There’s many words you might associate with Microsoft’s Surface devices. Innovative. Flexible. Sleek. But there’s one word you absolutely wouldn’t — and that’s “affordable.”
Yeah, you can buy a bottom-rung Surface Pro for $700, but you make a lot of sacrifices to squeeze into that budget, and you’ll still need to buy a Surface Pen separately. But what if you could have a Surface, keyboard, and pen, all for less than $600?
Enter the Surface Go. Starting at $400 for the tablet alone, this svelte little Surface 2-in-1 limbos into a price rung that makes it appealing to the statistical average PC buyer, a person who spends only $600 on average. Does that mean Surface is ready for the masses?
Swinging down at the iPad
Apple’s recent iterations of the iPad have tried to prove themselves as capable productivity machines, with limited success. The iPad Pro is offered as a legitimate PC replacement, and even the base iPad now has Apple Pencil support. Cupertino’s engineers are trying their best to prove the iPad is more tool than toy.
Microsoft has the opposite problem. Surface sells on its reputation as a productivity machine, but the Surface Pro is too expensive, too bulky, and too limiting to work as a stand-alone tablet. The Surface Go is an attempt to change that. It takes the brand down to a price point that’s legitimately toe-to-toe with Apple. A base iPad is $330 with 32GB of storage, while the Surface Go starts at $400 with 64GB of storage.
So, can the Surface Go seriously compete with the iPad? Picking up the device will tell you it can. The spec sheet says it’s slightly heavier than the iPad at 1.15 pounds (tablet only – the Surface Go keyboard is another half a pound), and it’s about a millimeter thicker. The difference is hard to notice. Both tablets are light enough to handle easily with one hand.
At a glance, the Surface Go looks almost identical to the regular Surface Pro. And I do mean identical. Nothing about the Go suggests it’s a cheaper model. Even the kickstand looks, feels, and operates the same as the Pro. Microsoft’s decision to downsize the now well-known Surface look is wise. It keeps the Go strikingly distinct from the iPad, despite the fact it’s nearly the same size.
The Go is big enough to enjoy most content, but small enough to cradle with one hand while you tap on the display with another.
There is a big difference between the Pro and Go, though – size. The Pro has a 12.3-inch display, but the Go has a 10-inch screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio and 1,800 x 1,200 resolution (that’s 217 pixels per inch). Downsizing the display also means downsizing the chassis which is why the Go weighs almost half as much as the Pro. The Go’s overall footprint is exactly what you’d expect from a 10-inch tablet. It’s big enough to display most content without compromise, but small enough to cradle with one hand while you tap on the display with another.
A USB-C port provides the device’s only USB connection, which is nice, as the Surface Pro doesn’t have one (but the Surface Book 2 does). It’s joined by a MicroSDXC card reader and 3.5mm headphone jack. Power is provided by the same proprietary Surface Connect interface used by Microsoft’s other devices, and the Go will work with any accessories that use it.
A Windows Hello compatible camera is also included to enable facial login recognition. That’s a great feature for a tablet, and one that many competitors, including iPad, don’t yet support.
Is Windows ready for touch?
Surface Go’s design is certainly on par with other tablets, but that’s only half the equation. It’s a Windows 10 device, and while the operating system has many touch-friendly features, keyboard and mouse remain the platform’s first-class citizens.
That’s where the Go gets messy. Our brief hands-on, which spanned about a half-hour, involved a whirlwind tour of regular productivity applications like Word and Powerpoint, as well as the Edge web browser and Windows 10’s settings menus. Everything worked, but elegant it’s not. We frequently found ourselves fumbling icons three or four times before managing the response we wanted, and some UI elements were too small on the 10-inch display.
These aren’t new problems for Windows 10, but they go from annoying inconveniences to maddening obstacles on a small device that encourages use without a keyboard. Apple’s iOS, designed from the ground up with the iPhone and iPad in mind, is far more intuitive. iOS doesn’t ask users to struggle with archaic or poorly sized menus that try, and ultimately fail, to work as well on a tablet as they do on a desktop with a 27-inch screen.
We noticed no signs of stutter, lag, or hesitation during my short time with the device.
Windows 10 has advantages, though, particularly in the Surface Pen, a $100 accessory. It attaches magnetically, feels as smooth and natural as ever, and the Go’s smaller size makes note-taking easier while holding the device. Personally, we like the Surface Pen better than any other stylus, and it’s wonderful to use it with a tablet small enough to handle with ease. We’ve used past Surface devices like a tiny whiteboard, propping them against a table or my thighs for support, but the Go is a legitimate alternative to a paper notebook.
Microsoft plans to ship the Surface Go with Windows 10 Home in “S Mode.” That means you’ll only be able to download apps from the Microsoft Store, and you won’t be able to use legacy apps not found there. That’s going to cause some hardcore Windows fans to roll their eyes, as the S Mode restrictions aren’t popular. You can switch out of S Mode at no charge, though, and the changeover is completed in minutes.
Underneath it all, it’s still a PC
Rumors about the device that we now know is the Surface Pro speculated it would be powered by a Qualcomm processor, like recent “Always Connected PCs.” In fact, the Surface Go is far more conventional. It’s driven by an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y dual-core processor. The entry model pairs that with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of solid state storage, while more expensive models will offer upgrades to 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Microsoft says LTE support will come eventually, but not at launch.
Going with a Qualcomm chip would’ve been interesting, but we’ve no complaints about the Intel Pentium Gold. It’s not a Core chip, but it is based on the same architecture, and it certainly offers the performance you’ll need to navigate Windows 10 and accomplish most tasks. We noticed no signs of stutter, lag, or hesitation during my short time with the device. It felt like any other laptop, which is exactly what we want to see from an affordable PC.
Still, there’s one major performance weak spot. The Surface Go relies on Intel HD Graphics. While fast enough for day-to-day tasks or even light 3D rendering in apps like Powerpoint, it’s no powerhouse and completely inadequate for anything more demanding. That’s a big disadvantage next to the iPad, which can render beautiful graphics in games and other apps. Microsoft’s hands are tied on this point, as there’s no PC graphics hardware that could reasonably work in the Go, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem.
This is the best keyboard you’re going to find on a 10-inch device.
The battery isn’t ideal, either. Microsoft say it’s a 27 watt-hour unit that’ll be good for nine hours of battery life. That’s not much, and I’m worried the Surface Go won’t last a full eight-hour work day without topping it off in the afternoon. The Surface Pro promises up to 13.5 hours of video playback, but only hit 10 hours and 15 minutes in our video loop. Apple’s iPad, meanwhile, promises up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi use.
While the internal hardware is hit-or-miss, the keyboard, like so much of the Go, emulates the Pro. It looks the same, feels the same, and is available in the same colors as current Pro keyboard covers. The one difference, and it’s an important one, is size. A 10-inch screen size doesn’t offer much room for the keyboard layout, so the Go’s keys will feel cramped for most people. There’s no physical way to avoid that.
Still, the keyboard makes the best of the situation, and beats the snot out of the keyboards available for the iPad Pro or Samsung Galaxy Book. This is the best keyboard you’re going to find on a 10-inch device, and I think you could use it to type a couple thousand words with only minor cramps. You’ll pay $100 for the basic black keyboard, or $130 for the Signature Type Cover, which comes in one of four colors and features the premium felt-like material found on other high-end Surface devices.
Even the trackpad is good. It supports Windows Precision Touch gestures and can handle up to five points of touch sensitivity, all packed into trackpad dimensions similar to the regular Surface Pro. That’s impressive given the Go has less overall space to work with.
This small Surface is a big deal, but faces big obstacles
My first reaction to the Surface Go was skepticism. A 10-inch Surface? Running Windows 10? Does that actually work?
I quickly warmed up to it. The Go is an attractive device – certainly in a league above other affordable Windows 2-in-1s. Its processor is fine for the price. And the keyboard? We love it. It’s easily the best we’ve ever used on a device this small, and that includes traditional laptops.
Yet there’s a problem. Windows 10. While we adore the operating system on my desktop, it’s less helpful on a tablet, and the Surface Go’s small size encourages use without the tiny, wonderful keyboard. We have no doubt the Go will fit a niche for Surface fans, and for companies that need Windows to install important corporate software, but iPad’s reign as the go-to tablet doesn’t appear threatened just yet.