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Lifewire / Jordan Provost
Plenty of ports
Middling battery life
Despite some clever innovations, the Microsoft Surface Go’s underperforming internals prevent it from living up to its productivity promises.
Microsoft has waded into the tablet market in recent years, attempting to offer a full Windows experience in a contained device, often a 2-in-1 affair that lets the user have the accessibility and form of a touchscreen tablet with all the power of a full-sized computer.
The Surface Go is another entry in Microsoft’s Surface line of products, this time focusing on providing a touchscreen-friendly Windows 10 experience at an affordable price point. We’ve been testing the Surface Go to see if it is powerful enough to provide for those who want a more lightweight alternative to a laptop, or if it’s just a bloated piece of middleware with an identity crisis.
The Surface Go is a bit chunkier than your average tablet and looks considerably less modern than many top-tier competitors in this category (understandable, given the lower price point). The 1800 x 1200 screen is surrounded by thick bezels, contributing to a very corporate and dated look to the device. Yet, unlike the competition, we think this could actually survive a few clumsy bumps and drops. It also wouldn’t be too much of a problem to leave this device with a child.
At a little over a pound, it’s far lighter than a laptop and would be easy to use on a daily commute. The device fit snugly into our backpacks, briefcases, and messenger bags without weighing us down. The wonderful and sturdy kickstand on the back of the device also provided us with a multitude of viewing angles for different use cases, from basic browsing to drawing with a stylus.
The ports on the Surface Go include one USB-C output, a charging port, and a port for the Surface Type Cover, as well as the most interesting additions: a 3.5 mm headphone jack and a MicroSDXC Card Reader slot, which both sit behind the hinge (we suspect Microsoft is taking design cues from the Nintendo Switch here).
Both of these ports have been scrapped by the competition—the iPad Pro has dropped the headphone jack entirely, and you have to compensate for the lack of card reader with a separate USB-C hub. So we were pleased with the Surface Go’s inclusion of these ports, and think they’re fairly important if you’re looking to spend less and deal with fewer of those dreaded “dongles.”
These additional [accessories] just inflate the price of what should be an affordable hybrid machine.
We mentioned earlier that the device comes with a port for the Surface Type Cover—to be clear, this accessory is not included in the price of the tablet. When you buy the Surface Go, you’re just buying the screen. And we think it indicates a design flaw that the (optional and separately-sold) keyboard truly feels like a make-or-break accessory for this device. Instead, it’s another $100 purchase.
If the Type Cover was bundled in with the product, it would be far easier for us to recommend the Surface Go outright. Its UI is designed to work like a fully-fledged laptop, which makes it frustrating to use without a keyboard. And the Surface Go even suffers without the Surface Pen, which makes document editing and other stylus-friendly tasks a breeze. But of course the Pen is not included either, and will cost you another $100.
Sure, Apple’s parallel offerings cost more. But the iPad is designed to be fully functional without any accessories. The Surface Go is the opposite and is definitely hampered without its add-ons, and these additional purchases just inflate the price of what should be an affordable hybrid machine.
Despite the annoyance of this extra expense, the Surface Go Type Cover is easily one of the best tablet keyboards on the market, with great key travel, a luxurious and precise trackpad, and multiple angles for typing. It feels far superior to Apple’s Smart Keyboard. The only caveat is that we felt it was a bit narrow.
The Surface Pen is also an impressive accessory with good pressure sensitivity, but we think it pales in comparison to the Apple Pencil. It’s fine if you’re a student looking to take notes or scroll through web pages, and we imagine performance may improve on the 8GB model. But we generally would not recommend the Surface Go as a drawing tablet—it simply cannot match the latency or accuracy of Apple or Wacom’s offerings.
The setup process for the Surface Go is simple and clean. Just hold down the power button and you will be met with the same setup process for any Windows 10 device. It required us to log into our Microsoft Account, choose our language, and connect to our Wi-Fi network.
It also gave us the option to set up Windows Hello, which is Microsoft's answer to Face ID. We took a snapshot of our face, and that became our password—just looking at the camera unlocks the device. Unfortunately, we found this to be a lot less effective in low light, so we definitely recommend setting up a PIN as a backup.
The screen is an 1800 x 1200 touchscreen LCD (not HD). The colour reproduction is solid and the display can reach a surprising brightness that makes it easily viewable outside, if not in direct sunlight. It also has intuitive gestures, like dragging left and right to switch between tabs
We streamed some videos on Netflix and noticed that, while the colors looked rich and the viewing angles were decent, the screen is just not as sharp as the competition. The problem is the same when browsing and reading articles—text occasionally looks blurry.
But the biggest issue with the display is the size. The screen is small, and due to the thick bezels, it’s hard to get two apps open side by side to multitask without encountering cramping problems. We had to lower the zoom in Chrome tabs just to transcribe notes to another document.
The cramped screen is also a productivity killer.
It’s even worse if you try to use the Surface Go without the Type Cover or Pen and have to make precision taps with your finger on different taskbar icons. Even just closing a browser tab was a pain and often required multiple taps—we much preferred using the Pen to get the job done.
It’s pretty frustrating that some of these basic functions seem made for the Pen, considering that the product is marketed as the single tablet and should be fully-functional without the accessories. The cramped screen is also a productivity killer, and without the accessories, it felt like we were using an un-optimized desktop webpage on our smartphone.
The split-view setup feels like a compromise on this device, and the way it operates is just not as clean as the competition. When we were dragging different programs around we could see them physically lurching across the screen instead of moving in one swift animation. It’s certainly usable, but it’s not pretty to look at.
The rest of our browsing experience on the Surface Go was similar—with just two tabs open in Chrome, performance was sluggish. Applications and web pages were slow to open, and we recommend you don’t bother with any intensive tasks like video or photo editing. We encountered some visual glitches in programs like Steam, and many of our games dragged, though some smaller titles like The Binding of Isaac and Minecraft ran fine.
In our GFXBench testing, the Surface Go topped out at 17 fps during the Car Chase test, and 68 fps during the T-Rex test. For comparison, the iPad Pro clocked in at 57 fps and 119 fps respectively.
In our Geekbench CPU benchmarking, the Surface Go attained a single-core score of 1,345 and a multi-core score of 3,743. This score lines up with the Pentium processor inside and explains the performance issues that plague the Surface Go. By comparison, the latest iPad Pro achieved a single-core score of 5,019 and a multi-core score of 18,090. The difference in performance is steep.
Therefore, if you’re considering purchasing the Surface Go, your workflow should include a limited number of programs, and you’re probably better off sticking to one program at a time. Our setup of Chrome, Spotify, and Outlook ran perfectly fine, and switching between them was fairly easy (despite a slight delay). Even holding and dragging over a multitude of files on the desktop led to noticeable visual lag.
Our review model had 64GB of eMMC storage, which meant the device felt sluggish as we started to fill it up. Similarly, searching for files and booting up programs was sometimes tedious. We’ve certainly seen worse performance than this, but you’re not in for a smooth ride if you plan to use this as a replacement for a PC to hold all your files.
The Microsoft Surface Go is better suited to be a device you keep in your bag and work on during your commute, or wherever else your primary laptop or PC is too clunky. But even in that scenario, the price point and the added cost of accessories make this a difficult device to recommend—it would probably be better to just use your smartphone for basic text editing, emailing, and other small tasks.
We were pleasantly surprised by the speakers on the Surface Go. It can get very loud, and the audio quality never waivers even at the top end thanks to a powerful front-facing stereo system. The Surface Go rebels against the current tablet trend of eliminating the headphone jack, so listening to music, consuming streaming content, and gaming is a joy (especially if you take advantage of those multitasking capabilities and listen while you work).
Throughout our testing, we never ran into any issues with Wi-Fi coverage on the Surface Go. In fact, download speeds were actually higher than the iPad Pro, hitting 94 Mbps during a speed test, compared to 72 Mbps on the Apple device. Upload speeds were comparatively worse though, at 3 Mbps to the iPad’s 6 Mbps.
When it comes to loading webpages and completing tasks, this device is limited by the internals rather than the network card. The poor Pentium processor and paltry 4GB of RAM really bog this machine down in almost all aspects.
The 5MP front-facing camera is nice and bright for Skype calls and the occasional selfie. The 8MP rear-facing camera is also surprisingly (and perhaps unnecessarily) good for a device of this kind. If you are the kind of person who takes photos with a tablet, this one has HDR and can capture delightful photos on the go, but it won’t impress more serious photographers.
The Surface Go advertises an impressive nine-hour battery life, but seeing as this is the kind of test performed by Microsoft in-house, results vary in the hands of a consumer.
We found that the Surface Go struggles to maintain an all-day battery life and varies wildly depending on how you’re using the device. It certainly gets better if you keep the brightness low, but we were consistently getting five to six hours out of the battery when using multiple apps. Not bad, but not amazing either.
The Surface Go ships with Windows 10 in S Mode, which is essentially a watered-down version of the operating system that only allows you to download apps and programs approved by the Windows Store. Given the performance issues we have detailed so far, this feels like a voluntary blindfold you can wear to mitigate the sluggish performance of the Surface Go.
There are no real benefits to using S Mode unless you have an extremely simple workflow, and even then, there’s always going to be an urge to find out what’s behind the curtain. S Mode strips out features like Command Prompt and Regedit for advanced users, but it’s also not guaranteed that every app the average consumer would want is available on the store. Google Chrome, for example, is missing (much to the benefit of Microsoft Edge).
There are no real benefits to using S Mode unless you have an extremely simple workflow.
Apple does this with the App Store on the latest iPad, locking users to the programs that it deems worthy of the system, but at least in that case you are receiving most of the premier versions of the applications you’re well-acquainted with.
Even when we switched out of S Mode, the applications we had downloaded still didn’t perform at full capacity, especially on the touchscreen. The operating system and its software have a bit of an identity crisis—it’s not touchscreen friendly like its competitors with dedicated operating systems, but even when it offers up a fully-featured version of Windows 10, it takes a suite of accessories and a lot of patience to achieve its full potential.
The Microsoft Surface Go starts out very affordable: the base model costs $399 MSRP. But if you want to do anything productive, you’ll need the Type Cover and perhaps the Surface Pen, which ups the price to about $600.
Due to the performance we’ve outlined so far, you probably want to consider the upgraded model too, which bumps the storage to a more palatable 128GB of storage and a healthier 8GB of RAM. This model costs $549 MSRP for the Wi-Fi version, or $679 with added LTE connectivity. Throw in the essential Type Cover, and you’re paying about $650 or $780 respectively. At this point, the Surface Go is no longer affordable, which undermines the entire value proposition of the product.
The Surface Go starts at $399. But with the necessary accessories and a usable amount of internal storage, that price is more like $600 or $800. With that more realistic price range in mind, the competition is much tougher.
The more professional tablet in Microsoft’s range, the Surface Pro 6, starts at $899 and offers a marked upgrade in performance. The 11-inch 2018 iPad Pro starts at $799 and is a productivity powerhouse that never breaks a sweat. And the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 includes its own smart pen, a more productive operating system, and a far superior AMOLED display, all for $650.
In every case, you’re paying more for your device, but the monumental hardware upgrade is absolutely worth it. Unless you’re set on the $399 base model of the Surface Go without any of the bells and whistles, you’re better off buying one of these more capable competitors.
Relies too much on accessories to be a good tablet, not powerful enough to replace a laptop.
With the accessories and additional storage factored in, the Surface Go creeps toward a high-end price point that the low-end internals cannot justify. It is a capable device for basic use, but it falters dramatically when it comes to actual multitasking or productivity.