The Microsoft Surface Go: A Computer For Adventure

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These days, I have to take a computer every where I go. I am essentially on-call all the time. I’m OK with this. I generally love my job and enjoy simply amazing flexibility at work. (For example, I am readily available to volunteer in my son’s class. I love it!) This is the trade off and I accept it willingly. However, he is an active child, we are an active family. I want to be on the go, unburdened, but able to respond to system problems at a moments notice. To achieve this, I have been on a summer-long quest for the smallest fully-functional computing device I can find that I can easily take everywhere but that will allow me to complete any task.

For most of the summer, I have settled on a combination of a Logitech Keys-To-Go Bluetooth keyboard and an old Nexus 7 tablet running Android 6.0. It isn’t great but it got the job done, and was light. (And free.)

However, I believe that I have now found the ultimate Computer For Adventure in Microsoft’s mini powerhouse, the Surface Go.

 

The Hardware

The Surface Go is a 10″ version of Microsoft’s larger Surface Pro. While nothing is perfect and the price is higher than I’d like, I really feel like Microsoft has hit it out of the park with this mini version of their flagship productivity tablet.

It works well as a tablet and as a laptop, is totally silent, and is shockingly capable at just over a pound.

Actual battery life with a mix of light to average load seems to be around 7:30 for me, which is certainly more than I have needed. In daily use, I have rarely had the battery even dip towards 50%.

The Surface Go’s build quality, like all other Microsoft Surface devices, is just spectacular.  It is on par with the Pro or the iPad, which is to say that it is a high-end device that will last. There is a reason that this Go is $699. It isn’t a cheap device.

As a brief aside, a colleague and I were recently discussing Microsoft’s Surface line of devices and we both agreed that Microsoft, not Apple, was the company to beat with respect to innovative designs and a coherent product line.  Think about it: they have a range of capable all-purpose computing devices that start at about the same size and price as an iPad and go all the way up to a full-size large screen all-in-one. They do this in five machines each with a few logical options with prices ranging from $400USD to $5000USD. Solid. Compare and contrast this to Apple’s almost haphazard line-up, particularly on the Mac side. It’s a mess.

Getting back to the Go’s hardware: port-wise, we have a USB-C port, a Surface charging/dock port (compatible with the Surface Pro 3 and newer Surface devices), a MicroSD slot, and headphone jack. That’s it. If I could add one port it would be USB-A, but I am OK without it. The Go is my second computer with USB-C but the first without USB-A. Time marches on.

The 10″ screen is a welcome 2:3 1800×1200 screen. This is an interesting aspect ratio that lends itself well to productivity work (where I always want more vertical space) but less for watching videos. I love this resolution, as I can see more on the screen in landscape mode. My main machine is a lovely ThinkPad 25. It has a traditional 1920×1080 display. I’d trade that for a 1800×1200 display in a heartbeat if I could.

The only critique of the screen that I have is that, at 10″, it’s tricky to find an appropriate scaling. Microsoft defaults to 150%, which is nice enough to read, but you lose a lot of text on the screen. In Windows 10, the next “safe” scaling number is 125%, but that makes everything too small for most people. I’ve gone for a custom scaling of 133%, which is pretty much perfect to my eyes. Windows warns that non-standard scaling may not work perfectly. So far I haven’t noticed any problems, except that custom scaling applies to all displays.

As I mentioned, the Surface Go weighs just over a pound without the keyboard and is about a pound and a half with. This is comparable to the iPad Pro with keyboard. It’s super-light. You barely notice it. It’s akin to carrying a small paper notebook.  The hinge on the Go works just like the bigger Surface Pro. It’s a delight.

All of this brings us to the CPU. It’s a low-end Pentium CPU that many reviewers complain about. True, this isn’t an i5 or i7, but it’s no Atom either. So far it seems very fast to me, and I would gladly take the CPU as it is to keep the machine silent with long battery life. Some have argued that a high-end ARM CPU would offer better battery life and performance, but then you would have to run legacy x86 apps in emulation, which would slow things down and likely introduce bugs. Down the road, this may be the way to go. For now, I’m glad they stuck with a x86 CPU that is faster than an Atom. In my opinion, Microsoft made the right choice with the CPU. Overall, the Go is nimble. It doesn’t feel as lightning fast as an iPad Pro, but it’s running a full OS and is easily able to handle everything I’ve thrown at it.

Software

And then there’s Windows 10.

It would be an understatement to say that I am not a Windows fan. However, while I don’t particularly like it, man, is it capable. WSL lets me run full command-line Linux in a terminal. And I have access to all Windows programs. That is simply amazing to me. Should I really need to, I know I can also spin up a VM in VirtualBox. There’s simply no way to do anything close to that on an Android or iOS device. For me, it’s in another league of usability while still maintaining the size, weight, and form-factor of a tablet. It is one of the most impressive computer hardware engineering efforts that I can think of in recent memory.

While I applaud the versatility of Windows 10, Microsoft really needs to push key software vendors to put out properly optimized applications. My two big complaints are Evernote and Amazon’s Kindle apps. The Kindle app in particular feels positively ancient and isn’t even available through the Microsoft Store. It lives in stark contrast to the Kobo app, which does the same job and is stellar. Amazon has quality apps for iOS and Android. They need to update the Windows app. Evernote is fine but again feels like a dated Windows app from the mid 2000s. Again, the iOS and Android options are fantastic. Again, Evernote needs to fix this for Windows. The funny thing with both apps is that I am sure they had Modern apps from Windows 8 that were both great. I’m not a huge app guy but these two are glaring to me. I’m sure there are scores of others. (To say nothing of ports of popular Android and iOS apps missing altogether.)

Honestly, it’s hard to blame software houses for ignoring Windows as a tablet platform. The Surface Go feels to me like their first compelling tablet. (In that prior Surface devices felt like Windows machines that could work as tablets rather than the Go, which feels like a tablet that can be a laptop.) I hope the Surface Go spurs a new era of tablet-optimized apps. It’s odd to see Windows as the platform lacking key apps, but this does appear to be increasingly the case.

The Surface Go as a tablet

In day-to-day use as a tablet, I find the Go to be a much better tablet device than the larger Pro. It really is pretty much the same size as a 9.7″ iPad. If I plan to use the Surface in tablet mode (to read websites, eBooks, review and read documents, etc.) I end up removing the keyboard, at which point it is as light as an iPad with an integrated stand, something most tablets sadly lack.

Microsoft’s Edge browser works about as well as Safari for iOS in tablet mode. (Which is to say better than Firefox, my usual browser of choice.) Any Modern app works well in tablet mode, but older Win32 apps (most of them) are fiddly to use. I hope that the Go spurs more Modern apps, including Microsoft’s own.

Wrapping up

Price aside, I am blown away by this machine. It is so good and so small. Yes, I’d like it to be a good $100 cheaper.  Sure it would be nice if it was faster or had Thunderbolt, but fundamentally, I think Microsoft made all of the right compromises with the Go. In fact, there is simply nothing else on the market that I have seen that even comes close to what this machine is capable of for my use cases. The iPad Pro is arguably similar, but a 10.5″ iPad Pro starts at $869 for 64GB and then there’s an extra $220 for the absolutely terrible keyboard that it ships with. And then you have to deal with the software. I understand that it is a compelling option for many, but to be my most effective, I need to have access to proper Microsoft Office and an X11 server,  command-line Linux, and a proper filesystem. I realize that this isn’t the case for everyone, but it is the case for me, and the Surface Go gives me all of that for significantly less than the cost of a comparatively compromised iPad Pro, or even a standard iPad.

Can you tell I’m excited?

Given how good this little machine is, I look forward to seeing the next iteration of the Surface Go’s big sibling, the Surface Pro. I would love to see Microsoft take the softer edges of the Go to the Pro, add USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, but also retain the USB-A port, at least for the next year. We are clearly moving to USB-C but we are doing so slowly. We all have 20 years of USB-A devices to contend with. I am OK with the Go just having USB-C, but the bigger Pro version should have both.

 

GoSaBe Blog - Oct 3, 2018 | Tablets