Surface Go 3: A lateral upgrade for Microsoft’s uniquely affordable tablet
If you’re in the market for Microsoft’s Surface Go 3, consider the Surface Go 2, too.
Microsoft touts its 10.5-inch Surface Go 3 tablet as its most mobile Surface. While that’s definitely true, what else does the new Surface Go 3 have to offer? A small processor bump, Windows 11, and—well, that’s about it.
The Surface Go 3 is essentially the same device as the Surface Go 2. We don’t consider Windows 11 to be necessarily worth the upgrade ( fave.co/3cdEtj3), which robs the Surface Go 3 of its appeal. As for the processor upgrade—yes, there’s now a 10th-gen Core i3 option, but it doesn’t really move the needle performance-wise.
BASIC FEATURES AND CONFIGURATIONS
Microsoft’s Surface Go 3 is available in three configurations, ranging from $399.99 on up
to $629.99, which is the price of our review unit. We wouldn’t recommend the $399.99 base model (with a Pentium Gold 6500Y, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage) because the 4GB of memory isn’t sufficient for running multiple apps. The other configurations, including a midrange version (Pentium Gold 6500Y/8GB RAM/128GB SSD: $549.99) and a premium offering (Intel Core I3/8GB RAM/128GB SSD: $629.99), round out the offerings.
The Surface Go 3 is unique because there aren’t many small, inexpensive Windows tablets vying for your wallet. Otherwise, the Go 3 is priced similarly to Microsoft’s budget clamshell laptop, the Surface Laptop Go ( fave.co/3sbM4Yk), which also has a $549.99 discounted version that includes a Core i5-1035g1 with 8GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. The Laptop Go’s screen is a definite step down, however.
Unlike the prior Surface Go 2, the current version of the Surface Go 3 consumer version doesn’t ship with cellular options. It’s a somewhat odd omission, though our Go 2 review ( fave.co/2Z2lrIY) indicated that its cellular reception was spotty. Microsoft reserved the LTE option for what it calls the Surface Go 3 for
Business ( fave.co/3pYKDKl), which ships in both a $499.99 (Core I3/4GB RAM/64GB SSD) and a $679.99 (Core I3/8GB RAM/128GB SSD) configuration, each with an LTE SIM tray that the consumer version lacks. The Business configuration also allows you to chose either Windows 10 Pro or Windows 11 Pro, an odd choice given the optional 4GB RAM configuration.
Unlike the Surface Pro 8 ( fave.co/31UYlG9), the Surface Go’s Type Cover has not been redesigned to accommodate the Surface Slim Pen 2 ( fave.co/3FesjD6). And yes, you still have to buy the keyboard separately. The Type Cover’s prices range from $59.99 to $129.99, depending on color and available discounts. For inking, there’s the older $99.99 Surface Pen. Unfortunately, there’s no pen loop to secure the pen with the Go 3, though the side of the tablet is magnetized to help keep the
pen in place when it’s not in use.
Processor: Intel Pentium Gold 6500Y, Core i3-10100y (Core i3 as tested)
Display: 10.5-inch Pixelsense (1920×1280, 220 PPI)
Memory: 4GB/8GB LPDDR3 (8GB as tested)
Storage: 64GB (EMMC)/128GB (SSD) (128GB as tested)
Graphics: UHD Graphics 615
Ports: USB-C (5Gbps), Surface Connect, microsdxc, Surface Connect, Surface Type Cover
Security: Windows Hello depth camera
Camera: User-facing, 5.0Mpixel (1080p video); rear-facing, 8.0MP (1080p video)
Battery: 26.8Wh (design), 26.0Wh (full)
Wireless: Wi-fi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.0
Operating system: Windows 11 Home in S Mode
Dimensions: 9.65×6.9×0.33 in. (8.3mm)
Weight: 1.2 pounds (without keyboard)
Prices: $399.99 on up, $629.99 as tested ( fave.co/3F29inF)
Optional accessories: Surface Go Type Cover ( fave.co/3DZSwnO) ($84.99 to $129.99 MSRP), Surface Pen ( fave.co/3IYkrIf) ($99.99)
The Surface Go 3 looks physically identical to its predecessor, with slightly thinner bezels than the original to accommodate the 10.5-inch, 1920×1280 Pixelsense display. Microsoft typically uses the chunky bezels as landing pads for your fingers and thumbs. It seems they’ve dimmed the display a bit, however, as we recorded a maximum brightness of 374 nits as opposed to the Go 2’s 483 nits. Like its predecessors, the Go 3 does away with the fan as well as the vents, letting the magnesium chassis passively radiate any heat that the tablet generates.
Out of the box, the most significant change to the Surface Go 3 involves the
transition to Windows 11, specifically the addition of Windows 11 Home in S Mode. This means two different things. First, setup involves stepping through the soothing sequence of introductions as described in our Windows 11 review ( fave.co/3cdEtj3). Secondly, Windows 11 Home in S Mode handcuffs you by restricting apps to the Microsoft Store, as Windows 10 S (Windows 10 Home in S Mode [ fave.co/3edGAV7]) did.
This restriction helps secure the PC by ensuring you’ll only download apps that Microsoft has nominally vetted. But if you want to, for example, download a third-party browser like Google Chrome, you can’t. We also have yet to see the tangible upgrades in the performance and battery life that Microsoft originally promised with S Mode. All this means is that I quickly switched out of Windows 11 in S Mode ( fave.co/3Fet8fa) for the “real” Windows 11 Home, which took a minute or two.
MICROSOFT’S MOBILE EXPERIENCE
Using the Surface Go 3 feels more like a mobile experience than a typical tablet or laptop (even during a pandemic). Windows 11’s updated tablet experience simply adds a small software-based keyboard to the user interface when the keyboard is undocked, which allows you to freely wander about the house. The Go 3’s narrow display bezels are about a finger’s width apart, and the compact dimensions make it uniquely suited to using it as a traditional tablet.
You can use the Go 3 while seated at a desk or you can easily throw it into a backpack. However, I found it much easier to use at a desk than on my lap, like previous Surface Go devices. One part on the Type Cover’s dual hinge holds fast onto the tablet, preventing the keyboard from flipping backward and out of your lap. But the secondary hinge detaches easily, flopping the keyboard down into a flat (and uncomfortable) orientation. To be fair, the Go’s size does allow working under cramped conditions such as on a train’s pull-down table.
Consuming as well as creating digital content, however, has its wrinkles. For one, the Surface Go 3 hasn’t yet migrated to using Thunderbolt, which means you’ll still need to use either the Surface Dock ( fave.co/3GFUsUa) (or the newer, pricier Surface Dock 2 [ fave.co/3EX9sfT]) to connect to an external display. The Surface Go can also connect via a USB-C dongle to an external display, to a single 1080p display, or to a 4K monitor running at 30 Hz.
KEYBOARD, AUDIO, AND WEBCAM: A DECENT VALUE
The Surface Go 3’s keyboard remains unchanged from the Surface Go 2, so my opinion hasn’t changed either. A small tablet means a small keyboard, one that’s tolerable (though a bit uncomfortable) to type on for long periods of time. The keyboard’s key travel remains at a shallow 1mm, with less key travel than some of the other excellent keyboards within the Surface lineup. A child’s fingers may be small enough to type comfortably on the keys, but adults won’t really enjoy it.
As for the audio, the tablet features a pair of front-facing 2W stereo speakers enhanced by Dolby Audio. It offers a satisfactory (even good) audio experience. While Microsoft has dialed down the blaring speaker volume from the Surface Go, it offers a solid mix of high-end and midrange audio. I never felt the need to plug a pair of earbuds into the headphone jack, which is one of the
higher compliments that you can give a laptop or tablet.
The front-facing 5.0Mpixel webcam continues to provide decent color saturation and lighting, though without the new lighting and color sensors added to the Surface Pro 8. With the easy migration of photos between smartphones and PCS, the rear-facing camera seems less necessary with each passing generation of devices. But the Go’s small size makes snapping a photo less awkward than it is with larger tablets, and the 8Mpixel resolution is plenty sufficient for capturing documents and well-lit scenes.
The Go also features dual far-field mics. However, the importance of such mics has diminished significantly as Microsoft has eased away from an environment where users are expected to call across the room to Windows’ built-in Cortana assistant.
Still, there’s certainly something to be said for a video-friendly tablet. My youngest son uses a Windows laptop for remote schooling and a tablet for video chatting with his friends, and the Surface Go 3 combines the two.
Inking isn’t particularly impressive. I tried inking with the Surface Slim Pen and there’s noticeable line offset and significant jitter (a wavy motion) when moving the pen at a diagonal. The Go 3 is fine for casual drawing, but nothing more.
PERFORMANCE: NOT MUCH IMPROVEMENT
We tested the Surface Go 3 using our standard benchmarks and real-world tests. The Go 3 streamed a 4K/60 Youtube video without dropping a frame. Youtube scales video to the size of the display it detects, however, so the tablet was essentially downloading a 720p video and upscaling it. When we connected to a 4K display, it appeared to drop about 40 percent of its frames before Youtube dialed back the resolution to 1080p, which streamed flawlessly.
We didn’t try any games with the Go 3, but it performed fairly typical tasks
like web browsing, Zoom and Teams, and streaming video. Be mindful that anything under 8GB of RAM may limit the number of tabs you can have open at any one time and the number of apps you can run simultaneously.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Microsoft ships many of its recent Surface tablets and notebooks with performance turned down to minimal levels to maximize battery life. We adjusted the Windows 11 power mode ( fave.co/3DOnyiE) to “best performance” to see if the tablet ran any faster. It did, but only by about 6 percent at most—adjusting the power and performance levels certainly won’t transform a Surface Go 3 into a speed demon. It will, however, help elevate performance above that of the Surface Go 2 in some cases.
Otherwise, we run four performance tests: Pcmark 10, Cinebench R15, Handbrake, and 3Dmark. Most of these are geared at higherperforming mainstream laptops like the Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable ( fave.co/3vvGcJq), the Lenovo Thinkpad X12 Detachable Gen 1 ( fave.co/3AZn9rY), the Microsoft Surface Pro 7+ ( fave.co/3C0zXPZ), and the new Surface Pro 8( fave.co/3p17W75). While understanding how the Surface Go 3 compares to those tablets is useful, it’s perhaps more illustrative to see how far the tablet has progressed from the secondgeneration Surface Go 2 instead. We’ve highlighted the Go 2 in orange.
UL’S Pcmark10 benchmark puts the tablet through a variety of tasks like web browsing, light gaming, CAD work, video editing, and more. It’s a solid measure of how well the Surface Go 3 will fare in day-today work. Here, we found that the Go 3’s performance dipped by about 2 percent. With the power mode’s performance setting turned up to best performance, the Go 3 records a score of 2,804.
The older Cinebench R15 test measures how well the Surface Go 3 performs with all of its cores and threads in active use. Unfortunately, any application that can take
full advantage of all the laptop’s cores and threads will see more benefit from a six-core or eight-core processor rather than the two-core four-thread Core i3-10100y. Remember, we’re testing the top-of-the-line version of the Surface Go 3.
What’s interesting is that we’re seeing the older Surface Go 2 report higher scores than the Surface Go 3, in both multithreaded applications as well as single-threaded applications (126 to 119). If you do buy the Go 3, consider adjusting the power mode upwards. In “Best performance” mode, it reported a multithreaded score of 260, and a single-threaded score of 132.
We used Handbrake, which is an opensource transcoding tool, as a prolonged stress test of the processor. Using this tool, we converted video from its native format down to a lower-resolution format for playing back on a tablet. The test typically lasts over an hour. Can the fanless Surface
Go 3 keep up with more powerful tablets? Our results say no, not really. We found that in performance mode, the time required to perform the task dipped 3 percent to 7,847 seconds.
Our final test uses the 3Dmark Time Spy benchmark. It’s futile to test the Surface Go 3 as a gaming tablet, but we’ve provided the numbers for reference. It’s important to note that the Go 3 and the Go 2 use the same GPU. Only the CPU has changed between the two products. At maximum performance, the 3Dmark score increased 6 percent to 385.
Since the Go 3 uses approximately the same amount of battery capacity as its predecessors, we expected similar battery life. We weren’t disappointed. It still provides slightly less than eight hours of battery life, meaning that you’ll need to tote along the charger to keep it running through a full day’s work.
At some point we may ask our colleagues at Macworld to help compare the ipad, the Surface Go 3, and an Android tablet. For
now, we’re comfortable in advising you to select whatever OS suits your fancy. You probably shouldn’t be choosing a Surface Go 3—or an ipad—for performance, but rather for the convenience and portability factor.
There’s a reason you’ll often see Microsoft’s Surface Go 3 accompanied by photos of kids and business travelers—this is very much a niche product.
There’s an unexpected secondary option, too. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Surface Go 2 over the newest Surface Go 3, but we can see why you might consider it. With comparable performance plus an available LTE consumer option (and Windows 10, if you prefer the older operating system), an older, discounted Surface Go 2 might offer more value. Officially, the MSRP for both the Go 2 and the Go 3 are about the same.
Put simply, there’s little reason to buy the Surface Go 3 over the Surface Go 2, though buying a new PC means that it will still be covered under the Go 3’s one-year limited hardware warranty. Otherwise, we’d recommend you use our pricing tool just above and explore your Go 2 options if Microsoft’s small portable tablet is your first choice. The Surface Go 3 simply doesn’t differentiate itself enough from last year’s model to justify much excitement.