Which Microsoft Surface should I buy?

What was once a single device is now a full line to meet the demands of many users. Here's how to pick the right one.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
5 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

In June 2012, Microsoft announced its first Surface hybrid tablet. Not only was it the first of its kind, but the first hardware designed, built and sold by Microsoft to work seamlessly with the software giant's Windows operation system. 

Since then the company has built out its Surface hardware lineup to meet the needs of students and home and professional users. Microsoft's new Surface Go, a streamlined 10-inch entry-level detachable two-in-one, could potentially be a fit for all three of those groups depending on the performance needs. 

If you're not sure where to begin or even what Microsoft's Surface line has to offer, well, you can start right here. Plus, at the end, you can see our recommendations for some of the best Surface alternatives available. 

Disclaimer: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page. 

Surface Pro

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The one that started it all (if you forget about the Surface RT, and you should). Microsoft's current top tablet-cum-laptop is still the gold standard for the category despite being a pretty minor update from the Surface Pro 4

The Surface Pro's detachable design is best as a tablet first and laptop second, especially if you use it on your lap more often than not. The keyboard is excellent and certainly makes this a great choice when you need to travel as light as possible. Bear in mind the keyboard cover and pen are not included, and they aren't cheap: The Type Cover is $130 or $160 and the Surface Pen is $100.

Now available in Wi-Fi only as well as Wi-Fi plus LTE Advanced versions, configurations start as low as $800 that have enough performance for basic home or student use, while power users can load it up with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD for $1,900. Read CNET's full review. 

Watch this: A very familiar-feeling Surface Pro

Surface Go

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The Go is Microsoft's latest Surface device and is basically a new-and-improved version of the budget-friendly 10-inch Surface 3. It's smaller and lighter than that device, which also makes it more travel-friendly than the current 12.3-inch Surface Pro. The smaller size works surprisingly well, both for the 10-inch, 1,800x1,200-pixel display and the clip-on keyboard.

The little tablet is, however, running on a lower-end Intel Pentium processor so if you need high performance, you'll want to stick with the Surface Pro. The Go is not likely going to satisfy as your all-day, everyday workhorse computer, but will work well as either a complementary device to a more powerful laptop or desktop or for anyone with basic laptop needs, e.g. web browsing, email, word processing, note taking and simple sketching as well as a tablet for media consumption.

Prices start at $399, but like the Pro, the Go doesn't come with its $130 Type Cover or $100 Surface Pen. And really, you need the Type Cover to make it worthwhile. The same goes for its competition including the entry-level iPadAcer's Chromebook Tab 10 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. Read CNET's full review. 

Microsoft Surface Book 2

Microsoft Surface Book 2
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Despite initial appearances, the Surface Book (the original and this update) is a two-in-one design that, like the Surface Pro, is detachable from its keyboard. But its keyboard base is more than just some keys, a touchpad and a couple ports. Inside is an extra battery and enough graphics power for content creation and gaming, courtesy of a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 in the 13.5-inch version or a GTX 1060 in the 15-inch model. 

The Book 2 is tailor-made for creatives who can appreciate the large pen-enabled display and the high performance and design of a full laptop. Read CNET's full review. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop

Microsoft Surface Laptop
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If you have no need for a detachable two-in-one of any kind, Microsoft has a straight-up laptop for you. While the Surface Pro targets business types and Surface Book aims for creatives, the Laptop is pitched for students. Its thin-and-light traditional clamshell design makes it a solid choice for toting around campus and with more than 10 hours of battery life in our tests, you won't have to worry about finding an outlet in between classes. 

Prices start at less than $700 (and that's before any educational discounts), but our preferred configuration will run you about $1,000. Read CNET's full review. 

Surface Studio

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It's the Surface Pro, but big and definitely not portable. The 28-inch Studio all-in-one Windows PC has a better-than-4K 4,500x3,000-pixel resolution touchscreen that folds all the way down to a low drafting table angle of 20 degrees and has a seriously wide color range (Adobe sRGB or P3 color spaces). It's also expensive (the base price is $2,999) and runs on outdated hardware. 

While we really liked the Surface Pro when it launched in 2016, it's also well overdue for an update. Unless you can get a good deal on one, we recommend holding off to see if Microsoft loads it up with eighth-gen Intel processors and the latest Nvidia graphics chips later this year. Read CNET's full review. 

Surface alternatives

The flexibility of Windows 10 (and Windows 8 before it) to work as an OS for touchscreen devices as well as a traditional desktop OS has led to a lot of convertible and detachable two-in-one laptop designs. Here are a few of our favorite alternatives. 

Best Surface Pro alternative: Lenovo Miix 720 

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Good performance, good battery life and a great price, the Miix is undeniably modeled after the Surface Pro. Unlike Microsoft, though, Lenovo includes its keyboard cover and active pen -- and they're excellent to boot. Read CNET's full review. 

Watch this: Lenovo's Miix 720 is strong Surface Pro competition

Best Surface Go alternative: Apple iPad

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Yeah, yeah, I know. It's not running Windows and it's not even a "real desktop OS." The entry-level 9.7-inch iPad, however, is direct competition for the Surface Go, and if you don't need to run Windows-only software, it's your next best bet for the money. Read CNET's full review. 

Best Surface Book alternative: Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

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Although it doesn't pull apart like the Surface Book, the XPS is the smallest, thinnest convertible two-in-one available at the moment. It's also one of the first PCs to use an Intel CPU paired with an AMD Radeon Vega M GL GPU, which in our tests turned out some solid performance without hurting battery life. Read CNET's full review. 

Best Surface Laptop alternative: Asus ZenBook 13

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It might not have the build quality of Microsoft's touchscreen 13-inch laptop, but it does have overall excellent performance from its eighth-gen Intel processor and discrete Nvidia graphics chip, not to mention a nearly 11-hour battery life, all wrapped up in a slim, lightweight and attractive package for just less than $1,000. Read CNET's full review. 

Best Surface Studio alternative: Dell XPS 27

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To be honest, there is no good alternative at the moment for the Studio. The closest is the XPS 27, which is also old (though not as old as the Studio). Its display is excellent, but not as good as the Studio's, and although it is a touchscreen and can be adjusted all the way down to your desk, it's not pen-enabled. It is a fraction of the price, however. Read CNET's full review. 

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Originally published at July 22, 2018
Update on Aug. 2, 2018 4:15 p.m. ET with review details and availability for Surface Go.