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Microsoft Surface Go
Computer Reviews

Microsoft Surface Go

Not an iPad killer, but certainly an iPad alternative – and a good one if you need full Windows 10.

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Roam the aisles of your local electronics store these days and you might think you’d walked into a Starbucks by mistake. When did buying a new computer become so complicated? The blame should fall squarely on the retail upsell. Think about it: you start off thinking all you want is a cup of coffee – a nice, normal cup of Joe for a quick caffeine fix. Maybe add some cream, a little sugar to sweeten it up. Hey, you’ve come this far, so why not add a little chocolate and milk (foamed, of course). You know what? A little extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt, so go ahead and stir that espresso shot into the mix. Before you know it, that poor black coffee has become something else entirely.

You thought you wanted simple and without fuss. You thought you wanted quick and cheap; what you really wanted was a double mocha caffè macchiato. With whipped cream on top. Price: too expensive!

And that’s the scenario users face when opting for something to replace their bulkier laptop with these alluring Windows tablets, which promise the portability of a tablet – yet powerful enough to be their main machine. The Surface Go is Microsoft’s latest attempt to do just this; a 2-in-1 hybrid computer with the form factor of a tablet, yet promising the usefulness of full Windows 10 when you need it. The short story is that it generally succeeds, with a bundle of caveats, compromises and costs. If you fit this specific niche, here’s your machine/accessory.

Also, this review won’t obsess with comparing the Surface Go to Apple’s more recent iPad models; this isn’t 2010 anymore and not every review should needlessly harp on and on about Apple’s ‘magical’ tablet wunderkind. We all love the iPad, but let’s stop assuming everyone wants or needs one. It might be hard to imagine, but some people still clamor for a computing experience involving things like cursors and productivity. Like Windows! Or full Windows, anyway.

Dressed for Success: Accessories Make the Tablet

If you’re even thinking about picking up a Surface Pro you’ll need a keyboard – using Windows 10 solely in tablet mode is both an exercise in frustration and a reminder of the operating system’s limitations in tablet land. And for this you’ll definitely want to add Microsoft’s own Surface Go Type Cover when you join the Surface family. They come in four colors (Black, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue and the pricier Platinum Type, which adds the felty Alcantara material).

As they connect directly into the Go via the magnetic docking strip there’s no need for external batteries or even recharging, which is great as those are backlit keys you’ll be typing away on. They even sport a generous touchpad – and by generous I mean it’s nearly half the size of the keyboard cover — that works especially well; better than most full-sized Windows trackpads honestly. I only wish I could say the same about the typing experience.

The keyboard layout is considerably scrunched to meet those slimmer dimensions, meaning you’ll have to retrain your fingers and muscle-memory to hit the keys you actually want to hit. If you’ve got bigger, meatier fingers… good luck. I suspect people like myself aren’t the target demographic for using the Go (more on this below), but with with practice (and patience) I was able to muddle through and regain a respectable WPM back – which was necessary as this very review was typed on the Go’s keyboard. But it’s never optimal or enjoyable, and I’d never willingly choose to use this keyboard for anything requiring long hours of typing.

Another caveat is that Standard Type Covers already cost a whopping $100, while the Alcantara fabric coated Signature Type Covers are even pricier at $130, which is standard (over) pricing for keyboard + cover combos in tablet land. Could you opt for a third-party Bluetooth keyboard instead of Microsoft’s official Type Covers, thus saving yourself upwards of a hundred bucks? Yes, but none so perfectly match the Surface Go’s for factor while giving you immediately connectivity. Of course, a third-party keyboard can also give you a more generous typing experience, so if you can’t stand the itty-bitty keys you might want to consider that option.

This is less of a problem when adding a mouse, which you can (and should) either via USB or Bluetooth – though you really should opt for Bluetooth. Microsoft has released their own Surface Mobile Mouse, a nice and surprisingly inexpensive option (inexpensive so far as most Surface peripherals tends to be on the high end, price-wise). Any Bluetooth mouse will do – but make sure you’ve got one stashed in that travel bag.

Budding digital artists or traditional note-takers should note (get it?) that the Surface Go is very stylus friendly, and fully compatible with Microsoft’s affordable Surface Pen, offering 4,096 pressure points for most of your doodling pleasure. I wasn’t able to test this feature out with the Surface, sadly, but I’m sure it’s similar to most Windows touchscreen laptops – accuracy and capabilities will vary depending on the program run. As the Surface Go isn’t the most robust machine out there you’ll probably want to invest a little time researching this area for yourselves if you (unconventionally) plan on replacing an older Wacom tablet.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that nearly all the advertising and press materials for the Surface Go signal that its target consumer is women, specifically professional females or those working moms needing a uncomplicated device while on the go (get it?). That’s not a slight — the tablet market is often a gray area that doesn’t always understand their needs, and it’s nice to finally see big tech give them a little more attention in both design and real-world application.

Case in point: women, on average, have smaller hands than men and may not mind the smaller keyboard layout that much. I let several women, all expert typists in their own right, have a ‘go’ typing on the Go and none were as pessimistic about the smaller keyboard as I was. Plus, they all thought it was ‘cute’ and loved the compact design and build quality. Microsoft, you certainly know your demographic.

Design: Svelte and Practical

This is the smallest, lightest Surface tablet – and for good reason. Most of its compromises on power and functionality don’t smart as much when you also factor in the “smaller” price. Using the familiar Surface boxy stylings, the Go is housed in an attractive aluminum body measuring a svelte 9.65” x 6.9” x 0.33” and weighs just 1.5lb (without the Type cover attached). There’s not much to the design, honestly, apart from its slightly chunky bezels and standard buttons that let you turn the power on/off or standby and volume rockers. The only design flaw is the bulky magnetic charging cable – which is proprietary – looks and feels a bit out of place when jutting out of the right side, however.

The trim design and low weight makes the Go feel very comfortable when used as a standalone tablet, even when holding it one-handed. If you’re a rabid book reader you’ll probably love how it feels almost weightless over long periods.  But chances are you’ll be using it as a quasi-laptop, and thankfully the the kickstand flips outward to provide excellent viewing angles and stability, despite its plastic feel. It also bends downward to unbelievable angles to allow you to use the Go nearly flat – a great forward-thinking option for those using the Surface Pen.

Can you use the Surface Go on your lap? Yes, but you won’t want to. More importantly, this is a solidly built, sturdy little machine that feels like it could withstand a drop or small fall – but I wouldn’t test this theory.

Beautiful Display, Decent Tech

Before we go into the guts of the Surface Go we really need to talk about its marquee feature – almost the sole reason you’ll want to own one, regardless of its other compromises and limitations. I’m talking about that beautiful 10” screen, of course, with a 1800 x 1200 (217 ppi) resolution that looks amazing at every angle. It has the familiar 3:2 aspect ratio (hello, letterboxed movies!), though colors look amazing, as do blacks, and with a 1500:1 contrast ratio you needn’t fear the sun when working outside (which you’ll totally want to). It’s a PixelSense screen, which means touch inputs are super accurate and ready for that $99 stylus accessory for taking quick notes, or sporadic doodles.

Packed inside that frame is everything you’ll need to get stuff done when using the Go. Rather than going with traditional mobile-friendly processors, Microsoft opted for an 1.6GHz Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y instead, which may seem a curious choice for a name-branded Surface tablet but there’s probably a good reason why. The Surface Go is capable of running full Windows 10, and having a stable processor means better compatibility across the board. Of course, this efficient processor is affected by performance, but whether it does prohibitively so will depend on your workload.

Beyond the CPU, there are two configurations available: the $399 model has 4GB LPDDR3 RAM (1600MHz) and 64GB eMMC storage while the $549 model bumps both specs up to 8GB LPDDR3 (1866MHz) RAM and 128GB NVMe SSD storage. I’ll get into whether that matters later in this review. Regardless which one you pick, both have an itty-bitty MicroSD card reader that’s practically hidden underneath the stand…so be on the lookout if you want to expand either model’s storage options.

There’s two cameras available: a 5 megapixel front-facing camera and 8 megapixel rear-facing one, both rated as HD-ready and adequate for taking selfies and basic photography efforts. The front camera does allow you to take advantage of Windows Hello, which lets you quickly log into Windows using your face (if you’re into that kind of thing). The stereo speakers on the underside sound pretty great, much louder and more impressive than you’d expect from a mere 2W of power.

The rest of the Go’s innards are fairly standard, with fast 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 4.1 ready for your wirelessly connected dreams. There’s still a 3.5mm headphone jack for legacy headphones (thank goodness), though I’m not crazy where it’s positioned. Speaking of legacy, there’s one USB Type-C port for everything else, including all those legacy USB peripherals you may have. It’s not a Thunderbolt port, so you’ll be limited to USB 3.1 (or lower) devices only with the right docks and dongles. Thankfully, the port also serves as a second charge port, just in case you find the magnetic one a bit too clunky.

Speaking of charging, Microsoft promises 9 hours of battery life for a fully-charged Surface Go. As with most promises, this seems largely theoretical as the Go will either sap or sip your battery depending on the task. Differently options within Windows 10 let you customize how your battery will function, but during my week-long tests of writing documents, photo editing, video watching and most other tasks I was never able to get better than 4-5 hours of power off a single charge.

Performance: No Surprises

Sometimes with locked technology like laptops and tablets it’s nice to have benchmarks, especially if you plan on heavy usage with applications and games on them. After spending some time with the Surface Go, however, attempting to benchmark its performance is a fool’s game, because all the fancy charts and stats in the world won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. This isn’t a powerful machine, in any configuration, and while Microsoft has done a remarkable job optimizing its signal-to-noise ratio, there’s only so much power available when multitasking is needed.

Our $399 Surface Go tester model had the base 4GB RAM with 64GB eMMC storage, which is half in specification figures than the pricier model. We’re talking tech on the margins here, and it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) take much to deliver a solid mobile experience regardless of choice.

Obviously, having double the RAM is preferable, and SSD storage is going to be slightly faster than eMMC storage. This is purely anecdotal, but I’m certain the more expensive version performs slightly better than its cheaper cousin in all areas. Whether you’ll want to spend the extra $150 for the added boost is something you’ll want to consider, however. As I’ve stated before, if you’re looking for a powerful machine to zip through tasks and programs, maybe the Surface Go isn’t the tablet you’re looking for. At some point all those ‘extra’ dollars add up, and the truth is you may be better off with a different machine than a compromised ‘cheap’ tablet altogether.

Point blank: if you’re the type of person where minute benchmarks matter, the Surface Go isn’t for you. Instead, I’ll share some real-world examples of what it’s like to actually use the Surface Go with the apps and programs you want to use.

Apps + Programs: Patience is a Virtue

If all you’re after is a simple Windows tablet that runs basic programs like web browsing, editing Office documents and the occasional video call, the Surface Go will do just fine. It does all of those things right out of the box and without much hassle. You can even record and produce your own videos, podcasts, create presentations and teleconference a lot easier than a similarly priced Google Chromebook — this is good.

This is incidentally where you can see Windows 10 S platform in action; which is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s fevered dream to turn their vastly more capable Windows operating system into something it wasn’t ever meant to be: a tablet OS for streamlined apps. From early failures like Windows RT to now, they’ve continued to sully the potential of the Surface tablets with this unfortunate baggage. Using Windows 10 S means you can only run apps available in the Windows Store, and nothing else. Try to download and install anything else and you’ll be told it’s not possible.

This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the Store actually had things you wanted, like alternative browsers or popular programs. It doesn’t, and that sucks. Truthfully, the Edge browser isn’t terrible – and thanks to recent updates it’s a surprisingly great eBook/PDF reader for most books.  There’s also popular apps like Spotify, Twitter, Netflix, or even iTunes available. But the landscape is sparse, and not likely to get much better anytime soon.

Let’s be clear: Windows 10 S is the socialism of operating systems; a well-meaning attempt to match affordable technology with a walled-garden ecosystem where users install curated apps designed to run perfectly on their hardware without worrying about drivers, viruses or security issues. It’s a nice dream – except Apple did it infinitely better with iOS. In (some) defense, the Surface Go isn’t just a tablet, but a tablet capable of running full Windows 10.

Thankfully, you can ‘switch’ Windows 10 S off, meaning you can perform a once-only upgrade to enable the bigger, better Windows 10 operating system to considerably expand the tablet’s features. You can’t go backwards – but you won’t want to. Doing so means you can install third-party programs you’ll want to use, like Google’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox, Valve’s Steam client, Audacity, VLC, Photoshop, Kindle or just about anything you want. Hey, it’s Windows! It’s supposed to run everything, right?

Sort of. You can’t really blame Microsoft for wanting to manage expectations by curating software, but the Windows Store just can’t compete with having access to, well, practically everything. How the Go runs those programs, though, will vary.

Google’s Chrome is the most popular browser in the world – heck, they’ve even built an entire laptop OS around it – so you’ll probably want to use it with the Surface Go. Good news – it runs well, though you’ll want to scale back a little on the open tabs. Interestingly, Google Drive runs surprisingly well on the Go, much better than most cheap Chromebooks in fact. Unused tabs have a tendency to refresh a lot, so don’t go crazy on them and you won’t into performance bottlenecks.

Critically, Microsoft’s Office Suite runs very well, which isn’t surprising. Skype also performs admirably, as do standards like Slack, Discord, Audacity and others like them. You can really get a lot of work done with the Surface Go, just as long as you’re not running too many apps at once. It’s when you get into memory-crunching programs like Adobe’s CC Suite, including Photoshop, where things start to crawl. Yes, these programs run…but not well.

Also, the Surface Go makes an outstanding media player, especially for streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or even sideloaded media files. The Go’s screen and speakers make everything look and sound much better than you’d think, so grab the popcorn and settle in for a night of binging.

Gaming: Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Gaming is not a strong suit of the Surface Go, but if you absolutely want to play games on the you’ll want to use a gaming controller, and there’s none better than Microsoft’s own Xbox Controller. Pairing one with the Go via either Bluetooth or directly with a USB cable is simple enough, though for the latter you’ll need a dedicated USB Type-C cable or adapter dongle. Being a Windows 10 machine, the Go recognizes the controller almost immediately so there’s no driver issues to fuss over.

When it comes to actually playing games there are definitely a lot more misses than hits, especially if you venturing outside the confines of the Microsoft Store. Most of the titles available are little more than glorified ports of mobile phone games, and almost none are recent. I’ll say it again: if gaming is a priority the Surface Go isn’t the tablet you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, the Go supports the full Steam client, and there’s a smorgasboard of smaller 2D games that should run fine on the Go’s hardware. Outside of this, I was delighted to see Capcom’s Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection running without a hitch, though you’ll have to contend with letterboxed games on an already tiny screen. I’ve also witnessed Minecraft running just fine on the hardware,

Because I know you’re curious, Epic Games’ insanely popular Fortnite is a bust; while I got the game to install and actually play…it’s not something you’ll want to. Doing so requires lowering every setting and option to rock bottom, and even then it’s a windowed mess, with framerates however between 25 and strobe-lights. What a shame, as Fortnight runs like butter on just about everything, and would have been a perfect match for a lesser-powered tablet like the Surface Go. #MissedOpportunity

There is a silver lining for Xbox One fans: the Surface Go works okay with the Windows 10 Xbox streaming app, meaning you can use it as a “second screen” to stream Xbox One games over your home network if your beautiful HDTV (or 4K UHD if you’re rocking the Xbox One X) is currently occupied. It’s not optimal, but game-streaming isn’t something every Windows 10 tablet can handle.

Conclusion: Compliant Enough

Going back to my belabored coffee analogy, just how much you’ll get out of using the Surface Go really depends on what you’re looking for in the first place. It’s the smallest and lightest Surface yet, though its lower-powered innards and smaller form factor may not match your needs…maybe you should really get a full laptop, or at least a more powerful tablet. It’s also true there are several competitors in the 2-in-1 tablet sphere that can “do” what the Surface Go does, but none offer the same build quality and — let’s face it — that certain sheen factor we all care about (but claim not to). The Surface Go isn’t an iPad killer, but certainly an iPad alternative. And a good one the ability to run legacy applications is a must.

About the Author: Trent McGee