laptop

Surface Go – Review

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In 2015 Microsoft released the Surface 3 and I bought one. It wasn’t the most powerful Windows PC ever. Indeed, it was very much under-powered. But it was light, portable and ran full Windows applications. I bought it to allow me to run full Windows applications when I was travelling. Although it had limited on-board disc space, I managed to use both Lightroom and Adobe Audition on it without problem. I would never have wanted to run anything too powerful, but for doing some edits on-the-go, before importing my temporary Lightroom catalogue into my main one when I returned home, it was fine.

While tablets are great, and Chromebooks are wonderful, they simply can’t do everything, and in particular run more powerful applications like Lightroom and Audition. Even with the inclusion of Android apps, in my experience, they’re not enough. 

So the arrival of the Surface Go was intriguing for me. I’ll say at the start that I certainly don’t think this device is right for everyone. If you’re more of a consumer rather than a creator, then I suspect an iPad is your best bet – perhaps with a keyboard attachment for emails.

The previous Surface 3 had an Intel Atom processor which meant it was slow. However, even then, I could run Lightroom and I certainly edited audio quite happily in Audition. I was even able to run bespoke software that crunched radio ratings figures in a fairly acceptable timeframe. It ran Office applications at an acceptable speed. 

Given that the Surface 3 basically got me over the line with my needs, why did I feel the need to update? Well it was by no means perfect. The keyboard was below average and the battery power was very iffy. On a recent trip I would find it randomly dropping from 60% to 0% in a few minutes – essentially shutting down on me. I’d be scared to take it anywhere without a wall-socket. It was also very slow. Slow to boot and slow to launch applications.

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Microsoft sells the new Surface Go in two versions: the headline £379 version, and the version that you should actually buy at £509. That extra cost gets you double the RAM – 8GB instead of 4GB – and double the drive space – 128GB SSD instead of 64GB eMMC. I can’t think of a reason why anyone apart from the lightest of web-user would want the cheaper model.

The processor is an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y. I confess that the name ‘Pentium’ concerned me a little, since it’s not a processor that I’ve come across since my old desktop days. But it’s a Kaby Lake era processor with dual core. 

The actual device itself feels very premium indeed. A lovely solid aluminium body with a kickstand that folds out to your preferred angle (the Surface 3 had three fixed positions, limiting your choices). The screen is gorgeous and of course touch sensitive. It’s an 1800×1200 panel covered in Gorilla Glass 3. So not quite full HD, but then this is a 10 inch device, so that would really be overkill. 

I bought one of Microsoft’s £125 Type Covers. There’s a £100 black model and then a few choices of colours which use Alcantara – a material that does feel nice on the hand. As with previous Surface devices, a powerful magnet ensures that the keyboard and Surface Go are locked into position properly. To separate them, you just firmly pull the two apart. They keyboard is a significant improvement on the Surface 3 keyboard in that the touchpad is bigger and better, while the keys are firmer, as is the case itself. Given the size of the device, this is a small keyboard. But it doesn’t take long to get up to speed with it. 

The only slight negative I have is that it’s not a backlit keyboard – my Surface Go keyboard was. [Update: Ignore this. The keyboard absolutely is backlit.]

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I’ve yet to buy a new Surface Pen because the one I used with my previous Surface 3 works absolutely fine. In truth, I didn’t use that pen a great deal, because it wasn’t a terrific device for taking notes or trying to draw with (I am not an artist). However, the slightly smaller form factor of the Surface Go means that writing on it is more achievable. But I confess that I’m still looking for that perfect note-taking app. I’d also like a “learn to draw” app while I’m at it!

You can launch one of a selection of apps by clicking the button on the top of your pen. The app that allows you to annotate a webpage can be especially useful. But there is minimal lag when writing on the screen, and Microsoft’s in-built handwriting-to-text converter is pretty decent. How well it works for you will partly depend on your handwriting.

The front facing camera on the Surface Go has built in Windows Hello, meaning that you can use it to unlock the device. I found it to work superbly in even very poor light. 

The Surface Go comes in Windows S mode – a limited version of Windows that only allows you to install applications from the Windows Store. This is of no use to me as I wanted to install Chrome and applications from Adobe’s Creative Cloud, neither of which are in the Store. Fortunately it is relatively simple to switch to Windows 10 Home, and I was happily installing the apps I wanted. 

I found that Chrome runs seamlessly and I detected no slowdown or delays even with plenty of tabs open. Microsoft Edge is a very ‘needy’ application of course, and you’ll get plenty of notices suggesting you give it a go, but Chrome works very well across multiple devices for me. 

But perhaps more usefully, here are my experiences of running more powerful Adobe applications. It’s the ability to run these apps that made want to still have a portable Windows machine that’s powerful enough to do some creative work.

Adobe Audition – Unless you’re in radio or podcasts, this might be a bit niche, but it’s an application that I use regularly on the go. The Surface Go accomplishes this with ease – although I should note I probably don’t use more than six tracks simultaneously. Your mileage may vary if you’re creating a 128 track masterpiece with lots of processor intensive 

Lightroom Classic CC – This is perfectly useable. I was able to use Lightroom on my old Surface 3, so this didn’t come as a surprise. Again, it depends what you’re trying to do with the application. As mentioned previously, I create small temporary catalogues on the Surface Go, and then import them into my main catalogue when I get home. The application launches fairly fast, and it really only slows down if you’re trying to do a lot of batch processing – e.g. applying a filter to every photo you import. Your bigger concern will be how many RAW files, for example, you can store on the machine while you’re using it. It’s entirely possible the cards in your cameras will be larger than the space available on the Surface Go.

Photoshop CC – You can actually use Photoshop reasonably well. I wouldn’t recommend it on a mega-pixel image. And obviously there are some screen constraints (although these go away if you plug in an external monitor). I wouldn’t want to do anything too intensive – 3D for example. But some quick editing of images on the go, it’ll work just fine. The slowest part of using it is actually launching it. In my tests, it takes around 30 second to start up. It’s worth noting that Adobe has a Touch interface for Photoshop, with touch gestures as well as support for the Surface Pen.

Illustrator CC – This is an application that you might well want to use if  you’re artistically inclined. As with Photoshop, there’s a Touch interface which by default launches when you remove the keyboard. Again, I found Illustrator useable on the Surface Go. I suspect that other lighter applications, such as the pre-installed Sketchable are better suited for pure drawing (the app is free, but many premium features need to be unlocked at a cost of £24.74).

Premiere Pro CC – This is probably at the extreme end of what I’d want to attempt with a machine of this power. It’s clearly not designed for high-end video editing. But you may be out and about, and want to put something together. You might want to think twice about editing 4k 360 video on this, or anything. As with Photoshop and Illustrator, it takes a while to launch. As with other Adobe CC apps, Premiere takes about 40 seconds to load, and I did run into a difficulty. It seems that the Open CL GPU Acceleration on the supplied Intel video driver is incompatible with the current version of Premiere (and After Effects). This is instantly noticeable because it my tests, the video was streaked in green and pink. The workaround is to enable the Software Only playback engine. That’s probably not great long-term solution however. With any luck either an updated Intel driver and/or an updated version of Premiere (which is due to be released within the next week or so) will solve the problem long term. I did look for updated drivers on the Microsoft site, but couldn’t even find Surface Go drivers listed.

That all said, editing a 30fps 4K video from my phone was fairly painless, and for quick edits, I’d be happy to use this machine. Again, I would avoid anything too processor intensive such as stabilisation effects with Premiere, but otherwise, it’s very usable. The bigger problem you’re likely to face is having much storage space for video editing. Video will eat up the limited space very quickly – especially on the 64GB model. One option would be to use a USB-C SSD such as the Samsung T5 range. 

I didn’t try After Effects because that would have been daft to attempt. I suspect that this is the most processor hungry application I use, and it can sometimes struggle on my i7 enabled Dell XPS with 16GB of RAM. That said, I would expect the same short-term video issue as above.

NB. I’ll let others tell you whether or not you can play games on this machine. Personally, I’d be looking elsewhere for a gaming machine. I’ve done some very occasional PC gaming in the past, but this wouldn’t be my go to. 

There are two other things you’ll probably want to buy alongside the keyboard. The first is some kind of case. I ended up with a case that was designed for an iPad Pro. I bought a Tomtoc 10.5 inch sleeve which fits the Surface Go perfectly. It has a super-soft interior which should fully protect your device, and there’s a zip pocket at the front which is able to accommodate a Pen (assuming you have the older non-magnetic one like me), and a dongle. 

The great thing about the Surface Go’s size is that even in this case, it feels very small, and will happily slip into all but the very smallest of bags. Even “fully-loaded” with the Surface Go, case, pen and dongle, the weight only comes to 1020g. The Surface Go on its own, excluding the Type Cover, is 522g, but I think 1020g is a more realistic “real world” weight that you’ll be carrying around.

Dongle? Yes – this device comes with a micro-SD port (into which I put a 128 GB micro-SD card for additional storage), and a single USB-C connector. While the Surface Go comes with its own bespoke Surface charger, with a unique connector, the device can also be charged using a USB-C charger. In practice I found that my Pixel 2 charger worked absolutely fine. That’s really useful if you want to travel light. But that also means that to get USB-A ports (e.g. for USB dongles), or external video connections, you’re going to need a dongle. I bought a Lenovo dongle that had just about the right connectivity options for me at a reasonable price. In my case, that was SD, micro-SD, USB-A and HDMI. It also has a USB-C through power connector. Pricier versions are bigger but include Ethernet and even VGA connectivity, which might be useful when presenting on the road. Note that the USB-C port is just that. It’s not a Thunderbolt 3 port. So don’t think of plugging an eGPU into it (You wouldn’t want to do that anyway, but it’s worth saying).

Still, I won’t complain too much about the USB-C inclusion. Microsoft has since refreshed the rest of its high-end Surface line, and none of those devices include so much as a single USB-C port! 

One issue I did have with the Surface Go was during my initial Windows 10 set-up. My finger slipped on an early dropdown, and I selected Germany rather than the UK. This then sent the set-up into German, and didn’t allow me to go back and correct my mistake! I couldn’t escape out of it, and had to complete my set-up in German. Then, although I should have been able to change language to English, I didn’t fully get the machine working in English. Some system messages still came up in German. 

After fighting with this for a while, I ran a Windows ‘Reset’ which after some time, put my machine back into it’s initial state. This time I managed to click the right country and set-up continued unhindered. 

This is more a problem with Windows 10 rather than the Surface Go. Why no back button?

Battery life seems good. Microsoft claims 9 hours of video playback, but I’m wary of too many claims on battery life since it’ll clearly depend on what you’re doing and how old the device is. But I think that there’s probably enough battery to get you through a non-intensive day.

Pros

This thing is small and light. You can put it into just about bag, or even a large pocket, and not really notice you’ve got it.  The screen is excellent, and the keyboard is very usable – a step up from that on the older Surface 3.

The Surface Go is very capable at most basic tasks. Microsoft Office runs well, so for those for whom either the online versions of Office or Google Docs aren’t quite enough or are too reliant on connectivity, this will do very nicely. I’d say that it’s perfect for travel, fitting neatly onto fold-up tray tables on trains and planes.

You can actually run some quite power-hungry applications with relative success. And Windows Hello is amazing – even if I’m not looking face on to the camera, it recognises me, and logs me straight in.

Cons

You do need to buy a few accessories. First off, there’s the keyboard. Since the whole device is smaller than the Surface 3, my Surface 3 keyboard doesn’t fit – the connectors are different. So you’ll need to spend another £100-£125 for that. And if you want to use a mouse, be sure to get a Bluetooth model – not the more commonly available wireless mice that use a USB-A dongle. I found a nice Microsoft Surface Mouse in a matching cobalt for £30 at Argos.

I wish there was more on-board storage and that Microsoft had made 128GB and 256GB models. But you can use a micro-SD card which should be sufficient for video and music download needs.

You can obviously get cheaper laptops that are more powerful than this. But they’re not as portable. So getting a Surface Go is very dependent on your specific use case.

Summary

If you want a highly portable full-fat Windows laptop for browsing and Office-type tasks, then this is the perfect machine. It really isn’t much bigger than an iPad, but with that much more flexibility that full Windows applications allow. Throw it in your bag and go.

Obviously if you don’t need fully featured Windows applications, then an iPad and keyboard might work better for you (I remain unconvinced about the need for an iPad Pro). But for my use case, which involves a wider array of applications from Office to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, this actually works really well.

It wouldn’t be my primary PC by any means, but as a portable addition, it’s excellent.

Of note: Microsoft subsequently announced its new range of Surface laptops and an upgraded Surface Studio targeted at designers. These are respectively Ultrabooks and aimed at graphic designers and artists. As such, they don’t really compete, and are not comparable. In any event, as things stand, I prefer Dell’s XPS line to Microsoft’s Surface line for this class of PC. Asisde from anything else, they come with USB-C, as the Surface Go does!