Microsoft Surface Go review: A Windows rival to the Tab S4 and iPad

Microsoft‘s choice of name for the Surface Go is an odd one. “Go” is a strange suffix to attach to a tablet. After all, if you can’t use your tablet on the go, then what you’re actually looking at is a touchscreen TV set, and there’s a reason that section of the market isn’t exactly thriving.

In this context, though, “Go” is also code for cheap. Or cheaper, anyway. This is the device to undercut Microsoft’s popular laptop/tablet Surface Pro hybrid and take the fight directly to Apple’s iPad Pro. Starting at £380, it manages to undercut both the 10.5in iPad Pro (£619) and Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 (£589), although a fairer comparison is our review model: the £510 version.

Price isn’t everything though, so should you buy the Surface Go?

Microsoft Surface Go review: Design

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If you just pay your £380 or £510 for a Surface Go, you’ll open the box to a very nondescript-looking tablet, virtually indistinguishable from an iPad. Closer inspection will reveal certain nods towards usability that Apple has yet to entertain, including a USB Type-C port and a microSD expansion slot.

That USB Type-C port can be used for storage, display output or for charging, although it’s slower than using the actual charger.

Switch it on, and the differences appear sharply: you’re looking at a tablet running Windows 10. Whether that fills you with joy or dread can tell me an awful lot about whether or not the Surface Go is for you, but for many it’s a drawback, and it’s immediately obvious why. A 10in screen isn’t kind to Windows 10, making it feel incredibly fiddly as you tap at tiny taskbar icons. Yes, you can put it in tablet mode which improves things, but this is clearly not an OS built for stubby fingers, and it shows.

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What rescues the Surface Go is the keyboard cover which is held in place via magnets and a proprietary connector. Microsoft describes this as “optional” but for my money it’s only “optional” in the same way brakes are on a car: technically you can drive one without, but it’s not going to be a fun experience for anybody.

Unfortunately, this costs extra money: it’s (kind of) optional, remember? You’re looking at an outlay of £100 for the standard black keyboard, or £125 for a “Signature” keyboard, which comes in blue, burgundy or silver.

We tried the default keyboard, and it’s genuinely a gamechanger in how the tablet behaves. Without the keyboard, it’s an iPad clone running Windows. With the keyboard cover it becomes a portable little workstation, capable of most the things you can do at home or at the office.

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Dropping £100 on a keyboard may seem like the actions of someone with more money than sense, but it’s actually cheap compared to its direct rivals: the iPad Pro keyboard comes in at £159, while the Tab S4 one is nearly as pricey at £119. And this is a damned fine keyboard: yes, the keys are a little cramped, but they’re large enough that with a little practice you shouldn’t be hitting their neighbours by mistake, and we were quite happily hitting touch-typing speeds as normal. They’re also quiet, backlit and provide plenty of tread.

What really separates the Go from its iOS and Android rivals, however, is the keyboard’s generous touchpad. Suddenly, you have a cursor you can move around the screen and it’s very easy to forget you didn’t buy a modernised netbook. And because of its dinky size, this mini-laptop mode can be rested comfortably on your legs if you have to something urgent to type up on the Tube.

Microsoft Surface Go review: Screen

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Aside from the aforementioned problem of displaying an operating system far from optimised for tablets, the display on the Surface Go is actually pretty damned good, and up there with the regular iPad, even if the 120Hz screen still gives the Pro the edge.

Average refresh rate aside, it’s fabulous. At 1,800 x 1,200, you’re looking at a sharp 217 pixels per inch, and the maximum brightness of 426cd/m2 makes it perfectly usable in the park on a sunny day. Taking the colourimeter to it backed up our positive impressions from the eye: 90% of the sRGB gamut is covered and it boasts an average Delta E of 1.44.

This makes extended Netflix sessions fly by – something abetted by the two side-mounted speakers which offer surprisingly strong audio. Though if you’re in public, please do use the 3.5mm headphone jack provided. Don’t be that guy.

Microsoft Surface Go review: Performance

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I want to get the bad news out of the way first: Microsoft is pretty stingy when it comes to software. First off, while you can switch from Windows 10 S to Windows 10, you’ll be getting the Home edition. If you want Pro, you’ll be paying an extra £120 for the privilege. And while past Surfaces included a year’s subscription to Office 365, the most you’re getting here is a 30-day trial. Hmph.

Windows 10 S is actually not too bad for the day-to-day experience, but the main drawback is that it only lets you install apps from the Microsoft Store, and you’ll almost certainly be missing a few favourites. At the very least, you’ll likely find the lack of alternatives to Microsoft Edge pretty jarring.

But how does it perform? That likely depends on the version you get. The model we used was the more expensive £510 version, which pairs a Pentium Gold 4415Y processor with 8GB RAM and a 128GB SATA 3 SSD. The cheaper £380 model has the same processor, but halves the RAM and packs a 64GB eMMC drive.

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Bluntly, we wouldn’t recommend the cheap version. Windows 10 is pretty demanding in its own way, and things would likely begin to chug with just the 4GB RAM. In fact, our benchmarks showed that even the more expensive model struggled when compared to Android and iOS rivals, with a GeekBench score of 2,050 for single-core and 4,026 for multi-core. For reference, the Galaxy Tab S4 scored 1,806 and 6,303 in our sister site Expert Reviews’ test, while the iPad Pro 10.5in did even better with totals of 3,930 and 9,380.

That said, comparisons with Android and iOS rivals aren’t really fair here. You’re getting a true desktop experience, without the bugs that Android rivals offer in this space. And for what it’s worth in day to day use, you likely wouldn’t tell the difference. Yes, it may be a bit slower opening a web page, but it’s fine for typing, surfing and light photo editing. You probably wouldn’t want to edit a movie with it, but then you’d have to be a special kind of masochist to attempt that on a hybrid anyway, no matter how fast it is.

Unfortunately, no matter what you do on it, battery life isn’t anything to give Apple sleepless nights. That’s to be expected, given the relative power needs of Windows 10 over iOS, combined with the included x86 chipset, but it’s still disappointing. Microsoft says you’ll get “up to nine hours”, but the words “up to” are doing a lot of heavy lifting, here. In our video test with the screen brightness set to 170cd/m2, we got just 6hrs 44mins.

Microsoft Surface Go review: Verdict

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If this feels like a rollercoaster of a review, you’ll see exactly why the Surface Go is a hard one to fairly score. As a product out of the box, it’s heading for low marks, because a tablet running Windows 10 feels like an anachronism. Attach the £100 keyboard, and it’s a revelation: a genuine laptop experience in a way that iPads and Android tablets can’t come close to matching.

But there are drawbacks. The tiny screen isn’t quite right for the full laptop experience, for a start, neither is it as powerful or likely to last a long flight as the iPad Pro. The entry-level model – although we didn’t test it first hand – looks like a poor choice too, with 4GB pushing Windows 10’s usability, and an eMMC drive being unlikely to perform well either.

So you’re looking at £610 for the full-specced Surface Go and keyboard. That does compare well to the iPad if you’re wedded deep to the Windows ecosystem, but if not you may still find yourself drawn helplessly to the church of Apple.

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