Microsoft Surface Go 2 Review

Posted on June 3, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 54 Comments

Surface Go 2 is an interesting option for those in need of a secondary Windows 10 device. But you’ll want to carefully weigh the tradeoffs.

You’ll also want to really think about why you want such a PC in the first place. I see three primary use cases for individuals: A PC for a child, a secondary device for an adult, and a consumption device that would be used instead of an iPad. I kept these use cases in mind while evaluating Surface Go 2 and while writing this review.

Finally, you’ll also want to evaluate the real cost of this PC: While Surface Go 2 starts at just $400, that version is underpowered, so most will want to upgrade to a more powerful and future-proof model that will cost hundreds more. Too, I feel that most Surface Go 2 users—certainly the those in the first two of those use cases I singled out—will want a Type Cover, which costs an additional $130. All-in, you could spend almost $1000 on a fully configured Surface Go 2, which too much to pay for a device this limited.

Undaunted? Let’s dive in.

Design

Surface Go 2 is undeniably adorable and is much smaller in person than it appears in photos. In fact, it’s considerably smaller than the high-quality Surface Pro 7. Which is kind of interesting, because that PC, with its 12.3-inch display, already feels pretty cramped to me. But Surface Go 2 looks like a mini Surface Pro and that, of course, is part of the appeal. It’s an enduring and iconic design and a truly versatile form factor.

Like most of Microsoft’s other PCs, Go 2 is made entirely of magnesium, a durable material that gives the device its gray color. Some find that color somewhat bland, but I like it. Magnesium feels good in the hand, it stays cool, and when it does scratch it’s much less visible than with aluminum. And while I could see some wishing for the color choices we get with Surface Laptop (which is made of aluminum, not magnesium), remember that you can add color when you purchase a Type Cover.

Surface Go 2 also packs a lot of high-quality Surface Pro design details into its small frame, from the innovative kickstand with its wide range of stable display angles to its reflective Microsoft logo to the solid color-matched hardware buttons. I also like the two-tone antenna band on the top rear of the device, which lends a bit of contrast. It’s a good look, and the general design of the PC seems premium and not cheap in any way.

Display

Surface Go 2 provides a 10.5-inch Full HD+ (1920 x 1280, 220 ppi) PixelSense display with a 3:2 aspect ratio that is perfect for a small tablet. Being middle-aged, I find this display to be far too small for regular use and had to bump up the display scaling a bit to use it effectively, which only exacerbates the problem. But a young adult or child should have no issues.

And it’s fair to point out that this display is bigger than the 10-incher found in its predecessor, the original Surface Go. I don’t have one for comparison, but that display provided a lower 1800 x 1200 and a comparable 217 ppi count. The bezels are, of course, smaller than those on its predecessor but are still incredibly large and old-fashioned looking, a problem that dogs most Surface PCs. Maybe a future Go will provide an even bigger display with small Surface Pro X-like bezels.

Sticking to the present, however, the Go 2 display is also reasonably bright—about 400 nits, and roughly the same brightness as the Surface Pro 7—and colorful. And quite reflective, unfortunately. I’d say it’s adequate for the target audiences.

Internal components

To make the Surface Go 2’s $400 starting price, Microsoft had to cut some corners. And the most egregious of those cuts come internally: The base configurations ship with a lackluster Pentium Gold processor, while the lowest-end version provides just 4 GB of RAM and slow eMMC storage too; the combination of those three parts is unacceptable in my opinion.

But things get more interesting—if more expensive—when you upgrade. All but the cheapest Surface Go 2 configurations come with reasonably fast SSD storage, which should help performance somewhat. And if you don’t mind paying $630 or more for your Surface Go 2, you can get a Core m3 processor that really improves matters. Not surprisingly, the configuration that Microsoft provided to reviewers includes the better internals: A Core m3 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and SSD storage (along with LTE connectivity).

And that combination of components really does make a difference, in the sense that a Surface Go 2 with a Core m3 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and SSD storage constitutes what I’d call an acceptable PC configuration from a performance perspective. Those with lesser needs—a small child or someone just using the device reading and for watching videos—could perhaps get away with a lower-end configuration. But if you’re looking for a real PC that will last more than a year or two, the upgrades will make a big difference to its longevity.

To test performance in typical PC productivity scenarios, I connected a Bluetooth-based ThinkPad Compact Keyboard with TrackPoint to the Surface Go 2. And then I used it to write parts of this review and other articles while browsing the web with multiple tabs and—wait for it—even using Photoshop Elements to edit graphics. To my surprise, it worked. Sure, that combination of apps pretty much eats up the Go 2’s available RAM, but then this is a typical workload I demand from the higher-end PCs I normally use. My takeaway is that Surface Go 2 should handle reasonable tasks—a few Office apps, Edge with multiple tabs—ably.

At least in the Core m3 configurations, that is, and assuming you could get past its tiny size. But even the lower-end configurations would likely be OK for typical consumption tasks–reading, listening to music, audiobooks, and podcasts, and watching videos, mostly, assuming you could find the content you wanted—as well. I also tested Surface Go 2 in this use case, opting to read the news and browse the web sans Type Cover in the mornings instead of using my iPad. It “works,” but Surface Go 2 is much less ideal for these scenarios than is iPad, and I gave up after a few days.

Size comparison: 9.7-inch iPad vs. Surface Go 2

The issue is two-fold. First, the Go 2 doesn’t really offer the same instant-on experience that I get with iPad, and I often find that the device can’t locate the Wi-Fi network for some reason, an issue I never have with my iPad. It would probably connect eventually, but I didn’t pick it up to wait, so I just disconnect and reconnect to the network. This is not a good seamless experience.

The second issue is software related. I read The New York Times and Google News apps each morning on iPad, but neither app is available in Windows 10, and the web-based versions are terrible on tablets. I read books with Kindle, but the Windows app is a joke and the web experience, called Cloud Reader, is OK but not optimized for tablets or touch.

I didn’t want to give up on Surface Go 2 as a consumption device, so I also tested Spotify, Disney+ (the web app, as there’s no Windows app), Sonos, Netflix, Audible, and a few other entertainment apps. And for the most part, the experiences were reasonably good. There are missing bits—Audible can stream to Sonos on mobile, for example, but not in Windows—but the direct interactions were fine. Surface Go 2 is small compared to a PC, but it’s around the same size as an iPad, and much bigger than any smartphone. And that really helps, even with audio-based apps like Audible and Sonos, since the controls are nice and big and easy to see.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Surface Go 2 is fanless and doesn’t have even the passive heat vents that we see with Surface Pro 7. As such, it generates no fan noise at all, and it never got noticeably hot while I was using it.

Connectivity

All Surface Go 2 models come with 802.11ax-compatible Wi-Fi 6, just like Surface Pro, courtesy of an Intel AX200 chipset, plus Bluetooth 5.0. But some of the higher-end configurations, including the review unit, also include 4G/LTE Advanced cellular data access via a Qualcomm Snapdragon X16 LTE modem and either the internal eSIM or a SIM card.

I didn’t test cellular access because doing so would have incurred a charge, but those without a dedicated cellular data plan can select pay-as-you-go plans from GigSky World Mobile Data or Ubigi. No, I’ve never heard of them either.

Ports and expansion

As you should expect of a mini-tablet PC, Surface Go 2 provides a minimal number of expansion ports, but it’s still versatile enough for most needs. In addition to the Surface Type Cover port, you’ll find a Surface Connect port for the power cable and/or Surface Dock, a single USB-C port, and a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack on the outside of the device.

And neatly tucked under the kickstand, as with Surface Pro, you’ll find a microSDXC card reader slot too.

Audio and video

Surface Go 2’s AV capabilities are surprisingly solid given the device’s size and price range. It has Dolby Audio-powered stereo speakers that deliver great sound for audiobooks, music, and movies alike. Seriously, it’s better than it needs to be. Go 2 also provides what Microsoft calls dual stereo microphones for Cortana spoken interactions and voice/video calls via Skype and Microsoft Teams.

Speaking of video calls, Go 2 provides a 5 MP front-facing camera that offers significantly better 1080p quality than many of the 720p-based business-class laptops I usually use. This camera also provides Windows Hello facial recognition capabilities, which is a nice premium feature.

On the rear, you’ll find an 8 MP autofocus camera that also provides 1080p video.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Surface Go 2 doesn’t ship with a keyboard, touchpad, or active pen, but you can purchase them separately, and because Microsoft provides a $130 Signature Type Cover with the review unit, I did test that, of course. (The Go 2 is also compatible with Surface Pen, which costs an additional $100.)

The Surface Go Signature Type Cover, like the Go 2 itself, looks, feels, and works like a miniature version of the Surface Pro rendition and with predictable results. It’s smaller, which inhibits typing, especially with my large hands. But the product is attractive and well made, and I like the combination of the thin Alcantara cover with the firm plastic keys and the glass touchpad.

If you can handle such a small keyboard, you’ll find a cramped typing experience but with good key throws and two typing angles. The Go’s touchpad is a precision touchpad, so its infinitely configurable, and despite being a bit on the small side, I found it to be accurate and reliable.

Plus, the Type Cover doubles as a nice protective screen cover when moving about.

Portability

At just 1.2 pounds or so, Surface Go 2 is the most portable Surface PC by far: Surface Pro 7 and Pro X both weight about 1.7 pounds. (Those weights are all sans Type Cover.) But Apple’s base iPad weighs even less, at 1.07 pounds, and it’s a lot thinner too, just .29 inches thick compared to .33 inches for the Go 2. Those numbers may seem somewhat comparable, but they’re not: With thin and light electronic devices, every fraction of a pound or an inch changes the experience noticeably.

Regardless, Surface Go 2’s relatively small size would make it a welcome travel companion if only the battery life measured up. Microsoft claims up to 10 hours of battery life in typical device usage, but in my admittedly limited experience, I only achieved between 5 and 6 hours of battery life. That kind of delta between claim and reality is not atypical, I suppose, but it’s also about an hour less than the uptime I achieved with Surface Pro 7. And I was pushing that PC a lot harder than the Go 2.

If you plan to use Surface Go 2 at home, this won’t be an issue as the device will always be close to power. But on that note, Microsoft doesn’t tout or offer any fast charging capabilities here, and Surface Go 2 comes with a small 45-watt power supply that ends in a brick that will be hard to plug-in in certain places. Other Surface PCs put the brick in the middle of the power cord, and I prefer that design.

Software

Surface Go 2 ships with Windows 10 Home in S mode. I tried to test the device in this configuration but quickly found that S mode was the source of a weird bug where it was impossible to configure a default web browser. When I disabled S mode, this was fixed, and, better still, I was able to install and use the Windows applications I prefer. (And while I was able to install the Store-based version of Adobe Photoshop Elements in S mode, it wouldn’t run until I disabled S mode.)

In addition to the software issues I discuss above, Surface Go 2 ships with some unique Microsoft apps, like Microsoft Whiteboard and the Surface app. But it also ships with the usual Windows 10 crapware, which, is getting increasingly onerous over time.

Pricing and configurations

Surface Go 2 is available in four configurations. The base model, which includes a lackluster Intel Pentium Gold 4425Y processor, an inadequate 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of slow eMMC storage, costs $400. But you can also upgrade to 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of faster SSD storage for an additional $150, or a total of $550.

I recommend taking at least that step. But the next configuration up gets even better with an Intel Core m3 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of SSD storage at a cost of $630, or another $80 more than the highest-end Pentium Gold configuration (and $230 more than the base configuration). But you can pay more still for a version with LTE capabilities that costs $730. (This was the review configuration.)

Remember that none of these configurations provide a Type Cover, which costs an addition $130, or a Surface Pen, which costs $100. I feel that a Type Cover is pretty much required, except perhaps for that consumption scenario, so plan accordingly. Know, too, that business pricing is even higher because those models ship with Windows 10 Pro: Surface Go 2 for business starts at $450, so you can expect to pay about $50 more per configuration.

Recommendations and conclusions

Surface Go 2 is an interesting experiment in trying to create a decent PC for about $500. But even with upgrades that include a faster Core m3 processor, more RAM, and speedier SSD storage, the Go 2’s other limitations get in the way. And there are many limitations, including its tiny display, too-small keyboard, and middling battery life. And once you get north of $750, there are just too many good choices, all of which have bigger and better displays and full-sized keyboards, and possibly better battery life too.

If you’re looking for a consumption tablet—for reading, watching videos, and playing games—the iPad is the better choice, in my opinion. It’s thinner and lighter, and less expensive, and it has much better hardware, software, and services ecosystems. No one would ever regret buying an iPad.

That said, Surface Go 2 has its charms. I love the build quality and design, and that this product does nothing to diminish the premium Surface brand. I was also surprised by the quality of the stereo speakers—something that is missing on iPad, still—and how that enhances the audio/video experiences. And while the optional Surface Type Covers are tiny, too, they add a bit of color and are well-made, with real keyboards and a nice glass touchpad.

Can I recommend Surface Go 2? Not the $400 version. But if you can splurge on a higher-end model and simply want a smaller, less-expensive Surface Pro, you probably won’t be disappointed.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Premium build quality and design
  • Stereo speakers sound great
  • Windows Hello facial recognition
  • Type Covers can provide a splash of color

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Necessary upgrades are even more expensive
  • Tiny keyboard cover is optional, extra cost, and hard to use for more than short bursts
  • Performance (Pentium Gold models)
  • Battery life is middling

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