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This tiny 2-in-1 was my most surprising laptop of 2021

I reviewed over 45 laptops in 2021, and some are the best laptops I’ve used in recent memory. Those include powerful laptops like the Dell XPS 15 OLED or portable wonders like the HP Spectre x360 14.

But one laptop surprised me the most: The Surface Go 3. It’s Microsoft’s smallest and least expensive Surface tablet — and it certainly doesn’t have the flashiness of the Surface Pro 8.

In fact, I went into my Surface Go 3 review with low expectations, expecting to find the detachable tablet too slow and too small for real work. A toy more than a real laptop.

But as I found out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s not too small

Microsoft Surface Go 3 sitting on table.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends / Digital Trends

My first concern was about its size. I thought a 10.5-inch display would be too small for getting real work done, particularly for using Windows 11 with a finger or a Surface Pen (which works well for handwriting and quick sketches).

I was wrong. In fact, it’s a great size given the small but significant improvements that Windows 11 has made to tablet use. The Surface Go 3 has completely replaced my iPad Air 2 with its 9.5-inch display for browsing the web, triaging email, and consuming media. But the display is large enough to fit into my productivity workflow, something I didn’t expect. Surprisingly, I can write on this thing just fine, as long as I don’t need to split the screen with multiple windows.

This is not the kind of display you typically find on a $400 laptop.

Also surprising was the display quality. Its resolution is sharp enough at 1920 x 1280 in the productivity-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio, and its colors are at the high end of the premium laptop average in terms of gamut and accuracy. And its contrast is a stunning 1360:1, well over our preferred 1000:1 ratio and excellent for an IPS display.

This is not the kind of display you typically find on a laptop that starts at around $400.

Microsoft Surface Go 3's keyboard, trackpad, and stylus.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The same goes for the keyboard. When I first started testing the Type Cover that came with my review unit, I thought it was too small. But after a couple of hours of use, I grew accustomed to the key spacing and keycap size and found the switches excellent with a snappy response for surprising precision.

Yes, there’s an adjustment period when I go from the expansive keyboard on the Dell XPS 15 to the Surface Go 3 Type Cover, but in a few minutes, I’ve adjusted. I can type almost as fast on the Surface Go 3 as I can on larger laptops, and that was surprising as well.

It’s not too slow

Microsoft Surface Go 3 stand.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

My next concern was about the tablet’s speed. I ran our usual benchmarks on the Surface Go 3 and to be generous, it wasn’t the fastest laptop we’ve tested. In fact, it benchmarked barely better than the Surface Go 2, when improved performance was supposed to be a strength of the new model. I was disappointed.

But as I actually used the laptop in writing the review, I found it to be more than fast enough. And it’s continued to impress. No, it’s not a gaming laptop, nor will it meet seriously demanding productivity workflows — not to mention the needs of creative professionals — but it’s plenty fast for everything I use it for.

It’s the machine I take with me when I retire to the family room for the evening.

I can open an impressive number of Edge tabs, run a few Windows apps in the background (including Office apps), and keep communications tools like Skype and Teams running, all without any severe slowdown. I might see some lag if I open too many things, but I find it just as quick for my less demanding workflows as other laptops I use.

It’s the machine I take with me when I retire to the family room in the evening for some multitasking while watching TV. I also find myself reaching for it instead of a larger laptop when I’m in a pure working mode but want something smaller. It’s replaced the 13-inch laptop in my computing repertoire, and that’s high praise indeed.

It’s incredibly well built

Microsoft Surface Go 3 tablet mode.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

I’ve been a Surface Pro fan for years, loving how solidly built and intelligently designed is Microsoft’s detachable tablet. The kickstand is a feat of engineering, folding out from the back and holding the tablet firmly in place through a wide range of angles, and the Type Cover holds securely in place thanks to powerful magnets.

I didn’t expect the Surface Go 3 to be as well-built, but I was wrong again. For just $400, you get all the build quality and design strengths of the Surface Pro 8, only in a smaller and much less expensive package. The Surface Go 3 feels well-protected and incredibly solid when connected to its Type Cover. I feel like I can carry it around and use it anywhere with confidence. That, too, is high praise for such an inexpensive machine.

Android apps show some promise

I signed up for the Windows Insider program and downloaded the latest version enabling Android app support. It works extremely well, running Android apps in an emulator that provides solid performance.

There aren’t that many compatible apps yet, but I very much enjoy using the Android Kindle app. E-book reading was one of the tasks I performed most on my iPad, and the Surface Go 3 has taken that over completely when I’m not using my Kindle Paperwhite (typically at night before I go to sleep).

Surprising is the keyword

I’ve used variants of the word “surprising” throughout this piece, and that makes sense. If you’ve thought the Surface Go 3 was too cheap, too slow, or too small, then you might be wrong.

I certainly was, and the diminutive tablet is the second laptop I grab to get work done behind the Dell XPS 15 that costs four times as much. The Surface Go 3 is the first laptop I grab when roaming around the house or heading out to work. Microsoft made something special when they crafted the Surface Go 3, and I can’t think of much to improve it.

Maybe Intel will make a low-powered version of its 12th-gen CPUs for tablets like this one, and if so, then great. But as it is, the Surface Go 3 is a surprisingly useful machine.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Coppock
Mark has been a geek since MS-DOS gave way to Windows and the PalmPilot was a thing. He’s translated his love for…
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