A month with the Surface Go: Near-perfect portable productivity
Early verdicts and reviews flew in fast and freely, and the overall consensus was generally positive, though with some reservations around its performance.
Sometimes, however, you can only garner proper perspective on a new product after using it as part of your daily and weekly routine for a period of time. Having spent the better part of a month with the Surface Go, I decided to put some words together on what it’s like working with the device — the good, the bad, and the meh. This is less a review than it is a collection of general thoughts and feelings on the most recent entrant to the Surface lineup.
I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect portable “secondary” laptop for quite some time. I’ve tried all sorts of setups that might enable me to leave my normal day-to-day laptop at home when I need to, including cute little low-end Windows machines, Android tablets mounted in keyboard cases, iPads, and Chromebooks. Not one of them has been suitable for my purposes.
I can say here that the Surface Go is the first machine I’ve used that fits all my needs, though it isn’t without its flaws.
My Surface Book is my day-to-day machine. It’s a sweet device and is perfectly portable, but with a 13.5-inch screen and 1.5kg of heft it’s just that little bit too bulky for light traveling. With a 10-inch screen and a weight just north of half a kilo (not including the keyboard), the Surface Go is a svelte alternative when I need to pick up a machine and go.
I’ve read plenty of reports complaining the keyboard is too small for typing. I honestly didn’t find that to be the case — however, my hands are about average-sized for a guy. I could perhaps see how it would be too small for those with larger hands.
Another common complaint with the Surface Go has been directed at its performance — after all, Microsoft elected to use an Intel Pentium Gold chip, which is typically aimed at lower-end “budget” machines.
I can honestly say I have not noticed any performance issues, though I must stress that I have not played games on this machine or performed any kind of benchmarking stress tests. My hunch is if you’re a serious gamer, you would not be interested in the Surface Go anyway.
I typically have two browsers (Firefox and Chrome) open at any given time, each running up to 10 tabs. In terms of other desktop applications, I run Slack, Skype, Thunderbird, OneNote, Dropbox, and WhatsApp continuously, and I periodically open Affinity Photo, Microsoft Picture Manager, and Spotify. While I would not call it blazing fast, the machine rarely struggled to cope, though on one or two occasions it did lag ever so slightly when I was typing. On other lower-end machines I’ve used, that stuttering buffer icon becomes just a little too commonplace for my liking — this was not an issue for me with the Surface Go.
Separately, I streamed Netflix and YouTube videos just fine.
Could I use the Surface Go as my main machine? Perhaps. But despite the benefits of its slight dimensions, going back to work on my Surface Book felt noticeably better for my primary workflow.
But the Surface Go has proven itself to be the perfect little machine for “on-the-go” productivity — you can slip it into the smallest of bags, and its performance really is great. Of course, its size does become an issue after a while — a big screen with the extra keyboard buttons has its benefits.
My main complaint with the Surface Go is battery life. According to official estimates, you’ll get 9 hours worth of juice under normal use cases — in my experience, however, you’ll get nowhere near that. I never ran the battery completely dry, but I found that I would typically start looking anxiously at the battery indicator after around 3 to 4 hours, and I think in a pinch I could get this to around 5 hours before it cuts out.
Writing this piece today while traveling, I started out with 93 percent battery, and 3.5 hours into the trip the machine is now telling me that I have 12 percent, or 24 minutes, remaining. I better plug in.
However, that is one of the trade-offs of using such a small machine. Unless you’re heading out for just a few hours, you will almost certainly need to carry your power cable with you.
Another potential downside for many users will be the lack of ports. There is one USB-C port which, admittedly, is better than nothing, but it also renders most of my existing USB peripherals useless. That said, I purchased a small adapter from Amazon that gave me instant access to multiple additional ports, including USB, HDMI, and SD. You can, of course, use Bluetooth if you wish.
There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is a nice touch, given the direction we’re currently heading in the smartphone world.
One underlying problem I have with the Surface Go is the way it’s pitched and marketed by Microsoft. Yes, you can use the Surface Go without the detachable Type Cover, but you probably wouldn’t want to. It really, really, really needs the Type Cover. That’s what makes it what it is.
Selling the Surface Go without the Type Cover is a little akin to Ray-Ban selling the arms separate from the shaded lenses, or Pizza Hut charging you extra for the base. It feels a bit like a con to me.
To be clear, I’m not saying the Surface Go can’t be used without the Type Cover — it clearly can — I am saying that the vast majority of people will probably want this for its laptop-like qualities. And for that they will need the Type Cover.
My Surface Book was sold as a detachable laptop, but the keyboard is bundled with the screen. When Microsoft launched the Surface Go a few months ago, I wondered how many people would buy the device assuming it comes with the Type Cover, and that is an issue I still suspect may be common.
I wonder how many people will order the Surface Go and assume the price includes the keyboard/cover? The marketing around it is pretty misleading IMHO. pic.twitter.com/pBk6tlRHnm
— Paul Sawers (@psawers) July 11, 2018
Bang for buck
This leads us to the value-for-money question. On the surface, so to speak, the Surface Go represents great value for money — it starts at $399. But that gets you a 64GB/4GB RAM Windows tablet, with no Type Cover. For the type of use cases I outlined above, you will probably want 128GB/8GB RAM, which costs $549. And then you have to pay $99 for the Type Cover.
As you can see, an under-$400 machine quickly becomes a $650 purchase when you dig down into the details of what you actually get.
For my needs, it represents decent value for money, but for others it will be a lot to cough up for a secondary device. I could just about recommend this as a primary machine for those who work on their PC day in and day out, but I think that it’s just too small to be used in such a fashion. Compared to other lower-end Windows machines I’ve used, though, it’s certainly possible to use the Surface Go as a primary PC.
The only other thing I’d really add here is that part of me wishes I’d waited for the cellular version of the Surface Go to come to market. Being able to whip this machine out any time, any place, and not worry about Wi-Fi availability or setting up tethering on my phone would be sweet. On the flip side, that would also mean an even higher price tag, and the extra convenience is something I can ultimately live without.
Sure, the Surface Go won’t be for everyone. If you’re all-in on the cloud and Google’s services, a Chromebook might be better for you. But for someone with 20 years of Windows workflow and keyboard shortcuts ingrained into them, who needs access to the usual array of Windows apps embedded in a powerful-enough body, the Surface Go is just about the perfect little machine.