Few companies have produced affordable Windows devices that are firstly desirable and secondly portable. So Microsoft has decided it's time to step into the ring with the Surface Go: an entry-level 2-in-1 to the Surface range, sitting below the Surface Pro.
The Go is a full Windows 10 laptop-tablet hybrid, albeit in Windows 10 S Mode. It's affordable, at £379 ($399), but if you want a full-fat experience then you'll need to buy the £100 Type Cover (backlit and available in black, platinum, burgundy or blue) and £100 Surface Pen stylus separately. That takes it to £579, which means it's potentially more expensive than an iPad with Apple Pencil and a Bluetooth keyboard (not iPad Pro).
On balance, then, is the Surface Go the affordable, portable 2-in-1 champion that it purports to be?
Design & Display
- 10-inch, 3:2 aspect ratio, 1800 x 1200 resolution 'PixelSense' display
- Type Cover keyboard and Surface Pen stylus sold separately
- 245 x 175 x 8.30mm; 522g (without Type Cover)
- 1x USB-C, 1 x microSD card slot, 3.5mm jack
While the back of the Surface Go is attractive in that familiar Surface way with its integrated kickstand, there's a problem: the front bezels are massive. It's a shame because the 10-inch PixelSense display is better than many in this class, but it looks a bit out of date straight out of the gate.
As a tablet, the Go weighs just 522g, making it highly portable. You'll find yourself placing it in a folder, sleeve or folio to carry it round as it's not hugely different in footprint to an A4 sheet of paper. It's around 8mm thick, enabling it to be slotted into small gaps in baggage with ease. It's portability that is the Go's main strength, as its name suggests.
We've always been fans of the Surface kickstand, but like other 2-in-1s the Surface Go does present usability problems with its optional Type Cover keyboard attached. Firstly, train or airline tables offer limited, thus the keyboard is often stuck out from the table and isn't stable. Secondly, it just isn't that good to work with on your lap. In an ideal world nobody would be hunched over a computing device on their lap. But the real world isn't like that and if you regularly work at conferences or on public transport you'll probably be much better off with a laptop.
Specs & Performance
- Intel Pentium Gold Processor 4415Y, 4GB/8GB RAM
- 64GB eMMC or 128GB SSD
- Intel HD Graphics 615
- Dolby Audio Premium
- 9 hours battery max
There are two Surface Go configurations, which differ in terms of the RAM (4GB vs 8GB) and storage (64GB vs 128GB). Whether that is enough for you to buy the pricier model (it's an extra £130) depends on what tasks you'll need the Surface Go to handle. This isn't a primary device in our opinion unless you're going to be doing browsing, typing and emailing.
The processor inside the Surface Go has an interesting name – Pentium Gold. With Intel's prevalent Core i3, i5, i7 and i9 branding it's easy to forget that Intel still makes Pentium processors. The silly thing about the nomenclature is that modern Pentium processors bear no relation to their predecessors and is part of the Kaby Lake series of chips introduced at the start of 2017. They slot in between the super-basic Celeron line-up and the Core m3 (used in the Apple MacBook) and Core i3 series.
We weren't expecting the Surface Go to perform that well and in terms of pure grunt it doesn't have a lot. But Windows 10 is fairly easy going on most devices and the Surface Go is no exception. OK, so it was a little tardy installing some Windows Updates and a couple of apps but otherwise it was absolutely fine for everyday use including editing photos and running numerous apps simultaneously.
Surface devices are supposed to offer the latest specs, although they have been weirdly slow to move to USB-C and dump proprietary adapters. The Go has a headphone jack and USB-C port but, alas, Microsoft has stuck with the proprietary Surface connector for charging. We'd expect this to change for a secondary USB-C in a later version, which would make all the difference in terms of connectivity. There is, however, a microSD card reader under the kickstand, which is potentially handy (although it does mean photographers wanting to use the Surface Go for simple photo edits will need to use a microSD card and adapter in their camera).
Despite the low-ish specs, there's no getting around the Surface Go's disappointing battery life. It clocks in at around seven hours of use and we've seen some figures banded about at six - although we think for real-world use that's a little bit on the harsh side. We did get oven seven hours out of it once.
Windows 10 in S Mode
- Windows 10 Home in 'S mode', can be set to Windows 10 (irreversibly)
- Front and rear cameras: 8MP rear and 5MP front for Windows Hello
- 30-day trial of Microsoft Office 365 Home
The Surface Go uses Windows 10, as you'd expect. But here it's in S Mode. This is a special mode of Windows that doesn't enable you to install desktop apps. Instead, you can only get your apps from the Windows Store.
Now, it is easy to switch out of S Mode to install desktop apps (there's a special app in the Windows Store to perform the switch) but it is irreversible.
Microsoft claims it is more secure to be in S Mode because dodgy applications can't be installed. However, if you consider yourself a relatively sensible user in terms of the apps you install, we'd recommend switching it out of S Mode right away.
That's for two reasons. The Windows Store is limited in terms of apps; firstly because all the apps have to be approved by Microsoft; secondly because developers don't see the advantage. Google Chrome isn't in there for example, while we found some apps like Paint.net which are free normally but are pay-for in the Store. Microsoft wants more devices to use S Mode and so developers may increasingly develop apps for the Store (mind you, we've been saying that for years) but at the moment support remains patchy.
Additionally, S Mode restricts you to not only use Microsoft Edge but also to use Bing as your search engine. This is nothing short of ridiculous. Edge has become a really good browser and has enough features for many, but restricting it yet further simply doesn't make sense.
Elsewhere the Go has cameras front and rear, which is a welcome addition for Windows Hello. This enables you to log-in with your face and works well but you do need to be within a certain angle of the camera - it doesn't seem as wide-angled as Apple's Face ID, for example.
The Surface Go isn't a do-anything device like the Surface Book 2 - and neither should you expect it to be given the price difference between the two. Instead, it's a super-portable machine for doing bits and pieces on the go. Emailing, taking notes in a meeting, and watching a bit of iPlayer on the train on the way home.
It has all the successful hallmarks of Surface and, while the additional costs of the keyboard and pen are annoying for your bank balace, they're integral to how you should think about using this device (especially the former).
Surface Go could have smaller bezels, it could have a lot better battery life, and it probably could be leaner with an ARM-based processor. But changing the chip would not only annoy Microsoft's great mate Intel, it would limit it in other ways: after all, this is a full PC you can install desktop apps on (if you take Windows 10 out of S Mode). And with this level of portability, that's certainly not to be sniffed at.
Alternatives to consider
Apple iPad 2018
Now with Apple Pencil support, the entry-level iPad is even more of a winner than before. In terms of pure tablets, this is the best. What the Surface Go brings to the party over and above this device is the ability to use Windows apps and work in the same way as any other laptop (well, if you buy the Type Cover keyboard).
The Surface Pro 4 is getting on a bit and we're expecting it to be replaced soon. Even if there is a new one, that doesn't change the fact it's a rival to the Surface Go simply because it's more of a performance version.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S4
The best Android tablet we've seen yet, the Galaxy Tab S4 also has some PC-rivalling capabilities thanks to Samsung's DeX. It's not far off being as expensive as a Surface Pro even if the S Pen stylus is included (the keyboard isn't).