Saturday, August 18News That Matters

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Small Computer, Big Compromise


The Go is a surprisingly productive device, thanks to Windows and the Type Cover keyboard accessory, but it’s a little small for some things.

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Every morning on the train into work, I see the same scene played over and over. People board and reach into their bags for their laptops. Then they do a dance I call the Laptop Limbo, contorting as they search for ways to comfortably work in their tiny seats. When it’s really crowded, I’ve seen them hold their laptops aloft.

Those moments are practically ads for

Microsoft
’s

new Surface Go, the smallest, lightest and least expensive two-in-one PC yet to come out of Redmond. The Go matches Apple’s iPad Pro nearly identically in size, from the 10-inch screen to the 1-pound body, but Microsoft built it to be a far more productive device with all the power of real Windows.

In many ways, it’s a clever mix of tablet and laptop. But it’s just not powerful enough.

Microsoft created the Go as a competitor to Apple’s iPad. Since this device runs full Windows, there are things it can do that the more expensive iPad Pro (left) simply can’t.

Microsoft created the Go as a competitor to Apple’s iPad. Since this device runs full Windows, there are things it can do that the more expensive iPad Pro (left) simply can’t.


Photo:

David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

Low price, high fashion

The Go starts at $399, but you’ll definitely want the Type Cover keyboard accessory and the Surface Pen stylus, so you’re really looking at $629. (The model I tested—with more storage and memory—costs $549, or $779 with the accessories.) Most laptops in that price range tend to be large and heavy, and often look like they were made from leftover plastic. Good screens and fast chips are easy to come by, but rare is the cheap laptop you’d want to carry around or show off to your colleagues.

In that sense, there’s nothing in the Windows world quite like the Surface Go. The Go’s curb appeal far exceeds its asking price: It has no ugly decals, just clean lines and attractive details. It takes up less space in my bag than an issue of this newspaper.

In trying to be a perfect hand-held tablet and a powerhouse laptop, though, the Go risks getting neither right. (Remember netbooks?) It’s great that the Surface Go fits in the pocket of my cargo shorts, but its 10-inch screen is simply too small for some things. Windows and its most powerful apps were clearly not designed for this size, either—toolbars and too-large icons take up much of that precious screen space.

Small computers mean small keyboards, too. Microsoft fit impressively large and spacious keys onto the Go’s Type Cover accessory, but it’s far from a full-size set of letters. Even after days of practice I can’t type as quickly or accurately as on other machines. Still, there’s no better tablet keyboard attachment than this fabricky, magnetic contraption. Oh, and if you’re listening, Apple? Having a touchpad and a touch screen is pretty fantastic.

The Go looks like Microsoft's other Surface devices: It has a kickstand, a simple and handsome design, and plenty of ports.

The Go looks like Microsoft’s other Surface devices: It has a kickstand, a simple and handsome design, and plenty of ports.


Photo:

David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

Slow going

The Go is a handy commuter computer. I dock it to large monitors, keyboards and mice when I’m at home or the office, and use it on its own on the go. I imagine Microsoft execs syncing their OneDrives between a Surface Studio at work and a Surface Book 2 at home, with the Go as the ultraportable way to get work done in between. It’s also an excellent idea for a travel computer, at a palatable price.

However, the Surface Go turned out to be intolerably slow. In my benchmarks, the Go scored anywhere from a quarter to half the speed of a decent Windows PC. That translates to webpages taking a few extra seconds to load, huge multitasking slowdowns and gaps between click and response long enough to make you angrily click again. Even Microsoft’s $799 Surface Pro runs like a supercomputer next to this thing.

That said, the Go never crashed or froze in my testing, and the weaker processor does mean the battery lasts easily a full day, if you’re not working it too hard. My battery tests showed it outlasted even $1,000 Windows laptops (but not the Surface Pro).

Like other Surfaces, the Go supports Microsoft's Surface Pen stylus, and the small body makes for a good notebook.

Like other Surfaces, the Go supports Microsoft’s Surface Pen stylus, and the small body makes for a good notebook.


Photo:

Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

By default, the Go runs in “S Mode,” a locked-down version of Windows that only allows you to install apps from the Windows Store. It’s meant to protect users from malware and problematic apps that can slow down computers, but it also keeps you from downloading many of the apps you’ll want, like Google’s Chrome browser or Amazon’s Kindle reader. I could only suffer S Mode for about an hour—luckily it’s easy to turn off.

Microsoft's Surface Go is among the best-looking $500 Windows devices, not to mention one of the smallest.

Microsoft’s Surface Go is among the best-looking $500 Windows devices, not to mention one of the smallest.


Photo:

David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

There are some things you simply can’t do on an iPad or Chromebook, but the Go can do almost anything. If your computer needs involve mostly email, web browsing, Netflix and Word documents, the Go will be fine—especially if you’re upgrading from a years-old laptop. (You’ll still have to subscribe to Office to use it.) Since it runs Windows, the Go is ready for those rare occasions you need to edit PowerPoints or open an old Lotus Notes file. It also has a USB-C port, so you can plug in hard drives or external devices. Just be ready for this computer to seriously test your patience in the process.

Microsoft in the Middle

The Surface Go is positioned to take on not one but two of Apple’s tablets.

Surface

Go

iPad

Pro

Ratings

Expected cost

with keyboard

and stylus

Pricing by

product

iPad

Base price

Keyboard

GOOD

OK

BAD

$528

$329

Speed

GOOD

BAD

OK

iPad

Work compatibility

GOOD

BAD

BAD

Pen performance

GOOD

GOOD

OK

$629

$399

Surface

Go

Handling

GOOD

GOOD

OK

Battery life

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

$907

$649

Gaming

GOOD

GOOD

BAD

iPad Pro

Leisure

OK

OK

GOOD

Product takeaways

iPad

Surface Go

iPad Pro

Mostly for work, mostly a laptop. Smaller and better-

looking than others at this price, but also slower than them.

Priciest by far, and missing a few work-critical features. Still, it mixes work and play, keyboard and touch, quite well.

Great for reading, movies and games. Sub-par keyboard integration and pen support make it a struggle at work.

iPad

Pro

Surface

Go

Product takeaways

Ratings

iPad

iPad

Keyboard

Speed

Work compatibility

Pen performance

Handling

Battery life

Gaming

Leisure

OK

BAD

GOOD

Great for reading, movies and games. Sub-par keyboard integration and pen support make it a struggle at work.

GOOD

BAD

OK

BAD

BAD

GOOD

OK

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

OK

Surface Go

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

Mostly for work, mostly a laptop. Smaller and better-

looking than others at this price, but also slower than them.

GOOD

BAD

GOOD

OK

OK

GOOD

Expected cost

with keyboard

and stylus

Pricing by product

Base price

iPad Pro

$329

$528

Priciest by far, and missing a few work-critical features. Still, it mixes work and play, keyboard and touch, quite well.

iPad

$399

$629

Surface Go

$649

$907

iPad Pro

iPad

Pro

Surface

Go

Expected cost

with keyboard

and stylus

Pricing by

product

Ratings

iPad

Base price

Keyboard

OK

BAD

GOOD

$528

$329

Speed

BAD

OK

GOOD

iPad

Work compatibility

BAD

BAD

GOOD

Pen performance

OK

GOOD

GOOD

$629

$399

Surface

Go

Handling

OK

GOOD

GOOD

Battery life

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

$907

$649

Gaming

GOOD

BAD

GOOD

iPad Pro

Leisure

OK

GOOD

OK

Product takeaways

Surface Go

iPad

iPad Pro

Great for reading, movies and games. Sub-par keyboard integration and pen support make it a struggle at work.

Mostly for work, mostly a laptop. Smaller and better-

looking than others at this price, but also slower than them.

Priciest by far, and missing a few work-critical features. Still, it mixes work and play, keyboard and touch, quite well.

iPad

Pro

Surface

Go

iPad

Product

Keyboard

Speed

Work compatibility

Pen performance

Handling

Battery life

Gaming

Leisure

OK

BAD

GOOD

BAD

OK

GOOD

BAD

GOOD

BAD

GOOD

OK

GOOD

GOOD

OK

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

GOOD

BAD

OK

OK

GOOD

Pricing by product

Expected cost with

keyboard and stylus

Base price

iPad

$329

$528

Surface Go

$629

$399

iPad Pro

$649

$907

Takeaways

Great for reading, movies and games. Sub-par keyboard integration and pen support make it a struggle at work.

iPad

Mostly for work, mostly a laptop. Smaller and better-looking than others at this price, but also slower than them.

Surface Go

iPad Pro

Priciest by far, and missing a few work-critical features. Still, it mixes work and play, keyboard and touch, quite well.

Sources: WSJ analysis of the products; the companies (photos)

This is not the best tablet you can buy for the price—the iPad has more, better apps, and an interface designed both for touch and for this screen size. Nor is it the best laptop you can buy, since nearly any $500-and-up laptop will be faster. Microsoft aimed for a tiny target in the middle, hoping that a good tablet and a good laptop would combine into a Megazord greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for a travel computer or a second PC for the home, the Go will do. It’s hard to recommend it as your only computer, though.

Someone’s going to get this convergence right eventually. Maybe it’ll be a fast, thin Chromebook with a foldout screen; maybe it’ll be an iPad with more productivity features and a touchpad. Maybe it’ll be a Surface, in a few years when a chip like the Go’s can be both fast and efficient.

A 1-pound gadget in my bag that I can use to finish my presentation before picking it up and kicking back to watch the latest “Succession”? I’m ready for that. And still waiting.

The Go attempts to be both laptop and tablet: Work on your desk, then pick it up and read on the couch. The only problem? It's too slow.

The Go attempts to be both laptop and tablet: Work on your desk, then pick it up and read on the couch. The only problem? It’s too slow.


Photo:

Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

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