Review: Surface Go running Windows 10 Home in S Mode

Does Microsoft's Surface Go fill an overlooked productivity niche? Here's my 'non-reviewer's review' take after three weeks with the device.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft began shipping the newest and least expensive member of its Surface family, the Surface Go, on August 2. I didn't receive a review unit from Microsoft; the official word was there just weren't enough of them to go around. (See my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott's initial impressions of his review unit here.) I decided, given the 30-day return policy on Microsoft devices, to buy one from the NYC flagship Microsoft Store on August 2.

Three weeks in, I'm on the fence about whether or not I'll return the Go or keep my purchase. If I do keep the Go, it will be the first Surface device I'll have decided to be worth owning since the original Surface RT. (I really want a truly portable PC and am a glutton for punishment, what can I say?)

Also: 7 ways you can (maybe) get Microsoft Office 365 for free

If you want speed tests and benchmarks, this is not your review. In this post, I'm doing my typical 'non-reviewer's review' of the device for "normal" users like me.

I didn't go for the lower-end Go model. Instead, I bought the $549 8 GB RAM/128 GB SSD storage version, which looks and feels like a quality device. I decided to spring for the $130 Alcantara (fuzzy premium fabric covered) keyboard in Cobalt Blue. I didn't buy a pen or mouse, as I wanted to keep my configuration as PC-like and lightweight as possible and I don't need/want to use a pen with a computer.

I also have opted to keep my device in Windows 10 Home in S Mode (for now, anyway) meaning I can run Microsoft Store apps only and am limited to the Edge browser. This is how Microsoft ships the consumer versions of the Go, though users do have the option to switch to full Windows 10 Home for free.

To me, the hands-down best thing about the Go is its size and portability. With its ten inch screen and weighing in at 1.7 pounds, including an Alcantara Type Cover, this is truly a mobile device. I can and have just tossed it into my bag and taken it everywhere with me because it is so light and small.

The Go fills a productivity niche for me. Sometimes, my phone is too small and clumsy for writing a long email, looking at a complicated diagram or heavily editing a blog post. And even the lightest ultrabook is still a bit too unwieldy to be toting around just in case I need to look at something on a bigger screen.

The mini Surface Go Type Cover keyboard hasn't worked great for me, as I am a relatively fast touch typist. After three weeks, I am still struggling to hit the right keys. I did not attempt to write this review on the device. I think it's fine for shorter typing tasks, but not for anything substantial.

On my lap, the Go, sadly, is a no-go. Given it's a two-in-one with a detachable keyboard and kickstand, I didn't have high lappability hopes.

Slouching back into a couch, I can almost get it to stay put on my lap, but sitting upright in a hard chair with both feet on the floor -- my usual note-taking pose when no table is available -- it just doesn't work. I will say that this is the first Surface two-in-one that I feel is properly weighted; it's not as tippy or top-heavy as other models, so maybe one day a Surface device will merit a coveted MJF lappability star.

The Go's battery life is nothing to write home about. Microsoft's official claim is the Go gets up to nine hours running video loops locally. In my real-life usage, I am getting 4.5 hours on average with the screen brightness set the way it ships and Bluetooth turned off. (Note: The battery meter on the device isn't accurate; mine has said I've had 11 hours of battery life available when the device is fully charged and 20 percent left when it's nearly out of juice.) On the plus side, the Go's power connector is light and portable and the device can charge quickly with the connector or even using USB-C via the unit's single USB-C port.

Also: How I learned to stop worrying and love USB Type-C

I am able to run my typical apps (Skype, Office Online, Notepad, Tweetdeck and a couple others) fine on the Go. The Pentium Gold processor inside this device means no emulation is required to run x86-based Store apps, and when/if a user upgrades out of S Mode, x86 apps not available in the Store can be downloaded onto the device.

Because Microsoft allows users with 10.1-inch (or smaller-sized) screens to run the Mobile versions of the Microsoft Office apps for free, some users won't find a need to pay for Office. To do "real" editing and creation, Microsoft recommends users buy Office 365. I didn't do that on my review device; I've just been using the Online/Web versions of the Office apps for free.

I do most of my work in a browser these days. Microsoft's Edge browser works noticeably better on the Intel-based Go than the ARM-based HP Envy x2 that I test-drove a few months ago, but it still sometimes loads and refreshes content-heavy sites slower than I'd like. (One contact of mine wondered if the reason Edge is slow on ARM and Pentium Gold is because it chokes on sites that are JavaScript-heavy. Could be....)

Every tech purchase is about tradeoffs. There's no device that's perfect for everyone and no perfect time to buy a new PC/tablet.

What's most important for me -- battery life and size/weight of a device -- may matter far less to someone else who cares about touch, pen, Windows Hello biometrics and other features that I really don't want or need. Further complicating the tradeoff matrix are usage patterns. I type a lot for long periods of time, but seldom need to do other creation tasks. Other users might have more intermittent usage patterns or care a lot about watching videos and reading on their devices.

Where does the Microsoft Surface Go fit here?

Also: Microsoft Surface Go review: Fun and practical, but more expensive than it looks CNET

Microsoft has pitched the Surface Go as well suited for K-12 students, firstline workers in customer-facing roles and consumers. Lately, company officials also have started talking about the Go as being ideal for "professional consumers" -- those who want to be productive anywhere and use the time they save being productive to turn off technology and do other things. As stilted as that categorization sounds, I guess I fit in here, and I bet other "normals" do, too.

Is the convenience of a "nice-to-have" device -- one that won't replace my phone, my "real" laptop (or even my Kindle) -- worth $679 plus tax? Should I wait and see how much Microsoft plans to charge for the LTE-enabled model of the Go, coming this fall? Or will I keep looking for that perfect, small and light PC that could be my on-the-road default device? I've got a week left to deliberate.

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