On paper, Microsoft’s miniature Surface Pro, the Surface Go (starting at $399), crushes Apple’s iPad into the ground.
The Surface Go offers a full Windows 10 desktop experience compared to the iPad’s blown-up version of iOS. You can also sign into the Go with your face using Windows Hello. It supports the Microsoft Pen stylus and the Type Cover keyboard, which comes with a trackpad. The Go also has a small, but equally as robust, kickstand just like the Surface Pro.
And yet, I can’t say I really enjoyed using the device over the last few days.
The Surface Go is Microsoft’s attempt to make its Surface devices accessible to more people. Think of it as a gateway into the Surface ecosystem.
Starting at $399, it’s half the price of the entry-level $799 Surface Pro. The tablet’s lower price also means — whether Microsoft likes it or not — its main competitor is the iPad: both the 9.7-inch iPad (starts at $329) and 10.5-inch iPad Pro (starts at $649).
I applaud Microsoft for lowering the Surface entry fee, but the Surface Go’s too underpowered and the full Windows 10 experience isn’t optimized well for such a small screen.
Even though it’s definitely more powerful, the parallels between the Surface Go and netbooks (remember those?) gave me goosebumps.
A mini-sized Surface Pro
It’s virtually impossible to look at the Surface Go and and not think: Aww, it’s a baby Surface Pro. It’s so cute!
The Surface Go is indeed an adorable little tablet, especially when you pair it with a Type Cover keyboard and Surface Pen.
It’s roughly the size of a 10.5-inch iPad Pro and only a little thicker (0.33 inches versus 0.30 inches) and slightly heavier (1.15 pounds versus 1.03 pounds). You’ll barely notice it in your backpack or purse.
The Surface Go sports a 10-inch 3:2 aspect display with 1,800 x 1,200 resolution and some really thick bezels surrounding it.
It’s a solid screen that’s bright and has wide viewing angles, but the bezels really make it look terribly dated. Every tablet’s moving towards slimmer bezels and I can’t help but wish Microsoft had fit a larger screen into the durable magnesium body.
The built-in kickstand extends up to 165 degrees and is as satisfying as ever to open up. At no point during my daily use did the kickstand feel like it’d snap. Push the kickstand back, and you’ll find a microSD card slot for storage expansion.
Cut into the Surface Go’s left and right bezels are a pair of front-facing stereo speakers with support for Dolby Audio Premium. They are not the clearest or loudest-sounding speakers on a tablet — the iPad Pro’s quad speakers are better in my opinion — but they are front-firing, which makes it almost impossible to muffle them with your hands.
There’s a 5-megapixel HD camera on the front and then 8-megapixel camera on the back. The cameras work well in a pinch for video calls and I love that that the front camera supports Windows Hello sign-in with your face (it sure beats entering a password or PIN code).
The Go doesn’t have many ports: just one USB-C 3.1 port, headphone jack, and the Surface Connector. Both the USB-C port and the Connector can be used to charge up the tablet. And with the Surface Dock ($199), you can also expand the number of ports to more.
Having toured Microsoft’s durability labs where Surface devices are designed and stress-tested, I expected nothing but the best and Microsoft really delivered with top-notch hardware for the Go.
It’s so painfully slow
I wish it wasn’t so, but the Surface Go’s biggest weakness is performance. It’s too slow and sluggish for getting any real work done.
I had concerns about performance when Microsoft first told me the Surface Go was powered by an Intel Pentium Gold seventh-generation Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y processor and limited RAM (the $399 model comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage and the 8GG of RAM with 128GB of storage) and they were confirmed during my testing.
This Pentium chip is significantly slower than the Intel Core m3 chip inside of the entry-level Surface Pro. Microsoft touts 33 percent faster graphics than a Intel Core i5-powered Surface Pro 3 and 20 percent faster graphics performance than Core i7-powered Surface Pro 3, but honestly, none of these figures really matter because the Surface Go chokes up fast under even light usage.
Google Chrome, an app that pretty much everyone uses, couldn’t handle more than a couple of open tabs. Loading websites was unusually slow on both my fast work and home WiFi. Scrolling with the touchscreen was often not very smooth within Chrome (using the Type Cover’s trackpad to scroll is smoother, but it still sometimes stuttered).
For what it’s worth, Microsoft’s Edge browser works way better than Chrome on the Surface Go. I saw almost none of the janky scrolling issues while using Edge.
Many of these problems were most apparent in Chrome, but the slowness is noticeable all throughout Windows 10 on the Surface Go. There’s lag when opening photos. There’s lag when launching apps. There’s even lag when opening up the settings to change the desktop wallpaper. Even on my higher-spec’d Surface Go review unit with 8GB of RAM, the slowdown was too real.
Not to mention, Windows 10 doesn’t work very well for on such small touchscreen. Out of the box, the OS is magnified to 150 percent to make things easier to tap. But if you try to open up two apps in split-screen, the text is often either too large or too small. There’s just not enough screen to properly multitask with multiple windows.
iOS works so well on an iPad because it was designed for touch, not mouse and keyboard. Windows 10 was made for the other way around. For a good Windows 10 touchscreen experience, the screen really needs to be larger. The Surface Pro’s 12.3-inch screen feels like the smallest size a touch-enabled Windows 10 device can go to work really well.
By default the Surface Go ships with Windows 10 in “S Mode.” If you recall, this is the version of Windows 10 that only lets you install apps from the Microsoft Store. S Mode’s great — Windows 10 performance is smoother and more secure — if all the apps you need are already available in the app store.
S Mode, however, is unusable for most people like me. I need apps like Google Chrome and Adobe Photoshop CC that can only be installed with S Mode turned off. And while turning S Mode off only takes a few seconds, it’s irreversible.
Microsoft claims up to 9 hours of continuous battery life for the Surface Go, but this is only for watching offline video.
In real-world use, I got between 4 to 7.5 hours with the default battery optimization set to prioritize better battery life over performance.
Streaming YouTube videos at full HD resolution or a video on Netflix drained the Surface Go at a rate of about 13-14 percent an hour. My workload of using Chrome with about a dozen tabs, listening to music on Spotify, and watching a few short videos drained the battery at a rate of between 20-25 percent an hour.
As always, battery life is going to vary depending on your own personal workload and device settings. It goes without saying that lowering the brightness or switching Windows 10 to the battery saver mode will increase battery life. That said, I had to set the battery to “Better performance” or “Best performance” to mitigate much of the Surface Go’s sluggishness, and even then it still lagged.
Don’t get me wrong, the Surface Go’s touchscreen is certainly responsive to fingers and the Surface Pen, and you can for sure get a light amount of work done on the device if you can deal with the barely-acceptable performance, but do you really want to?
Same goes for the Type Cover keyboard (sold separately). The accessory connects to the Surface Go with a simple magnet, the keys have good travel, and the trackpad is on point, but do you really want to type on such a cramped keyboard?
I tried writing this review entirely on the Type Cover and only made only made it through 30 minutes before my arms got fatigued and I switched back to a 13-inch laptop with a more spacious keyboard.
Who’s the Surface Go for?
I’ve been struggling to figure out who Microsoft’s Surface Go is actually good for.
If you already own Surface Pro or any laptop, why would you buy a smaller tablet with huge bezels that often chokes Windows 10 up due to its under-powered Intel Pentium processor? Why would you want to type on a cramped little keyboard?
But then it hit me: The answer’s right in the name. The Surface Go is good for when you’re on the move and that’s really it.
It’s good for very, very short bursts of light productivity. Pound out a couple of emails at the coffee shop. Watch a video on the plane. Edit a few documents in a cab.
But these light tasks are also all things that can be accomplished on a cheap Chromebook or iPad. So, again, why get a Surface Go? And don’t say Windows 10 because what good is having the full operating system to run apps like Photoshop if it doesn’t have the power to reliably power them?
I suppose if you’re a diehard Surface or Windows user, the Surface Go‘s a neat tablet. And maybe if you’re a student on a super tight budget who doesn’t need a lot of performance because you’re mostly browsing the web or writing in a word processor.
A portable device of this size that runs full Windows seemed practical a decade ago. Windows still has its place and will for a while, but for light productivity, the world’s moved on.