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Microsoft Surface Laptop Go Review: A sensible compromise

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Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
MSRP $550.00
“Surface Laptop Go is an affordable way to stay productive and enjoy premium Surface design without breaking the bank”
  • Thin and light
  • Comfortable keyboard and trackpad
  • Good port selection
  • Good performance
  • No backlit keyboard
  • Display's pixel density is low
  • No Surface Pen support

There’s a Surface device for everything these days. You can create and game on one, travel with one, or just enjoy day-to-productivity in a tablet form factor. What most Surface devices have in common, though, is that buying one often comes at a high price. Microsoft started to address that first with the Surface Go. Now, it also has a device for people who want a traditional clamshell laptop.

Available starting at $550, the Surface Laptop Go is an adorable 12.4-inch laptop from Microsoft that looks to take on the best Chromebooks, and even some of the best budget Windows laptops.

In concept, the latest entry to the Surface family takes all the lessons Microsoft learned from the larger Surface Laptop 3, but puts it in a smaller and cheaper package. It’s also specially designed for those looking for a Surface device with a balance of performance and premium design.

Does that mean Microsoft has to take too many cuts for? Or does the Surface Laptop Go have everything it takes to be your new go-to laptop for productivity?

Surface meets Chromebook

The new $550 Surface Laptop Go might look like a smaller version of the 13-inch Surface Laptop, but as soon as I lifted it out of the box, it felt very different.

The top lid and the keyboard of the Surface Laptop Go shine bright with a familiar aluminum finish, but the rest of the laptop doesn’t. The bottom part of the Surface Laptop Go is made of a polycarbonate composite resin made with glass fiber and 30% postconsumer recycled content. 

Though Microsoft says this is a durable material that won’t scratch, it is here where the Surface Laptop Go feels more like an HP Chromebook 14, or an all-plastic Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5.

Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

Still, Microsoft has paid attention to the most important parts of the Surface Laptop Go. That includes both the keyboard deck and the screen. There’s no flex when typing, and, when I attempted to bend the screen, it didn’t flex, either. Each of these is made of aluminum. 

I think Microsoft was smart in keeping the top half aluminum. Surface fans would have been upset if Microsoft released an all-plastic Surface laptop.

Microsoft did have to make changes to the Surface Laptop Go design to fit the price. One of those is the choice of casing material.

There is a benefit to the partially plastic construction. Coming in at 2.45 pounds and just 0.62 inches thick, the Surface Laptop Go is a featherweight. I can hold the laptop over my desk between two fingers and almost dangle it like a sheet of paper. I can also open the lid with one hand. Its weight is less than the 2.84 pounds of the standard Surface Laptop 3, and close to the 2.3 pounds on the Pixelbook Go.

Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

The Surface Laptop Go has what some other premium laptops lack these days in a USB-A port. Just as on the bigger 13-inch sibling, the main ports are on the left side of the device. Alongside USB-A, there’s a USB-C port, which isn’t Thunderbolt-compatible for security reasons. There’s also a headphone jack.

Elsewhere, there’s the proprietary Surface Connect on the right side. It’s only for charging and carries no data. Microsoft says you can fast charge the device up to 80% in just one hour using that included charger, but the device will charge over USB-C, too. A great thing for powering up with power banks on the go.

Those who are all about the speed should be happy to know that Surface Laptop Go has the latest Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The mix includes Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0, giving this budget laptop the latest in wireless technology.

Type up a storm, but don’t type in a storm

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The Surface Laptop Go has a similar full-size keyboard as you’ll find on the Surface Laptop 3. We already found it to be comfortable when we reviewed the original, and our opinion hasn’t changed. That’s thanks to the keycaps having a soft-touch, and the 1.3mm of key travel. Simply put, typing is accurate — as long you’re in the light.

There is no keyboard backlighting on Surface Laptop Go. That’s not too unusual for the $550 price. Similar budget Windows laptops like the Acer Spire 5 lack the backlighting, but a $650 Chromebook like the Pixelbook Go has it.

Still, I wish Microsoft hadn’t cut out the lights. It’s a very useful feature for students who have to deal with late-night study sessions.

If you can see it, the keyboard should keep your typing accurate. I hit 73 words per minute in Bing’s typing test. That’s the same as I get when I type on my go-to device, a 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.

Microsoft also includes a fingerprint reader on the power button. However, you’ll only find it on select models. It’s not included in the base model, but comes on our midrange unit, and top-tier models. I would recommend it, as it makes logging into the laptop super fast. There’s no support for Windows Hello facial recognition login.

As for the Trackpad, it isn’t made of glass like it is on the Surface Laptop 3. It is mylar, supports Microsoft’s five-finger multitouch gestures, and comes in at a nice size of 115mm x 76.66mm. Usually, laptop makers would shrink the touchpad when they shrink the screen size, but Microsoft knows better. The trackpad on the Laptop Go is buttery smooth, with a nice slippery surface. It made scrolling through webpages quite fun.

Typing is accurate and the trackpad is smooth.

I also want to mention the speakers and microphones. Just like with the Surface Laptop 3, the Laptop Go has Omnisonic speakers with Dolby Audio. It even has dual far-field microphones, as well, sitting on top of the bezels of the screen.

The speakers are still located inside the device in the keyboard deck, but are plenty loud. I enjoyed jamming out to Clean Bandi’s Rather Be. Even with the volume turned up to 70%, the lyrics were clear, and there was some noticeable bass in the introduction sequence with the violins.

As for the microphones and 720p webcam, my colleagues were pleased with my voice and video quality when I used the Surface Laptop Go during a Teams video call. This is especially important during our current conditions, where we’re spending more time glued to our displays in web conferences.

Not enough pixels

Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

Speaking of displays, if you’re looking for a budget laptop these days, you’ll likely see all kinds of display options. The most common is 1080p or 1920 x 1080 resolution. But that’s not what you’ll find on Surface Laptop Go.

While the 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 has an impressive 2256 x 1504 (201 PPI) resolution display, the Surface Laptop Go is the opposite. Instead, Microsoft opts for a 12.4-inch display panel that comes in at the 1536 x 1024 (148 PPI) resolution. This panel packs 10-point multitouch support, though it lacks support for Surface Pen. It even has Microsoft’s signature 3:2 aspect ratio.

But don’t let that fool you. You can find that 1080p panel on a competing $550 or $650 laptop like the Pixelbook Go, as well as an Asus Vivobook 15, but not on the Laptop Go. Even Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 packs a higher-resolution 1080p display, and it’s quite cheaper, too, if you don’t account for the keyboard cover.

While the 3:2 aspect ratio allows for more vertical room for scrolling, and a touch screen is appreciated for this budget price, the bottom of the Surface Laptop Go is flanked by ugly bezels. Microsoft did slim the side bezels down a bit down to 7mm (and for the first time, curved the display edges) on Surface Laptop Go, but this isn’t exactly an XPS 13.

While the 13-inch Surface Laptop packs a pixel-punching display, the Surface Laptop Go is quite the opposite.

But it’s not all a loss for Microsoft. Microsoft intends for this laptop to be used for productivity, and despite the low-resolution panel, I was able to do that. I stacked two Edge windows side by side and enjoyed my usual workflow as I would do on my 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, but with limited screen space. That’s the upside to the unusual 3:2 aspect ratio.

Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

The panel itself is just as good as the Surface Laptop 3. According to our colorimeter, it gets to around 383 nits in brightness and has an average color error of just 2.3. That’s around the same as the Laptop 3 (372 nits, 2.4 color error). We can’t compare this directly to a Chromebook, though, as our colorimeter doesn’t work in ChromeOS, but, visually, Microsoft makes no cuts in the display and image quality.

The pixels might not be there, but the display quality is. I watched episodes of Netflix’s Designated Survivor, and scenes with the White House’s exterior and rose garden were vibrant and true to what you’d expect in real life. And, when watching National Geographic’s Cosmos, I was quite immersed in the depths of space thanks to the impressive contrast levels of the display.

Ice Lake is good for this price, just not for gaming

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Like the Surface Laptop 3, Ice Lake is back again this year on the Surface Laptop Go. While it’s not the latest Tiger Lake chips from Intel, it does make a performance difference.

Our unit came configured with the Intel Core i5-1035G1 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB NVMe SSD. This is the midrange model, but the cheaper $550 version comes with the same processor, but 4GB RAM, and slower eMMC storage. That slower storage may prove to be its more serious downside if you opt for the entry-level model.

You likely wouldn’t experience the faster read-write speeds of the SSD on our unit. We got to a 590 read speed and a 674 write speed. It’s about standard for a Surface. The Surface Laptop 2 saw similar speeds at 950 and 617.

But regardless of which model you choose, there’s only one processor choice, and that’s the Intel Core i5-1035G1. It’s a quad-core processor clocked at 1.00 GHz.  This processor is great for multitasking and general productivity. It’s found on a similar budget or business laptops like the Acer Swift 3, or the Dell Inspiron 14,5000.

There’s no doubt that this chipset is great for web browsing, as well as day-to-day tasks. You can see this with its Single-Core and Multi-Core Geekbench 4 scores of 1,176 and 3,459. These results are below most laptops, but certainly more than enough for day-to-day use.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

I had no issues with multiple Microsoft Edge tabs. 10+ tabs did not slow down the Surface Laptop Go. Nor did opening multiple instances of YouTube. Considering most budget Chromebooks as the Pixelbook Go comes with outdated dual-core Core i3 or Core m3 processors, this is much appreciated. It almost feels like ThinkPad level performance. Even the entry-level version of Apple’s MacBook Air has a slower dual-core processor, and that’s upwards of $1,000.

The Surface Laptop Go is a step up from the Surface Go 2, which features slower Intel Pentium Gold or Core m3 processors. This time, Microsoft got performance right for its budget PC, though it would have been nice to see Microsoft try AMD’s Ryzen 5 chips. They previously did this in the larger 15-inch versions of the Surface Laptop 3. These new processors can be found in laptops like the Asus Vivobook 15.

Just be aware the Surface Laptop Go isn’t for gaming, as it has Intel’s HD graphics and not the newer Iris Plus as you might find on a more premium laptop.

It scored a measly 1,508 in 3DMark’s Fire Strike Test. That’s well behind the 3,947 of the Asus Zenbook Flip S, which has Intel’s new Iris Xe graphics. Fortnite was basically unplayable on the Laptop Go, with frames around 15 on low settings. You’ll have to stick to simple 2D games and very old 3D titles.

Battery life that lasts all-day

Battery life is key, as you don’t want to be plugged into a wall socket all day. Microsoft claims its Surface Laptop Go has what it takes for that, as it can last up to 13 hours on a single charge– but is that true?

The answer is, yes. Though these manufacturer claims are usually dubious, the Surface Laptop Go gets excellent battery life. With the screen set at around 60% brightness, the Surface Laptop Go lasted around 585 minutes in our iMacro web browsing test in Microsoft Edge, which runs a continuous loop of webpages.

That’s better than the Dell Inspiron 14 (282 minutes) as well as the Acer Aspire 5 (258 minutes.) It even beats out the MacBook Air (576) minutes. It still is well off the 783 minutes set by the Pixelbook Go, however.

When we streamed a video loop, the Laptop Go pulled out and lasted well over 11 hours and 3 minutes. That’s almost on the same level as the Pixelbook Go’s 13 hours.

All in all, don’t worry. The battery in the Surface Laptop Go is indeed built to last.

Our take

Starting at $550, the Surface Laptop Go is an excellent Surface take on the Chromebook. But for a Surface device, there is a lot of cuts for the price, including the display resolution, and lack of backlighting on the keyboard. Under the hood, though, the Surface Laptop Go packs a lot of value and power with its quad-core 10th generation Intel Core i5 processor. It’s rare to see this kind of processor in a budget laptop, even if it is paired with just 4GB RAM and slower eMMC storage on entry-level models. It’s a difference you’ll feel when trying to get work done.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes, there are lots of alternatives. If you’re a student on a budget, you might want to consider buying the Pixelbook Go. If Windows is a must, then there’s the bulkier and heftier Asus Vivobook 15, Acer Swift 3, or even the Dell Inspiron 14,5000. If a budget Surface is a must, then the Surface Go 2 might also be a better bet, for its higher resolution display and support for Surface Pen.

How long will it last?

The Surface Laptop Go will last for a while. Its internals is up to spec, and its design and build quality are robust. You get a 60-day return policy through the Microsoft Store, and a one-year hardware warranty, plus 90 days of technical support.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Surface Laptop Go makes sacrifices to hit a low price, but its 3:2 aspect ratio, solid processor, and good battery life help set it apart from the pack.

Editors' Recommendations

Arif Bacchus
Arif Bacchus is a native New Yorker and a fan of all things technology. Arif works as a freelance writer at Digital Trends…
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