Our editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, ZDNet may earn a commission.

The best Surface? See which Microsoft Surface PC is right for you

Microsoft's ever-expanding lineup of Surface PCs now covers a wide range of hardware factors and price points. Here's a field guide for sorting out which Surface PC should be on your shortlist.

Microsoft's ambitious plan to develop its own line of personal computers had an awkward beginning, but the division hit its stride with the launch of the Surface Pro 3 in 2014 and has not looked back since then.

Today, you can choose from a half-dozen different portable PCs under the Surface brand, and that doesn't include related products like the powerful Surface Studio desktop, the corporate-focused Surface Hub, the Android-powered Surface Duo, and an assortment of keyboards, mice, docking stations, and other peripheral devices. 

Also: Microsoft rolls out Surface Laptop 4 and new headsets, webcam, speaker

In its Fiscal Year 2020 annual report, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said the company is "committed to designing and marketing first-party devices to help drive innovation, create new device categories, and stimulate demand in the Windows ecosystem."

That is all undoubtedly true, but it's also turned into a steady source of revenue in Redmond. In the fourth quarter of calendar year 2020, for example, Gartner estimates that Microsoft shipped more than 1 million Surface PCs in the United States alone, and the company reported more than $2 billion of worldwide revenue from the Surface division. That should safely set aside any concerns that the company is going to get out of the PC business anytime soon.

Surface PCs are, without a doubt, premium products, sold at a premium price. We've tried every model in the lineup and can attest to the quality of design and construction. But the ever-expanding roster of products under the Surface brand umbrella can make it difficult to sort out which one is a fit for your work requirements and budget.

That's where this guide comes in. We've taken a close look at each of the six current members in the Surface family to help you decide which, if any, should be on your short list when it's time to purchase a new PC.

Note this post concentrates on the portable PCs in the Surface lineup. It doesn't include the desktop Surface Studio, the Surface Hub, or the Android-powered Surface Duo.

Surface Pro 7 and 7+

The original tablet PC that defined a category

surfacepro7-1.png

The oldest surviving member of the Surface family has been around more than eight years but still feels fresh. In size and shape, the external design of the Surface Pro has changed only in small details in recent years. That's not a criticism, though. Instead, it's the result of Microsoft's wise decision not to tamper with a design that works.

The Surface Pro is right for you if ...

  • You want a powerful work-focused PC that's incredibly light and portable. With the Type Cover, total weight is an even 1100 g (about 2.4 lbs), and the tablet-only weight is a feathery 790 g, well under two pounds.
  • You do a lot of annotating, sketching, or note-taking. With the optional Surface Pen, the Surface Pro is a solid choice for any of these tasks.
  • You're not picky about a traditional laptop form factor. With its innovative hinge and detachable Type Cover, this is the quintessential "love it or hate it" tech product. If you find it awkward to comfortably balance the Surface Pro on your lap, look elsewhere.

Pricing: The Surface Pro 7, available in consumer and commercial channels, includes Intel 10th Generation CPUs; we recommend skipping the $750 bargain configuration with an i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM. The Surface Pro 7+, available only in commercial channels, has 11th Gen Intel CPUs inside and offers LTE options. It starts with an $850 model equipped with 8GB of RAM and an i3 CPU and maxes out with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of solid-state storage for a cool $2800. The Surface Pen and Type Cover are extra-cost options.

$1,200 at Best Buy $1,098 at Walmart Microsoft Offer

Surface Pro X

The Arm CPU inside means some compatibility headaches

surface-pro-x.jpg

At first glance, this Surface Pro looks a lot like the Surface Pro 7, with a similar detachable Type Cover and kickstand. But look more closely and you start to see small differences. The screen is slightly larger. The edges on the tablet portion are rounded, for example. There are two USB Type-C ports. The pen (still optional, still an extra cost) has a different shape, with its own dedicated slot in the Type Cover.

And inside, the biggest difference of all is the custom Microsoft-Qualcomm Arm CPU, which is powered by Windows 10 on Arm.

The Surface Pro X is right for you if ...

  • You want dramatically longer battery life than an Intel-based PC. Microsoft claims 15 hours of battery life for the Surface Pro X, which is nearly 50% more than the Surface Pro 7.
  • Mobile connectivity matters to you. LTE connectivity is a standard feature on Surface Pro X, not an extra-cost option.
  • You're comfortable with a slightly limited app selection. Because Surface Pro X runs Windows on Arm, 64-bit apps have to be compiled to run on that platform. To run Windows apps that were originally compiled for x86 processors, you'll have to track down 32-bit versions. Microsoft can solve this limitation with a Windows upgrade, but until then, expect some compatibility headaches.

Pricing: Surface Pro X comes in a range of configurations that start with a respectable $800 entry-level device and top out at $1500 for a matte black model with 16 GB of RAM, an SQ2 CPU, and 512 GB of RAM.

$1,200 at Best Buy $1,200 at Walmart $1,999 at eBay

Surface Book 3

The heavyweight in the lineup

microsoft-surface-book-3-15inch-1.png
Image: Sebaztian Barns/ZDNet

Like its older sibling the Surface Pro, the Surface Book offers a way to separate the display from the keyboard so you can use it as a pure tablet, with or without a Surface Pen. But instead of using a super-light Type Cover that clicks on magnetically, the Surface Book comes with a solid keyboard base that attaches mechanically. (Yes, you can attach the display in reverse to use in stand mode or tent mode.) That design also means that the keyboard base and display each have their own battery, enabling impressive real-world battery life measurements.

The Surface Book 3 comes in two display sizes, 13.5 and 15 inches, with options to configure the PC for even the most demanding workloads, including gaming. Configuration options allow you to add up to 32 GB of RAM and a 2 TB high-performance SSD.

The Surface Book 3 is right for you if ...

  • You want the solid feeling of a conventional laptop keyboard along with the ability to detach the display and use it as a tablet on occasion.
  • A little extra heft doesn't put you off. The Surface Book 3 is the heaviest portable Surface device, with weights that range from 1534 g (3.38 lbs) to 1642 g (4.2 lbs).
  • Your work (or play) demands a discrete GPU. Surface Book 3 offers options with discrete graphics adapters like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti.

Pricing: There are no lightweights in the Surface Book lineup. The least expensive Surface Book, with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD, starts at $1600, and you can configure a 15-inch model with a 10th Generation Intel i7 CPU and Nvidia graphics, 32 GB or RAM, and a 2 TB SSD, but bring some collateral: That model will set you back a cool $3400. 

$1,400 at Best Buy $1,449 at Walmart

Surface Laptop 4

It’s a traditional laptop with a Surface logo

surfacelaptop3.jpg

At first glance, the Surface Laptop is an awkward fit in Microsoft's hardware lineup. It's not a two-in-one design, like all of its brandmates. Nor does it fit with the "We're just trying to show our OEM partners how to innovate" message that Microsoft occasionally uses to justify competing with its OEM partners.

And yet, here we are with a conventional laptop design that has the Surface logo attached to it, in both 13.5-inch and 15-inch display sizes. The brand-new Surface Laptop 4 includes 11th-generation Intel Core or AMD Ryzen Mobile processors.

Make no mistake, this is a fine piece of hardware, especially with the Alcantara keyboard enhancements. We won't blame or shame anyone who chooses this traditional design.

The Surface Laptop 4 is right for you if ...

  • The Surface brand is important, but you don't need a detachable display. The Surface Laptop isn't a 2-in-1 or a hybrid PC. It's just a solidly built laptop.
  • You want an AMD CPU and GPU for gaming. The 15-inch Surface Laptop line includes AMD Ryzen options with AMD Radeon graphics.
  • Price matters, and you're not a fan of the Surface Pro Type Cover. The Surface Laptop models are comparable in performance to their Surface Book counterparts at a fraction of the price.

Pricing: Like the Surface Book line, the Surface Laptop models start with a reasonably powerful entry-level configuration and scale up to a maxed-out model with 32 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD at a (relatively) reasonable $2400.

View Now at Microsoft

Surface Go 2

Smaller, lighter version of the Surface Pro, with LTE options

surface-go-2.jpg

Physically, the Surface Go is tiny, like somebody shrunk a Surface Pro. It has the same kickstand as its older sibling, albeit slightly smaller. It has a similar Type Cover, which is also shrunken to fit the 10.5-inch, Full HD display. And it definitely has a smaller price tag than the Surface Pro.

This is no cheap knockoff, though. The Surface Go 2 has a full complement of premium features, including an infrared camera that supports Windows Hello facial recognition, a backlit keyboard on the Type Cover, and LTE options that reinforce the Go part of the name.

The Surface Go 2 is right for you if ...

  • You value portability and mobility above all else. At 791 g (1.75 lbs) with Type Cover, you'll hardly notice the weight in your bag.
  • You're looking for a PC for the kids. This downsized package is just right for kid-sized hands, and the Surface connector means you can attach a dock with a full-size keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
  • A bit of lackadaisical performance is acceptable. The Intel Pentium Gold and M3 processors won't win any trophies for their speed, but they're just fine for doing homework and checking in with the home office on a business trip.

Pricing: We don't recommend the $400 base configuration, which has a mere 4 GB of RAM and a paltry 64 GB of eMMC storage. More acceptable configurations range from $550 to $730, and don't forget to add $100-130 for the Type Cover.

$400 at Amazon $400 at Best Buy $400 at Walmart

Surface Laptop Go

Smaller laptop, smaller price tag

microsoft-surface-go-launch.jpg

In the Surface brand, Go apparently means "smaller, lighter, and less expensive," which is how this laptop compares to its larger sibling. It has the same build quality as the bigger members of the family, and body options include Platinum, Sandstone, and Ice Blue. All models include a 10th Generation Core i5 CPU and a 12.4-inch display with a native resolution of 1536 x 1024. Higher-priced models include a fingerprint reader integrated into the power button.

It uses the same Surface Connect port as other Surface models and also includes a USB Type-C port. You can use either option to connect the laptop to a desktop docking station.

The Surface Laptop Go is right for you if ...

  • You prefer the traditional laptop form factor but the Surface Laptop is too big, too expensive, or both.
  • You're willing to give up many of the premium features associated with other Surface models, including Windows Hello facial recognition and a backlit keyboard.

Pricing: As with the Surface Go 2, the $500 base configuration is a little underpowered, with only 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of eMMC storage, and no fingerprint reader. The 8GB configurations, with 128GB or 256GB of SSD storage, are a better long-term value at $700 and $900, respectively.

$498 at Amazon $489 at Walmart