Microsoft Surface Go review: This affordable little Windows 10 S tablet is a PC when you need it

Don't be turned off by Windows 10 S and the Pentium chip inside it. We were pleasantly surprised by how well Microsoft's Surface Go works, save for the keyboard.

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Microsoft Surface Go surface app pen pressure Mark Hachman / IDG

The integrated Surface app can reassure you that yes, the Microsoft Surface Pen can sense different levels of pressure.

While it’s not light enough to be held one-handed for long periods of time, navigating is simple enough with the on-screen keyboard that pops up when you tap a text field. You can also orally order Cortana to bring up a playlist on Spotify, navigate to a webpage, or open Netflix. Unlike with prior Surface products, a Type-Cover-free experience with the Surface Go is plausible. 

The productivity experience, with the Type Cover

The case for the Type Cover is for desk work on the go. While the Surface Go is decidedly the most mobile tablet Microsoft has ever produced, the current model lacks an LTE connection. And I certainly wouldn’t want to make last-minute changes to an Excel spreadsheet via an Android app. When it came time to do “real work,” I gravitated toward a Wi-Fi connection, the Type Cover, and a flat surface. 

The Surface Go fills the bill. I wasn’t able to afford an airline flight to test whether the Go really fit within the space between a tray table and a reclined seat back, but the Go plus its Type Cover made for a comfortable workspace on an Amtrak train tray table and on my lap on the Bay Area subway, BART.

It was in this last scenario, though, that I began to wonder whether Microsoft was forcing the tablet concept a bit. All the jouncing and bouncing on planes, trains and automobiles lends itself more to a small clamshell notebook than a tablet—though, granted, with potential tradeoffs in terms of size and weight. I’d be interested to try out a Surface Go built like a small, convertible Surface Book.

One other note: If you work outside, the 397 nits generated by the Surface Go’s screen is enough to view and edit a Word file in full sunlight. Who says on-the-go can’t mean on the beach?

Microsoft Surface Go Mark Hachman / IDG

You’ll want a white background with black type (not the balck background, here) to use the Surface Go in full sun.

Surface Go performance: Windows 10 S

As we did with the Surface Laptop, we considered the Surface Go as a Windows 10 S device first and foremost, comparing it to rivals via a suite of cross-platform benchmarks: the most recent 9.7-inch Apple iPad, for starters, and a preferred Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2. We also included the Asus NovaGo, which uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, and the Asus Chromebook Flip C101PA, powered by an ARM Rockchip processor.

Because of the limitations Windows 10 S places upon apps, we first chose a suite of browser-based tests, which provide some points of comparison.  (All tests used Microsoft Edge, except for the Chromebook Flip, which uses the Chrome OS and Chrome browser.) You'll see those benchmarks first.

Then we upgraded the Go to Windows 10 Home and evaluated it with our normal suite of benchmarks. 

Keep in mind that we’re evaluating it as Microsoft sees it: as a lightweight office machine, nothing more. For a broader context, however, we added some far more powerful Windows and Mac devices, too.

In real-world use, the Surface Go’s performance seemed competent. Microsoft Edge ran smoothly. Spreadsheets with 1,000 rows of data opened within a second or two, and I even managed to create a chart based on the data. (Manipulating that chart was another story.) We have a lot of numbers that tell you that the Surface Go is slow—well, slower than many of its competitors. As a device for Web browsing, Office work, and some music playback, I was surprised at how competent the Go was.

But yes, our browser-based benchmarks paint a pretty lukewarm picture. Microsoft claimed the Surface Go would be slightly faster than the Surface Pro 3—yes, the 2014 device that put the Surface Pro line on the map. But it’s not. According to our testing, it’s about 60 percent or so of the SP3’s performance, based upon the SP3 Core i5 version. (We updated the Surface Pro 3 to the current version of Windows 10, naturally.) 

Microsoft Surface Go windows 10 s chrome Mark Hachman / IDG

Windows 10 in S Mode prevented us from throwing our full suite of benchmarks at the Surface Go... until we upgraded to Windows 10 Home.

One of the more “real-world” Web tests available is WebXPRT, by Principled Technologies, which assigns the browser six HTML5- and JavaScript-based workloads that approximate tasks like organizing photo albums and tracking stock option pricing. We have a larger database of the older WebXPRT 2015 scores, and a few from the most recent WebXPRT 3 benchmark. The Surface Go finishes near the back, among the optimized tablets, as it does for virtually all of the tests.

Microsoft Surface Go webxprt Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go finishes near the bottom in the WebXPRT benchmarks.

Likewise, we use the Speedometer test (version 1 and version 2) to test the responsiveness of the browser (and the PC) to web applications. The Surface Go once again dwells in the cellar. 

Microsoft Surface Go speedometer Mark Hachman / IDG

Speedometer tests the browser and PC using repetitive calls to a Document Object Model, or DOM. Again, the Surface Go is on the slow side.

The JetStream 1.1 benchmark includes both synthetic tests as well as some “real-world applications,” such as the Mozilla open source project’s PDF renderer (pdfjs), and the Box2D JavaScript physics engine (box2d). The Surface Go led the back of the pack.

Microsoft Surface Go jetstream Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go still finishes behind the Surface Pro 3 in the JetStream Web benchmark.

Octane 2.0 is a deprecated Google benchmark, but we’ve added it for completeness, as well as its large historical database of comparative data. The Surface Go once again wins among the laggers.

Microsoft Surface Go octane 2.0 Mark Hachman / IDG

Again, the Surface Go finishes well down the table.

Finally, there’s battery life, which we measure by loading a 4K movie into the Windows Movies & TV app and looping it until the battery expires. With Windows 10 in S Mode, we can’t use our normal automated tools to detect when the PC falls out of active mode; instead, we have to sit alongside it and keep an eye on it until it does. The Surface Go lasted 6 hours and 49 minutes, which puts it among the shorter-lived competitors. 

Microsoft Surface Go battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go’s 27Wh battery pooped out after 6 hours and 49 minutes. Unfortunately, we don’t have Macworld rundown tests to compare the Surface Go to the Apple iPad.

Remember, this iteration of tests is restricted by which apps we can throw at the Surface Go—which is hardly any, because of Windows 10 S.

Surface Go performance: Windows 10 Home

After we upgraded the Go to Windows 10 Home, we were able to add our standard benchmark suite. In this case, our more sophisticated benchmarks confirmed our earlier results. There's one advantage to the Pentium chip: Because it doesn't support turbo mode, Microsoft could simply design for the maximum thermal and power limits and not really worry about spikes. We saw no evidence of throttling at all, using Intel's XTU monitoring software.

We used the PCMark Work, Home, and Creative tests to measure general everyday use. The Work and Home tests are probably the most significant, as Microsoft sees the Go as straddling the low end of work and play. The Work test measures tasks like word processing and spreadsheet data entry and manipulation, while the Home test performs light gaming, web browsing, and related tasks. In these tests, the Surface Go posted lukewarm results.

Microsoft Surface Go pcmark work Mark Hachman / IDG

The Microsoft Surface Go finishes well down in this business benchmark.

Microsoft Surface Go pcmark home Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go falls to a familiar spot in the PCMark Home benchmark, too.

The Creative test is a slightly more potent test of the Go's capabilities, with photo editing added to the mix. Again, it's competent, though nothing special.

Microsoft Surface Go pcmark creative Mark Hachman / IDG

Nothing really changes with the PCMark Creative test, either.

Because the Surface Go's Pentium is hyperthreaded, it can assign four virtual cores to the task of rendering, as our Cinebench tests shows. We don't expect that you'll be using the Surface Go for intensive graphics work, however. (At the time of our original review, the Asus NovaGo could not run the 64-bit Cinebench executable due to limitations in the architecture.)

Microsoft Surface Go cinebench Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go isn't a powerful rendering tool either.

Handbrake, our time-intensive video conversion test, transcodes a major Hollywood movie into a format that we can watch on an Android tablet. It's here we expected to see some slowdown over time. Again, the lack of turbo boost means that the Go's Pentium processor remained at a fixed temperature and utilization over the life of the test...which took, well, forever.

Microsoft Surface Go handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

Handbrake takes ages to transcode a movie: 206 minutes, or longer than the movie's run time.

We also used 3DMark's Sky Diver benchmark to measure the Go's performance in light gaming. In the real world, we'd play turn-based games and 2D sprite-based shooters and platformers on it, nothing more. It just doesn't have the horsepower for anything too complex.

Microsoft Surface Go sky diver Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go turns in a decent performance in the Sky Diver benchmark, though nothing that makes this a gaming PC.

Finally, we rechecked battery life, using our more sophisticated automated approach. Microsoft has indicated that Windows 10 in S mode is more optimized for battery life and security, and we expected battery life to dip a bit in Windows 10 Home. It actually doesn't—statistically it's roughly equal. We'd chalk up any error to the simple fact that it's difficult to babysit a rundown test over the course of several hours.

Microsoft Surface Go windows 10 home battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

A small battery and high-res display means that the Surface Go's battery life isn't much to speak of, at just over 7.5 hours.

Surface Go: The verdict

Microsoft has traditionally pushed the limits with Surface hardware: faster, more powerful, and yes, more expensive. The Surface Go feels like a repositioning, reaching down into the “niche” of the mainstream commuter, offering a tablet that can be a PC when you need it.

If you’re looking for the best pure tablet, this actually isn’t it. I personally prefer models like the (three-year-old!) $319 Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 (Android), a vast (10.5-inch), lightweight (1.03 lb) sheet of glass. Likewise, the $329 9.7-inch Apple iPad (2018) weighs a bit less than the Surface Go and boasts Apple’s amazing iOS app ecosystem. (But an Apple Pencil also costs $99 extra, and a decent iPad keyboard can run you more than $120.) For something smaller, Amazon’s cheap 8-inch Fire HD tablets fills the bill.

What the Surface Go is selling is versatility. Plus, it’s priced low enough that it starts moving into the “sure, why not?” range of discretionary purchases. This is a solid low-cost tablet, even if all the optional accessories begin to add up. There’s certainly some shock associated with using the new Type Cover for the first time. But if you’re headed to Cancun for a week, and there’s that nagging doubt that you’ll need a real computer, I think you’re going to grab the Surface Go.

This review was updated on Nov. 2 to note the addition of a 4GB RAM/128GB storage option.

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