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Surface Laptop Go review: Microsoft delivers a decent budget PC

Microsoft promised an affordable Surface, and the Surface Laptop Go delivers. Even compromises like its fingerprint reader and a sub-1080p screen surprisingly work.

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The Surface Laptop Go includes a 720p user-facing camera, a step down from the excellent 1080p cameras built into other Surface devices. To be fair, a 720p camera is par for the course in the laptop space, and Microsoft’s cameras (RIP, Lumia) still produce a decent, color-accurate image. Your Zoom calls should look fine. Like other Surfaces, however, Microsoft left out a sliding camera shield or dedicated button to turn off the laptop’s microphone. Two far-field mics help pick up your voice.

microsoft surface laptop go camera shot Mark Hachman / IDG

Perhaps because of the default Windows 10 in S Mode operating system, the Surface Laptop Go is spectacularly bloat-free: no pre-installed Candy Crush or any of that nonsense. Spotify is perhaps the only third-party app on the machine. Microsoft includes a 30-day trial of Microsoft 365 Family.

Microsoft has a new app for you, too: the Surface Diagnostic Toolkit. While this appears to be a utility for ferreting out potential problems with your Surface, it also sums up the Surface Laptop Go’s general features and provides a link to support and warranty information. It even has a neat little battery utility that can track how many charge cycles your battery has gone through, along with other basic information.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go surface diagnostic toolkit Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Diagnostic Toolkit app appears to have replaced the Surface app, and provides a summary of the Surface Laptop Go’s specs, along with diagnostic tests.

What Windows 10 in S Mode means for you

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go ships with Windows 10 in S Mode (aka Windows 10 S), a signal that Microsoft wants the Surface Laptop Go to compete with Chromebooks as simple, managed devices. S Mode’s inherent tradeoff is that to prevent an unauthorized application or malware from attacking your PC, the operating system limits app downloads only to those found within the Microsoft Store. Even some Windows apps like the Command Shell are prohibited. (An “app” that is also available as a webpage, like Facebook, can also be saved to the Start menu.) This also prevents services like antivirus software from running, which is somewhat less of a concern given that Microsoft only allows Microsoft-approved apps on your PC.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go halo microsoft store windows 10 in s mode Mark Hachman / IDG

Part of the frustration of working with Windows 10 S is Microsoft’s refusal to filter out apps that won’t run on its operating system. See the tiny note to the lower right?

The inherent frustration with Windows 10 S is the same as when working with Windows on ARM: Chances are there will be some small, necessary app that you’ll absolutely need, and won’t be able to use.

Equally infuriating is Microsoft’s inability to put basic filtering on the Store itself. When you launch the Microsoft Store app, you’ll see every app available to Windows 10 PCs. But the Surface Laptop Go isn’t a full-fledged Windows 10 PC. Many apps you might want have a grayed-out “Install” button, and a tiny note explaining that the app isn’t compatible with Windows 10 in S Mode. We don’t understand why Microsoft can’t only show you apps your PC can download.

That said, there’s a decent amount of apps and games that are available for the Surface Laptop Go: the Office suite, certainly, as well as popular apps like Spotify. But even games are hit-and-miss: Minecraft for Windows 10 is Windows 10 S-capable. Minecraft Dungeons is not. Halo? Nope—even though all three are Microsoft-owned games. Meanwhile, third-party games like World of Tanks: Blitz and Goat Simulator are ready to rock.

As you may be aware, however, there is a way out. Within the Windows 10 Settings menu (Update & Security > Activation) lies the Switch to Windows 10 Home option. Switching out of Windows 10 in S mode to Windows 10 Home is a one-way street, and you’ll lose the protective embrace of Windows 10 S. Doing so, however, opens the door to all the freedom you’d expect with a PC.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go windows 10 s to home switch 1 Mark Hachman / IDG

You can switch out of Windows 10 in S Mode in favor of Windows 10 Home, for free. The process takes literally just a few seconds.

Battery life is one slightly brighter spot for Windows 10 in S Mode. We’ve noticed longer life from prior Surface Laptops tested in S mode, although the margin seems to have narrowed over time. The Surface Laptop Go’s battery lasted a little longer in S mode than in it did when we switched to Windows 10 Home, but not enough to justify sticking with the more limited operating system. 

Performance: Windows 10 in S Mode

Because the Store restrictions prevented us from running our traditional suite of benchmarks in Windows 10 S, we used browser-based benchmarks for comparison. We ran several tests comparing various products, mostly from Microsoft. (Skip ahead for our tests running Windows 10 Home on a broader suite of devices.)

From a real-world perspective, the WebXPRT tests are meaningful, both the current WebXPRT 3 as well as the older WebXPRT 2015. Both perform similar tasks: graphing data, manipulating and tagging photos, and similar, relatively modern Web-based activities.  We have a large database of WebXPRT scores, though the developer, Principled Technologies, has also published a Chromebook-specific version. Unfortunately, it requires ChromeOS to run. The Surface Laptop Go posted a good upper-middle score against the competition.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go webxprt Mark Hachman / IDG

By this measure, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go does decently, proving that it should be perfectly capable in Web apps.

The JetStream benchmark measures a browser’s performance on JavaScript and WebAssembly and “rewards browsers that start up quickly, execute code quickly, and run smoothly,” according to the developers. We’re testing hardware, not browsers, here, and there’s some variation—some of these tests were performed under Chrome and the legacy Edge browser, both of which have evolved over time. Still, it’s a decent measure of Web performance—and if you consider these as Chromebook competitors, they’re an important benchmark, too. Here, the Surface Laptop Go landed right in the middle.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go jetstream Mark Hachman / IDG

As in many of these benchmarks, the Surface Laptop Go performs adequately.

The Speedometer benchmarks measure the responsiveness of Web applications, using demo web applications to simulate user actions such as adding to-do items. The Surface Laptop Go posted one of the highest scores in this test.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go speedometer Mark Hachman / IDG

Good news: the Surface Laptop Go finishes in the upper third here.

I played the pair of games mentioned earlier to get a sense of how the Surface Laptop Go will run outside of Web browsing and Office apps. Goat Simulator, a playful “destroy everything” simulator, was playable with all detail turned down to minimal levels. World of Tanks Blitz, a simple tank simulation also available for Android tablets, ran at a smooth 60 fps at Medium settings. (Weirdly, neither game allowed you to set the resolution.)

Performance: Windows 10 Home

In the real world, the Surface Laptop Go is absolutely suitable as a classroom/study-from-home PC. I used it for several days as an ordinary work laptop, with Zoom and Teams calls, streaming video, messaging coworkers, and the like. It was a pleasure to use. 

microsoft surface laptop go crystal diskmark Mark Hachman / IDG

CrystalDiskMark measures how well the Surface Laptop Go SSD performs: surprisingly, pretty well, especially in sequential reads. Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop Go’s SSD does not appear to be user-accessible at all.

After I switched out of S Mode, the door opened to our normal collection of benchmarks. We use UL’s PCMark 8 tests as an older benchmark showing off the Surface Laptop Go’s ability to perform tasks like word processing, data manipulation within spreadsheets, videoconferencing, and so on. These tests are measured by the PCMark 8 Work suite. We also use the Creative test suite to add in light and mainstream gaming, and more intensive photo and video manipulation. The Surface Laptop Go landed in the middle among its competition.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go pcmark 8 Mark Hachman / IDG

In the typical office and light gaming applications measured by PCMark, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go holds its own.

Maxon’s Cinebench benchmark stresses all four cores and eight instruction threads of the Surface Laptop Go’s Core i5 processor, assigning each thread a small portion of a complex 2D image that the software renders. We use this as a test to measure short, bursty workloads. The Surface Laptop Go stumbled in this test, registering one of the lowest scores of the bunch.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go cinebench Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop Go finishes surprisingly far down in this basic measure of CPU performance.

The HandBrake benchmark is the opposite of the Cinebench sprint. The process of transcoding a Hollywood movie executes over time—more than an hour, in this case —providing a view of how the laptop handles prolonged loads. Processing power matters here, but also how cool the laptop remains while it’s working. Our score is the time, in seconds, the conversion needs to complete, and shorter is better. The Surface Laptop Go brought up the rear of the middle, adequate but not outstanding.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

Again, this test proves that the Surface Laptop Go is not a computing powerhouse.

Numerous 3DMark benchmarks exist to test the graphics capabilities of laptops and their (in this case) integrated GPUs. We use the Sky Diver benchmark, specifically designed for integrated graphics. The Surface Laptop Go’s UHD graphics isn’t up for much, so the midrange score is actually good. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go 3dmark sky diver Mark Hachman / IDG

In terms of graphics, the Surface Laptop Go finishes in the middle of the pack.

Finally, there’s battery life. We loop a 4K video over and over until the laptop’s battery expires. It should be noted that Microsoft’s own battery-life tests assume a screen brightness of 150 nits, far lower than what we consider to be adequate brightness levels. 

For its size, the Surface Laptop Go performs competently, at 495 minutes (8 hours, 15 minutes) in Windows 10 Home. We tested battery in Windows 10 S mode before we switched, and it was a little better at 521 minutes (8 hours, 41 minutes). If that doesn't cut it, the Surface Laptop Go includes quick charging, which Microsoft says will charge the battery to about 80 percent in an hour. Windows' battery meter showed the Laptop Go charging from 4 percent to 54 percent in about an hour, and from 4 percent to 82 percent in about 90 minutes.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

Battery life of eight hours and fifteen minutes isn’t bad, especially if you’ll mostly use the Surface Laptop Go at home. 

Conclusion: Good, not great

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go is a solid budget laptop reaching for good rather than great. Until Intel and its partners manage to push its 11th-gen Tiger Lake notebooks out the door, this really is the time of AMD’s mobile Ryzen. A laptop like our Editor’s Choice-winning $655 Acer Swift 3-SF314-42-R9YN is still available, and even some grumbling about thermals on Amazon’s product page shouldn’t turn you off. Walmart’s Motile M142, at $500, was also surprisingly good.  Acer’s Spin 3 offers a third choice, which you can buy from Costco for $650. It too, outperforms the Surface Laptop Go, and for a lower price.

All of our reviews linked above are worth reading carefully as part of your buying research. At the premium Microsoft charges, we’d recommend the $699 8GB RAM/128GB SSD configuration instead of our review configuration. 

Microsoft touts the Surface Laptop Go as the “everyday, everywhere” laptop, implying that you would be better off buying the Laptop Go than a Chromebook. I still believe that Microsoft has it in them to develop the “everyday, everywhere, everyone” laptop. With the Surface Laptop Go, Microsoft is headed in the right direction.

Updated at 2:00 PM on Oct. 13 to add the Surface Laptop Go's rated screen brightness.

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At a Glance
  • The Surface Laptop Go is Microsoft's most accessible Surface yet, a very good budget laptop that can compete against other midrange models. Even compromises like its fingerprint reader and a sub-1080p screen surprisingly work.

    Pros

    • Competitive price
    • New fingerprint reader works as well as a camera

    Cons

    • Average performance
    • USB-C hub may be needed for I/O expansion
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