Surface Go Review: Delivers Far More than Expected

The Surface Go was released August, 2018. I got mine for the holidays and have been using it for about five months. I have always considered the Surface line of hardware to be nice, but pricey. The Surface Go starts at $399. This significantly lower price point led me to look into the Surface Go as a travel computer. I would like to share my experiences with the Surface Go.

Configuration Design: It’s a Tablet and Laptop

The Surface Go is the smallest Surface device. It looks like a baby Surface Pro 6. The Surface Pro 6 and Surface Go are 2-in-1 configurations, which means they are a tablet and a laptop. The entire computer is essentially a tablet slab. When used without a keyboard, input is from the touch screen or pen. In this mode, these devices run Windows 10 in tablet mode. When the specially designed keyboard is attached, Windows 10 is used in desktop mode where keyboard, touchpad, and mouse input can be used along with touch and pen. The keyboard, or what Microsoft calls the Type Cover, is very nicely designed. It attaches to the tablet body with magnets. Power to the Type Cover is supplied by this special connection. You do not need to worry about charging the Type Cover. Taking the Type Cover on and off is very fast. Windows 10 detects when this happens and, provided you have the tablet mode setting to switch Windows 10 mode without asking, Windows 10 will go to desktop mode automatically when the Type Cover is attached, and go to tablet mode when the Type Cover is removed. The Type Cover also doubles as a very nice screen cover when you close the Type Cover on the screen, hence the name. Another cool design feature allows the Type Cover to be folded behind the screen. This is nice if you don’t have a place to put the Type Cover, and you want to use the device as a tablet. When you fold the Type Cover back behind the screen, Windows 10 will detect this and switch to tablet mode. A final nice design feature of the Type Cover is a secondary magnet that attaches the Type Cover to the tablet body. This will put the Type Cover at a raised angle for optimal typing comfort.

The Surface Pro 6 and Surface Go come with a high quality “kick stand”. The kick stand folds out from the tablet body. The kick stand has a wide range of motion. It can be adjusted to give a slight tilt when set on a table as a tablet, and then adjusted to holding the device more vertical when used like a laptop. It will stay in place in whatever position you leave it. When used as a laptop with the keyboard, the kick stand is required to hold the screen up. Some have wondered if the kick stand inhibits the “lapability” when used like a laptop. I have found that the Surface Go fits fine on my lap. The kick stand can be near the edge of my knees though, so people with smaller laps might have issues with the kick stand falling off your knees.

The Type Cover and kick stand, from strictly an ergonomic design perspective, has many advantages over an iPad. The iPad has no kick stand, so it must be held up with one hand when used as a tablet. Third party keyboards for the iPad use Bluetooth which will require the keyboard to be charged. I have found the Surface Go kick stand to be extremely useful. I also have found that switching between tablet mode and laptop mode to be very fast. My Surface Go sits in the kitchen as a tablet with the kick stand propping it up at the perfect viewing angle. The keyboard is nearby so can be quickly grabbed and attached if needed. This setup and central location have made my Surface Go very popular and well utilized.

Should You Get the Type Cover?

So, if you want to utilize the full potential of the Surface Go, I would get the Type Cover as an optional accessory. Most content creation activities are better suited using a keyboard. The more expensive Alcantara keyboard is backlit. This keyboard sells for $130, which I think is overpriced, but it does feel nice and the typing experience is good. Keep in mind, the keyboard for the Surface Go is smaller than a full-sized keyboard. The touchpad though is spacious. I got used to the smaller keyboard very quickly and now love typing on it. For a keyboard of this size, it is nice that it has dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys. Many keyboards on up to 14-inch laptops force you to hold down a function key to access these keys. One thing I don’t like about the keyboard is that it only has a Ctrl key on the left side. I have trained myself to use keyboard shortcuts extensively and have an invested muscle memory with right Ctrl key shortcuts. I’m still adapting to having just the one Ctrl key.

Though the Surface Go sells as a tablet without any of its optional accessories, the Surface Go is a full-fledged Windows 10 computer. Many applications for Windows 10, and even parts of the Windows 10 operating system, are not well suited for touch only. In these workflows, without the keyboard, you will be limited. Take Windows 10 File Explorer for example. I have yet to figure out how to select multiple files with only touch. With a keyboard, you hold down the shift or ctrl key along with mouse click to select multiple files. And it should go without saying that if you want to do a lot of typing, a keyboard is mandatory. So, I don’t consider the Type Cover optional. I understand why they sell them individually. The Type Cover could be used across different versions of the tablet. You may upgrade your tablet, but not your Type Cover. Keep in mind, if you have a Surface Pro Type Cover, it will not work with the Surface Go. It will be too big. So get the Type Cover, and I would splurge the extra $30 to get the backlit Alcantara version. The fabric feel on the Alcantara is super nice.

Should You Get the Surface Pen?

I think you should get the Surface Pen, even if you don’t expect to be doing much drawing or other types of pen-based work. There are times where UI elements on applications, and even web sites, will be too small on the Surface Go. It will be hard to select with a finger. An example of how a pen is much more precise than a finger is with highlighting text in an e-book. It is hard to nail the exact words using your finger, but it feels just like highlighting a real book using the Surface Pen. There are many applications, particularly web sites, that implement mouse enter, leave, and hover events. This simply will not work with touch. You cannot hover your finger over some control on a web site. This is very common on menus that drop down automatically when the mouse enters the menu, or menus that cascade as you move over sub-items. If you have the Type Cover with you, using the touchpad solves this problem. If you don’t have the Type Cover with you, then you will get frustrated with the web site unless you have the Surface Pen. The Surface Pen is held onto the side of the Surface Go by a strong magnate. I just leave it there for when it comes in handy. If I come across one of these web sites that forgets there is a world of touch out there, you can grab the Surface Pen to hover over the glass of the tablet. The pen can communicate proximity. This will act like mouse hover to the web site. An example of this kind of problematic web site is Internet Movie Database. Their menus on the desktop version of their web site will drop down when you touch them, but then once you release, they disappear. They are expecting a mouse to do this.

If you do a lot of conference calling, you may find the Surface Pen nice if you have to “whiteboard” something. And if you are an artist, there simply is nothing like the Surface Pen on the market right now. Windows 10 pen input with the Surface Pen takes in angle and 4096 levels of pressure which is communicated via Bluetooth. Applications must know how to read this information to leverage it. There are a growing number of artist applications that can utilize the pen input information to give realistic simulations of paint brushes and other drawing tools. I am not an artist, but I played around with some applications that fully utilize the Surface Pen. The Surface Pen experience is simply awesome. Even on a modestly priced computer like the Surface Go, there is no lag. It really feels like you are drawing on paper. So, get the Surface Pen. I think you will find it worth the $99 price.

General Impression of the Surface Go Experience

I got the 4 GB RAM and 64 GB storage model of the Surface Go. I thought I was going to use the Surface Go just for travel, so I didn’t want to pay extra. I didn’t expect it to become the dominate device of choice. When home, I use the Surface Go more than my laptop and phone combined. When at a hotel, I use the Surface Go more than my phone, and I have no need for the laptop. When away from wi-fi, then of course my phone becomes the dominate device.

The form factor of the Surface Go hits a unique sweet spot between a tablet and laptop. It is super portable. Without the Type Cover, it weighs just 1.15 pounds (522 g). With the Type Cover, it weighs 1.68 pounds (762 g). It is so small and light that you could throw it in a bag or backpack and not even notice you have it. But, you can still get work done on this thing. The screen is big enough to use browser-based web apps if you cannot find a Store app for what you want. The Surface Go is light enough as a tablet to make an e-reader for those digital books where you need something bigger for diagrams and tables.

The screen looks great. It is very sharp and can get bright. It is a 10-inch screen with 217 pixels per inch and 1500:1 contrast ratio. The 3:2 aspect ratio makes the screen taller when in landscape, which is great when in laptop mode, but also nice in tablet mode. I find I use tablet mode in landscape most of the time due to the 3:2 aspect ratio. I use portrait mode when doing immersive reading.

Many tech reviewers on the web have criticized the Surface Go for being under powered. It would seem that way if all you did is look at benchmarks and compared the Surface Go to much more expensive laptops. Microsoft has struck a nice balance between performance, size, weight, battery life, and price. If you currently have a laptop or desktop with a spinning hard drive, I believe you will find that the Surface Go will feel faster for most tasks. I have a 5400 RPM hard drive laptop, and my Surface Go feels faster all around. Booting is fast, coming out of hibernation and standby is fast, opening apps is fast, browsing is fast, and opening Office documents is significantly faster than my aging laptop. And I have the 64 GB eMMC drive, which is slower than the 128 GB SSD that is available on other configurations of the Surface Go. I suspect it will seem a bit faster with the 128 GB SSD model. The Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 615 does get the job done for most tasks. It will fall short for current high-end games, though you can do light gaming on the Surface Go. I suspect doing video editing might seem slower than a high-end laptop due to the slower processor. On most tasks, the Surface Go responds with very little lag, and scrolling of web pages is very smooth and responsive. Panning and zooming maps in Microsoft Maps is extremely smooth and enjoyable with the touch screen. The truth is, todays 8th generation Intel i5 and i7 laptops are extremely powerful. The Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y gets a 1941 single threaded Geekbench 4 processor score. The Intel Core i5-8265U, a popular 8th generation chip in laptops, gets a score of 4042. The multi-core scores respectively are 3815 and 12,184. The Intel HD Graphics 615 onboard the Surface Go gets an OpenCL score of 17,415. A populate integrated graphics chip on today’s laptops is an Intel UHD Graphics 620, which gets an OpenCL score of 23,435. A high end Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti gets a 215,390 score. These numbers may make you think twice about the Surface Go, but from hands on experience of day-to-day tasks performed on the Surface Go, I wouldn’t worry about the scores. You won’t be able to play high end games or edit large video files quickly, but you will be able to do a lot on the Surface Go for an entry price of $399. This video puts the Surface Go through extensive tests with audio production software. Audio production software can be very demanding on a computer, and the Surface Go proved capable of producing professional music. Sitting here now typing this blog article in Word, my Surface Go processor is only using 2% of its capacity according to Task Manager. I would not notice the difference if I had a much more expensive 8th generation Intel chip editing a Word document.

Regarding battery life, I seem to be getting about 7 hours of typical use. Microsoft rates it at 9 hours of video playback. I find 7 hours to be plenty. Battery life can vary all over the place depending on what you are doing. Surfing the web with repeated smooth scrolling is a pretty energy demanding task for any computer. So, if you are hitting web pages repeatedly, with rapid smooth scrolling, you can expect to get less than 7 hours. People think web surfing is light computing, but it is not given today’s information intense web sites and the rendering demands of smooth scrolling.

I have found the Surface Go to be a superior form factor over a laptop or phone in the following activities:

  • immersive reading a document or book with diagrams and tables
  • referencing recipes while cooking
  • watching movies or TV.
Surface Go is perfect for referencing recipes while cooking
Surface Go is perfect for referencing recipes while cooking

As mentioned earlier, the Surface Go is small and light enough to make a good e-reader. Where a 6-inch e-reader is too small for books with diagrams and tables, the Surface Go 10-inch screen in portrait mode is the perfect size and weight. A laptop is too cumbersome and bulky for immersive reading, and obviously a phone is way too small for complex documents. When cooking, the Surface Go in tablet mode propped on your kitchen counter is perfect for referencing a recipe. It is not too bulky to get in the way, and the touch screen is perfect if some scrolling is required. My wife gets a lot of recipes from the web, but has always printed the recipe when it came time to cook it. Putting a laptop on the kitchen counter just doesn’t work. The Surface Go is allowing to truly transition to digital recipes. Finally, watching movies or TV on the Surface Go is a great experience. The resolution, color accuracy, and headphone sound quality are very good. You can watch movies or TV on a phone, but on the Surface Go, it just looks way better due to the bigger screen. You could also do this on a laptop, but the weight of the laptop starts to encumber the experience. When watching movies or TV, the built-in kick stand is super handy. I consider watching movies or TV on the Surface Go with headphones to be a better experience than on my big screen TV provided you are watching alone.

Connecting Things to the Surface Go

The Surface Go is the first Surface product to have a USB-C port that includes DisplayPort output and power delivery. The Surface Go comes with a 24-watt adapter that connects to the proprietary Surface Connect port. If you don’t have your Surface Go adapter, you can use most USB-C chargers. The supplied adapter is rated at 15 V with 1.6 amps. Check your voltage and current of your USB charger. It should be a minimum 5 V with 3 amps (15 watts). Anything less than 15 watts will not be enough to charge while also using the Surface Go. The maximum power input to the USB-C on the Surface Go is reported to be rated at 45-watts. Most chargers though can communicate with the device being charged and step down their power delivery if the maximum adapter output exceeds the maximum device input. So, using a “smart” USB-C adapter over 45 watts is probably safe.

The USB-C power delivery is great when traveling. If you have a phone that also charges with USB-C, you only need to take one charger with you. You can leave the Surface Go adapter at home. If you have an iPhone, you can buy adaptors that output USB-C and USB-A. The USB-A can be used with a USB-A to Lighting cable to charge your iPhone, and a USB-C to USB-C cable can be used to charge your Surface Go.

The Surface Go can be docked to extend its connectivity. You have two choices on the port to use for docking. You can use the Surface Connect port on the Surface Go, or you can use the USB-C port. If you use the Surface Connect port, you would need to buy a Surface Dock. The Surface Dock will give you two Mini DisplayPorts, gigabit Ethernet, 4 USB A 3.0, and audio out. If you use the USB-C port, your connectivity will depend on the dongle or dock you use. Plugable makes a USB-C 4K Triple Display Docking Station with Charging Support. Using this dock with the Surface Go, you should be able to connect two 4K monitors at 60 Hz. Both the Surface Dock and the Plugable dock will also provide power delivery to the Surface Go through the single Surface Connect or USB-C connection. So, you don’t need to worry about the Surface Go running out of battery power while docked.

If you find you need extra storage, there is a microSD slot right under the kick stand. You can get up to 1 TB of extra storage. I recommend getting a UHS-I, speed class U3 card. This will give you the best speed for your money, but do not expect read and write speeds to be faster than the eMMC or SDD drive. Windows 10 allows you to move apps to a microSD card if you are running out of room on your main drive.

You can also wirelessly connect to monitors and digital audio using Miracast. Roku and nearly all smart TVs are equipped with Miracast though it may not be called that on the device. I’m able to wirelessly connect to my TV with 4K resolution as a second monitor. Photographs look amazing this way.

Windows 10 in S Mode

Windows 10 in S Mode is supposed to be for security and better performance. When in S Mode, you can only install apps from the Windows Store. Apps from the Store are vetted by Microsoft, so should not have viruses. Also, UWP apps from the store can be better controlled in terms of the resources the app can use. A lot of people complain that their Windows 10 computer gets slower and slower over time. This is not Windows 10 getting slower, this is your computer getting bogged down with Win32 programs running things in the background. S Mode is not faster. It is just less likely to get bogged down with legacy programs over time. If you take a new Surface Go and take it out of S Mode, it will not slow it down.

I tried to stay in S Mode. I lasted about 2 months, then I decided I needed to install a conferencing app from the web. I checked with Task Manager to make sure the Win32 conferencing app did not hog resources while it wasn’t loaded. It was well behaved. In that case, I was lucky because the Win32 app was well behaved. If you continually install badly behaved Win32 programs, over time your performance will degrade.

My recommendation is to just go ahead and take it out of S Mode. You do that via the Store. There is a link in your Settings that will take you to the place in the Store to take it out of S Mode. See below for more information.

Some Windows 10 Settings and Configurations Best Suited for a Surface Go

If you happen to have bought the 64 GB model, you will want to be careful about storage on your main drive. After I set up my 64 GB model, with Office, Netflix, and Sling installed, I had 40 GB left over. For major Windows 10 feature updates, you will typically need 6 to 11 GB of free working space to perform the update operation. Major feature updates happen twice a year: once in the Spring and once in the Fall. For the May 2019 (1903) update, Microsoft has announced you need 32 GB of disk space to store the operating system. This will include a new 7 GB reserve set aside to help with disk space availability for things like updates and temporary files.

Windows 10 will get maintenance updates usually on Tuesdays. These updates will start to accumulate on your main storage. I recommend turning on Storage sense to automatically purge unnecessary files on a regular schedule. Go to Settings > Storage > Storage sense, and set to on. Continue further by clicking “Change how we free up space automatically”. Here you can specify how often to run Storage sense and what type of files to free up. The scheduled Storage sense will not free up all type of files. You should run Disk Cleanup at least once a month to purge other files. You can run Disk Cleanup from the properties dialog of your drive by right clicking the drive in File Explorer and selecting Properties, and then click the Disk Cleanup button.

Aside from managing your storage, here are some other settings and configurations of interest:

  • Take out of Windows 10 in S Mode. Go to Settings > Update and Security > Activation for the link to the store for your free upgrade to Windows 10 Home edition.
  • Use OneDrive On-Demand. OneDrive On-Demand allows your files to only take up storage when accessed over the network. Right click OneDrive cloud icon in System Tray, select Settings, in settings dialog click Settings tab, then check “Save space and download files as you use them”. You can also control at a folder level to always keep select files on the local drive. In File Explorer, right click a folder, then select “Always keep on this device”. This way you can have some files networked, and others available for offline use.
  • Use Power Throttling. This will minimize background process CPU utilization. When device is on battery power, click the battery icon in the System Tray. Set the Power Mode slider to “Better battery”. When plugged in, repeat this process, but instead set the Power Mode slider to “Best performance”. There is no need to use power throttling when plugged in.
  • Lower display brightness when on battery. When on battery power, go to Settings > System > Display > Change brightness, to set brightness to about 50% or lower. This will have the greatest impact on how long the battery lasts. When plugged in, go ahead and set brightness to 100%. Windows 10 will remember the setting for each power mode.
  • Try Edge. Edge is already installed so you have a browser without taking up extra storage to install another one. If you feel you absolutely must have a different browser, I challenge you to just try Edge for two weeks. You will probably find your life will be pretty much the same. Edge is being rewritten to use the Chromium engine. This is the open source engine the Chrome browser is based on. When the new Edge is available (expected late 2019 or early 2020), it will be largely redundant to install Chrome.
  • Use Windows Defender. Remember when I was talking about badly behaved Win32 programs. Well it is my opinion that third party anti-virus programs are the worst offenders. If you don’t carefully monitory their settings, they will go off and do excessive and unnecessary processing like defragmenting your hard drive, and cleaning your registry. Windows Defender will keep you safe, will not get in your way, will not suck power out of your CPU and battery, and will not take up extra storage to install.
  • Automatically switch to tablet mode. Every time you attach or remove the Type Cover, you are not going to want to click a confirmation. Go to Settings > System > Tablet mode > When this device automatically switches tablet mode on or off, select “Don’t ask me and always switch”.
  • Make text bigger. You might find that text is too small on the Surface Go. Go to Settings > System > Display > Change the size of text, apps, and other items. It defaults to 150%. If you find things are too small, try 175%.
  • Set single click to open in File Explorer. When in tablet mode, double tapping to open something in File Explorer is very awkward. In File Explorer, File menu > change folder and search options > Folder Options dialog General tab > select Single click to open an item (point to select) radio button.
  • Make a Taskbar toolbar for the desktop. When in tablet mode, you will not have access to your desktop icons. You may have handy links to documents on your desktop. Right click the Taskbar, select Toolbars > “New toolbar…”. When the folder selection dialog opens, navigate to your user account folder, then select the Desktop folder. This will put a toolbar on your Taskbar called Desktop that will have shortcuts to your desktop icons that you can access when in tablet mode. If you change icons on your desktop, this toolbar will stay in sync automatically.

Which Surface Go Configuration Should You Buy?

I have the 64 GB storage model. I regret getting this version due to space being tight. Give yourself a little more breathing room and get the 128 GB SSD configuration. This will raise the price by $150, but I believe it will be worth it if you plan to use your Surface Go regularly.


Surface Go shown with backpack
Surface Go shown with backpack

I didn’t expect to use my Surface Go so much. I thought it was just going to be for traveling. I ended up loving the Surface Go. My wife also loves it. Microsoft’s execution of the device hits a magical sweet spot in terms of size, weight, performance, and price. The small size is perfect for single task content creation or media consumption. The small size also makes taking the Surface Go with you a no-brainer. Just throw it in your bag and you got a full computer in case you need one. I love traveling with my Surface Go, but I also love using it around the house. I didn’t expect to love using it at home. I wouldn’t say my laptop is collecting dust, but my laptop utilization has been cut down by about 80%. To me, the Surface Go is an extremely successful purchase because it is getting used and enjoyed extensively. I think how well a device is executed is determined over time by its utilization. I have used my Surface Go for five months, and my wife and I gravitate to it over the laptop and phone. That tells you the slower processor doesn’t really matter. There is no irritation from being slow. Microsoft got the things that matter right. The gorgeous display, fluid touch response, and ultra-portable size make the Surface Go a winner.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeffery Lewis. All rights reserved.
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