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August 13
Surface Go Impressions

This past weekend I found myself in Phoenix for other reasons, but it was a good opportunity to stop by the Microsoft store to take a gander at the Surface Go. I've liked the small Surface devices since they launched. I bought a Surface RT on the day after launch day. I bought the Surface 3 with similar gusto, and here I am with a Surface Go bought within a week of availability. These computers, as with the iPad, are close to the perfect size to put in a reasonably sized shoulder or air travel carry on bag or leave alongside a main computer for sideboard organizational tasks or reading.

Last year, I bought a Surface Laptop, officially to replace both the Surface 3 (which is still fast enough and is a great size, but has worn out and isn't so great on the "Go" any more) and my old at-home mainstay the ThinkPad T400, but the Surface Laptop is big enough it failed to completely replace my older Surfaces, and even the third generation iPad, as day-to-day carry devices.

So I bought the Surface Go and I've got some impressions about it. I was originally going to write a review and include benchmarks comparing the Go to the 3 and the Laptop, at things like browserbench, cinebench, and a few other things. However, ultimately, you aren't buying a $400 or $549 computer because it wins at benchmarks. There are few entries in this market and even fewer of them are full-fat Windows computers, and even fewer of those have "Lake" processors and NVMe storage.

If you're looking at benchmarks, you likely want a bigger computer and you're probably fine with all that entails. I know there are literally dozens of you who want a Lake-Y computer with Thunderbolt 3 so you can use an external GPU. This is the kind of computer you buy to keep on a coffee table to read articles, or something you keep in a bag to do computer on the go. It should be able to do all of that stuff. In the benchmark tests I did, it outperforms the Surface 3 "a bit" and it sits in the middle of a few different benchmarks I did of Sandy Bridge (second gen) laptops. I think the slower one was on battery or in an energy saving mode and the other two are at full bore. The scores there are that the faster sandy bridge (dual core) laptops are close to twice as fast as this computer, and other 7th gen Intel Core in the Surface Laptop is over twice as fast as those systems.

But, The Plateau™ essentially means that because of the NVMe storage, this machine is "Good Enough" for almost everything your daily computer user will need. It will probably even run Slack and Chrome at the same time.

The biggest technical problem with this system ends up being related to the configuration options. As with almost every review and impression I've seen so far, I wish 8/128, or at least 4/128 with NVMe was the default configuration. For "light" users, I don't think the eMMC storage will be that big of a limitation, and a 4/64 configuration puts it in line with where high end tablets such as the iPad Pro are in terms of memory for active multi-tasking. Mid to long-term, I think 4GB of RAM could be a limitation, especially depending on if "light usage" ever evolves to include things like electron-based chat programs. The difference there is Windows has swap and iOS doesn't, preferring instead to suspend entire applications to disk instead of swapping bits of memory out. This is done to reduce the CPU and network impact of non-active applications on iOS and Android as well. The other bummer is that 64 gigs of storage can get tight very quickly on Windows. I have Windows 10, Office 365, two chat programs and my OneNote and Outlook data are downloaded and my system has 33 gigs used. Things like the twice-yearly Windows 10 feature updates need a lot of disk space, and if I were to install any games or other big software packages they would instantly fill my disk. I think the default configuration should probably be upped either to the 8/128 and $550 should be an 8/256 model, or the base model should be 4/128 using SATA or NVMe storage, to make the experience that much better.

The next problem with this machine really is the small keyboard. The original Surface benefitted from having a 10-inch widescreen and the Surface 3 benefitted from extremely wide bezels and a re-orientation of the device with the Windows button on the right-hand side, meaning there was still room for a very large keyboard. The Surface Go's Type Cover is almost a full inch narrower than that of the Surface 3, itself almost as wide as the Surface RT. In a couple of days of intermittent use, I've gotten used to the keyboard and am a lot more accurate with it. I've heard some suggestions that it'll be difficult to go back and forth between keyboards, but I haven't had this myself, in swapping between the Surface Go, Surface Laptop, and my computer at work, which has a ThinkPad UltraNav USB keyboard on it.

The device is worth considering if you have and like your previous "Mini" Surface system. It is faster, even if not by much, the higher configuration options should make multi-tasking easier. The display is a slightly lower resolution but I think is a better panel, the previous Surface pens and keyboards do work, which can allow you to side-step the issue of the very small keyboard, the cameras are better and the machine supports Windows Hello if you want to use it. The wireless is better. SurfaceConnect is a much better charging interface and USB Type C is competent for charging, and the regular C to A adapter you can buy from Microsoft (or Apple, or Belkin, or Google) is robust enough for things like flash drives and portable hard disk cords. It can charge, although slowly, from things like USB battery packs (functionality I used a lot on my Surface 3, but the Micro-USB connector on that machine was pretty flimsy and mine's misshapen and no longer holds cables well) and old phone and iPad chargers. It will charge overnight from pretty much any USB charger, and it'll run and charge from any 2.4-amp charger such as an iPad or Surface 3 brick. Type C power adapters such as the one from the Nintendo Switch and MacBook or newer Type C phone and tablet chargers should also run the device well.

Since Type C power is of note to me, personally, I want to say that there's one big-ish caveat for anyone who will be doing heavy "compute" on this device. (You shouldn't do heavy compute on this device, however, even though you can.) You must either buy a good Power Delivery charger (Switch, MacBook, an 18w+ phone adapter, whatever). If you do something like render a big Blender file while powered by (in my case) a Surface 3 charger with a generic A to C cord, the CPU will lock to about a quarter of its optimal speed, 400MHz. So, your video export will get done eventually, but it'll take a lot longer than if you use a regular SurfaceConnect power charger. This doesn't impact my workloads a lot, and once the load evens out, the CPU can run intermittently at up to its normal 1.6GHz speed.

There's a lot more to talk about, and I recommend anyone interested take the time to check the device out in person and look at other reviews. Microsoft's retail stores are accommodating to people who camp out and try the keyboard, the camera, test the software they load on them (the store load-out is a little weird compared to how you'll set one up when you get it, but that's fine, they're trying to push the idea of the Windows Store hard.)

Ultimately, my conclusions are that it is "Good Enough" especially given it's one of the only devices in this size band. The other machines are the iPad and the MacBook. What I mean by that is that every other device with a 10-12" display is comically large because they're designed either for education or for the $180 price range. The closest competitor in terms of computers that will fit in my bag is the Apple iPad, which is a good computing device, but if you need more functionality or flexibility than what iOS has (especially what iOS has today, not what Apple might deign to add in three years) then the Surface Go is probably the device you want. If you can carry more, then more options are available, and almost all other devices will be more powerful and more flexible in some variety, and a few are also less expensive, depending on what your priorities are.


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