How to pick the Microsoft Surface that’s right for you

How to pick the Microsoft Surface that’s right for you

August 2, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan

The family of Surface computers is now large enough to cause a bit of confusion for those who are thinking about buying one.

Is the small Surface Go the best fit for your workload? Perhaps the detachable Surface Book 2 is a better choice, despite being more expensive, because of its included keyboard and optional discrete graphics? While these devices look somewhat similar at first blush, there are some pretty stark differences that you should know about.

Microsoft’s 12.3-inch tablet-meets-laptop is the easiest to recommend for most people. It isn’t the fastest, but it’s also not the least capable Surface device in the fleet. The same can be said for its price: it’s not cheap, but it’s also not too expensive.

Unlike the Surface Laptop and Surface Book 2, the Surface Pro comes prepped out of the box for tablet mode only, leaving it up to you to supply a mouse and keyboard. If you want a keyboard that suits the Surface Pro’s styling, Microsoft’s official Type Cover will set you back over $100.

With or without the Type Cover, the Surface Pro runs Windows 10 Pro and is ready for your apps and games with full compatibility with x86 and x64 apps. Your accessories will also work with the device’s USB-A port. Need to plug in via USB-C? Microsoft’s $79 accessory will help you do that. But in addition to the financial expense, it occupies the all-important Surface Connector that’s used for charging the Surface Pro, and it’s not even that good.

There’s a good amount of compromise to swallow with the Surface Pro compared to your average laptop at a similar cost, especially pertaining to the performance you’re getting for the price — not to mention the added expense for the all-but-necessary accessories.

Even so, this Surface is a good fit for those who aren’t too picky but still want on-the-fly access to both a capable computer and a touch-friendly tablet.

The Surface Go takes the presentation of the Surface Pro and shrinks it down to a device with a 10-inch display. Aside from a drop in performance — though my colleague Dieter Bohn says not to underestimate it — not much else is lost in the change in size. And surprisingly, it has gained a USB-C port, joining the Surface Book 2 as Microsoft’s only laptops with a built-in USB-C port.

Compared to the Surface Pro, this option can just as easily transition between tablet and laptop. But it similarly relies on pricey proprietary peripherals to make the most of it. The Type Cover costs $99, and the Surface Pen costs another $100 in addition to the Go’s $399 base price.

On the inside, the Go is currently the least powerful Surface computer available, and it comes with Windows 10 in S Mode by default. This means that only the Universal Windows Platform apps available on the Windows Store can run on it. This won’t be an issue for those who rely on a small batch of popular programs, but if you use a wide variety of apps or just enjoy deeply customizing your PC, you’ll likely want to take advantage of Microsoft’s one-way switch to Windows 10 Pro.

If your computer has to be a small one, the Go is the right choice. Just know that with the added accessories, you’re quickly getting close to Surface Pro pricing.

The Surface Book 2 is loaded with extra power for improved battery and performance in the included keyboard base.

Available in 13.5-inch and 15-inch models, the Book 2 competes more directly with Apple’s MacBook Pro. Expect more power across the board and a price increase to commensurate with the gains to go along with it.

Both the Surface Pro and Go have a kickstand that works nicely on a table, but it isn’t the most comfortable or stable experience on your lap. Depending on your size, you may need to hold squeeze your legs together to support it, which can be a trying exercise. On the other hand, the Book 2 and Surface Laptop lay flat across your lap like a traditional laptop computer.

Folded up, the Surface Book 2 is compact, though it doesn’t close like a true clamshell laptop like other Surface devices. A gap in its design between the tablet and the keyboard leaves it somewhat exposed to dust and dirt, and that may prevent it from easily fitting into your backpack and / or seatback compartments.

Aside from its design, the biggest differentiating factor between the Book 2 and the other Surface devices is the power potential. If you have the money to spend, you can craft a thin yet formidable laptop that can handle most creative endeavors with relative ease. Though, if you’re a gamer, don’t get too excited about its GeForce GTX 10-series graphics.

The Surface Laptop is quite literally Microsoft’s most cohesive effort yet. It’s a full-fat laptop that doesn’t allow you to detach it for tablet mode like the other devices.

This option isn’t the best for those who want shape-shifting versatility above all else. But if you’re after a no-fuss experience right out of the box, the unity of screen and chassis means that there’s no need to splurge on additional accessories, like a Type Cover. And compared to the Surface Book 2, this machine takes up less room in a bag and can fit into tight compartments.

Unlike the Surface Pro and Surface Book, we haven’t yet seen a refresh of the Laptop. Given that it’s more than a year old at this point, the fact that it hasn’t been updated with Intel’s eighth-generation processors should raise a red flag for those who want to get the most out of their purchase.

Windows 10 in S Mode is the default operating system here if you buy the base model, which limits users to installing apps that are available on the Windows Store. The Verge has published two reviews of the Surface Laptop: the link above focuses on the experience with Windows 10 in S Mode, while another dives deep into life with Windows 10 Pro.

The most affordable Surface Laptop usually costs a bit more than the Surface Pro. What it might lack in the ability to turn into a tablet, the included backlit, Alcantara fabric-covered keyboard might be worth the extra cost — even if you’ll need to frequently clean it to avoid discoloration.

Surface Studio review GIF

Microsoft Surface Studio.

The Studio is the odd one out as the sole desktop option. But in keeping with the Surface philosophy, it’s quite flexible and multipurpose compared to your traditional all-in-one. Its 28-inch screen can move to assume the position of a high-resolution tablet with minimal input lag, which is beyond handy if you foresee drawing or 3D modeling with the Surface Pen.

Starting at $2,999, this machine hasn’t seen a worthwhile update since it launched in 2016. It houses an older 6th-Gen Intel Core i5 processor and somewhat lowly — for the price, anyway — GeForce GTX 965M graphics. In more than a few ways, it’s tough to recommend, even if its design is still punching above the rest.

The form of the Studio is in constant battle with its function to be the most interesting aspect, though none of it’s useful at all if you’re after a Surface that you can take on the go. This one packs in the design sensibilities of portable Surface devices, but you aren’t going anywhere with the Studio.

Perhaps none of the Microsoft-made options are right for you. If after reading you feel that’s the case, check out The Verge’s pick for the best laptop you can buy right now (it may surprise you.) And if you want a machine that can easily handle gaming, we’ve sorted through a few of the best gaming laptops.

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