Microsoft Surface Go review

WE ARE FANS of Microsoft’s Surface devices, having praised both the fifth-generation Surface Pro and the Surface Laptop for effectively setting the standard for Windows 10 hybrids and ultraportables, respectively.

But when Redmond revealed its smaller, lower-powered cheaper Surface Go, we raised a curious eyebrow; is this an iPad Pro competitor, a low-end Windows 10 device, or something else altogether?

It turns out it’s all three in various different ways. But we’ll need to pick the device apart to explain why.

Unsurprisingly, the Surface Go looks exactly like a shrunken Surface Pro with its 10in display sat in a soft-touch rectangular magnesium alloy chassis.

The edges are more rounded than those on the Surface Pro and there’s no gap for venting heat, while a slightly textured light grey bar runs the length of the top of the tablet where the rear camera sits.

A power button and volume rocker sits on the top edge of the tablet, while on the right, you’ll find the proprietary Surface Connector for handling power, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a USB-C port – sadly not Thunderbolt 3 – that can handle charging and external display connectivity, or be hooked up to connect USB-A accessories.

Around the back, there’s the rather lovely kickstand that folds nearly flat to allow the Surface Go to turn from a tablet into a propped-up display or pushed back to form a dinky digital canvas.

Behind the kickstand sits a microSD card slot, which some might find useful but we’d still rather have a full-sized slot.

Microsoft has ensured that the excellent build quality of its Surface devices extends to the Surface Go, with the chassis feeling solid and buttons clicking in a nice and tactile fashion.

Into the pleasant chassis, Microsoft’s engineering boffins have fitted a 10in PixelSense display with a resolution of 1,800×1,200, which is a tad lower than that of the Surface Pro.

But the loss of 2-inches of 3:2 aspect ratio screen space means a pixel density of 217 pixels per inch, which means while the Surface Go’s screen throws up clear text and icons, it’s not quite the sharpest tablet screen we’ve seen. 

Colours are nice and vibrant and fairly accurate, while there’s a healthy dose of contrast and brightness as well, which is what we’ve come to expect from PixelSense displays.

As a result, word documents look crisp and clear and watching videos on Netflix or YouTube when holding the tablet or propping it up like a digital picture frame, is a pleasant experience, particularly as the built-in stereo speakers, are surprisingly clear and punchy.

The bezels around the display are a little chunky for our tastes, given they measure the same as those on the larger Surface Pro.

We get that there’s a need to have somewhere to rest your digits when using the Go as a tablet but we can’t help think that with some slick edge detection tech or some way to put in virtual bezels, the physical ones could be trimmed down giving more screen real-estate and a more modern look when the Go is attached to the Type Cover.

Keyboard and trackpad
Speaking of which, the Surface Go’s Type Cover is a surprisingly lovely accessory to use. This isn’t too surprising given the improvements Microsoft has made to the Type Cover with each Surface generation.

We were initially expecting the keyboard to feel a tad cramped, and while it isn’t quite as nice to use as the Type Cover for the Surface Pro, we needn’t have worried as we very quickly got used to it and our fingers were touch typing within around 10 minutes of using the Surface Go.

Key travel is nice for such a slim keyboard cover which helps make typing feel nice and responsive. The Type Cover can’t match the tactile feeling of a true keyboard on a decent laptop but that’s an unfair comparison, and it’s more than good enough to hack out wordy emails and articles.

There’s backlighting here as it the case with previous Type Covers and the trackpad is nice and accurate to use thanks to a glass top and the use of Windows Precision drivers.

The smaller size of the Surface Go arguably makes it easier to use as an actual on-the-lap laptop than the Surface Pro as the space needed for the keyboard and the kickstand to facilitate the laptop mode is a good bit smaller.

This could make the Surface Go a nifty device for working while on less than spacious commutes or when flying in cramped economy class.

We found ourselves prodding at the touchscreen a lot more with the Go than with the Surface Pro as the smaller size meant it’s easier to tap some icons in some circumstances than use the trackpad. It might seem odd but we felt this had us getting more out of the Go and using it in the mixed-inputs fashion a hybrid device facilitates.

Our only real gripe is, yet again, the fact that the Type Cover isn’t included with the Surface Go and is positioned by Microsoft as a £100 plus accessory when it’s really an essential part of the Surface Go experience. As such, you need to add extra on top of the £379 price tag of the base Surface Go, which you shouldn’t get as we’re about to explain.

Performance and battery life
There are two Surface Go models on offer; one with 4GB and 64GB of storage or 8GB and 128GB of SSD space. We had the latter but both models come with Intel’s Pentium Gold 44115Y.

It’s a low-power processor, less gutsy that a Core m3, and with a clock speed of 1.6GHz, the CPU is hardly a nippy slice of silicon. In Geekbench 4 the Surface Go managed 2,116 in the single-core test and 4,101 for a multi-core score.

Those are not exactly high scores and the latest 9.7in iPad scores more and a 10.5in iPad Pro will smoke the Go in the benchmarks.

But benchmarks only paint one picture. In real-world day-to-day work use, such as email, web browsing, word processing and bothering colleagues on Slack, the Surface Go copes admirably. It doesn’t exactly sprint through loading web pages in Chrome but it can still handle a good few tabs open at the same time alongside some other apps.

With 8GB RAM, the Surface Go can at times feel slicker that a Surface Pro with 4GB of RAM when using memory hogs like Chrome. We’d go so far as saying the 4GB Surface Go is not worth your time, even though its base price might appeal, as that amount of RAM is the bare minimum needed to keep Windows 10 ticking along; 8GB delivers a much nicer experience and would help give the Surface Go a dose of future-proofing.

Anything beyond the lightest indie gaming or Plants vs Zombies isn’t going to fare well on the Surface Go. And it’s not really designed to be a device for heavy photo editing. But for most work within the Office suite, the Go is surprisingly capable.

Hook up a USB-C dongle with a few extra ports and you can use the Go alongside an external display, keyboard and mouse and effectively have a dual screen desktop setup; try doing that with an iPad Pro. There’s about enough power here to showcase just how flexible the Surface Go can be.

Battery life is sadly disappointing. With the display at its brightest and the Surface Go set to deliver full performance, we found the battery drained some 24 per cent in around an hour of browsing and working within Google Docs.

Knock the display brightness down a notch and the Surface Go will put in around five or six hours before gasping out for electrical juice, despite the claimed nine hours by Microsoft. It could be worse but equally, it could be quite a bit better.

Normally there’s not much to be said about a Windows 10 machine that hasn’t been said before. But the Surface Go is a tad more interesting given it comes with Windows 10 S set up as default.

Designed to be a lightweight take on Windows, sort of in the vein of Chrome OS, Windows 10 S is limited to only Microsoft’s own and approved third-party apps that you’ll find on the Microsoft Store.

It’s OK for basic work but the Microsoft Store is rather limited, with not a great deal of apps optimised for touch-only navigation, which isn’t great if you’ve not opted for the Type Cover with the Go.

Luckily, Windows 10 Home is sitting behind the S version and can be easily activated in the settings menu. Without a restart, the doors are then open to full-fat Windows 10.

And that means access to the myriad of software we’ve all got used to is granted, providing you don’t go downloading overly demanding apps.

But again, the open nature of Windows 10 is best enjoyed mousing around and hitting at in the Surface Go’s laptop mode.

A lack of tablet-orientated apps in the Microsoft Store – Netflix is present and correct but Amazon Prime Video isn’t – means the Surface Go can’t compete with the iPad or Android slates when used simply as a tablet.

Unless you’re happy using browser-based services or web apps, the Surface Go isn’t ideal as media consumption device in the same way an iPad was.

But we highly doubt anyone will buy the Go to use it just as a tablet. Rather, it’s more likely to appeal to people who want a compact productivity gadget that can occasionally be used as a slate for sketching on with the Surface Pen accessory or as a tablet suitable for perusing the odd website or online article such as the one you’re peepers are glued to right now.

In short
The Surface Go is an interesting gadget. It’s a better work device than the iPad Pro but can’t beat it as pure tablet experience.

But at the same time, given we can’t recommend you get anything other than the £510 model with a £100 Type Cover, and for more than £600, it’s a pretty expensive Windows 10 machine for the specs it offers.

And the less than stellar battery life and thick bezels make the Surface Go feel a bit dated in 2018.

Yet we can’t help feel a bit smitten with the machine, probably because the Surface Go is simply a smaller and cheaper Surface Pro. But if you have the latter, you’re not really going to want the former.

However, if you are after a second machine for road warrior-esque work or are a student that wants to live the hybrid Windows 10 life, then the Surface Go is worth a closer look.

Yes, there are cheaper hybrids and Chromebooks are still arguably the king of cheap and cheerful work machines.

Still, the quality and flexibility of the Surface Go makes is a very appealing machine and much like its larger siblings, it sets the standard to what more affordable Windows 10 hybrids should aspire to; well done Microsoft.

The good
Well built hardware, gorgeous display, flexible hybrid use.

The bad
It’s not exactly powerful, Type Cover is a still a costly extra, USB-C port lacks Thunderbolt 3.

The ugly
Battery life leaves much to be desired, thick bezels date the design.

Bartender’s score

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