Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Third time isn't quite the charm

Microsoft's Surface Go tries to bridge two worlds. Microsoft launched the Surface Go in 2018 as a cheap way to enjoy the 2-in-1 Surface experience. It's true three years later: The Surface Go 3 tablet, which Microsoft launched in September 2018, is a superbly-built tablet with a beautiful screen and strong kickstand. It feels amazing for a $400 device.
The truth is that the Surface Go 3 is more complex than you might think. A keyboard will cost you at least $100 more. The keyboard is essential, as Windows doesn't provide a great tablet experience. The basic $400 Surface Go 3 doesn't have enough power so you will spend twice as much on a keyboard, RAM, storage, and processor than you would on a full-featured laptop with a bigger display and more powerful internals.

The review unit was equipped with a 10th-generation Intel Core i3-10100Y CPU, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The configuration comes at $630. This does not include the $130 Alcantara-clad Type Cover or $100 Surface pen Microsoft sent. It is small but powerful, making it an ideal travel companion. However, if you're going to spend $860 on the kit I tested, you need to know exactly what it is you'd do with it.

We reviewed the Surface Go 2 last spring and found it almost identical to the original version with one notable exception: a larger screen. I'm pretty certain that the external hardware is identical this time. Surface Go 3 weighs exactly the same as its predecessor and has the exact same 10.5-inch display (1,920 x 1,280 touchscreen).

The Surface Go 3 is an excellently designed and built device. Although I haven't used any of the Surface devices before, Microsoft's reputation for making thoughtful hardware is well-deserved. The screen is sharp, colorful and bright with excellent viewing angles. The screen's 3:2 aspect ratio is very appealing. A 16:9 panel would be too cramped for vertical space.

Nathan Ingraham/ Engadget

I love the kickstand, which can be adjusted infinitely. Although I'm not a visual artist, the fact that you can move the kickstand almost all the way around to prop the tablet up for drawing is a great design decision. The Surface Pen magnetically snaps to one side for easy access to the pen is also very useful. It makes me want to draw.

The Surface Go 3 has just a handful of buttons and ports, as before. On one side, you'll find a USB-C port as well as a headphone socket and Microsoft's charging port. You can use the USB C port to charge faster (as well any peripherals) and you can also use cables that you already own instead of the slower charger. The tablet's top features include a volume and power knob, as well as an 8-megapixel camera. The display has two stereo speakers, and a 5-megapixel front-facing cam with 1080p resolution for video calling. You can also use Windows Hello to unlock your face. You will also find a Micro SDXC reader under the kickstand, but it is best to search for it.

Nathan Ingraham/ Engadget

Microsoft's new Surface tablets are met with questions about whether Windows can be used for touchscreen use. The Surface Go 3 tablet is beautiful, despite not having Windows 11 as a platform. Its 3:2 aspect ratio allows it to work well in landscape or portrait mode. It weighs in at 1.2 lbs, which is slightly more than an iPad. However, it's not too heavy to be uncomfortable holding.

Surface buyers are advised to use a keyboard with their device. I spent almost all of my time with the Type Cover on the Go 3. Although it is unchanged from the last year's version, that's okay because Microsoft's Surface keyboards are amazing. It was small and felt cramped at first. But, after adjusting my hands, it became much more comfortable.

The keys are well-travelled and feel solid, despite being covered in Type Covers. Although the touchpad is small, it works well enough. However, I don't find it useful enough to be used for long periods of time. A Bluetooth mouse was more convenient for me when I was using my Go 3 at work.

Nathan Ingraham/ Engadget

The Type Cover is just over half a pound in weight, making the total tablet and keyboard cover a little less than two pounds. The overall design of the Surface Go 3 has not changed. However, its keyboard cover and tablet are very compact and well-designed. It is rare to find a device that delivers the full Windows experience in such an easily portable package.

As with previous Surface Go models, you are trading portability in exchange for speed. Although the Core i3 that powers the $630 Go3 I have been testing is sufficient for basic tasks, you will be disappointed if youre trying to push it too far. My workflow is quite simple. I mainly use Edge to review the product, and also use apps like Trello, Slack and Todoist. To get the full Windows experience, I also wrote this review using Word. The Surface Go 3 performed well in these tasks. However, I experienced occasional music stutters, and tabs sometimes had to be reloaded after I had been away from them for more that a few minutes.

Sometimes things went wrong. Although the Surface Go 3 ran Adobe Lightroom well, it was slow to navigate through the interface. The UI elements and photos took a long time to load. It was also slow if it was open with other programs. It was more common for browser tabs to reload and it took longer to open or switch between apps. Although Lightroom's performance was good, exporting an RAW file to JPG took too long. I used my MacBook Pro for most of the photo editing and exporting. A single image exported took approximately 10 seconds on my Mac, while it took a few seconds on my Mac.

Nathan Ingraham/ Engadget

You'll be surprised to learn that video calls can also cause serious performance problems. While I was participating in a Google Meetup with co-workers, switching between Slack and that was slow. Slack also had to refresh completely as if it was just opening. Slack performance on this machine was poor. It took a while to switch between channels and conversations, which caused noticeable delays. I'm willing to take some blame for this on Google, and especially Slack because Slack’s Windows app is terrible. However, not all of it. This sums up my Surface Go 3 experience. I found that sometimes it was necessary to wait for things to catch up.

My impressions were confirmed by running our regular suite of Windows benchmarks. According to Geekbench 5, and PCMark10 the new Core i3 CPU is almost identical to its predecessor, the m3. This is a reminder that Intel doesn't yet have the perfect solution for small devices. The Apple $330 iPad I recently reviewed hit 1,336 (single core) and 3,349 (multicore) on Geekbench 5. This is in contrast to the 859/1.450 I received running it on the Surface Go.

GeekBench 5 CPU Mark 10 3DMark (Night Raid), ATTO (Top Reads/Writes) Microsoft Surface Go 3 (3Core i3-10100Y Intel UHD), 859 / 1,450 2,601 2.637 1.65GB/s 808 MB/s Microsoft Surface Go 2 (2Core m3-8100Y Intel UHD), 800 / 1,590 2,737 2,637 3.26GB/s 893 MB/s Microsoft Surface Go 2 (4Core i3-1115G4, AMD Radeon, AMD Radeon, AMD Radeon, AMD Radeon, AMD Radeon) 730

Also, the battery situation is a bit disappointing. The Surface Go 3 was able to run for about five hours on normal use. This is a good result considering the low-powered processor. The Go's portability is also less important, as you won't be able to leave the charger behind for the entire day.

Even more concerning than the poor battery life is the time it takes to charge the device. While I was doing benchmarks with the Surface charger, it took three hours to charge my Go from 50 percent to 100 percent. Although it charges quicker when the device is asleep, I was still shocked by how long the included charger took to charge the Go, even though the device is not in use. I reached out to Microsoft to learn more about the charging issues and will update this review as soon as I find out.

Nathan Ingraham/ Engadget

Although benchmarks don't tell the whole story, they can give you an idea of what to expect from the Surface Go 3. The Go 3 could be used as a second computer or companion to a more powerful Windows desktop. I would be happy to take the Go 3 along with me on an hour-long train ride to check my email, write a bit, and manage my to-do list if I was still commuter. It could be a great companion for running around at E3 or CES. However, I would probably tire of writing on the tiny screen.

The Type Cover costs $630 plus $100 more. This is quite a steep price for a device that feels slow and cramped. You could get a better Windows laptop for that amount of money. Apple's iPad is a great choice for secondary computing devices. It has an OS designed for tablets and is far more responsive than the Surface Go 3. There are many keyboard covers available to help you get real work done.

If you are a visual artist, the value calculation does change. The Surface Pen doesn't really suit me as I don't have any drawing skills. It is a great stylus and I can see artists who use Windows embracing the Go 3 as a portable drawing device that can be used as a full-fledged PC when needed. An iPad has more app support than an iPad for artists who use a stylus.

Nathan Ingraham/ Engadget

The biggest problem with the Surface Go 3? It isn't much different from the Go 2 nearly a year ago. Although the design is good, performance and battery life have remained essentially the same despite the new chip. I wouldn't recommend anyone to buy a Surface Go 3 with Pentium Gold processor. It feels like the low-end model is there so Microsoft can claim it sells a $400 tablet.

The Surface Go 3 is a small Windows device that can do a lot of useful things, but you'll have to pay a premium for portability. The price is outrageous for the performance ratio. It's a good choice for Windows fans, as it can be used for casual work or when you need something very portable. There are few comparable Windows devices, and the hardware's design and build quality remain outstanding. Make sure to get the Type Cover. Don't expect too much from tablet mode, and don't be afraid to use multiple apps.

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