Surface Go Review: Welcome to the Tiny-Computer Future
Taking a premium product and making it more affordable is a dangerous game. In the worst case, you end up with the notorious Cadillac Cimarron—a frumpy sedan that was barely different from its cheap Chevrolet and Pontiac stablemates. You can’t just take any old widget, apply an expensive brand, and call it a day.
That’s why I think the new Microsoft Surface Go is an impressive device. It’s a cheaper Surface Pro-style tablet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll miss out on important features. While you can find cut corners, most folks who need a super portable basic computer won’t feel like they’ve been swindled.
The teeny-tiny Go, focused on portability and starting at $399, might not be powerful enough to replace a brawny laptop. But if you’ve got a desktop that could benefit from a companion device, or you’re a student whose needs are limited to Google Docs, web browsing, and the occasional Netflix binge, Surface Go could be enough to win you over.
A Slice of Fried Pentium Gold
On the outside, Surface Go looks like you’d expect. It’s the same design that previous Surface Pro devices have sported in prior years: a rectangular tablet with a flip-out metal kickstand and a keyboard that magnetically attaches to the bottom. Unlike the latest Surface Pro, the Go is a smaller, cuter version of the successful recipe.
So, cut two inches off a Pro’s 12-inch screen to make it a 10-inch one. What else was cut out? Surprisingly, not much. The screen is sharp (with an 1800 x 1200 resolution) and looked great when I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on it. It uses the same magnetic charging connector as other Surfaces. You get a Windows Hello facial recognition camera for impressively fast, secure biometric logins. The kickstand even has the same trick hinges as the pricier Pro, folding back underneath the device at a reflex angle, propping it up for typing, movie watching, drawing, or notetaking.
The first sign that something’s a little different is when you run your eyes down the spec sheet. Surface Go has a significantly slower processor than other Microsoft computers—an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y chip. It feels more responsive than Intel’s past mobile chips (called Atom), but think of it as a cousin of Intel’s Core-branded Y-series chips, found in thin laptops like the Apple MacBook.
Designed to work without a fan, this dual-core Pentium has a surprisingly low top speed: 1.6 GHz. For context, I used to own a 2010 MacBook Air. For its time, it was a zippy computer that handled my daily tasks and lasted me a few years (until I started dabbling in graphic design and needed more reliable power). The Surface Go has almost twice the performance of that laptop.
OK, but is it fast? Absolutely not. Apps open noticeably slower than they would on a Surface Pro. That said, I kept a lot of tabs open, wrote in OneNote, ran Slack, and even rocked out to some streaming tunes—Surface Go barely buckled. Would I want to run full-blown Adobe Lightroom Classic CC on this thing? Or edit 4K videos? Heck no.
Want Anything From the Shops?
Because Surface Go is based on an Intel chip, you can run basically anything Windows 10 can handle. Out of the box, Go comes pre-set in what’s called Windows 10 S-mode, which basically means you can only install apps from the Microsoft Store, and you’re limited to one internet browser: Microsoft Edge. For a lot of people, that won’t be enough. But, for the heck of it, I tried getting by with only grabbing apps from the store.
You know what? I was pleasantly surprised at how far the app selection has come.
I was able to grab Twitter, Slack, OneNote, and even Plex for playing back media from my home server. And all told, Edge has come a long way since it debuted three years ago, letting me add my password manager and handling my typical sites without issue. Even Xbox Play Anywhere titles were available, and I was able to download and pick up Thimbleweed Park where I left off at home. You won’t be playing Forza 7 on Surface Go, but for less demanding games, and especially indie titles, it’ll do the trick.
The keys are precise without feeling too flat, and Microsoft’s designers did a bang-up job minimizing some keys to keep the letters in the center big and usable.
But, then again, for every good app like Netflix, Spotify, or iTunes, you’ll find another piece of must-have software missing from the Microsoft Store. For instance, when it came time to hop on a video call, I found that there was no way to add Zoom to the browser and I had to use a different device to join the meeting. Amazon’s software is also incomplete, so there was no way for me to read my Kindle books.
Thankfully, S-mode is easily bypassed, so you can install any Windows app you need. But the Store is better than many people think—and especially if you have family members prone to installing anything that’s placed in front of them, S-mode could keep them just a bit safer from malware.
Three Flavors Alcantara
The signature accessory for a Surface tablet like this is a Type Cover. These backlit covers have keyboards built-in, and they’re a must-buy if you hope to use a Surface Go like an itty-bitty laptop. Microsoft offers up the Go keyboard in four finishes: one plain black and three colored, Alcantara-adorned deluxe ones. Naturally, you’ll also be able to use a Surface Pen with this device, and they’re now available in color-coordinated tones to match your Type Cover, if you’re a stickler for stuff like that.
Because the display is smaller on this Lilliputian Surface, my biggest fear was that the shrunken keyboard would make the typing experience worse. Smaller cover means a smaller keyboard and trackpad, right? Well, yes. But I didn’t feel like it was a noticeable downgrade. The keys are precise without feeling too flat, and Microsoft’s designers did a bang-up job minimizing some keys to keep the letters in the center big and usable. Even the trackpad keeps pace with its Surface brothers and sisters, offering up a slick, responsive experience.
Speaking of input, Surface Go relies on one USB-C port for plugging in devices. There’s also a Surface Connect charging port, so unlike the Apple MacBook, you can at least use an external device while you charge without having to get an expensive dongle. While I can’t stand USB-C in some instances, on a lightweight device like this it’s par for the course.
At least it’s a standard port that works with tons of accessories you already own, admittedly with an adapter. The USB-C port can also be used to charge Surface Go, but in my experience it should be used when the tablet is asleep. While plugged in to a big external USB battery, Surface Go started to slowly lose charge as I played a YouTube video. But, if you already have USB-C devices in your arsenal, you might be able to bring one fewer charger on your next trip, and I’m in favor of that.
Skip to the End
The weakest aspect of the device, no matter what you’ll want to use it for, is battery life. I was able to get between 4 and 5 hours comfortably from the Surface Go. That sounds pretty good, but compared to the competition it’s actually fairly middling. An iPad can legit last you all day. The new Qualcomm Snapdragon-based Windows PCs are reportedly getting 10+ hours on a single charge.
But my biggest reservation comes down to pricing: The base model is $399, but like in the past, you won’t get a cover or a pen included. The cheaper Go also has a measly 4 GB RAM, and a puny, slow 64 GB eMMC flash drive. The model I tried was way more capable, rocking a faster 128 GB NVMe SSD and 8 GB RAM. I’d say if you have the means, spring for this $549 config—it’ll multitask way more effectively.
Then again, that’ll put you at around $780 for the whole kit and caboodle and that’s a lot of dough. That’s almost iPad Pro money. That’s solid mid-range laptop money. That’s Chromebook-and-a-new-smartphone money. That’s almost Surface Pro money, for pete’s sake!
So, it’s imperfect and expensive and a little poky in the configuration I think you should buy. But, here’s the thing—I like using Surface Go a lot. I would have killed for a computer like this when I was in college. I’m so envious of today’s students! And I can’t stress this enough: Its reduced footprint makes it an ideal size for tossing in a backpack or messenger bag. No, it might not be the best computer for the money, but what it lacks in speeds and feeds it makes up for with pure charm.