Which Surface is Right For You?

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When Microsoft introduced the original Surface back in 2012, it started a revolution of powerful but flexible portable PCs that can adjust to your needs. Since then, the Surface family has expanded to four different products, including an upcoming all-in-one PC. So to help you figure out which one is right for you, here's a quick guide to the full Surface lineup.

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All of the Surfaces explained

If you head over to the Microsoft Store, you'll see listings for these devices:

  • The Surface 3: a 10.8-inch device with a folding detachable keyboard
  • The Surface Pro 4: a 12.3-inch device with a folding detachable keyboard
  • The Surface Book: a 13.5-inch laptop with a detachable display, also available with Microsoft's Performance Base
  • The Surface Studio: a 28-inch all-in-one with an adjustable display

The Surface 3 (starting at $500) is essentially at the end of its life. It's been out of stock for months, and even refurbished models are hard to come by — which is a shame, because for a long time, it was one of our top picks for budget 2-in-1s. But now, even if you do find one for a decent price, we recommend staying away, as the Surface 3 is past its prime.

MORE: Best Ultrabooks (Thin-and-Light Windows Laptops)

The Surface Pro 4 is the core member of the Surface lineup. It starts at $749 and sports traditional laptop specs, including a range of Core M and i5 CPUs, up to 16GB of RAM, and either a 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive. It also has a 12.3-inch 2736 x 1824 display with touch and stylus support, and it even comes with the Surface Pen, so you'll always have something to draw or write with. But one important thing to know is that even though its folding Type Cover keyboard is an essential part of the Surface experience, it doesn't come included, which means you need to set an extra $130 aside to pay for the not-so optional accessory. 

The Surface Studio is the newest member of the Surface family. Though it's not a "traditional" 2-in-1, it still has the power to transform from a desktop PC to a digital drafting table.

Then, there's the Surface Book. At first, it may appear to be a traditional laptop, but it's actually a 2-in-1 that features a detachable screen that can be removed and used as a regular tablet, or reattached in different ways depending on the situation. The specs for its $1,499 base model aren't much different from those of a midrange Surface Pro 4, but higher-end models have the option of a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M GPU, which is a real boon for creative pros.

Surface-Studio-1The Surface Studio is the newest member of the Surface family, and although it's not a "traditional" 2-in-1, it still has the power to transform from a desktop PC to a digital drafting table, thanks to its big, 28-inch screen and innovative Zero Gravity hinge. It also has an option for a beefier Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M GPU, which means it will be the most powerful Surface when it goes on sale sometime in early 2017 for $2,999.

Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book?

This might be the most difficult part of figuring out which Surface to get. Both are great products, but in the end, it really comes down to two things: your budget, and how much you value portability. The Surface Pro 4 we recommend is the midrange $1,299 model with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. A Surface Book with the same processor, memory and storage costs $1,699.

Microsoft-Surface-Pro-4-W-G05The Surface Pro 4 is also great for students or people who simply want something that's easy to carry around. Measuring 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.33 inches and weighing 1.73 pounds, the Surface Pro 4 is significantly smaller and lighter than the 12.3 x 9.14 x 0.9-inch and 3.34-pound Surface Book.

The Surface Pro 4 also makes a great living-room device; because it's smaller, it's easier to use with one hand while you're sitting on the couch, and with its built-in kickstand, it's also better for watching movies in bed.

Some people may prefer the Surface Book's traditional keyboard, because even though the Surface Pro 4's Type Cover is the best in the business, it still doesn't feel as solid or responsive as the keys on the Surface Book.

The main trade-offs involve battery life and keyboard comfort for use in your lap. The Surface Pro 4's battery life is significantly shorter than the Surface Book's. On our battery test, a Core i5 Surface Pro 4 lasted just over 6 hours. In contrast, a Surface Book with similar specs had double the battery life, lasting 12 hours and 29 minutes.

surface-book-leadAlso, some people may prefer the Surface Book's traditional keyboard, because even though the Surface Pro 4's Type Cover is the best in the business, it still doesn't feel as solid or responsive as the keys on the Surface Book. And because the Type Cover is so much thinner and lighter than the Surface Book's Base, it feels more top-heavy and less stable on your lap. 

If you don't need the long battery life and aren't super picky about your keyboard, the Surface Pro 4 is a better choice, because of its lower cost and lighter weight. In a time when people spend less and less time sitting at a desk and more time setting up for 30 minutes or an hour at a coffee shop or shared working space, the Pro 4 is a great mobile companion.

However, if you can afford the higher price, need something more powerful or want the best typing experience, you should get the Surface Book. But one question remains: Do you get it with or without the Performance Base?

Performance Base or Standard Surface Book?

The first step in figuring out which Surface Book you need is determining what you want to use it for. This is especially important, because there's a huge difference in price: The standard Surface Book starts at $1,499, and the Surface Book with Performance Base will cost you at least $2,399. That means if you choose incorrectly, you could be paying an extra 900 bucks for performance you don't need.

If you're a businessperson looking to crunch some numbers and make PowerPoint presentations — or someone who will be doing a lot of writing, web browsing and maybe a little bit of photo editing — the standard Surface Book is all you need. You still get the same great design, a detachable screen and a pretty fast Core i5 CPU even on the base model.

surface-book-presentation-mAdditionally, if battery life is very important to you, the Surface Book will better suit your needs: We've found that the standard Surface Book lasts 3 hours longer on a charge than the Surface Book with Performance Base (12 hours for the standard Surface Book, versus a little over 9 hours for the Surface Book with Performance Base).

However, if you're a creative professional who needs some graphics power, the Surface Book with Performance Base is your clear pick. Unlike the new MacBook Pro, it comes with an SD card reader. As such, it's easy to transfer content to and from a camera. In addition, its Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M GPU is more powerful than pretty much any other graphics in an ultraportable, and provides a lot of juice for things such as video editing, 3D modeling and animation. 

The new Surface Book with Performance Base isn't VR-ready but its' graphics setup provides smooth, 1080p gameplay from AAA titles, if you turn down the settings a bit.

One last consideration is that, if you like to play games on the side and have extra money to spend, the Performance Base is worth considering. Although its Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M  GPU isn't VR-ready and won't hit frame rates as high as real gaming laptops with Nvidia 10 series GPUs, like the new Alienware 13 R3, we've found that if you don't mind turning the settings down a bit, you can still get smooth gameplay from AAA titles such as Overwatch or Civilization VI at 1080p or higher resolutions.

Best Surface Book for Most People

If you fall into the camp of people simply looking for a premium and flexible ultraportable, Microsoft's $1,699 Intel Core i5 Surface Book with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD is the one to get. If you need a little extra storage, the $1,999 Surface Book with Core i5, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD is a decent option, too.

But if you are really worried about storage space, it would behoove you to buy an external SSD, because it's really not worth paying $3,199 to upgrade to the least expensive Surface Book with a 1TB SSD.

Best Surface Book for Graphics Pros

Now that the Surface Book with Performance Base exists, it's a bit trickier to pick the right model with a GPU, because Microsoft is going to continue selling last year's Surface Book with discrete graphics. But because that model has a much weaker, and generically named Nvidia GPU, it's best to avoid that configuration, even now that it's gotten a bit of a discount.

Surface-book-lidThe important thing to look for is if the full name of the product explicitly says Performance Base, and to make sure the listed GPU is an Nvidia 965M.

The specific Surface Book with Performance Base you really want is the $2,799 Intel Core i7 model with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. It offers the best combination of specs and performance, and costs only $100 more than last year's model, which has just half the graphics power.

If you're looking for something a little less pricey, the base $2,399 Surface Book with Performance Base is also a great choice. Although it has less RAM (8GB) — meaning it might slow down if you have a ton of files such as high-def videos or complex CAD drawings open at the same time — its overall performance is about the same as that of the $2,799 model.

Surface Studio for High-End Content Creators

If you are a high-end content creator, Microsoft has a new all-in-one you need to check out. It's called the Surface Studio, and it may be the ultimate digital creation station. It features a 28-inch 4500 x 3000 display with touch and stylus support, and what Microsoft is calling a Zero Gravity hinge. That means the PC can transform from a traditional desktop into an angled drafting table at a moment's notice, and with Microsoft's new Surface Dial, the company has more than just a stylus to help you work. While it's far from cheap, starting at $2,999, it takes the Surface family in a whole new direction, and it seems like a dream device for digital artists.

Author Bio
Sam Rutherford
Sam Rutherford,
Sam is a former penguin trainer and archery instructor who dabbles in esports and has lived on three different continents. If you have some comments on new tech or the best noodle spots in NYC, drop a line @SamRutherford.
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