reviews tech

Microsoft Surface Go: Plenty Good (But Not More)

As much as I love my 13-inch 2015 Macbook Pro, it doesn’t fit well into a small bag for quick trips or my daily commute. And if I’m honest, I don’t need the power of my Macbook Pro for most of the things I use it for, like writing articles, working on my novel, or watching the occasional YouTube video (oh who am I kidding, the occasional YouTube binge session, like streaming sumo in bed). For things like that, a more compact (and less expensive) machine can do the trick.

But I still wanted some power for a commute-able daily driver. And so, to compliment my aging-yet-lovely Macbook, I purchased my first new Windows machine in over a decade: a Microsoft Surface Go tablet. And after a few weeks of fiddling, playing, pushing and writing, I’ve developed a few thoughts about my mobile companion.

Let’s get to it.

My new baby in all its glory.

Let’s start with the straightforward stuff: the model I bought is a 10-inch, 8GB RAM/128GB model, so it’s the higher-end model of the lower-end machine. That’s not to call it “low end” by any stretch, only to make it clear this is not a Surface Pro. That one’s got some superior guts, but for what I was looking for, I thought the less-expensive model will do. Still, including the black type cover for an extra hundred bucks, the price tag still topped $700 for my particular device. Not cheap, believe me I know.

This is my first serious experience with Windows 10 (again, my last Windows purchase was circa 2008, so WinXP is my last hands-on), so it’s taken some adjusting from Mac OSX. But credit where due, Windows is an easy OS to use, and with the touch screen I don’t even need the pad included with the type cover… almost. I need as much on the screen as possible to be comfortable working, even on a smaller screen, and touch doesn’t cut it for me on dedicated writing sessions. When sitting at the train station waiting for my last train, if I’m standing up or unable to use my keyboard for some reason, it works in a pinch. I didn’t buy the Surface Pen—I write for a reason, after all, drawing and sketching isn’t my forte—so maybe editing and getting into those nooks is easier. For an extra hundred bucks, I’m happy to without, thanks.

Finger-touch browsing a website, however, that works just fine. Exactly how one might expect on any other tablet; drag up and down, tap links, make something larger or smaller, no problem. And since it’s on a plenty-big-enough screen using a desktop OS, websites will load in desktop mode instead of tablet/mobile mode without having to fiddle with any settings. It’s a minor thing, but when you realize you haven’t had to change that in a while, you start to appreciate it. Tiny, but a nice impact.

I don’t have a massive steam library, but the games I do have are older and not particularly graphics-intensive, so gaming is… still limited. This ain’t a gaming powerhouse by any stretch, and with the battery being cut down to 4-5 hours for browsing online on wifi (my Switch almost lasts that long, and it handles a LOT more than a word processor) it’s not set up for a gaming session without a ready power source sitting next to you. But it is strong enough to play some low-end stuff if you’re near an outlet, like Torchlight on maximum settings, and… uhh, Microsoft Solitaire. I don’t do much PC gaming, but with how small the screen is and how frantic things get, I’m not about to try and push marathon Overwatch sessions on this puppy (though apparently it can be run on super-low settings and be mostly playable).

But I didn’t buy this just to browse, or to light up a hardcore gaming sesh (Torchlight is just an added perk). I bought it as, basically, a portable typewriter that can stream on occasion. And for that, it works perfectly well. Windows has a massive number of freeware options for this, so there’s something for everything I might want to do, even if the software is long outdated; typing in Rough Draft 3.0 (the greatest general writing software in its heyday, full stop) even works, and it was last updated in 2005, so from lack of updates it’s less reliable than it used to be. Suitable replacements for the classics like LibreOffice and Atlantis for offline work, and of course the ever-present Google Docs pick up the slack (which is still my primary go-to).

And this Tablet Cover keyboard (find the link on Microsoft’s site)… it’s not as good as Macbook keyboards USED to be (before that barely-press abomination introduced with the newest entry-level Macbook) or even quite as nice as my Logitech K380, but it’s nice and responsive with just enough travel to feel there’s physical impact occurring. It’s smooth, the keys are grippy but not too much so, and even though the keys are VERY close to one another, it doesn’t feel cramped in the slightest. Bonus points, writing on the train (as I’m doing while I write this section) is more difficult on a loose keyboard with my phone or a tablet, so the magnetic clasp holding everything together makes it feel premium even if it’s not as stiff as a laptop screen-keyboard setup would be.

About the cameras on the Surface: they’re a steep downside. Probably useful for intermittent Skype calls, but nobody with a cell phone post-2010 should be using them for any other pictures. They’re grainy as a farm, and with about as much detail as a young kid’s drawing of one. Seriously, just don’t dedicate any time trying to take advantage of the cameras, using them will only hurt yourself (and your eyes, and the eyes of people you share with). But you can still take pictures on a better camera, then transfer and doodle on them with a finger or the pen using the built-in picture editing software. The screen is plenty clear enough to appreciate shots taken from a more capable camera.

I have a hard time calling the Surface Go a “computer”, what with the dearth of IO options. Buying a USB-C dongle of some kind is necessary to use it to its full potential as a lightweight computer, like anybody with a ton of USB-A thumb drives or accessories lying around. Since we’re in an age where so much is online-specific this might not be a big deal for a lot of users, but to add any extension to the built-in 128GB (or even worse, the 64GB model) and actually make it more than a glorified YouTube-in-bed device you’ll need some accessories. And I wouldn’t recommend this to too many creators, since heavy editing is not going to be much of an option; drawing would work fine, even some image adjustments through GIMP, but audio and video processing are going to need horsepower this just doesn’t have. The Surface Go is well-situated as a secondary device, then the heavy lifting is done and you’re out on the town ready to get some extra light jobs done.

For me and my uses, I grade the Microsoft Surface Go 8GB RAM/128GB model a solid “B”. It works for Microsoft-specific programs I might want to take advantage of, but it’s the Robin to my Macbook Pro’s Batman. Still has plenty of uses and I’m looking forward to getting a lot of work done out on the town with my pretty little baby.

Stand Tall and work well, friends!