We’ve been getting a lot of questions from folks wondering which version of the Surface they should get for themselves or as a gift. We’ve occasionally provided some advice on this topic, like our Surface Pro 3 i5 vs i7 – Is the Upgrade Worth the Money? post from October, and people seem to find it helpful.
So, we decided to create a Microsoft Surface Buying Guide for the upcoming 2014 holiday season to help you decide which Surface tablet is right for you or as a gift for someone else.
Most of the folks who contact us about which Surface is right for them fall into one of 4 categories:
- Tablet User: A “classic” tablet user. Generally only using it for light tasks like web surfing, Facebook, and email.
- Business or Academic User: A business/academic user who does most or all of the above but also does business specific things like Power Point presentations, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, create/edit PDF files, and run specialized business or academic software.
- Power User: These are your artists and movie makers/editors. They’ll often also use it for the classic tablet use things but they are really worried about performance when running their high-end programs. Part-time gamers may fall into this category as well.
- Gamers: Ah, gamers. Being one myself this category is near and dear to me. Gamers always worry about performance, frame rate, more performance, and resolution when playing their favorite game. Did I mention, performance?
I know there are more categories or more specific sub categories I could come up with but I wanted to create a simple guide that is easy to follow and will help guide your buying decisions.
I also realize that you, or the person you’re buying for, may fall into more than one category. If that’s the case, I’d recommend that you, try to pick the category that is most important to you and not necessarily the one you use it for the most, i.e. get what you want and like.
Confusing? OK, let me try an example.
Let’s say you’re buying a Surface for your son who’s heading off to college and you know he will be using it in the Academic category most of the time (let’s say 80%) so you might think it’s pretty cut and dry. However, it turns out that the other 20% of the time, he’s making and editing videos as a hobby. Which puts him into the Power User category.
Which category should you buy for?
I’d recommend getting the model for the Power User category even though he’ll only use it for that purpose 1/5th of the time. That’s because your son’s hobby is going to be important to him and if the Surface you get him is only good for his academic endeavors, he might not appreciate it as much.
Worse yet, he might end up buying a second computer just for his hobby and since no one likes to haul around multiple devices, the Surface you thoughtfully got for him might just end up collecting dust in his dorm room.
Of course, you’ll have to make that call on your own based on what you know about yourself or for whom you’re buying. Just keep the bit of advice above in mind so you end up with a Surface that you’re truly happy using.
OK, let’s get started….
Microsoft Surface Buying Guide: Tablet Users
You (or your gift recipient) probably fall into this category if you would use your Surface to mostly do the following kinds of things:
- Web surfing
- Check email
- Play occasional light games like Angry Birds Space or Jewel3
If that sounds like what you would use a Surface tablet for, you will be pleased with the performance of any model Surface tablet.
However, to avoid overspending, I’d recommend the Surface 2 or i3 64GB/4GB Surface Pro 3 (if you want the larger screen). None of the things you’re trying to do are very taxing for a computer and these two models are the least expensive options while still offering plenty of performance for the task at hand.
Microsoft Surface Buying Guide: Business or Academic Users
If you (or your gift recipient) fall into this category you’re probably planning on using a Surface to mostly do the following kinds of things:
- Heavy email use
- Lots of web surfing on business or academic specific sites
- Office Documents
- Make/Edit PDF files
- Running of specialized business academic software
- Electronic painting and drawing
In this case, I’d most often recommend the i5 128GB/4GB version of the Surface Pro 3.
I say most often because there’s a lot of variables to take into account such as LTE access, Microsoft Office usage, and any specialized business or academic software requirements you have. However, the i5 4GB RAM version of the Surface Pro 3 is capable of running majority of Windows 8.x compatible software.
If you want to hedge your bets a little bit, don’t jump all the way up to a i7 version. Instead, opt for the higher end Surface Pro 3 i5 256GB/8GB version. You’ll save some money and still gain some performance.
Microsoft Surface Buying Guide: Power Users
You’re probably a Power User if you want your Surface to do the following kinds of things in addition to some or all of the things in the categories above:
- Occasional or casual gaming (I don’t mean just games from the Windows Store, I mean full blown games like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel or Galactic Civilizations III).
- Create or edit video files.
- Batch processing of large numbers of documents or media files.
In this case, I’d probably recommend the i5 256GB/8GB version of the Surface Pro 3. Mainly because the types of apps you use will require a bit more RAM. In general, I don’t think you lose that much performance with the 4GB RAM versions but, if you’re in this category, good performance probably matters to you so why not make sure you have it?
Microsoft Surface Buying Guide: Gamers
If you’re a gamer, you already know it and I don’t have to tell you what you do. So, I’m not going to bother. I will, however, differentiate between Hobby and Hard-Core Gamers.
- Hobby Gamer: I fall into this category. I play games to relax. I don’t need the best graphics and I don’t need 100 FPS frame-rates. I just need interesting and engaging games that don’t lag too much and are enjoyable.
- Hard-Core Gamer: These people want hyper-realistic graphics and real-time physics modeling of bodies being thrown into the air by a grenade explosion at 500 FPS while being able to zoom in through their sniper-scope and count the individual hairs on their heads. Frame-rates and consistent Penta-Kills are their life’s goal.
I know I could nuance these categories a bit more but for these recommendations the two categories are sufficient.
So, here’s the thing about using the Surface as a gaming machine, The on-chip Intel video controller kind of sucks in comparison to a GeForce GTX 980. So, you’re probably not going to be playing a lot of COD: Advanced Warfare at high frame-rates. So, the Surface Pro 3 is really only good for the Hobby Gamers.
If you’re a Hobby Gamer, I recommend the i5 256/8GB version of the Surface Pro 3. I know you probably expected me to say the i7 256GB/8GB or i7 512GB/8GB version of the Surface Pro 3 but unless you can spend the extra $250 – $700 I honestly wouldn’t recommend it for gaming because of the excessive heat issues.
For you Hard Core gamers I actually recommend getting away from the Surface and looking at gaming laptop or desktop machines. You can’t go too wrong with Alienware or Falcon Northwest. Oh, you might end up paying a bit more but, your gaming experience will be much better.
That said, if you need to be able to play games on the go and think a tablet is the way to go, try looking at the Razer Edge Gaming Tablet.
It has an i7 512GB/8GB version of the Surface Pro 3.
Microsoft Surface Buying Guide: Conclusion
I hope this guide helps you pick out the right Surface for your (or your gift recipient’s needs) needs. In my next post, I’ll give some recommendations on accessories for each category. So, keep an eye out for it.
As always, let me know if you have questions or comments.
Tim Rolston is a professional geek with over 23 years of experience working in Information Technology and dealing with everything from large-scale storage to remote systems management and automation for organizations such as Texas Instruments, Mobil Oil, and the University of Michigan (where he was an Academic IT Director).
He co-founded JTRTech along with Joanna to realize his long-time dream of working for himself.