Microsoft Surface Go review: tablet that’s better for work than play | Computing
The brief was pretty straightforward: make a smaller and lighter machine that has all the premium feel and experience of Microsoft’s category-defining Surface Pro, but at about half the cost.
To do that Microsoft had to cut some corners, with the biggest being the processor; out with the Intel Core lineup and in with the low performance Pentium Gold.
But from the outside it’s not obvious where savings have been made. It has the same solid magnesium body of the Pro, now with slightly more rounded and forgiving edges. The Go still has a brilliant kickstand out the back that has a 165-degree range of motion, the buttons feel firm and well made and the cameras are the same.
Even the screen is great: it might be of a lower resolution than the Surface Pro but it’s also smaller at just 10in, making it still look just about as pin sharp with excellent viewing angles. And it has front-facing speakers and supports the Surface Pen too, but not the Surface Dial on-screen.
All in all it looks, feels and behaves like a baby Surface Pro, and that’s pretty much the point. The Go is a smaller, more portable Surface with the same capable, premium experience.
Screen: 10in LCD 1800 x 1200 (217 PPI)
Processor: Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y
RAM: 4 or 8GB
Storage: 64GB eMMC or128 SSD
Operating system: Windows 10 Home (in S Mode) with device encryption
Camera: 8MP rear, 5MP front-facing, Windows Hello
Connectivity: Wifi ac, Bluetooth 4.1, USB-C, Surface Connector, TPM, microSD, headphone socket
Dimensions: 245 x 175 x 8.3 mm
Weight: 522g (without keyboard)
Out of the box the Surface Go runs Windows 10 Home in S Mode, which is Microsoft’s latest locked down version of its signature operating system.
Instead of being a truly different version of Windows, as was the case with the short-lived Windows 10 S, the new “S Mode” is, as the name implies, just a mode of whatever flavour of Windows you happen to have installed.
In S Mode you can only use Microsoft Edge with Bing search and programs installed from the Microsoft Store. Slowly most of the key programs have become distributed via the Microsoft Store, which handles automatic updates for you, and so in many ways is a better experience than the old-fashioned way of installing programs.
Apple’s iTunes, Spotify, Affinity Photo, Evernote, Office, Netflix and many others are all available, with the biggest outlier being Chrome (or any other browser).
The idea of S Mode is that all applications are vetted for security and won’t bog down your system. For novice users or those who want the simplest and easiest to manage Windows, most of S Mode is great.
The biggest issue is Edge, which still isn’t capable of fully replacing Google Chrome or Firefox. It stutters, hangs and crashes frequently, and not being able to change the default search engine is deeply irritating – Bing just isn’t good enough to replace Google.
Despite being installed from the Microsoft Store, Evernote also refused to run, crashing every time on launch.
After a week in S Mode, I had to switch it off – a one-button push in the Microsoft Store reverts the user to the full Windows 10 Home experience. Along with allowing the installation of Chrome and a few other smaller bits, it miraculously fixed Evernote too, which the app’s support team couldn’t explain.
Using it as a media tablet
The Surface Go is arguably the best Windows 10 tablet, but that isn’t saying much. The experience is pretty good, if a little clunky in places, but there’s a significant media-consumption app gap.
There’s no Sky Q, Amazon Video or Google Play Movies apps. There’s an All 4 app, but not ITV Hub, while BBC iPlayer is a pretty clunky web-app wrapper that has to be installed separately (not in S Mode).
There’s no Kindle, Comixology or Marvel Unlimited app either.
Many of these services can be accessed through the browser making the Surface Go OK for watching TV while cooking, but it means you can’t take them offline with you on the commute.
The exception to the rule is Netflix. The video subscription service’s Windows 10 app is on a par with that available on the iPad, and shows that it can be done. Watching Final Space or the Expanse on the Surface Go was great, with loud and clear front-facing speakers, that great, bright screen and a kickstand that works at multiple angles and even on a soft surface.
Microsoft’s productivity machine
What the Surface Go lacks as a media-consumption tablet, it more than makes up for as a work machine.
Without the Type Cover, it’s possible to get work done in all your normal Windows apps using the on-screen keyboard and touchscreen. But really it is the Type Cover that makes the Surface Go.
It costs at least £100, but the Surface Go’s Type Cover is a marvel. Despite being a little narrower than the full-size Surface Pro version it has a large, excellent trackpad, well-sized keys and a very satisfying typing experience.
Within 10 minutes I was touch typing at full speed, with a satisfying amount of key travel and the option to have the keyboard either flat on the desk or propped up at an angle. It’s one of the best typing experiences I’ve used on any compact laptop, let alone a tablet.
The Go is actually easier to use on a lap, plane or train table than the larger Surface Pro, as the length of the keyboard plus kickstand out the back is shorter. It is one of the few machines that will fit on my lap while squished into the seat of my commuter train.
Surprisingly gutsy performance
I tested the Surface Go with 8GB of RAM and 128GB SSD, and while corners may not have been cut in the build of the machine, the Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y is no Core i7 rival. It’s a low-power, low-performance processor and is certainly the weakest part of the Surface Go.
Having said that the Go is far more capable than I would have thought. It could never be described as fast, but it did everything I demanded of it without too much of a problem.
The biggest difference is that you wont be able to do everything at once compared to a more powerful laptop or the Core i7 Surface Pro. But in high-performance mode when plugged into power the Go was perfectly happy with up to 10 Chrome tabs open, Typora, Wunderlist, Mail, Nextgen Reader, Evernote, Signal, Hangouts Chat, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger open across two screens.
Even photo editing in Affinity Photo worked perfectly fine. Loading 5MB-plus images from a Nikon DSLR took a little longer to load, but even the advanced image manipulation tools worked fine.
Working solely on the 10in screen was surprisingly good too. Snapping windows side-by-side meant two documents on screen was workable out and about or at a desk.
The Surface Go has a USB-C port for accessories and power, alongside the Surface Connector to which the included charger magnetically attaches.
Hooking up the Surface Go to a 23in 1080p monitor, ethernet and power via a USB-C dock worked just fine – as did the Surface Dock, connected to power, ethernet and two 23in 1080p monitors. The Surface Go even drove a 4K display at 60Hz without breaking a sweat.
Overall, while the raw performance of the Surface Go in no way rivals a modern £1,000-plus laptop, or the higher configurations of Surface Pro, it is a capable little machine. You won’t be playing any graphically intensive games on it, or fancy trying to edit a movie on it, but browsing, using web apps in a desktop-class browser, Office duties and even photo manipulation in a proper image editor such as Affinity Photo are workable with a little patience.
Over four hours of full productivity
In my relatively heavy usage of the Surface Go as a productivity machine I got just under 4.5 hours with S Mode disabled and just under 4 hours in S Mode. That was with the Surface Go connected to an ethernet adapter, but no screens, and placed in better battery mode (which is the default mode when not plugged into power).
Used solely to watch Netflix, the Surface Go dropped around 0.3% per minute. That means you’ll be looking at just under 6 hours of video-watching time, which isn’t quite enough to get you across the Atlantic without topping up.
The Surface Pen is another £100 accessory. Unlike the Type Cover, it isn’t a must-buy for the Surface Go, but it is still great for a number of things.
You can use the same stylus with the Surface Pro and it behaves exactly the same on either machine, with no real noticeable lag and all the same pressure sensitives. It is easily one of the best pen-on-screen experiences available.
It’ll be most useful for those who like to draw on screen or take handwritten notes. Microsoft’s handwriting recognition is genuinely impressive, but it’s still slower than a virtual keyboard.
The Pen attaches to the left side of the tablet with a reassuring magnetic snap either facing the sky or the desk. It’s so firmly attached that it didn’t fall off once while I was getting it in and out of a bag during my testing.
The speakers are good and loud, but lack bass as you might expect and get a little shrill at high volumes
The screen has a 3:2 ratio, which means movies and TV shows have black bars at the top and bottom but it’s great for productivity
My trackpad made a small noise when you lift your finger from its surface in the last third closest to the edge of the keyboard
Chrome still isn’t great for smooth finger scrolling, making Edge a better bet when in tablet mode
The Surface Dial works just fine on the desk but not on the screen of the Surface Go
You can really tell the difference between best performance and better battery mode, but you’ll only be using better battery mode when out and about and unlikely to try and do quite as much simultaneously just because of the smaller screen
Windows 10 Home doesn’t include Microsoft’s BitLocker, but does include device encryption, which is a must particularly for portable machines that might get lost
Windows Hello is simply great, logging you in by just seeing your face, and it works as well on the Surface Go as on the Surface Pro
The bezels around the screen are large, but didn’t bother me much aside from the slightly dated look they create
The Microsoft Surface Go costs £379 with 64GB of eMMC storage and 4GB of RAM or £509 with 128GB of SSD and 8GB of RAM.
The Type cover costs £100 in black or £125 in silver, blue or burgundy Alcantara.
The Surface Pen costs £100 one of five colours.
For comparison, the Surface Pro starts at £649 with an Intel Core m3 processor, 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and Signature Type Cover. Apple’s iPad Pro starts at £619 and the Smart Keyboard costs £159.
The Surface Go demonstrates two things. The first is that budget PCs don’t have to suck – a cheap, low performance processor can do Ok if you pair it with other good but not top-of-the-line components.
The second is that Microsoft can make really great PCs even at lower price points.
As a media-consumption tablet, the Surface Pro is OK, but not the best. It gets solid video-watching battery life, has good speakers and the kickstand is just great. But a lack of apps holds it back compared to the best-in-class iPad.
As a productivity machine the Surface Go is really quite good. It won’t be winning any performance awards, but it’ll get the job done with a little patience and give you a nice experience with it. It is far better than non-PC tablets at getting real work done, with a desktop-class browser and proper keyboard and trackpad.
It’s also light and thin enough that you can chuck it in a bag and simply forget about it. Carrying it around instead of a 14in, 1.33kg laptop over the last few weeks really made a big difference to my back and USB-C means I can charge it almost anywhere when the 4.5 hours of battery isn’t quite enough.
The Surface Go is a great little machine but don’t be fooled by the price. The £100 Type Cover is a must, which means the Surface Go actually starts at £479. You can get a lot more power for your money, but you’ll struggle to get as good an experience.
Pros: slim, light, great screen, great kickstand, good speakers, USB-C, Windows Hello, great keyboard, full Windows 10, microSD card reader
Cons: relatively short battery life, no USB-A ports, £100 keyboard essential, not quite as cheap as it appears, weaker performance