Microsoft Dominates the Portable Market with Smart and Stylish 2-in-1s


I have been a fan of the Microsoft Surface since the original Surface RT released, in 2012, and although that version turned out to be quickly eclipsed by more powerful and better constructed devices in the rapidly changing tablet market, the subsequent Surface Pro series got the whole tablet-hybrid-2-in-1 craze right. Microsoft Surface devices married form and functionality so expertly that they rapidly gained market share. Apparently, the consumer market was desperately waiting for something that was small, lightweight, and easy to convert from a tablet into a sort-of-laptop, which also helped Apple and the iPad dominate for years. As the Surface line developed, it went from pseudo to full-fledged laptop replacement with more powerful processors and the ubiquitous Type Cover accessory.

We’ve finally been able to gather all the newest Surface devices in one room, and get a better handle on what each of these products is best suited for, and to help you choose which Surface device more closely fits your needs. There’s a great deal of information out there right now, and as deals get better and better and prices are discounted more and more during the holiday season, we want to help you cut through the clutter and pick the right Surface.

But first, let’s answer the question: why a Surface at all? Why not choose any number of the other competitors? Quite simply, it’s a matter of personal taste, but I have come to discover that the Surface provides exactly what we wanted portable 2-in-1 devices to do for us when we first envisioned them years ago. They are light, so there’s less of a strain on your shoulders when lugging them around (and although you will find similar portables as light or lighter, these are still best-in-class for portables). They are simple to use—power them on and you’re up and running in less than five minutes, which again, you may find in other ultra-portables, but the whole design of Surface products are plug-and-play simple. And they are unobtrusive and aesthetically pleasing while being affordable.

We’ll start by identifying three use categories that make the most sense for a large swath of consumers. Microsoft has introduced a range of players in the Surface family that suit a wide variety of uses, but these three effectively show what each can attain, and where each may face limitations.


PRODUCTS: Surface Go

MEANT FOR: Casual use, web surfing, note-taking

MARKET: First time users, non-techies, entertainment

SELLING POINT: Light, tablet-centric, ease of use, wallet friendly

NOT FOR: High-end graphics, gaming, heavy multitasking

At its core, the Surface has always maintained its hybrid roots by essentially giving you a tablet, or a 2-in-1 that can function as both tablet and pseudo-laptop, or a laptop that can easily be detached for even more flexibility. The original Surface RT definitely fell into that tablet category, as did the Surface 3. These were basically tablets that could be attached to a Type Cover for a faux-laptop feel. But they were easily eclipsed by more powerful tablets in their early days, while Microsoft moved on to the Surface Pro iterations. This year, however, Microsoft went back to its roots and released the Surface Go, which brought back the compact 10" form factor, but added a much more powerful 1.6 GHz Intel® Pentium 4415Y Dual-Core™ processor and a brighter, denser 216 ppi 1800 x 1200 screen resolution (as opposed to the Tegra 3 processor and 1368 x 768 screen of the Surface RT). Although the processor is not as powerful as the Intel Core series of later Surface Pro models, it is still pretty powerful for a tablet, and can handle lots of web surfing, movie watching, and other day-to-day activities like reading PDFs, listening to music, and even intuitive note-taking (with an optional Surface Pen). In other words, this is a great starter tablet for people who aren’t looking for serious muscle under the hood.

Microsoft Surface Go 10" 128GB Multi-Touch Tablet

The Surface Go uses a modified Windows OS called Windows 10 S (think of it as a vending machine for the Windows Store). While there were some initial complaints about the scaled-back version of Windows, it is perfectly suitable for the tasks mentioned above. When paired with a Surface Go Signature Type Cover or Bluetooth keyboard, the Surface Go becomes the little engine that could, and it comes in price configurations far less than similar tablets in its class.

Microsoft Surface Go Type Cover

Where you don’t want to go with the Go is to any place that is graphically taxing. The integrated Intel Graphics HD 615 won’t be winning any races power-wise, so forget about playing Fortnite or PUBG (although Minecraft worked okay).


PRODUCTS: Surface Laptop 2, Surface Pro 6

MEANT FOR: Productivity (Microsoft Office suite), some post-production work

MARKET: Serious Windows users, designers, general laptop users

SELLING POINT: Light, powerful

NOT FOR: High-end Gaming

Next up on the roster are Microsoft’s two mid-tier offerings, the Surface Laptop 2 and the Surface Pro 6. The Surface Laptop 2 is exactly what is says it is, a credible laptop with added power over its predecessor, and worthy Surface-like credentials overall. As a matter of fact, the Surface Laptop 2 is definitely one of the best laptops of 2018: light, powerful, and productive. It uses powerful 8th-Gen Intel Core quad-core processors, has a longer battery life than the last model, and sports an impressive 13.5" 2256 x 1504 PixelSense touchscreen.

Microsoft 13.5" Multi-Touch Surface Laptop 2

What it doesn’t have is a 2-in-1 design. This is a traditional clamshell laptop, not a two-piece hybrid. However, for those not looking for that distinctive hybrid look and feel, the Surface Laptop 2 sits squarely in the middle of the Surface Pro 6 and the Surface Book 2. It’s a laptop for users who need a solid laptop that can handle multi-tasking, including heavy web use, word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation programs.

The other thing it doesn’t have is a powerful graphics processor, so again, high-end gaming is pretty much off the list. We reiterate, this isn’t aimed at the gaming market, or even the casual user market, but rather at serious users who need power and not a lot of flash. Is this the replacement laptop for your office staff? Yes. Is it something you’re taking to a LAN party? No. We should also mention that another point of contention for this basic but buffed workhorse is that it lacks USB Type-C and Thunderbolt™ options in the ports, but that might be something else you are willing to sacrifice while still getting a premium laptop.

Microsoft 12.3" Multi-Touch Surface Pro 6

The Surface Pro 6, on the other hand, makes up for any portability issues of the Surface Laptop 2. It also uses 8th-Gen Intel Core quad-core processors for speed and performance upgrades from previous Surface Pro models, and shows off a 12.3" PixelSense 10-Point touchscreen with 2736 x 1824 resolution (267 ppi). With an optional Surface Type Cover, it’s the complete package, transforming into a credible and hardworking fully functional laptop, on par with the Surface Laptop 2. Although it isn’t such a stellar leap from the Surface Pro 4 (which I have had and have been using every day since it came out in October 2015), it is my number one choice if you’re looking for a new laptop.

The Surface 2-in-1 design works perfectly with the Surface Pro 6, which turns into a tablet in a snap and, as a tablet, with an optional Surface Pen, the Surface Pro 6 becomes something else—a credible design interface that rivals the iPad for form and functionality. You can easily let your imagination run wild with a Surface Pro 6. Even its design is made for one-handed operation, turning it from a mobile studio into a sketchpad with one click. ­­­­­­­­It makes things like photo editing, audio editing, and even some video post-production intuitive and instinctual. You can read more about the ways that the Surface works with video post-production here and, for photos, here.


PRODUCTS: Surface Book 2

MEANT FOR: Designers, artists

MARKET: Creatives, gamers

SELLING POINT: Aesthetics, graphics power

NOT FOR: Casual users

When we get to the level of the 15" Surface Book 2, you know you’ve reached the apogee of the Surface line. Your first indication is that these units (in most configurations) contain high-end GPUs, allowing you to finally flex your graphic gaming wings. The other indication is that it lacks the extreme slimness and portability of the rest of the line—the Surface Book 2 weighs almost four and a half pounds. Even so, the Surface Book 2 is still technically a 2-in-1 with a detachable screen but, for once, that hybrid option doesn’t work as optimally as you think when you realize you’re wrestling with a 15" tablet.

But make no mistake. The Surface Book 2 is not made to be cute and convenient—it’s made to work, and in the case of the Surface Book 2, it works extremely well as a top-tier graphics workstation. With the highest-end configurations sporting an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 GPU with 6GB of GDDR5 VRAM, there is very little this powerhouse can’t do visually. There’s even a separate battery housed in the keyboard for a whopping 17 hours of run time (your experience may vary).

Microsoft 15" Surface Book 2 Multi-Touch 2-in-1 Laptop

But the premium comes at a reasonably hefty price, which might scare some away. I must be honest with you: it’s worth the price if you’re in the market for a premium laptop. Previously, I had executed all my design work on a similarly configured MacBook Pro, but when I got my hands on the Surface Book 2, it was a game changer. Besides the upgraded 8th-Gen Intel Core processors, I also had to consider what I think is a better screen (the Surface Book 2 has a 15" 3240 x 2160 PixelSense touchscreen display, which works flawlessly with the optional Surface Pen, which the MacBook Pro can’t match), and while my MacBook Pro had four (count ’em – four!) Thunderbolt™ 3 ports, the Surface Book finally opted for a USB Type-C port, which will greatly help with my peripheral options.

But the real deciding factor was the better graphics option for gaming. The GTX 1060 was better than the Radeon Pro GPU in my MacBook for running my favorite games, so I could finally play to my heart’s content without blowing out my fan. Also important: battery life was better, as was keyboard feel and travel.

If you’re not a fan of the Windows OS, stick to your MacBook Pro. It’s a decade’s-old argument now, that can’t be resolved by talking about it, only by using it and discovering for yourself which is better for you and your personal tastes. But at the end of the day, the Surface Book 2 proves to be a more powerful laptop.

So, there you have it: the various levels of Surface for you. Whether a casual user, productivity scion, or creative professional, the Microsoft Surface line of products has something for almost everyone. I was very lucky to have been able to get my hands on all of them at once (thanks, B&H), but it didn’t change my opinion much. For the time being, I still love (and use) my Surface Pro 4, but I would definitely upgrade to the Surface Book 2 so that I could enjoy everything that the Surface has to offer. What about you? Let us know what your scenario involves, and maybe we can get back to you with some suggestions for which Surface fits your needs. No matter what you do, one of these will scratch the Surface.


Are you sure you meant "nadir" as in "Lowest point, lowest level, all-time low, bottom, rock-bottom"?

Boy, is my face red. This one slipped past me during the copy edit. I read only about 1,764,000 words of marketing copy each year, so this is embarrassing. 

However, I have fixed the error. We did not mean the very bottom. We meant the very top--the apex, the apogee, the crest, summit, zenith, acme. Well, you get it.

Thanks for the eagle eye.