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The Surface Go 3 is the latest entry-level member of Microsoft’s PC lineup, packing a full Windows 11 experience into a small tablet that can also transform into a laptop. But while the Go 3 is the cheapest Surface with a starting price of $399, it’s not necessarily a great value.

This tablet has a nice screen, a decent webcam and solid battery life, but its affordable price tag comes at the expense of some occasionally sluggish performance. And if you choose to upgrade it with a better processor and the keyboard necessary to make the Go 3 usable as a laptop, you’re veering into the same price ballpark as a premium notebook.

So who is the Surface Go 3 actually for? We spent nearly a week working, chatting and playing on Microsoft’s tiny 2-in-1 to figure out just that.

A super-portable Windows 2-in-1

The Microsoft Surface Go 3 packs a full Windows experience into a highly portable design, but its bogged down by subpar performance and pricey add-ons.

The who, what and how

Who it’s for: The Surface Go 3 is for someone who wants the portability of an iPad with the flexibility of a Windows 11 computer, and mostly needs something for web surfing and light work tasks.

What you need to know: The Go 3 is the smallest and cheapest member of the Surface family, with a lightweight tablet design that can transform into a mini laptop if you pick up a $129 Type Cover while also supporting the $99 Surface Pen for note-taking. It’s also one of the first devices to ship with Windows 11, which delivers a cleaner visual style and some handy new features for better multitasking and navigation.

How it compares: Microsoft’s mini Surface works well enough for everyday tasks, but it can slow down under a heavy load and isn’t quite as fast as the cheaper $329 iPad or the similarly priced $499 iPad Mini. If you’re willing to pay a little extra or prefer Android, the $649 Galaxy Tab S7 also offers stronger performance. The Go 3 has a great optional keyboard, a good webcam and decent battery life, but Apple’s and Samsung’s tablets last significantly longer on a charge.

A basic design and a great keyboard — that you’ll have to pay extra for

Mike Andronico/CNN

The Surface Go 3 doesn’t change much from previous generations in terms of design. It’s still a basic-looking 10-inch-wide tablet, with a built-in kickstand you can use to prop it up at various angles and a magnetic connector at the bottom that allows it to easily snap onto Microsoft’s various Type Cover keyboards.

There’s nothing fancy about this affordable PC, but its aluminum design feels sturdy and solid, and we like how little space it takes up in our bag. The Go 3 is pretty light on ports, with just a USB-C connection for accessories and adapters, a Surface Connect port for charging and a microSD slot tucked behind the kickstand. But hey, at least it has a headphone jack! That’s not something you can say about the new iPad Mini.

As with most other Surface products, you’ll need to connect one of Microsoft’s Type Cover keyboards to use the Go 3 as a proper laptop. The bad news is that they’re sold separately, starting at $99. The good news is that these keyboards are mostly great.

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The Surface Go Type Cover’s keys are satisfyingly deep and snappy, and we were happy to crunch away at work on them for hours at a time. We did find the keys to be a little small and crowded for our liking compared to the bigger Type Covers for the Surface Pro range. And like on other detachable Surface devices, the Go 3 works better on a desk (or other hard surface) than on your lap, as its top-heavy design can make it wobble when you’re using it on the latter.

Our Surface Go 3 shipped with a $129 Type Cover, which has the same attractive Ice Blue color and soft Alcantara fabric that we loved on the Surface Laptop 4. On top of adding a proper keyboard (and some extra style) to your Surface Go 3, these Type Covers also protect the device’s screen when they’re folded up, and we’d say they’re all but a necessity if you plan on picking this PC up. Fortunately, those upgrading from a previous Surface Go will be able to use their existing Type Cover.

A solid display with pen support — but ugh, those bezels

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The Surface Go 3 has a pretty nice-looking display with plenty of color and detail, but those chunky display bezels are starting to show their age — especially compared to the more immersive screen on the new Surface Pro 8.

Still, the tablet’s 10.5-inch, 1920 x 1280 display produced some strong colors, which was especially evident when we flipped through the vibrant blues, purples and yellows of Windows 11’s new desktop backgrounds. In the trailer for Marvel’s “Shang-Chi,” the film’s special effects popped and skin tones looked accurate, though we wish everything were just a little bit brighter.

We also like that the Go 3 retains Microsoft’s usual 3:2 aspect ratio, which results in a screen that’s a little bit taller than what you’ll see on similar devices and allows you to, say, see more of a spreadsheet or webpage without scrolling. It’s also a Gorilla Glass 3 display, which means it’s designed to withstand scratches or basic drops — though we’d still recommend getting a Type Cover.

Mike Andronico/CNN

The Go 3’s screen was also reliable for drawing and note-taking once we whipped out our Surface Pen ($99; microsoft.com). Our sloppy handwriting came through accurately on the tablet’s display, which made doodling in Paint and jotting down lists in Sticky Notes feel natural and responsive. We could even use our own handwriting to search for apps in the Start menu, which worked pretty reliably in our testing. And like on other Surface products, the Pen was easy to magnetically snap onto the side of the display once we were done sketching.

Thanks to some decent stereo speakers, the Go 3 is a reliable companion for binge-watching shows or casually listening to tunes. While it doesn’t get awfully loud, this 2-in-1 delivered satisfyingly crunchy sound when jamming to our favorite pop-punk tracks, and made dialogue easy to hear when watching movie clips.

We had no problem hearing a colleague during a work call, and while the Go 3’s microphones sounded a bit fuzzy in our voice recordings, they still allowed us to be heard clearly during a long meeting.

Enough performance for basic tasks, but not heavy multitasking

Mike Andronico/CNN

The Surface Go 3 mostly held up fine for our daily workflow, which consists of jumping between various Google Docs and other Chrome tabs while checking in on emails, Slack messages and Discord chats. However, the limits of our review unit’s modest Intel Core i3 processor and 8GB of RAM showed themselves pretty quickly, and we wouldn’t recommend this machine for anyone who needs to do anything more than basic web surfing, video streaming and light work tasks like email and word processing.

Microsoft’s tiny 2-in-1 slowed down for us on multiple occasions, particularly when it came to multitasking. Slack started moving glacially slow while we installed a program in the background, taking seconds to simply switch between different chats. There was also some occasional sluggishness when opening apps or swiping up to go into multitasking mode.

The majority of our work time with the Go 3 was fairly smooth, but there were just enough of these frustrating moments to give us pause. Microsoft’s detachable also trailed the cheaper $329 iPad by a notable margin on our benchmark tests, and fell way behind the scores we saw on the $499 iPad Mini and the $649 Galaxy Tab S7. On the Geekbench 5 test that measures overall performance, the Go 3’s benchmark scores were about half of what we got from the Galaxy Tab S7 — and nearly a third of what we saw from the latest iPad Mini.

What’s more concerning is that we tested an upgraded version of the Go 3, which starts with an even weaker Intel Pentium Gold 6500 processor and 4GB of RAM. We’d only suggest getting this version if all you’re doing is browsing the web and checking email.

Welcome to Windows 11

Microsoft

The Surface Go 3 is one of the first machines we’ve tested that ships with Windows 11, which brings a new look and features to Microsoft’s operating system. The biggest changes are in the aesthetics, with a centered taskbar, more colorful app icons and a set of beautiful new themes. These are joined by new backgrounds and widgets that make Windows look cleaner and — let’s just say it — more Mac-like overall.

There are also some useful new productivity tools, such as the ability to create multiple virtual desktops and enable focus modes to avoid distracting notifications (both of which also seem to be borrowed from Macs), as well as new options for snapping multiple apps together on-screen. You can check out our Windows 11 review for the full breakdown, but the TL;DR is that it’s a nice-looking visual revamp with some useful features, and those coming from Windows 10 will likely get acclimated pretty fast.

It’s worth noting that the Surface Go 3 ships with Windows 11 in S Mode, which is a streamlined version of Windows that only runs Microsoft apps such as Edge, Teams and Word. It’s designed to deliver more efficient performance and tighter security. However, unless you’re getting a Go 3 for someone who’s just going to browse on Edge or check their email every now and then, we’d recommend turning this off as soon as possible. That’s exactly what we had to do in order to use our go-to apps such as Slack, Chrome and Steam. Just note that once you switch out of S Mode, there’s no going back.

OK battery life and a surprisingly good webcam

Mike Andronico/CNN

The Surface Go has some decent endurance for the road, lasting through six and a half hours of continuous 4K video playback on our battery life test. That’s good enough for a cross-country flight and will get you through a large chunk of the workday unplugged, but it’s not quite the best we’ve tested in this range.

Apple’s latest tablets both lasted significantly longer, with the iPad enduring a strong nine hours and 45 minutes and the new iPad Mini going for an even better 10 hours and 45 minutes. We also got a stronger eight hours out of last year’s Intel Core M3-powered Surface Go 2, so we’re a bit disappointed to see a downgrade here.

The Surface Go 3’s webcam is very solid for the price — in the right lighting conditions, at least. The Go 3’s 1080p camera captured our skin tone accurately and picked up the finer details of our stubbly beard under natural light, though things quickly got dark and fuzzy when we moved to our dimmer living room. What’s more impressive is that this webcam supports Windows Hello for logging into the PC with just your face, a feature that worked consistently well. That’s one big advantage the Go 3 and other Windows PCs have over Apple’s devices, as Face ID unlocking is only available on the expensive iPad Pros that start at $799. Heck, even Macs don’t have it yet.

If you absolutely must take photos out in the wild with a tablet, just get an iPad. The Go 3’s rear-facing 8-megapixel camera is pretty unimpressive, capturing shots that made our sunny Queens skyline look blown out and pixelated.

Bottom line

Mike Andronico/CNN

There’s plenty to like about the Surface Go 3, and if you want something as travel-friendly as an iPad but with the flexibility and app selection of a fully featured Windows PC, it just might be for you. However, there are a number of drawbacks — and compelling alternatives — to keep in mind before you take the plunge.

The Go 3’s performance can be frustratingly slow at times, especially when you consider that the latest iPads whiz by it for a similar price. This Surface feels great to use as a miniature 2-in-1 laptop when you’ve got a Type Cover connected and a Surface Pen handy, but both of those accessories cost extra. The $399 starting price is enticing on paper, but when you factor in our model’s keyboard, pen and modest processor bump, you’re looking at a total cost of around $860.

This isn’t a Surface-exclusive problem, of course — the $329 iPad suddenly becomes a $587 purchase if you choose to add in an Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. But for not much more than the price of a tricked-out Surface Go 3, you can get a great $999 laptop like the Dell XPS 13 (our favorite Windows notebook), or even a $999 MacBook Air. Those seeking something cheap for basic work should also consider a Chromebook like the Galaxy Chromebook 2, which offers no-nonsense software and enough processing power for basic tasks.

With all of that in mind, the Surface Go 3 is best suited for folks who need a cheap, portable tablet for casual use or classwork — and specifically want Windows. Having Windows 11 out of the box is a nice touch, and you’ll enjoy a level of flexibility that one-ups iOS and Chrome devices in some key ways. Just be ready to pay extra for that keyboard.

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