A still-impressive design is undermined by a puny entry-level CPU that is barely fit for purpose
- Excellent display
- Very good speakers
- Top-quality webcam
- Thick screen bezels
- Keyboard a costly extra
- Pentium models underpowered
Despite all of Microsoft’s efforts, and some quite nice hardware along the way, its Surface products haven’t made the impact on the tablet market it would have liked.
Even its cheapest tablet, the Surface Go, has failed to make an impact on Apple’s dominance in this area, so the latest model – the Microsoft Surface Go 3 – has its work cut out.
Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: What you need to know
The Surface Go 3 is essentially a warm-over of the Surface Go 2. Internally, the entry-level Pentium Gold 4425Y processor has been replaced with a Pentium Gold 6500Y chip, while the more expensive model has had its Core m3-8100Y heart replaced with a 10th-gen Core i3-10100Y chip.
New chips aside, Surface Go is still the cheapest, smallest and lightest way you can experience a full-fat Windows machine from Microsoft. The Surface Go 2 came loaded with Windows 10S, a restricted version of Windows 10 that only let users install apps from the Windows Store, but you could easily unlock it to run third-party x86 programmes. There is no S version of Windows 11 so you get the full Windows experience with the Surface Go 3 out of the box.
Before we get into the meat of things, a word needs to be said about Windows 11. Microsoft has been beating a retreat from Windows as a touch-optimised OS for a while. With Windows 8, touch was to the fore. In Windows 10 it was an option. In Windows 11 the old “Metro” tile interface has finally been killed off. That leaves the Go 3 with an interface that is frankly only a little more touch-optimised than Windows 8 and nowhere near as finger-friendly as iOS or Android.
Granted, Android apps are coming to Windows 11 via the Amazon Appstore but, at the time of writing, it’s a feature restricted to Dev and Beta channel users in the USA and, as any Fire tablet user will tell you, having the Amazon app store on your device is not the same as having the Google Play Store.
Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Price and competition
The Microsoft Surface Go 3 starts at £369, but that only gets you the bare minimum specification: a Pentium model with 4GB of RAM and a very restrictive and slow 64GB of eMMC storage. To get 128GB of SSD storage and 8GB of RAM you’ll need to spend £499, and if you want the more powerful 10th generation Core i3 version, again with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM, then be prepared to part with £569.
Add a Go Type keyboard and that adds a further £99 for the basic black version or £125 for the Alcantara. Want the Surface Pen too? That’ll be another £99.
You don’t need a calculator to work out that to get the package you really want you’ll need to cough up almost £800. That’s quite a lot of money for a small Windows tablet with a fairly underpowered CPU. For review, Microsoft sent me the mid-range 128GB Pentium Gold model with a Platinum Alcantara keyboard but no stylus.
What of the competition? For £618 you can buy a 256GB Apple iPad with a higher resolution, albeit slightly smaller 10.2in, 2,160 x 1,620 display and the matching Smart Keyboard. That’s better value than the equivalent Surface Go 3 package because it comes with double the storage. With all the core Microsoft apps like Teams, OneDrive and Office available for iPadOS, it can do pretty much anything the Surface Go 3 can and comes with access to an unparalleled selection of tablet-optimised apps.
Much the same is true for the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+, which packs in a 12.4in OLED display, again with a 2,160 x 1,620 resolution, a 5G modem and 128GB of storage for £559. The matching keyboard cover will set you back £139, the pen a dirt-cheap £45. Android has never had the selection of tablet-tuned apps that iPadOS has, but an increasing number no longer just look like scaled-up phone apps.
If you must have a Microsoft machine and are prepared to forgo the tablet form factor, the £529 Surface Laptop Go has much to recommend it. Like the Surface Go 3, the Laptop Go has a 3:2 touchscreen but, far more importantly, it runs on a 10th generation Core i5 processor and, while this is no speed merchant, it at least gives a decent day-to-day level of performance.
Finally, if all you want is Windows 11 and a touchscreen, take a look at the HP Pavilion 14. Granted the display is a bit drab and there’s no keyboard backlight, but performance is good thanks to an 11th generation Core i5 processor, and it’s solid value. Right now, HP is selling the “360” version, which folds back on itself to form a tablet, for just £749.
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Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Design and build quality
Externally the Surface Go 3 is indistinguishable from the Surface Go 2. It’s the same size (245 x 175 x 8.3mm) and weight (544g) and uses the same 10.5in, 1,920 x 1,080 IPS screen. The solid magnesium body, any angle kickstand and limited selection of ports are also carried over.
You could argue nothing needed changing, and the kickstand remains a brilliant piece of design and engineering, but the screen bezels, which measure 13mm at the top and 12mm at the sides, are wide by modern standards. External controls are still limited to a volume rocker and power button on the top left of the device.
For ports, you have to make do with a single Type-C 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbits/sec) port that supports DisplayPort but not Thunderbolt, a 3.5mm audio jack and the bespoke Surface Connect port. The latter can be used to connect a selection of Microsoft accessories, including the excellent but costly Surface Dock 2 (£260), which adds enough connectors to shame most high-end business laptops. If you want to boost storage – and if you’ve bought the 64GB model you will want to – there is a microSD card slot hidden behind the kickstand.
I’ve never fully understood why people get so excited about the fact that you can magnetically attach the Go Stylus to the left side of the Surface Go and charge it conductively. I want somewhere I can store my stylus while in transit more than somewhere to put it while I’m actually working. Anyway, this is still a feature of the Go 3 and no, there’s still nowhere to store the stylus when you pack up and move on.
Wireless communications extend to Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 run by the usual Intel AX200 card, and there’s an NFC radio tucked away in the top right corner as well.
Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Keyboard, touchpad and webcam
Microsoft’s Surface Go Type Cover keyboard is rightly regarded as something of a design classic. Easy on the eye and easy to type on, it weighs next to nothing and even has a backlight. Unlike the majority of thin fold-away tablet keyboards, it also has a trackpad for that full-on mini laptop experience. This is a bit on the small side at 98 x 55mm but it works very well.
The 5MP webcam is exceptionally good. Images are crisp and colourful, even in low light, and you can record video at 1080p. It’s one of the best cameras I’ve encountered on a laptop and, combined with a highly effective microphone array, makes the Go 3 an ideal tool for videoconferencing. The webcam also supports Windows Hello facial recognition, which makes up for the absence of a fingerprint reader.
Around the back from the webcam there’s a fairly competent, but flash-less, 8MP megapixel camera that, like the webcam, can shoot 1080p 30fps video.
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Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Display and audio
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Go 3’s display. At its peak of 418cd/m², it’s usefully bright and there’s decent colour representation, with 99.6% of the sRGB gamut represented.
It’s colour accurate, too, with an average Delta E variance of just 1, while the contrast ratio is an equally impressive 1,475:1. It really is a superb display, especially for a sub-£400 device. The 3:2 aspect ratio has obvious benefits for productivity use, although the flip side is you’ll have to put up with large areas of black above and below widescreen videos.
Unusually, you can knock the display refresh rate down from 60Hz to 48Hz, which should save on battery use, and there’s a Corning Gorilla Glass 3 frontage to help keep it scratch-free.
The sound quality is impressive, with a surprising amount of volume and bass. The fact that Microsoft can get such high-quality sound from two 2W speakers crammed into a device only a little over 8mm thick just shows how little effort some laptop makers put into giving their devices decent sound output.
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Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Performance and battery life
Sadly, the Pentium-based Surface Go 3 is horribly slow and underpowered. That’s hardly a shock given the Pentium Gold 6500Y is a dual-core chip with a base clock speed of a mere 1.1GHz.
Anything beyond simple tasks such as messaging, word processing, media consumption and web browsing is utterly beyond the Go 3’s comfort zone. Try to do any two things at once or run multiple browser tabs in Chrome and it slows down horribly. Even the Windows UI isn’t immune from performance problems. Quite often I’d click on an icon and nothing would happen so I’d click again, only to discover the app was still in the process of launching.
The benchmark results tell the same sorry story. Our in-house media benchmark app produced a wretched score of just 24. That’s compared to 32 scored by the Core m3-8100Y version of the Go 2 we tested last year, which was itself a dismal showing. The Geekbench 5 CPU scores of 839 (single-core) and 1,572 (multi-core) were equally poor.
As for gaming, forget it. Our least demanding gaming test, Dirt Showdown running at 1,280 x 720, returned an average frame rate of just 28fps, and the GFXBench benchmark results were equally disappointing, returning an average score of only 18fps in the Car Chase scene at native resolution.
The lack of performance raises the broader question of what the Surface Go 3 is actually designed to do and who it is aimed at. The 3:2 touchscreen and support for the Surface Pen suggest graphics and CAD software, but the Go 3 simply can’t run such programmes properly. And keep in mind I’m testing the 8GB/128GB model. Buy the 4GB/64GB model and performance will be worse and you’ll rapidly run out of space for your files.
Considering the laggardly system performance, the SSD speed is almost irrelevant. That’s actually just as well, since the drive in the Go 3 could only reach sequential read and write speeds of 1,259MB/sec and 319MB/sec respectively; those are pretty awful results.
The Surface Go has been slowly trudging towards adequacy when it comes to battery life over the years. The first generation model lasted 6hrs 23mins in our video rundown test, the Go 2 managed 7hrs 17mins and the Go 3 improves that yet again to 9hrs 31mins. That’s not too bad considering the battery is only a little larger than the Go 2’s (28Wh versus 27Wh). For comparison, the 2021 iPad kept running for 13hrs 11mins.
Away from the video rundown test, I found that continuous and varied use with the screen brightness at maximum drained the battery in around six or seven hours.
Microsoft Surface Go 3 review: Verdict
The entry-level Surface Go 3 is cheap, lovely to look at but rather pointless. Pick the most expensive model and add the essential accessories and it becomes expensive but only slightly less pointless.
The fact is that the processors Microsoft is using in the Go 3 machines are simply not powerful enough to give an even remotely satisfying user experience beyond basic computing activities.
If you must have a Surface Go 3, make sure you get the Core i3 version, but better yet, buy an iPad, a decent Android tablet or a regular compact laptop with a touchscreen instead.