Microsoft Surface Go review
We all have a dream of our perfect gadget, don’t we? It’s smart and accessible like a smartphone, powerful and robust like a laptop, has flawless touch support, endless battery life, and is light enough to hold in one hand. Microsoft’s Surface devices have done more than any other to make that dream reality. Yet they’ve also revealed that building a no-compromise PC isn’t easy.
The Surface Go is Microsoft’s most recent attempt at fulfilling that dream, and a follow-up to the Surface 3 from 2015. It’s a 10-inch tablet running a full version of Windows 10 with an Intel Pentium chip at its heart, and it starts at just $400. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Microsoft has made meaningful improvements.
The return of the Surface
The original Surface wasn’t just the first 2-in-1 device of its kind — it was also Microsoft’s first foray into designing and manufacturing hardware. It’s hard to believe how great the Surface Go looks and feels just six years in. It’s a single piece of unibody aluminum, in many ways reminiscent of the original iPad. The light silver color and rounded corners are playful, inviting you to pick it up and tap away.
Another thing the Surface Go has in common with the original iPad is large, symmetrical bezels. By bucking the trend of ultrathin bezels around the display, the otherwise luxurious Surface Go looks a tad outdated. Microsoft might think they make holding the tablet easier, but in the age of bezel-less laptops and smartphones, they’re serious eyesores. They also increase the footprint of the tablet and decrease the screen real estate available, both of which are important to small, portable devices. When you’re talking about a screen this small, every millimeter counts.
At 1.15 pounds and 0.33 inches, the Surface Go is a tiny bit thicker and heavier than the iPad but feels secure enough to hold one-handed, or throw in your bag. While it’s only a hair thinner than the Surface 3, Microsoft has managed to trim off 0.24 pounds, which does make a difference. You can use the Surface Go in the same way we would an iPad. That’s not something we can say about Windows 2-in-1s, including the Surface Pro.
The light silver color and rounded corners are playful, inviting you to pick it up and tap away.
Like the Surface Pro, switching between tablet and laptop mode is easy and intuitive. Once the magnetic edge of the Type Cover latches on to the edge of the screen, Windows 10 recognizes it and puts you in tablet mode. The kickstand is also outstanding. It’s sturdy, easy to adjust, and leans at just the right angle for on-screen typing and swiping. Like the Surface Pro, the device is hard to balance on your lap, but the Go’s smaller footprint helps it stay put on coffee shop tables, airplane trays, and other cramped spaces.
We also enjoyed the design of the Signature Type Cover keyboard ($130), which doesn’t come bundled (but absolutely should). It’s again made from a textured Alcantara material, which gives it that distinctive Surface aesthetic. You can also spring for the cheaper, plastic Type Cover, which is $100. Regardless of which you choose, we vastly prefer these over the plastic keyboard and flimsy kickstand of the iPad’s Smart Keyboard.
Typing on the Surface Go is surprisingly comfortable
Fortunately, the Type Cover feels as good as it looks. There isn’t a ton of travel in the keys, but compared to the keyboards of the MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 15 2-in-1, the Surface Go’s keyboard is downright tactile. You can also magnetically tilt the keyboard up at an incline, which makes typing an all-around enjoyable experience.
The layout is cramped, however, due to the device’s small size. That led to a lot of mistyping at first. The placement of the top row of letter keys compared to the middle row is off. We found ourselves often typing “Digiyal Ytrnds” instead of “Digital Trends,” for example. But as with all keyboards, the layout became familiar, and its great key feel made typing more comfortable than expected.
The touchpad is better than laptops hundreds of dollars more expensive. It’s not glass, but it’s smooth and feels precise. Gestures are responsive and accurate thanks to the use of Windows Precision drivers, and the click isn’t as stiff or loud as on XPS machines. It’s balanced perfectly. Microsoft included the new Surface Mobile Mouse with our review unit, but not a Surface Pen. While Microsoft claims inking to be an essential part of the Windows experience on the go, it continues to leave it out of the package.
For ports, you’re looking at a single USB-C 3.1 port, a headphone jack, and Surface Dock connection. Though you’ll have to pay extra from the Surface Dock, the proprietary power cable in the box also hooks in here. That’s not a great selection, but on a tablet, it feels more appropriate.
Our Surface Go review unit includes standard Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, but not LTE. A separate LTE model has since been launched, but it comes with a considerable price premium. With other Always Connected PCs out there offering built-in LTE connections without an upcharge, not including it in the base model feels like a misstep. The Surface Go is the kind of device that’s made to be portable, and yet outside of a Wi-Fi connection, it may as well be dead weight.
A bright, beautiful display
The Surface Go has a wonderful display. It’s not as high-resolution as the iPad, but on a 10-inch screen, its 1,800 x 1,200 resolution is a high enough pixel density to keep text sharp. The Surface Go was bright, maxing out at 420 nits in our tests. That’s better than most laptops, especially at this price point, and especially important since the Surface Go is likely to be used in brightly lit spaces, or even outdoors.
The display has a wide color gamut, showing 97 percent of the sRGB color space and 74 percent of the AdobeRGB space. We’ve seen better on devices like the MacBook Pro or ThinkPad X1 Yoga, but this is impressive performance for a machine at this price point. Average color error was a little high, but not to the point where we noticed in daily usage. Great displays have been consistent across the Surface products, including the older tablets, but we’re happy to see Microsoft not cut corners here.
The stereo speakers are decent, providing a surprising amount of bass and volume to fill up a room. However, because of their placement at the top of the device, it’s a bit strange to use it in vertical orientation and have all the sound come out from one side.
Disappointing performance holds the Go back
Performance was one of the biggest issues with the original line of Surface tablets. Microsoft promised these products would work like any other laptop, yet they were hampered by the weak components and a limited operating system. The Surface Go was supposed to fix that problem by running with an Intel chip based on the Core architecture that would prove capable as a productivity machine. Unfortunately, that’s not how it feels.
Even a cheap Chrome OS system, like the Acer Chromebook Tab, performed 38 percent better.
The Pentium 4415Y featured in the Surface Go handles more conventional applications like Microsoft Word or Photoshop Express just fine. When you’re focused on a single task, you might even forget it’s a tablet with a slower processor. It’s in more web-based workflows that the Surface Go hits a bottleneck. We’re not talking about editing video or playing games — just a dozen or so browser tabs. It’s not incapable, but you’ll run across stuttering and choppiness in web apps like Trello or WordPress.
To demonstrate just how clunky the Surface Go feels compared to the $330 iPad, we ran the Speedometer 2.0 benchmark on both systems, which simulates the responsiveness of web applications. The iPad nearly doubled the performance of the Surface Go, and even a cheap Chrome OS device like the Acer Chromebook Tab performed 38 percent better. Meanwhile, it’s on par with a Qualcomm-powered system like the Asus NovaGo or Lenovo Miix 620. It seems clear in both cases that these are underpowered chips for Windows 10.
The results don’t look much better in our standard benchmarks. The Surface Go didn’t do all well in GeekBench, especially in multi-core scores, which explains some of its difficulty with the environment we described.
As a real-world benchmark, we encode a 4K video in Handbrake in systems we review to see they perform. The Surface Go needed 18 minutes to complete the test, full premium Core-based laptops finish in just a couple. It’s certainly a step up from the Atom processors used in the original Surface, but when you hand over a full version of Windows 10 to someone (even in S Mode), people will expect it to perform in those situations like a normal laptop. If you stick to a single task at a time, though, you’ll do alright.
Our review unit included a 128GB Toshiba SSD, which boasted decent read speeds, but unusual write speed performance. Our first few runs gave us respectable results of 500 to 600 megabytes per second, but after that, it sank down to about 100. There seems to be a caching problem here, but we haven’t yet heard from Microsoft about it. The base $400 configuration features only a 64GB eMMC drive, which is typically much slower than a standard SSD.
Not for games, period
You probably didn’t think the Surface Go could play modern games, and you’d be correct in that assumption. While it handles games like Minecraft or Asphalt alright, anything beyond that is out of the question. The Surface Go uses integrated Intel HD Graphics 615, and the performance results aren’t great in either benchmarks or actual gameplay.
While an iPad can run a game like Fortnite well, it’s barely playable on the Surface Go. Even with the settings dropped to the absolute lowest, it was hovering around 30 FPS throughout.
Good enough battery life to suffice
The Surface Go needs to have a long-lasting battery, especially since it’s a tablet. In our testing, we found it endures just long enough to be adequate. For short bursts of activity, you won’t have to plug the Surface Go in every day. When used as a productivity machine, the small 27 watt-hour battery will last most of a work day.
We ran a 1080p video on loop with the screen at 100 lux, and it made it to just over eight hours. In our more strenuous web browsing benchmark, it lasted two hours and fifty minutes, while on a more general web browsing loop, it lasted five hours. That can’t compete with the Surface Pro or other premium laptops, but it’s not bad for a rig in this price range.
However, the iPad can outlast it, as can the Qualcomm-powered Asus NovaGo and Lenovo Miix 620 PCs. These Always Connected PCs last upward of twenty hours, which gives them a serious edge over the Surface Go.
The Windows tablet experience is lackluster
While it feels great to hold in one hand and scroll down a web page with, there’s just not a lot to do in tablet mode with the Surface Go.
The app situation for tablet usage on Windows is as dire as it ever was. If you thought it was bad on Android tablets back in the day, you’d consider yourself spoiled, especially if you were only leaning on the Microsoft Store selection in S Mode. Some of the simple stuff is still there, whether it’s Twitter or Netflix, which have interfaces designed for touch. But some tablet favorites like YouTube and Kindle are straight-up missing, while others aren’t optimized for touch at all (Spotify, Facebook, Evernote, and so on). For those, you’re left to carefully poke through web apps and desktops apps that were clearly designed for keyboard and mouse.
Microsoft Surface Go Compared To
Even tablet mode in Windows 10 is severely lacking in functionality. There’s no split-screen mode, no intuitive way of switching between apps, and no touch-friendly settings menu. Instead, you’ll be stuck tapping through the taskbar or hitting the Start menu every time you want to make a switch. It works — but not well.
The Surface Go won’t be the right fit for most people. It’s just not good enough at being a laptop or a tablet on its own. However, the Surface Go could be perfect for the type of person that would never spend a thousand dollars on a new laptop or feel comfortable on something like a Chromebook. For them, this might be the affordable, hybrid 2-in-1 they’ve always wanted.
In some ways the Surface Go is in a product category of its own, making it hard to compare to others. It’s certainly the best Windows 2-in-1 at this price point, though that’s not saying a lot. The Qualcomm-powered PCs like the Asus NovaGo and Lenovo Miix 620 are a bit bigger but offer similar functionality. They’re also more expensive.
Our favorite Chromebook, the Samsung Chromebook Pro, is a 2-in-1 device with a similar starting price. Though it isn’t as light as the Surface Go, it performs betters and has a rich library of touch-ready apps, thanks to the Google Play Store. You could also spring for the base model Pixel Slate, which starts at $599. The tablet experience is more full-featured there, even though the software is still a bit unrefined.
The best alternative, though, is the iPad. At $330, it’s a far superior tablet than the Surface Go. While the keyboard and productivity experience isn’t nearly as robust, the recent updates to multitasking make it a more feasible workstation.
How long will it last?
The Surface Go’s processor isn’t the most capable and might feel a bit outdated within a few years.
Microsoft provides a standard one-year warranty, which matches nearly every other PC manufacturer out there. If you’re near a Microsoft Store, you have access to additional support such as 12 months of technical assistance and a free training session with your device.
Should you buy it?
The Surface Go will appeal to a small, niche group of people who are looking for a cheap, portable PC. An average shopper, though, will be better off choosing between a budget Windows 10 laptop or an iPad.