Sunday, May 22, 2022

Microsoft Surface Go review: a little goes a long way

The Surface Go isn’t what you’d expect.

I’ve been using it for a week now and what I was expecting was a low-end Windows computer to go along with its processor and price. I was expecting to be unimpressed with its small keyboard. We’ve seen this story before, after all: first with netbooks and then with the original low-end Surfaces. You usually get something that promises to offer something like what you’re used to on a full-power device, but end up frustrated and annoyed.

What I wasn’t expecting was that the Surface Go would be such a joy to use — the only caveat being that I’m using the more expensive model that costs $680 with a keyboard. If you stay within its limits, the Surface Go is perhaps the most delightful computer Microsoft has ever shipped. You just have to know what to expect before you buy it.


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Ultra portable
  • Great keyboard
  • Good battery life

Bad Stuff

  • Big bezels mean screen is cramped
  • Dongles
  • Upgraded model is pricey

The Surface Go is a 10-inch hybrid tablet-laptop Windows computer. It’s just really small, honestly. That seems like an obvious point to make, but it’s the essence of what the Surface Go is: A very tiny Surface. I said in my last video that I have a soft spot for tiny computers. They’re just a little more convenient to carry around and the tradeoffs in performance are usually worth it for me. The sign of a good tiny computer is that you have to check to make sure it’s actually in your bag when you leave the house. And I have had to check several times — it weighs 1.15 pounds on its own.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is typing on the slightly-less-than-full-size keyboard. I found it only took me a few hours to get used to it, and I’ve been able to jam along without more typos that usual. It uses traditional scissor switches, which means that there’s good key travel. The keys themselves are slightly domed, which might help just a little with accuracy. The glass Precision trackpad is similarly good — just big enough so that you don’t feel cramped using it.

The hardware build quality is really nice. It has a full-range hinge on the kickstand that works at pretty much any angle. The body is made out of magnesium with slightly more rounded edges than other Surface computers. One downside is that the bezels around the 1800 x 1200 touchscreen are just huge. Really big, and it makes the machine feel super cramped. Beyond making it easier to hold in tablet mode, I suspect those bezels exist to make room for the webcam and magnetic keyboard connector. Whatever the reason, they make an otherwise premium machine feel a little frumpy.

I have mixed feelings about the port situation. I’m glad there’s microSD for storage expansion and I’m glad there’s a USB-C port. You can charge over it, but you will also likely need to get some dongles. It comes with a magnetically attaching Surface Connector, but unfortunately the charging brick doesn’t have a USB-A port (the larger Surface Pro charger does). Another downside: iFixit points out that this computer is basically unrepairable if something goes wrong. So getting Microsoft’s extended warranty isn’t the worst idea.

I’ve been getting about six hours of active use on the battery, which is fairly decent. Microsoft rates battery life by just running a video loop, which it claims will get you nine hours. I’ve been impressed with how quickly the Surface Go charges both on its Surface Connector charger and on high-powered USB-C chargers.

To get to something this small, Microsoft had to make a few changes to what you think of as a standard Windows computer. The first and most important is the processor, an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y chip. Normally, when we talk about low-end processors for tiny computers, we’re talking about Atom chips back in the day or Intel’s Core m3 line. This chip is something a little different and, yes, much better than I expected.

The Surface Go isn’t exactly fast, but I’ve had no issues with slowdowns doing my day-to-day computer stuff. All the basics of browsing in Edge, Word, Spotify, Outlook for email, and so on, were fast enough for me. Chrome did manage to bog down a little, but that’s not a huge surprise.

Even though I was pleasantly surprised by the power of this chip, let’s not get carried away. This is very much not a gaming machine, not even a little. But I still was a little sad to see even a Microsoft exclusive like Ori and the Blind Forest felt a little laggy. I also installed Steam and tried Transistor, which ran better.

We also put it through some workflows with Adobe Lightroom CC Classic. For light photo editing, it works in a pinch. But heavier work like stitching panoramas together or batch processing lots of photos really made it chug. Honestly, the bigger issue with editing photos was the smaller screen. You find yourself leaning in way closer than is comfortable.

Part of the reason my performance was so good is that I have the upgraded model, which bumps up the RAM and storage. All that extra RAM really helps with multitasking and makes Windows much nicer to use.

The base model costs $399 and comes with just 64GB of eMMC storage and 4GB of RAM. The updated model costs $549 and comes with 128GB of SSD storage and 8GB of RAM. On both models, you will want to buy a keyboard. There are two options there: the basic one is a hundred bucks, but I really do prefer the $130 version with Alcantara fabric.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the lower-end model, but unfortunately the only version I’ve tested is the higher-end model. Though I haven’t tried the cheaper one, I can comfortably guess that it will be a dog. There are two big reasons for that. The first is that it uses eMMC storage, which is historically much slower than SSD. The second is that it only has 4GB of RAM. You can use Windows 10 with just 4GB of RAM, but you won’t want to.

All of which brings me to S Mode, the version of Windows that the Surface Go ships with. By default, it will only run apps that are available in the Windows Store. But the apps you want to run on Windows aren’t in the Windows Store. For me, that means stuff like 1Password and the Amazon Kindle app (which was inexplicably pulled from the store). For you, it might mean Chrome or Firefox or some other Windows app.

Turning off S Mode is easy — it doesn’t even require a reboot. And I think many people will find that One App they need and end up turning off S Mode. Which opens the floodgates to installing more power and RAM-hungry apps, which means that 4GB isn’t going to be enough.

The thing I love most about Windows is that it never tells you “no, you can’t do that.” Whether you’re using a top-tier gaming laptop or a low-end device like the Surface Go, the same software is available to you. That blessing is also a curse, because you can very easily end up trying to run software that has no place on a low-end machine.

It’s possible to limit yourself to just simple apps on a Surface Go, but doing so gets rid of a lot of the reasons for getting this computer. That’s why I recommend the more expensive model. You’ll get the benefits of a small and light computer, but you’ll still be able to do more intensive tasks from time to time.

Its price — $680 — is not exactly cheap and before I used this computer extensively, I thought it would put this machine in an awkward pricing range that would make it good for nobody. People who want a cheap computer would get a Chromebook or iPad, people who want a good PC for around $700 would find a full-sized laptop. Those assumptions are not entirely wrong.

But the wrong assumption I made is that the Surface Go fits into either of those categories. Instead, it’s exactly what it claims to be: a small Surface. Something about using it just engenders affinity, I enjoyed using this computer every day and was continually impressed at how well it multitasked. Sure, it commands a more expensive asking price, but in return gives you a better experience.

We don’t overthink the iPad Pro, which starts at over $800 with a keyboard. There’s no need to overthink the Surface Go, either. It’s good.

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