Surface Go Performance Follow-Up

The Surface Go, the most interesting computer Microsoft has released in recent memory, was released a year ago this month. I got mine a few days after launch and posted my review several weeks later…conveniently before the return window closed.

Look, I get that this is a $399 device and it’s not going to be the fastest machine in the world, but I personally found the performance issues to be relatively shocking for a device sold straight from Microsoft.

I liked a lot of the device at the time, but at $399 it seemed insane to me how slow it was at doing literally anything. Brad Sams has a good retrospective on his YouTube channel today and he suggests the $399 one I bought is not even worth picking up and you really should get the $499 model at minimum.

Here’s the thing: if you want a Surface Go because it runs Windows, then get one by all means, but if you want something small and easy to use and that runs reasonably well, the iPad wipes the floor with it.

In a very downvoted video, I compared the speed of the 2018 Surface Go to the 18 month old iPad from 2017. The iPad outperformed the Surface Go at every turn, and at 18 months older and over $100 less expensive, it seemed insane to me that the Go was as bad as it was.

Today, the Surface Go is still $399 for the “don’t even bother” model and $499 for the one you should actually get. Meanwhile, there is a new $329 iPad that has an A10 (one generation newer than the 2017 model I tested) and the iPad Air at $499 with an A12. Basically, iPads $70-150 less than the entry-level Go are far faster, and the comparable iPad Air at the $499 price point wipes the floor with the slightly faster Go as well.

Again, if you prefer Windows, then this comparison is moot, but if you are looking for something that has a 10” screen and lets you do basic tasks on the go, there is far more horsepower in the Apple offerings. You should really read the rest of my review if you’re interested in the Surface Go because I think it’s a really good Windows device with the exception of performance.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review: This One Actually Goes

I spent a month with a Surface Go and I really didn't love it. I know it has its fans and for some people it's exactly the machine they wanted, but frankly I found it to be quite rubbish at doing just about everything. I felt it was excellent hardware betrayed by abysmal processing power.

But I loved enough elements of the Surface Go that I wanted to keep all that while having a computer that can actually perform tasks like, I don't know, typing things out without the letters taking a full second to appear on screen. The Surface Pro is the next step up, and thanks to a good bundle deal that made the cost difference justifiable, I jumped up.

Below is my review of the Microsoft Surface Pro, specifically from the perspective of how it compares to the lower end Go, as well as some obvious comparisons to the iPad Pro. This is a far more brief review, as many things are the same as the Surface Go, so I highly recommend you check that out too.

The Specs

There isn't just one Surface Pro, so here are the specs for the model I got:

  • 12.3" screen, 2736 x 1824 (267 PPI), and 3:2 aspect ratio
  • 7th Generation Intel Core i5 processor
  • Intel HD Graphics 620
  • 8GB RAM
  • 128GB SSD
  • Weight: 770 grams
  • Dimensions: 292 mm x 201 mm x 8.5 mm
  • Ports:
    • 1 USB-A
    • 1 Surface Connector
    • 1 Mini DisplayPort
    • 1 Type Cover connector
    • 1 3.5mm headphone jack
    • 1 microSD reader

This is the baseline i5 model, which just means it has 128GB of storage (not 256GB) and is Wifi only.

Performance

Performance is the biggest difference between the Surface Pro and the Go, so let’s start there.

While the Go was cripplingly slow at just about everything, the Pro model is much, much better. Like I said in my previous review, I understand that less expensive computers are going to have compromises in performance, but I found the Surface Go to be punishingly slow and made even the slightest task a pain. I’m happy to say that the i5 Surface Pro does not suffer from this pain.

While $800 can buy a pretty sweet desktop PC or even a higher specced laptop, the Surface experience is quite good and the performance is nothing to shake a stick at. It’s not cutting edge, and I definitely experienced slow downs in my use, but I felt like I was getting enough speed for the money I paid for this thing.

In terms of benchmarks, the Surface Pro returns results about 5% faster than my 2015 baseline MacBook Pro, and is about 20% behind my iPad Pro in all web benchmarks I threw at it. That said, it was at least 2x the speed of the Surface Go in basically every synthetic test.

But it’s in regular use that things are noticeably better. Apps simply launch quicker (partly due to the faster SSD), I can run more than one app at a time without everything grinding to a halt, and I could use apps like Chrome without wanting to pull my hair out. It’s kind of boring, but I don’t have much more to say about it. Performance is perfectly acceptable for most day-to-day tasks. You can edit video on this thing if you want, and while it will be slower than many pros want, it can at least get the job done.

In my Surface Go review I tested some games, and thought it was only fair to test them here as well. Without getting into too many details, I was quite shocked to see that most games ran basically the same. Old games still ran well and newer games ran like rubbish. Even Fortnite ran at about 10-15 frames per second, which I find rather shocking. Even when I reduced the game to lowest settings and dropped the resolution to a horrifying 360p.

Build Quality

If you read my Surface Go review, then you already know most of the story. This is very premium hardware and even if you don't get the bundle deal, you'll be hard pressed to find much to complain about with the build quality.

The magnesium frame feels great to the touch and just plain looks expensive. I love how this feels in the hand. The edges and corners are a little sharp for my taste, but they're fine. The Surface Go was more rounded and I found it to be more pleasant to hold in the hand.

Thickness

The Surface Pro is not a thick device by any means, but it was noticeably thicker in the hand than my iPad Pro. It’s 8.5mm thick, which is 40% thicker than the 10.5” iPad Pro and 23% thicker than the bigger 12.9” iPad Pro. It’s only going to be a problem for people who also use an iPad Pro, but if you’re used to Apple’s paper-thin devices, you’re going to have to get used to a little more heft.

Speaking of heft, at 770 grams, it’s 14% heavier than the large iPad Pro and a whopping 64% heavier than the smaller one. Again, not terrible, but expect a little more weight in your bag.

Kickstand + Large Tablet = Ouch!

More troubling from my perspective is that the weight of the device does not pair well with the kickstand for lap use. In my Surface Go review I posted an image of my legs after using that device for a few minutes. The Pro is much bigger and much heavier, and the kickstand is absolutely killer on the lap. I can't use it for more than a few minutes before it gets uncomfortable.

Also on the comfort front, the model I got gets very hot at times. The fan-less design means this thing never makes a peep, but it also means that as soon as you start to use the CPU, it gets quite warm. It gets slightly warm when using Chrome or watching videos, but it gets very, very hot when using Photoshop, Lightroom, and literally any game, the body gets wildly hot. Not hot enough to do any permanent damage, mind you, but too hot to hold comfortably.

The Display

The display does redeem some of this though, it's a gorgeous screen! It has a 1% higher pixel density than the 10" iPad Pro I use everyday, and it looks very, very good to my eyes. I do find the iPad's 120Hz refresh rate even more impressive, but compared to any other screen on a mobile device, this holds up very well.

The Port Situation

The ports on this thing are very 2015, which is a shame because it's 2018 and this came out in 2017. The only 2 standard ports are a USB-A and Mini DisplayPort. I have not had a reason to use the USB port, an I can't think of a reason I really would. The DisplayPort works well, and is what I use on my 2015 MacBook Pro, so it's fine for me, but I really enjoyed used the USB-C plug on the Surface Go to do this instead. Here's hoping the next Pro has at least one USB-C port.

Microsoft's Surface Connector is only good for charging or using with Microsoft's $200 dongle. It does a lot, but in a world of dongles the $200 dongle is king. Sadly, my insane adventure into Windows didn't convince me to get one of these bad boys.

On the plus side, the micro-SD slot on the back (under the kickstand) is nice to have and I put a 128GB card in there to give me a bit more space to work with. It’s far slower than an SSD, so try to only put big files you don’t need to access super quickly.

Battery

The battery life on the Pro is so much better than it was on the Go. While the Go struggled to get more than 3-4 hours for me, the Pro is getting more like 7-8 hours (all of this was unscientific, I just used the devices like normal). That’s a far cry from the 13.5 hours Microsoft advertises, but it’s been enough for me.

Maximum Flexibility

Just like the Surface Go, the Surface Pro’s ability to be a tablet, laptop, and desktop is a killer combination. Despite my qualms with Windows itself, there’s something really liberating about being able to use the same device to use to watch YouTube videos while I make breakfast and then plug it into a monitor to get a full desktop style experience.

Read the Surface Go piece for more details, but this is something that Apple does not have in their lineup right now and I deeply wish that they did.

Type Cover

The Type Cover is something I enjoyed with the Go and I enjoy it equally on the Pro. It’s basically the exact same thing, but bigger. I don’t have problems on the 80% sized keyboards like you have on the Go and 10.5” iPad Smart Keyboard, but I know some people do, and they will certainly appreciate the additional space. Here are the (top to bottom) Surface Go Type Cover, 10.5” iPad Smart Keyboard, Surface Pro Type Cover, and Apple Magic Keyboard.

Regardless of using the Go or Pro model, the Type Cover has satisfying keys, a smooth trackpad that works quite well, and a nice fabric cover. The backlit keys are also very welcome, and something I’d kill for on the iPad’s keyboard.

Surface Pen

Amazingly, many of my problems with the Surface Pen on the Go are fixed by the better performing Pro. Taps work much better, no longer requiring me to press and hold on the screen for a full second to get it to register a tap. Navigation is still more awkward and less natural than using the Apple Pencil on the iPad, but I at least found it to be an option this time.

Otherwise, the Pen is quite good at drawing, with excellent latency and best-in-class pressure sensitivity. Although if I’m honest, the difference between 2,000 and 4,000 detectable pressure levels is a total wash to me; it all feels the same. Not to say more serious artists won’t notice the difference, but try as I might, I couldn’t tell a difference between the Pen and Pencil.

Conclusion

The Surface Pro is a good Windows tablet with excellent build quality, good first party accessories, and perfectly mid-range performance. And as with any good portable computer, it has a fantastic screen.

It struggles when it comes to comfort, with both heat and general handling being small issues. It’s port selection also makes it feel a bit dated.

If I loved Windows then I’d likely have a better personal opinion of this device than I do today. No matter how good the hardware is, I’m just not a Windows fan, but if I was forced to go all in on Windows platforms, I think a Surface Pro would be the perfect machine for me. The combination of being a tablet/laptop/desktop all in one is fantastic, the build quality of it and its accessories is second only to Apple.

But since I am not a Windows fan, I think this one is getting packed up and sent back to Microsoft as well. It’s just not the platform for me, and this hardware, which good, is not enough to make me overlook those deficiencies.

From Go to Pro: A Whole New World

While the Surface Go is a “sub-$400 tablet” in the absolute sense of the word, it’s not really when you consider the basically required accessories you need to get for it. Here’s the whole set:

That's $627 just to get a working Surface Go setup up and running. That's a bit more than I'd like to pay for something I'm not totally happy with, so I had 2 options: return the Go and call this whole thing off, or spend more to get something better.

I was going to throw this whole experiment away, but then I got turned onto this bundle: a Surface Pro with a Core i5 processor, 128GB of SSD storage, and a Type Cover for $7991. Yes, that’s 2x what I paid for the Surface Go, but it was also only 27% more than I paid for the whole set of Go accessories. So I did it2.

The Benefits of Going from Go to Pro

The short of it is that everything is doubled compared to the Go model. The SSD went from 64GB to 128GB, the RAM went from 4GB to 8GB, CPU performance measured in Geekbench almost preciesely doubled, and the total screen resolution went from 2 million pixel to just shy of 5 million. Oh, and the bezels, while basically the same size, look half as big on this large screen device.

First Impressions

My first impressions of the Surface Pro is far more positive than my impressions of the Go. Setup was mostly a breeze, and very similar to the macOS setup experience. I signed into my Microsoft account and Windows logged me into all my Microsoft apps. Edge was a weird case (isn’t it always?) in that it synced about a quarter of my bookmarks and none of my passwords came over. Even after about 24 hours with this device, they’re still not here, so I guess it’s time to add them all…again.

In better syncing news, OneDrive allowed me to have most of my documents and desktop back in working order in little time. It even synced my desktop wallpaper over too. Much like iCloud on the Mac, it immediately had all of my files displayed in the file manger, but they were not downloaded until I interacted with them. This mercifully means that my many gigabytes of stuff I have stored in the cloud didn't load itself onto my relatively small 128GB hard drive.

In terms of performance, it’s like a glass of water in the desert. No longer does the simplest of task bring this computer to its knees! Things are pretty quick, and while it’s still quite poor in terms of games, it’s a very capable productivity and content consumption machine. I don’t think the Surface Go needed to be quite this quick, but there is a line where computers get acceptably quick, and the Go was decidedly on the wrong side of that line. The Surface Pro doesn't feel like a super high end computer, but it certainly feels like it can keep up with me.

And then there’s the hardware. Hardware is almost uniformly as good as it was on the Go, but for reasons I’ll get into later, there are more ports, but I like them less so far.

More to Come

I’ll surely have more to say about this device as I use it more, but up front I’m much happier camper than I was at this point in the Surface Go’s life. How much more I like it is up in the air, but now I feel like I’m using an honest-to-goodness functioning computer again, which is very nice.


  1. As of this writing, this is now sold out on Microsoft’s website, but hopefully it will be back. 
  2. It also helped that I sold my Pixel 2 and all Pixel accessories to pay for the Go, and those worked out to enough to just under $700, so I was not really losing that much money on this endeavor. 

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Conclusion

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


The Microsoft Surface Go is a product rife with contradictions. On the one hand it's a delightfully portable PC with high end hardware, excellent accessories, and the flexibility to work in many situations. On the other hand, it is slow as a dog, runs an operating system not optimized for the hardware, and costs more than it should.

For a device intrinsically linked to the "no compromises" moniker, it sure feels like there are a lot of compromises here.

If you love Windows and want the most portable version of Windows available, then this could be an okay choice. The hardware is undeniably wonderfully constructed, and it does indeed run the full Windows 10 experience. But I worry that the performance and battery issues hold it back from being a good buy for a lot of people. You really have to be comfortable with quite poor performance if you're going to truly enjoy this product. Even typing this article right now, typing into a plain text file and no other apps open has the letters appears on screen about a second after I type them from the Type Cover. It's sloooooooow, and it's basically unacceptable for a computer in 2018.

The cost for this performance is also hard to justify. I paid $630 for the Surface Go, Type Cover, and Surface Pen. I think that's exactly what Microsoft expects you to get with this device, and for that cost I'm hard pressed to think of another PC for the same price that runs this badly.

As I mentioned in the parts on hardware (build quality) and accessories, these are very nice physical goods you're getting, but they're betrayed by the Intel chipset running it all.

If you want this hardware and accessory quality with decent performance, the Surface Pro is going for $599 right now and looks to be a much better performer for only $200 more. That may be a notable difference for some buyers, but I also think that computer will last you much longer. The Surface Go is wildly sluggish today; I can't imagine how slow it's going to be in just a few months. I can't even reliably watch YouTube or Netflix videos on this thing without dropped frames or complete crashing.

My personal opinion is that the Surface Go was made to hit a price point, not to deliver a certain quality of experience. I think Microsoft wanted to sell a $400 tablet and they refused to say no when the hardware clearly wasn't there to get their users a great experience. Because of that, I really can't recommend the Surface Go to almost anyone. It's super portable, but I think the jump in performance from the Go to the Pro line is well worth the small upgrade price.

On the other side we have the iPad 2018, which is $70 less expensive than the entry level Surface Go, and performs much better and does basically all of the same things people are going to buy a Surface Go to do. If you can't stand iOS, then this isn't really an option for you, but if you like iOS at all, I really think the iPad is a better tablet if you're looking for something portable and well made.

All this said, I actually plan on returning my Surface Go and exchanging it for a Surface Pro. I have enjoyed having a Windows system in my life and the flexibility of a tablet that can convert to laptop and desktop interfaces is quite nice to have. If I do go through with that exchange, then you can be sure I'll share my (far more abbreviated than this 7,000+ word review) feelings on it right here on BirchTree.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Maximum Flexibility

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


Using the Surface Go for the past month has not made me want to give up my iPad Pro and switch to the Windows life, but it has made me look at the Mac with new eyes. Not so much macOS, which I still prefer over Windows for many, many reasons, but instead I'm looking at Mac hardware a bit differently.

From a hardware perspective, the Surface Go is very much an iPad competitor; it's a 10" touch screen that's exceedingly portable. But when it comes to software, this really is a traditional PC. That may be good or bad depending on what you want from a device like this, but I think it puts it in a weird middle ground that Apple is not covering right now, but I find very interesting.

So if you want a portable Mac today, you can get a MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro. These are all very similar devices with varying levels of speed, screen size, and weight. There are other details, but we're essentially talking about 3 different clamshell devices that take up slightly different amounts of space in a bag. If you want a portable Mac, that's all you can choose from.

What the Surface Go (and much of the Surface line in general) offers is a full Windows experience in a form factor that's wildly flexible. Here are the many ways I've used the Go:

  • "tablet mode" with no accessories and manipulating with touch
  • "tablet mode" but with the Surface Pen
  • "laptop mode" with the attached Type Cover
  • "laptop mode" with a Bluetooth mechanical keyboard and mouse
  • "desktop mode" by plugging into a 27" monitor

All of these setups are possible via an iPad and a Mac, but none of Apple's hardware can do it all. So despite my personal feeling about Windows, I would really enjoy this flexibility on a platform I enjoy using more.

My personal dream here is that the iPad grows into a desktop experience more than the Mac shrinking down into a tablet form factor. Almost 3x as many people buy iPads as Macs, so I'd expect that's the market Apple wants to grow too.

The bottom line here is that Microsoft has a device that has wonderful build quality, is super portable, and transitions to a desktop experience with ease. I don't plan on ditching any of my Apple hardware for this right now but what Microsoft is doing here with a device that works however you want, wherever you want is very appealing. Apple can get you here with a Mac and an iPad, but I'm very hopeful that they have a solution that matches the Surface Go's flexibility in the near future.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Performance, Where Art Thou?

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


The first few sections of this review have been all about the Surface Go's best aspects, but this section sadly takes us into what I see as the biggest challenge for the device: performance. Look, I get that this is a $399 device and it's not going to be the fastest machine in the world, but I personally found the performance issues to be relatively shocking for a device sold straight from Microsoft.

The Surface Go is sporting an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y processor, which is a dual core processor from the Kaby Lake family of processors. It's a year old processor at this point and it was already a super low end processor when it came out, but let's see how it fares in late 2018.

The Intended Use Case

The Surface Go is not meant to be a high end computer that multitasks with hundreds to Chrome tabs and another 10 apps all running at the same time. Instead, the proposed use case is for a user to do one or two light tasks at a time. So maybe have Twitter and a browser open, but maybe don't try to also run Word at the same time.

As an iPad user, I figured this would be a simple transition. I use an iPad Pro with no more than 2 apps at a time, and things a great, it's my favorite computer ever. Sadly, this 1-2 apps at a time lifestyle is harder to implement on Windows than you'd expect, and even when I used one app at a time, I still experienced performance issues that made the device borderline unusable.

The "Single App at a Time" Lifestyle is Hard to Stick With

The first problem I had was that even if I was able to get great performance from a single app at a time, I had to use my computer in a very unnatural way to achieve this. Many app like to run minimized or lose all your current data when they're closed, which means the process for switching away from one app was typically to save my work to a file (old school, and only if the app supported it) or finish what I was doing because my status would be lost if I closed the app entirely (Edge tabs, for example). Then I could manually close the app with the window close button and launch the next app.

That process feels annoying to me, and negates much of the benefit of having a traditional PC operating system. One of the big draws of Windows and macOS is the ability to run multiple apps at the same time and have full control over what is running. With the Surface Go, I felt like I had all of the overhead of a traditional operating system (file management, app management, slowdowns, etc.) with all the limitations of something like iOS or Android. It felt like the worst of both worlds and not the "no compromises" experience one is supposed to have with Surface devices.

Even with One App at a Time, Things Are Slow

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1030287386239033344

I posted that video to Twitter after going into a slight rage about single app performance on the Go. The cardinal sin for computers, in my opinion, is to have the text on screen lag behind your keypresses. This happens in Twitter, Word, and numerous other apps at times, and I can't explain why it's happening, but I can say it's super annoying.

The problems continue with Chrome, which is basically unusable on the device, even with a single tab open. The app locks up constantly and scrolling is a hellscape of sadness. I had tons of issues with YouTube videos stuttering in Edge, so I bought the much-loved MyTube app and gave it a shot. It is definitely better in terms of performance, but it too sometimes has issues displaying smooth video after 10-15 minutes. It's not a problem 100% of the time, but it's enough that I don't trust the device to even play videos every time.

For a real shocker, here's what the CPU usage looks like as I edit a single text file (this article, actually) in Caret, a plain text editor:

Even if we move out of apps themselves, the operating system itself just feels like it's struggling to keep up. Every action has a delay from opening the Start menu to launching apps. Part of this is likely due to the eMMC storage in my baseline model, but considering the CPU shows 100% usage whenever I so much as move the mouse, this computer feels like it's always working as hard as it possibly can.

Cheap Doesn't Need to Mean Slow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-werjTSYGs

I made the above video to show the differences between the performance of the Surface Go and an 18 month old iPad. The iPad costs over $100 less than the Surface Go, so the fact that it beat out the Surface at every test was disheartening. And for what it's worth, the Surface Go was as fast as I've ever seen it when I recorded that video. That's the best case scenario for it, while it's often less impressive than that. Meanwhile, the iPad is consistently about the same.

The problem here is pretty clear, Windows 10 is simply too heavy to run on lower end hardware like this. There is too much going on at a core level, and the low power, fan-less hardware to handle well.

External Displays

The Surface Go has a USB-C port which can output video, and I have it hooked up to a 27" 1440p 60hz monitor. I was a little worried about abysmal performance when pushing more pixels over a wire, but it holds up perfectly well here here. That's not to say it's amazing or anything, but I didn't notice any degradation in performance between things on the tablet vs the external display. Games, of course run miserably at the full resolution, but that's to be expected.

The bottom line is that if you are okay with the performance on the tablet, you can plug it into a display and it'll be alrioght there too.

Let's Play Some Games

Now I know the Surface Go is very much not a machine you should buy to play games, but games are a common task for tablets, so I had to test out a few games to see how they did. This isn't a "gotcha" section where I run Far Cry 5 and complain about bad frame rates, I'm looking at some lower end games that might work okay.

This is a super random assortment of games, but they're what I was able to run and mostly that I already owned in Steam and GOG.

Fortnite

No gaming test in 2018 would be complete without Fortnite, and I'm sad to say that the Surface Go simply can not play this game at all. Here's a quick demo of the performance:

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1034642439225659392

It's really not good, and this is on the absolute lowest settings the game has.

Hearthstone

The game is locked at 30fps and it ran that way much of the time. The game defaulted itself to medium settings, and maxed out at a lower resolution than the Go's native 1800x1200 resolution. I did notice that after about 10 minutes of playing, the back of the device heated up to uncomfortable levels and the frame rate dropped to 15-20fps.

Also worth noting that the touch controls for this game are excellent. Whether you use a mouse and keyboard or your fingers to play, it's a good experience. Just know it's going to lag a bit if you play more than a couple rounds.

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

This is a 13 year old game, but it's one that I really enjoyed as a teenager. thankfully, this runs at over 60fps on the default settings, which are basically 720p and medium settings. If you want to play on high, it's going to run about 10-15fps, which is a little bit of a bummer.

Asphalt 9

This is a mobile game brought to the PC, and it expectedly runs perfectly well on the the Go. It typically runs at 30fps, but when crashes happen and a decent number of particles are on screen, it drops for a fe seconds. Another game totally playable with touch controls.

Diablo 3

This 6 year old game runs like a dog on the Surface Go. Even on the lowest settings and a miserable 480p resolution, I still didn't even get 30fps. Using anything higher resulted in a completely unplayable experience.

Starcraft 2

Similarly to Blizzard's Diablo 3, this game runs terribly, even at lower resolutions.

Gunpoint

This is a really cool indie game that came out in 2013 that runs perfectly well on the Go. 60fps locked.

Left 4 Dead 2

Valve's old, but still fun zombie shooter runs well if you turn down the graphics and resolution. If you're willing to do that, the game is a pleasure to play, ranging from 330-60fps most of the time, although I experienced the same overheating issues which made the frame rate tank after about 20 minutes of gaming.

Guacamelee

This game is a champ on the Go! I got a full 60fps at 1800x1200 resolution and it never dropped. I only played like 20 minutes, but it was damn impressive.

Star Wars Episode 1 Racer

We're getting into super old games here, but this relic from 1999 plays expectedly great, never dropping from 60fps. It looks absolutely terrible by modern standards though.

Final Take

I have complicated feelings about the performance on the Surface Go. On the one hand, if you baby it aggressively and truly only do super low intensity stuff, it can be okay. I'd like more in a $400 computer, but the benefits of the tablet form factor and premium build quality meant they had to make some trade offs. As for gaming, it runs old games mostly fine, and you just have to know that almost no new games aren't going to happen.

But at the same time, the $329 iPad shows that you can ask more from your sub $400 computers than you get from the Surface Go. I think that asking someone to use Windows and only use one app at a time is a pretty major annoyance and negates many of the benefits of having Windows in the first place. Even if you stick to that one app lifestyle, the fact that you still routinely have major performance drops and significant lag on a regular basis is hard for me to swallow.

The Surface line is supposed to be Microsoft's vision for computers, and while the higher end Surface line might do well, but if this is what Microsoft deems acceptable performance for a Windows experience, I'm truly surprised. As I mentioned earlier, the culprit here is partially the processor, but it's also a fundamental issue with Windows itself: it's just too much, and requires too high a baseline processor to run at a good clip.

If you are getting this as a device you'll be using for small tasks here and there, it might work for you, but I really worry about people who buy this expecting it to work for many years. People buy iPads every 5 years or so. This thing is barely hanging on right now. I can't imagine what it'll be like 5 years down the line.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Surface Type Cover and Pen

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


While the hardware of the tablet itself is quite impressive, the official accessories that go with this tablet are pretty damn impressive as well. Microsoft has 3 official accessories for the Go, a new Type Cover, the Surface Pen, and the brand new Surface Mobile Mouse. I think that is the appropriate order for them as that is how important they are to the overall experience of using the Surface Go.

One cool thing here is that these accessories can be purchased in your choice of 4 colors.

I chose to get the burgundy ones, but I could have also gone with platinum, cobalt blue, or black. The black Type Cover is $30 less than the other ones and is all plastic instead of using Alcantara.

Also worth noting that I did not buy the new mouse as I don't have any need at all for it. By all accounts it sounds fine for a $29 mouse, but it's not something I'll be able to cover in this review.

Surface Go Type Cover

I would go so far as to say that you really shouldn't even buy the Surface Go unless you intend on buying a Type Cover as well. Without it I really don't think you're going to get a complete experience. I know I said I wouldn't, but please indulge s single paragraph about Windows 10.

Windows 10, despite shipping in a tablet device, is still very much the same old Windows we've known for decades. It is intended to be used with a mouse and keyboard above all. Yes, you can touch the screen and some things are genuinely enjoyable via touch, but this device feels at its best with a good old fashioned keyboard and mouse or trackpad. I wish this was not the case, I really with Microsoft was forging ahead more quickly into truly touch-first interfaces, but the market has slowed them on this front and it's a shame.

Alright, back to the keyboard.

Let's start with how this thing connects, which is very satisfying. It snaps into the Go with a thunderous THWACK every time, and connects even stronger than the iPad Pro's Smart Keyboard. I might say it's even too much, as taking it off requires a relatively serious tug, but you know it's not going anywhere when it's connected.

It immediately connects (no wireless here, the connector plug is rumored to be just an oddly shaped USB 3 port) and the keys light up momentarily to let you know it's ready to go. I've yet to have a connectivity issue, with makes sense because again, it's a wired connection.

When it comes to actually typing, the keyboard feels very good. You should know that I am a big fan of the Smart Keyboard and Magic Keyboard, so low-travel keyboards are my preference, but if that sounds at all like you I think you're going to like this one too.

There is a full function row at the top that doubles as media/brightness/etc controls, and they're lovely to have, even if they're a bit small. They didn't have more space to make them bigger so I'm more happy to have them here than for them to be missing entirely.

One thing I find odd is that the keyboard likes to be put up at an angle, elevating the keys every so slightly, but I really don't like this. A smidge of an angle is okay, but I mostly think keyboards should be flat. The bigger problem is that this creates a small air gap between the bottom of the keyboard and the surface it's sitting on. This leads to a little bounce as the keyboard flexes under your fingers as you type. It's not a lot and it's honestly not a big deal, but it's enough that I have taken to actively not propping up the keyboard and simply using it flat on the table. This makes the key presses feel much more solid and more comfortable for me overall.

Moving down a bit further is the trackpad, which I will simply say is far and away the best trackpad I've ever used on a non Apple device. It's seriously not even close, and while it's not quite as good as my MacBook Pro, it's shockingly close. It's big enough and smooth, and has a physical click.

And the final bonus is that the keyboard lights up when it's dark! It does it automatically based on the surrounding lighting conditions, and you can set it to any one of 3 brightness levels manually. I love this and really, really wish the iPad's Smart Keyboard had this.

The Caps Lock and "fn" keys also have persistent lights that show you when they're active as well. Another nice touch.

Surface Pen

The Surface Pen is a very good tool for drawing, but unlike the Apple Pencil, I find it to be far less compelling as a general input device. Despite this limitation, it does actually have some nice features that make it work better with a mouse-based operating system than you might expect.

The first thing I noticed about the Pen was that it works right out of the box with no pairing required. The buttons don't do anything right away, but the basic touch stuff works great. You do have to go to the Bluetooth settings to pair the device to get its full functionality, but it was a nice first run experience to just have it work right away.

Another nice feature is that the Pen is magnetic and is also round with a flat edge, both of which help make it so this doesn't go rolling around where you don't expect it. The magnet is very strong and is meant to stick to the side of the Surface Go itself, but you can stick it to basically anything metallic. The flat edge also helps make it so this doesn't roll around when you put it on a flat surface.

The Apple Pencil is not magnetized and is perfectly round. I find the round build to be slightly more comfortable than the Surface Pen's flat edge, but I really appreciate how much better they Pen is at staying where I put it. The Apple Pencil is weighted to prevent rolling, but it's far less effective than the Pen.

But let's get back to the Pen for input. I made this video about the differences between the Pen and Pencil and it's pretty dramatic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgN1vZuRG3I

The Surface Pen does double duty as a touch device and a mouse replacement. This is cool as it let you do things like hover over things (particularly nice on the web), but it's less convenient for quickly navigating the user interface. You really have to tap with "intention" any time you want to select something with the Pen, and that frankly got tiring for me. I felt like I was slowed down when using the Pen for navigating the UI, and I ended up electing to just use my fingers for touch navigation. Again, without getting too much into the nature of Windows here, this is more frustrating that it could be because Windows has a lot of UI elements that re quite small, and other things that simply only work with hover events, which touch as no substitute for.

If you are an artist or just enjoy doodling now and again, then you're going to like the Pen quite a bit. While there is a an annoying delay an intentionality around navigating the UI, this is not a problem for drawing situations, and the Pen is very responsive there, and has nice palm rejection.

https://youtu.be/v5F9va0JF9w

Microsoft advertises an absurd 4,096 levels of pressure (Apple doesn't say for the Pencil), and 21ms latency (Pencil is 20ms), and as someone who uses the Apple Pencil everyday, the Pen immediately felt familiar. I wouldn't say it was more responsive than the Pencil, but it was basically a wash for me in this regard. Ultimately, they're both fantastic for drawing on screen.

Also notable on the Surface Pen is the button at the top. Clicking this button at any time can bring up the Windows Ink Workspace, which lets you choose to open any of your Windows Ink-enabled apps or take a screenshot and mark it up with the Pen. You can also set it up to do different things, such as taking a screenshot and immediately jumping into the screenshot markup app, or you could have it launch an app of your choice. If you want more, you can also set rules for what happens when you double click and hold down the button. My setup is:

  • Single click: take screenshot
  • Double click: open Edge
  • Hold: nothing…yet

All of this can be set up in the Settings app under Devices.

As another bonus, and this is really cool, the button doubles as an eraser in almost every app. Just like a…pencil, ironically…you can flip the Pen around and erase basically anything. Apps handle this slightly differently, with some erasing entire lines/objects when you touch them with the "eraser" and others that do a more direct "erase the pixels under the eraser" interaction. The inconsistency isn't really a problem in practice, and you figure out how each app works in seconds.

And finally, the battery life on the Pen is very good. Microsoft quotes a year's battery on a single AAAA battery (included). I obviously have not had this long enough to test this, but it is nice compared to the Apple Pencil's quoted 12 hours of battery, which needs to be recharged far more often. It's nice to never have to worry about charging this thing…ever. I rue the day it does die and I need to find a store around me that sells AAAA batteries, but hopefully I'll get a notification long before that happens and I can take the necessary steps to get one delivered in time.

The Combo Conclusion

While I would say the Type Cover is an essential purchase for the Surface Go, the Pen is more of a nice to have item. I think I like the Surface Go a bit better for having it, but I've had to change my expectation for what a stylus does on Windows to make it work for me.

Both of these devices feel very premium and are a general delight to use. I think the Type Cover is a great Windows keyboard full stop, and I really enjoy writing on it. The Alcantara fabric feels nice and gives this a different feel than more technology these days. I really appreciate the details here all of which add up to a very nice typing experience all around.

The Pen is more of a mixed bag for me, but almost entirely because of Windows decisions and not the Pen's tech itself. The Pen feels good in the hand, and while I prefer the Apple Pencil a bit overall, there are certainly things Apple's stylus could borrow from the Pen to make it even better. I love the button with customizable actions and the feel in hand is excellent. The single flat side is a win overall, but makes me feel like I'm always holding it slightly wrong, but it's not enough to keep me from really enjoying this gadget.

Microsoft makes some great tablet hardware, and I'm happy to say that their accessories for these devices are just as strong.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Hardware

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Hardware

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


Easily the most impressive thing about the Surface Go is its hardware. Everything about this device feel premium, and is way nicer than any other sub-$500 computer I've used in my life in the PC space. Now, the iPad is less expensive and just as premium, if not more in some ways, but for PC, this is as good as it gets. Hell, even if this was a $900 tablet, I'd say the exact same thing: this tablet is awesome to handle.

The Surface Go has a magnesium case that feels really good to the touch. It just feels premium in the same way that Apple products always have that special "something" that makes them feel a cut above the rest. I really like it to say the least.

Inputs Are Excellent

In terms of inputs, there is:

  • 1 USB-C port
  • 1 Surface Connector
  • 1 headphone jack
  • 1 Type Cover connector
  • 1 micro-SD card slot

That's a bit more than the iPad Pro, and it might even be more than your Mac. This is a decent number of ports for a tablet, but I never found they got in the way at all. They're all well cut into the device and don't make themselves notifiable in general use.

The USB-C port works for connecting accessories, powering the device, or acting as a display out port. I typically use it for that last reason, docking the device in my 27" HP display and treating it like a desktop computer when that makes sense. I love this ability and I wish it was something I could do with my iPad Pro. It's worth noting this is not a Thunderbolt port as well, but that's expected on such a low cost device.

The Surface Connector is something I've only ever used for charging, but you can also use it with the Surface Dock which gives you many more ports, if that's the sort of thing you need. Even if you just use it for charging, it's more than capable, charging the Go quite quickly. I wasn't able to get any exact times, but as an iPad Pro user, it seemed about the same to me as what I was used to. Oh, and it's a magnetic connector that pops out with a tug, so MagSafe fans will like this.

The headphone jack...works, and the Type Cover connector works wonderfully, and I'll talk about that in the next part of the review.

Finally, the micro-SD slot is nicely tucked away beneath the kickstand and you don't even notice it's there. I have the 64GB model, which can fill up very fast, especially since Windows takes up a lot of that on its own, so adding a 128GB card for about $30 off Amazon seemed like a good call. I've installed a few apps and games to it and it works fine for me. It's just another internal drive and you can set apps and games to install to it by default instead of the small internal drive. I'm glad it's there.

Battery Life Struggles...Hard

That quick charge from the Surface Connector good to have, because the Surface Go does not get very good battery life. Just now, as I'm writing my review and have Edge and a text editor open, my 65% battery life is going to get me just 2 hours and 19 minutes. Not only that, I find that when the computer says I have 20 minutes left, I actually have less than one minute left. This is a far cry from the 8 hours that many modern laptops get, and the 10+ hours that a modern iPad gets.

I really think the culprit here is more the operating system than the tablet's battery itself, as Windows is just a much heavier operating system than we we have in something like iOS on the iPad. But I said this wasn't going to be a review of Windows, so let's just leave it at: the Surface Go gets poor battery life, often about 4-5 hours tops.

The Kickstand is Wonderful

As I have written about numerous times, I'm a huge fan of the kickstand built into the Surface Go. I like that it's easy to use, it's well integrated into the device, and it makes it a more usable device in more situations.

At a core level, I love being able to stand the Surface Go at whatever angle I want, and I especially love being able to do this without having a case. I can just use the Surface Go "naked" and transition from handheld use, to standing it on a counter, to angling it down even more to draw on it, all without involving any accessories. This means I get more flexibility without needing to add any bulk in terms of a case or cover like I would on the iPad.

As a bonus, the stand works at any angle between 0 degrees (closed) and 165 degrees, which is basically every angle I could ever want. It holds firm in whatever angle I set and never drifts into another angle after time passes.

My only complaint is with how sharp the edge of the stand is. In order for the stand to be as invisible as possible on the device, Microsoft had to make it very thin; like 1 or 2 millimetres thin. While I find this to be good in most cases, it's not super comfortable on my lap, especially when wearing shorts. It really can dig into your legs after only a few minutes of use and is genuinely uncomfortable. If I'm wearing jeans, it's not a problem at all.

And because you're definitely curious, yes, it does work pretty well on my lap. It's really neck-and-neck with the Smart Keyboard with the iPad Pro in terms of how many angles it works with, which is to say most. But people who want a clamshell laptop's worth of flexibility will be a little let down. It does need to be treated a bit gingerly in a way a laptop doesn't. As someone who lives with an iPad and has no real issues, this wasn't a issue for me but it could be for you.

Windows Hello Gets the Job Done

This is diving a bit into Windows itself, but the Surface Go has a front-facing camera that can be used to unlock the device with your face. I do not have an iPhone X, so take this impression with a grain of salt.

The feature tends to work pretty fast, and is reliable enough that I have come to rely on it instead of my password most of the time. It probably works about 80-90% of the time, which isn't perfect, but it's decent. If this was my phone, I wouldn't find that good enough, but I unlock this thing maybe 5-10 times a day, so it's less of a hassle.

It seems to struggle the most when either in very dark or bright situations. It has yet to work outdoors for me (again, would be unacceptable for a phone), and while it's not perfect, it's surprisingly adept at getting me in the dark. I've been in the complete dark with only the Surface Go's screen illuminating me, and it worked.

The Cameras are...Yikes

As weird as it seems to many people, there are a ton of people who use their tablets to shoot photos, so one would hope the Surface Go had decent cameras on it. Sadly, this is by far the weakest part of the product.

There are 2 cameras here, one rear camera that shoots 8MP stills and 1080p video, while the front-facing one does 5MP stills and 1080p video, but only in Skype. Neither camera is good by tablet standards, but the front-facing one at least stacks up well compared to most laptops on the market.

I would love to do a full comparison, and I do plan on doing one on its own, but just know that if you want to get a device for doing Skype and Google Meet calls, this will do you quite well. If you are looking for something to take to your kid's school event, then this is going to leave you wanting way more and something like an iPad or definitely your phone will do you much better.

Here are a few simple (unmodified) examples:

The Speakers are Pretty Normal

Microsoft advertises "2W stereo speakers with Dolby® Audio™ Premium" and that translates to speakers that sound nice, but not amazing. Most things sound quite nice, although there is a major lack of low end sounds to my ears.

When I did side-by-side comparisons with a couple iPads and a MacBook Pro, it came out closest to the iPad (2017), which makes a lot of since as that is also the device closest in price and form factor.

The dual speakers are both 2/3 of the way up the bezels on the sides of the Surface Go. I didn't find my hands covering them often, and covering them purposely didn't totally block them out, it just made them a bit muffled. Sadly, they don't match up with the iPad Pro's 4 speaker array that shifts to make sure you are always hearing things in stereo, but since there are only 2 of them, they simply can't always be in the right place.

Overall, the speakers are totally acceptable and would only be a disappointment to an iPad Pro user who likes to crank it up, because the Go doesn't get nearly as loud or as full.

That Tablet is Thick! And Have You Seen Those Bezels?

So there are two things about the Surface Go that are going to stand out immediately to Apple fans, and those are the bezels and the overall thickness. I get it, but I've saved these for last because I honestly don't find them terribly annoying.

First, the bezels. These are definitely more iPad 2 size and not iPad Pro or even the current standard iPad. They're thick, yes, but I am kind of surprised how little I mind them. I notice them sometimes, and it would certainly be nicer if the screen was a tad bigger, but in general use I never even think about it. Full disclousre, I had to make an edit to this part of the review because I completely forgot to even talk about them!

Then there is the thickness, which is 8.3mm. By most standards, that's pretty thin, but the current iPad Pro is 6.1mm thick and the cheap iPad is 7.5mm. Especially compared to my daily driver, the iPad Pro, the 36% thicker Surface Go is noticibly more substantial in the hand (it's also 11% heavier than the Pro). But that also doesn't really bother me much at all. The difference is noticible, and when holding them next to each other the iPad is the clear winner in terms of form factor, but the Surface Go holds it's own just fine. When you consider that the Smart Keyboard then adds more thickness than the Surface Type Cover, they end up being almost the same thickness when each is folded up with their keyboards.

These may be concerns for some people, but they have not bothered me in any meaningful way.

Takeaway

The hardware on the Surface Go feels like it's punching above its weight class most of the time. The build quality is plainly excellent, and there are plenty of specific features that are very, very nice. The kickstand (ahem) stands out to me as a big win for this device, and I really want to see Apple add this to the iPad.

If you know what you're getting into in terms of performance (see the next part of this review) and Windows in general, then I can't imagine many people being let down by this overall package. The cameras and battery are the worst aspects, but the overall package is quite appealing.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Introduction

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


The Microsoft Surface Go was always going to be a hard sell for me. I'm an Apple fan with Apple sensibilities, and Windows has never ceased to be a thorn in my side. I use Windows 10 every day for work, so about 40 hours of my week is spent in front of this operating system. I'm very familiar with it, and my livelihood depends on me being adept at using it. I'm just not a fan of Windows.

That said, I do like what Microsoft has been doing with the Surface line over the past few years, and I always kind of wanted to dip my toe in the water. When Microsoft announced a $399 Surface tablet that directly targeting my favorite computer in the world, the iPad, I took notice.

Can this do the things I use an iPad for? Since it runs a "big boy" operating system, will I feel more empowered with it than I am with the iPad that IO use every day to do all of my work for BirchTree? How are the Windows 10 apps and do they feel like a new leaf compared to the mountain of legacy software that most people seem to still use?

I had to find all of this out.

So while I have pretty strong opinions on Windows itself, I'm going to try to review the Surface Go on its own terms. This is supposed to be a device that's good at doing simple tasks quickly. It's meant to watch videos, edit Word documents, draw things, listen to music, browse the web, and handle email. I'm not going to judge it on anything else like video games or complex audio/video/image editing (although I will at least tell you how it does at those things).

Please check in over the coming week as the full review comes out. In the next section we're going to talk about hardware.

The Case for the Kickstand

The most notable hardware feature on the Microsoft Surface line of computers in the kickstand. Not a single commercial for a Surface will go by without them showing you that sweet kickstand at all sorts of crazy angles. While I’m far from the biggest Windows fan, I have to get something off my chest:

I love the kickstand.

And one more thing while I’m emphatically stating things:

The iPad would be better with a kickstand of its own.

Whew! That feels good to get out there, but I fully believe it. The kickstand accomplishes a few things for me that the iPad simply doesn’t do today.

First, the kickstand being built into the tablet itself means that I can stand the Surface up on its own and I don’t need to have a cover or case with me. I like to use my devices naked (the devices are naked, to be clear) and that means I’ll find myself using the iPad and want to stand it up in front of me, which means I need to get up and find the keyboard case. The keyboard case is wonderful for typing, but it' adds significant bulk to the device, so I don’t use it unless I’m actually using it. The comparative simplicity of flipping out the stand on the Surface is so much easier.

Second, the kickstand allows me to stand the Surface up at ONE MILLION different angles. Okay, maybe not that many, but anything from closed to 165 degrees possible and works great. Whatever angle I need it at now is possible. So if I’m typing away on an article, I can have it tilted slightly up towards my face. If I want to slouch down a bit, I can pull in the kickstand a bit to face a little lower. And if I’m using it in the kitchen and want to lean over it, I can open it up all the way and have it sit at a very pleasant drafting table-style angle. And if I want it totally flat on a surface like the iPad, I can do that too.

Finally, and this may just be a me thing, but I find the kickstand to be a pretty decent way to hold the Surface in the air when I’m just using it to watch something. I can’t quite explain it, because I don’t think physics is necessarily on my side here, but I really like being able to flip out the kickstand a bit and hold it from there.

The bottom line is that I really enjoy having a stand built into the Surface Go, and it might be my favorite thing about the entire product. Yes, the Surface Go is a lot thicker than the newest iPads, and some of that may be attributable to the kickstand, but it’s really just a millimeter or two thick and feels like nothing. Maybe it would add too much bulk to the iPad and would make Apple retreat too far from the thin and light form factor the iPad has today, but I think I’d still be okay with the trade off. Or maybe there’s another way to do this whole thing, but being able to stand your tablet up at all times? Yeah, that’s a great idea and one Apple should steal.