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Google just gave Microsoft Surface a budget laptop beat-down

Lenovo Chromebook Plus vs Surface Laptop Go 3Image: Lenovo/Microsoft

In the span of a long weekend in September I took two separate trips to New York City. First, to see Microsoft’s latest offerings for the Surface line, which took a backseat to the AI-infused update to Windows 11. And second to see Google reveal its Chromebook Plus push, a new standard for the company’s OS along with its hardware partners. And at the end of it all I had to ask myself: What the hell is Microsoft thinking?

Never mind the underwhelming implementation of the AI Copilot in Windows. As both an old-school Photoshop user and a professional keyboard jockey, I found its image- and text-generation powers less than compelling. No, it’s the newly revealed Surface Laptop Go 3 that sticks in my memory. Specifically the price — 800 American buckskins. In a word: Oof.

The Surface Laptop Go is no longer ‘budget’

Why this price seems ridiculous requires a little context. First, the Surface Laptop Go is supposed to be the value play in Microsoft’s first-party laptop line. The original Laptop Go was revealed three years ago, as a more conventional alternative to the Surface Go tablet. At $550 for the 4GB entry model, it was more expensive than both the Surface Go and other budget-minded Windows laptops.

Mark Hachman/Foundry

But given the Surface’s polish and the general goodwill for Microsoft’s hardware after nearly a decade, it didn’t seem too outlandish. Even with its 4GB of memory that I wouldn’t wish on anyone who actually needs to run a modern browser in Windows, you could position the Surface Laptop Go as a style-focused upgrade to the kind of machine you’d see on a Walmart shelf. The Surface Laptop Go 2 raised the base price to $600 in 2022, with a mild processor and storage upgrade, but sans any bump to that all-important RAM on the base model.

Fast forward to this year with the Surface Laptop Go 3. Graciously, Microsoft has increased the base RAM to 8GB, which I would consider the absolute minimum to run Windows 11 comfortably. (Take this judgment for what it’s worth, since I’m currently using 32GB on a triple-screen desktop with more browser tabs than I can count.) But the rest of the specs remain more or less the same, aside from a mild upgrade to last year’s Intel processors. That includes the underwhelming 12-inch touchscreen, which has a resolution that would shame a budget Android phone.

For this modest upgrade to the bare minimum of Windows functionality, Microsoft asks $800. A full one-third increase over last year’s model, for a bump in DDR4 RAM that would cost about $17 off the shelf. And that’s without access to a modern manufacturer’s enormous economies of scale. The entry-level, ostensibly “budget” Surface Laptop Go now costs as much as the original Surface Laptop did in 2017.

So many better choices

Yes, a lot has changed in six years, particularly in terms of inflation. But it hasn’t changed so much that the Surface Laptop Go 3 makes sense as a purchase for anyone, particularly anyone who needs a budget laptop. A three-second search on Amazon — without any real deal-hunting, mind you — turns up a Windows laptop with a 12th-gen processor and 8GB of RAM, double the storage, and a far more usable full-HD screen for about half the price.

Amazon

Sure, this budget Lenovo model isn’t as stylish and doesn’t have a touchscreen, but anyone in the budget category that Microsoft is allegedly targeting won’t mind if they can save over 300 bucks. But let’s assume you have $800 to spend. Does the Surface Laptop Go 3 make sense as a stylish ultraportable purchase? To be as kind and charitable as possible, [expletive] no.

IDG

Dell’s XPS 13, the go-to workhorse for Windows ultraportables for years, can be had at the same retail price. It’s frequently less expensive — at the time of writing you can get an 8GB model with a 12th-gen Core i5 and double the storage for just $599. For just 50 bucks more than the Go 3, you can upgrade to a far more comfy 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. A bargain in anybody’s money. My personal laptop, a ThinkPad X1 Nano — the one I brought to both NYC events, and relied upon for live writing, research, and photo editing — can frequently be had for less than Microsoft wants for that “budget” ultraportable.

A tale of two business trips

So yeah, someone at Microsoft is taking crazy pills if they think the Surface Laptop Go 3 is still any kind of “budget” machine. But the second hit in this one-two punch combo came from Google’s presentation, where the Chromebook Plus line was unveiled. Chromebook Plus is Google’s attempt to reframe Chromebooks as ever-so-slightly more capable machines, moving away from the ultra-budget image they’ve been saddled with since premium options like the Pixelbook disappeared.

Google

But crucially, Google is expanding the base level of Chromebook capability and polish without ballooning the prices. The bare minimum of specs required to hit that “Plus” benchmark is 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 1080p IPS screen, and either an Intel Core or AMD processor. Sound familiar? That’s basically the same level of x64 hardware as the new Surface Laptop Go 3, minus the touchscreen — in fact, that 1080p resolution requirement is actually better. This Plus push isn’t a reach into premium laptop territory, it’s an attempt to redefine what the average user expects from a Chromebook at any price.

And Chromebook Plus models start at…wait for it…$399. In fact, all eight of the initial Chromebook Plus models are cheaper than the Surface Laptop Go 3, despite being the “premium” option. Seven of them are under $500. All with 8GB of RAM at the base price, which goes a lot further on Chrome OS than it does on Windows.

Michael Crider/Foundry

Directly comparing Windows laptops and Chromebooks isn’t exactly apples to apples. Chromebooks are far more capable now than they used to be, and are only getting better with those Plus upgrades (also coming to older machines that meet that standard via a software update). Even so, there are plenty of people who need one or two specific tools that are still only available on Windows, or just want to play the occasional Steam game. But as I demonstrated earlier, even if you absolutely need Windows, there are better budget options than Microsoft’s allegedly budget laptop.

These two announcements in such close proximity make me think Microsoft has lost the plot when it comes to trying to get budget users — the largest market segment of laptop buyers by far — interested in its products. The fact that the Surface Laptop Go 3 comes at a time of historically low PC shipments can’t be ignored.

This kind of blindness to both low-end users and the market as a whole is something I’d expect from Apple…whose Macbook Air can frequently be found on sale at the same price point. And as a lifelong Windows user, I can’t think of any insult more grave.

Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

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