

Like the Surface Pro, the Go 3 does not include a $100 Type Cover keyboard or Surface Pen, so remember to pick those up with your tablet purchase.

Specs to look for: Intel Core i3, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD

Surface Go 3 and Type Cover cost $730 at Microsoft or $630 at Amazon (Plus $85 for the Type Cover)

Best for Power UsersSurface Laptop Studio

The Surface Laptop Studio (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is the powerhouse transformer of the Surface line. Thanks to its clever hinge, you get a 2-in-1 laptop and a tablet, and, if you spring for it, a graphics card. That's a rare combination of power and flexibility that makes it a compelling choice for creative pros. 

The Laptop Studio makes the most sense with an Intel i7 chip, which adds Nvidia's GeForce RTX discrete graphics card. The price bumps to $2,100 for this configuration, but if you're planning to edit video or play games, the extra graphics power is worth the investment. Every version has the beautiful 14-inch touch display screen with its 120-Hz refresh rate for buttery-smooth scrolling. The haptic trackpad is also one of the best touchpads we've ever tested.

The one compromise the Surface Laptop Studio makes is weight. While tablet mode is great for taking notes and making sketches, a 4-pound tablet isn't something you want to hold for long. It works best a tablet on a table top or in your lap.

Specs to look for: Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD, Nvidia GeForce RTX

Surface Laptop Studio costs $1,600+ at Microsoft or $1,600+ at Amazon

A Good Smaller LaptopSurface Laptop Go

This is a stripped-down, dare I say cute, little laptop that is to the Surface Laptop as the Surface Go 2 is to the Surface Pro. That is, the "Go" moniker means the emphasis is on portability and price, not power. The Surface Laptop Go (7/10, WIRED Recommends) won't wow you by acing benchmark tests, but it is very portable and stylish. And it's a lot of fun to use.

It's small and svelte, with clean lines and a nice solid feel—something that's rare at this price. The top is aluminum, and the bottom is polycarbonate resin, which is stiffer and stronger than your typical laptop plastic. It feels like a $1,000 laptop, but it does make some compromises to keep the price so low. The biggest is the subpar screen, which is not even HD (1080p) resolution. That means text can appear slightly pixelated.

Still, if you like the portability of the Surface Go hybrid but want the more traditional clamshell design, the Surface Laptop Go is an excellent option. There are three configurations available, all using the same Intel Core i5 chip, but varying in RAM and SSD size. The middle option is the best value, offering 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 128-gigabyte SSD. The low-end model is $550, but it only has 4 gigabytes of RAM, which won't get you far these days.

Specs to look for: Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD

Surface Laptop Go costs $700 at Microsoft

What About Older Models?

  • Surface Pro 7 ($800 with Type Cover): While 2019 Pro 7 remains a solid 2-in-1 choice. It's slightly less powerful, but it does have better life and will likely be on sale this holiday season. If you can score a good deal, this one is worth considering.
  • Surface Go 2 ($650, Intel Core m3 with Type Cover): The Go 2 was a fun little machine and, like the Pro 7, got better battery life than its successor. That said, the battery life is about the only thing it has going for it versus the newer model, unless you can find it on sale.
  • Surface Book 3: There may still be a few of these out there, but Microsoft has discontinued the Surface Book. The Surface Laptop Studio covers the same ground.
  • Older Surfaces: We do not recommend paying much of anything for Surface laptops or 2-in-1s older than these.

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