Microsoft’s Surface brand had a rocky first few months. When it launched in 2012, people loved Microsoft’s innovative, tablet-like hardware design, but the software was too confusing and too limited for many longtime Windows users.
Now, six years on, things are different. Not only does Windows run much more cleanly on tablets, but it’s also become clear that Microsoft was an early innovator in mobile-friendly hybrid PC hardware. It’s hard to find a PC-maker today that doesn’t ape Surface’s kickstand-packing, detachable-keyboard-rocking design.
Since launching the first Surface ultraportables, Microsoft has expanded the Surface line to include a full family of computers, from a standard laptop to a giant, drafting-table desktop. If you need a portable Windows PC, it’s hard to find a nicer physical experience than what 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’re on this like a Type Cover on a Surface Pro.
Updated in Oct. 2018: We’ve added the Surface Go and updated this piece to include the latest Surface models.
The Best All-Arounder
This device isn’t as swish as the transforming, flexible computers that made the Surface brand famous, but if you need a laptop, you need a laptop. Kickstands and clicky magnetic keyboard covers don’t work well in every situation, so we’re going with the Surface Laptop 2 as the best pick for most shoppers. No, it’s not a tablet, but the Surface Laptop is a killer notebook computer.
Featuring a gorgeous, 13.5-inch high-resolution display, a lovely-feeling keyboard, a stellar glass trackpad, and a slim case, the Surface Laptop is well-built and easy to handle. It even foregoes the new USB-C standard and gives you a good, old-fashioned USB-A port, so it should be much easier to find accessories that work without requiring a dongle. 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.
Microsoft also gives users 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 that, it’s hard to go back to typing in your password like some sort of paleolithic protohuman. When we tried the original Surface Laptop last year, we gave it our WIRED Recommends seal of approval and a score of 8/10 and we anticipate liking the sequel as well.
Word to the wise: even though Microsoft has a more affordable, $999 entry-level Surface Laptop, it’s not the model most of you should get. It’s more expensive, but the model with an Intel i5 chip, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB SSD is far better. This upgrade also unlocks the Laptop’s alternate color choices—matte black, a stunning burgundy, and cool turquoise aren’t available on the cheapest spec.
The Best 2-in-1
The original Surface design, with its kickstand and keyboard cover, is still a joy all these years later. The upcoming Surface Pro 6 is a mobile device that bridges the gap between laptop and tablet pretty well.
No matter which configuration you land on, each Pro has more performant 8th-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.
If you want your Pro purchase to last as long as possible, spring for the $1,299 configuration. We haven’t reviewed this version of Surface Pro yet, but it seems like a better, faster version of what’s come before and that’s not a bad thing at all.
There’s a slight catch. 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 $129 for a simple black cover, or $159 for a fancier, Alcantara-covered version.
The Best for Students
The most affordable, smallest member of the Surface lineup is the 10-inch Surface Go. Not only is it a smaller Surface tablet, it’s significantly cheaper than the Pro. If your needs are minimal, or you prefer tiny computers, this is what you should buy—despite its slower Intel chips, we enjoyed using it, and gave it a 7/10 when we reviewed it earlier this year.
Because of its excellent Surface Pen compatibility, Go is awesome for notetaking, and with a Type Cover attached, it’s a surprisingly good, if tiny, laptop. It might not be able to take on the iPad Pro in terms of sheer computing power or battery life, but Surface Go is nicely priced and good enough for college students, or anyone for a second machine to take with them.
The tantalizingly-priced $399 version might not be a great pick if you need Surface Go to serve as your main computer. Its smaller, slower storage drive and limited RAM might make multitasking and demanding apps feel slower. If you can, spring for the $549 config instead. Like Surface Pro, Go does not include a $100 Type Cover keyboard or Surface Pen, so remember to pick those up with your tablet purchase.
The Best for Power Users
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 screen undocks from the keyboard, so you can use the display as a tablet for brief stints when watching movies or annotating documents with the Surface Pen. When our team reviewed this laptop, we gave it our WIRED Recommends seal of approval and a score of 8/10.
Available in versions with 13.5 and 15.6-inch screens, Surface Book 2 is the closest analog to Apple’s MacBook Pro series. Thanks to standard quad-core Intel processors and an optional discrete Nvidia 10-series graphics chip inside the keyboard dock, you’ll get amazing performance for a portable. 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.
If you have cash to burn on a really nice Windows laptop, the 15-inch version has the fastest Nvidia 1060 graphics chip and the biggest, highest-res screen available on a portable Surface. The 13-inch is great, too, but the cheapest version is poorly equipped, going without Nvidia graphics, and has a measly 128 GB SSD—not enough space for your Lightroom library, much less all your go-to pro apps.
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, Surface Pro and Surface Book included the pen, but no longer.
Ports are another mixed bag for Surface. While the rest of the industry is starting to turn to USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 for charging and I/O, Microsoft stuck with good old-fashioned USB-A and its magnetic Surface Connect charger. If you miss Apple’s MagSafe era and don’t want to deal with dongles, this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re looking forward to a one-connector future, Microsoft hasn’t delivered on that yet. Only the Surface Book 2 and Surface Go have USB-C, and even then it’s not compatible with Thunderbolt devices. At least Surface Connect doubles as a handy desktop docking port, should you require a one-cable solution.
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. Unfortunately, Surface All Access is only available in Microsoft’s physical retail locations, and not online.
Reasons to Wait
The lineup has been refreshed for the fall of 2018, so it’s a great time to buy. We don’t expect updates to the Surface family until 2019.
Get Microsoft Complete
If you’re rough on your gadgets, plan on buying the Microsoft Complete extended warranty. Starting at $149, this gives you additional warranty coverage and accidental damage protection. You get two accidental damage claims, with only a $49 deductible, whether you take your device to the local Microsoft Store or ship it in for repairs. Given how much a Surface costs, it’s worth the peace of mind to add this protection to your new device.
Shop for Microsoft Complete
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