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Surface Go, First Look: Small, light, and the best cheap PC ever

Twice before, Microsoft has tried to deliver lightweight, low-cost Surface laptops. Both times, the market said no. With the new Surface Go, they finally got it right.

Microsoft's latest member of the Surface family goes on sale today.

In almost every dimension, the Surface Go is different from its recent predecessors.

To start with, it's smaller and lighter than the Surface Pro, with a 10-inch screen (measured diagonally) and a total weight, with Type Cover attached, of 774 g (1.7 pounds).

CNET: Microsoft Surface Go review: This shrunken-down Surface is growing on me

Yes, I said Type Cover. The Surface Go has a kickstand that uses the same hinges as its older, larger sibling, and supports an optional, smaller Type Cover that clicks in using a magnet below the display.

This downsized Surface comes with a price tag that's significantly lower than the Surface Pro, starting at $399.

It's also haunted by the ghosts of Surface Past: specifically, Surface RT (2012) and Surface 3 (2015), both of which tried to deliver a lightweight, low-cost PC replacement and failed miserably in the marketplace.

This time, Microsoft got it right.

I've been using the Surface Go for the past 72 hours or so, and it quickly managed to win me over, despite my initial skepticism from those aforementioned ghosts.

The review unit I'm testing is the larger and beefier of two available configurations. It includes 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD, with an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y processor, at a list price of $549. (The $399 configuration has the same CPU and display but 4 GB of RAM and a 64 GB eMMC drive.)

The platinum-colored Signature Type Cover (with the same Alcantara coating as the Surface Laptop) adds $130, bringing the total cost to $729. The Signature Type Cover also comes in Burgundy and Cobalt Blue.

Also: Why did Microsoft build the Surface Go?

A basic black Surface Go Type Cover without Alcantara is available for $100, which means that you can get the full entry-level Surface Go with Type Cover for $499. Regardless of which you choose, you get a full backlit keyboard with precision trackpad that doesn't require a Bluetooth connection or its own batteries.

With my review unit, Microsoft also threw in the Surface Mobile Mouse, a $35 Bluetooth accessory that comes in the same three colors as the Signature Type Cover. A Surface Pen, fully supported on this device, would add another $100 to the price tag.

Upon unboxing the hardware, my first thought was, "Damn, this thing is small." Even the charger is tiny, weighing in at about two-thirds the bulk of the Pro charger.

After attaching the Type Cover, my second thought was, "This is a baby Surface Pro." Its kickstand has the same smooth, solid feel, amd it has the same Surface Connect port for attaching the charger or a docking station. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right side and a MicroSDXC card reader tucked under the kickstand.

Its front-facing camera even supports Windows Hello facial recognition, which is practically unheard of in a device at this price point.

In fact, the only difference between the two is that the Surface Go includes a USB Type-C port in place of the USB 3.1 Type A port on the Surface Pro. (Microsoft offers a Surface-branded USB-C to USB adapter for $20.) I tested the USB Type-C port with a Dell WD15 docking station and a generic USB Type-C dock; it performed flawlessly with both devices, connecting the Surface Go to power, a wired Ethernet connection, an external display, and as many USB peripherals as I could throw at it.

Also: After three Microsoft misses, it's Surface Go time

One part of the setup experience that was less than pleasant was the realization that this device ships with Windows 10 Home running in (ugh) S Mode. That's the weird, locked down Windows 10 variant that only allows apps from the Microsoft Store and is designed to keep nontechnical users out of trouble.

Fortunately, it was relatively easy (and free) to switch from S mode to the full version of Windows 10, and for good measure I used a spare product key to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.

It's worth noting that this is a 64-bit Windows version, so it can run just about any software you throw at it. That includes, surprisingly, Hyper-V virtualization, which is available as an option just as it would be on a larger PC. (I didn't test it.)

The slim, small hardware package of the Surface Go comes with one big plus for me: It fits in my small over-the-shoulder travel bag, which means I can carry it anywhere without having to deal with the larger messenger bag that most full-size laptops require.

Also: Surface by the numbers: How Microsoft reinvented the PC

The downside of that portability is the layout of the Type Cover's keys. The keyboard feels slightly cramped, and if I were an expert touch typist it would probably take a few days to adapt. Microsoft says they've modified the keys on the Surface Go Type Cover, bringing them slightly closer together and making the key caps more concave.

In lab tests, Microsoft claims, expert typists quickly adapt and reach 97 percent of their normal typing speed. Your productivity may vary.

For comparison's sake, I set the Surface Go on my desktop, with Type Cover open, and then set a 9.7-inch iPad alongside it. The dimensions are strikingly similar. Anyone who's been able to adapt to the experience of typing on an iPad with an equally tiny Bluetooth keyboard should have no trouble with the Surface Go.

Of course, the Surface Go has the same "lappability" concerns as its older, larger sibling. If you find the typing experience with Surface Pro awkward, you'll probably have the same objection to the Surface Go.

I loaded the system up with an assortment of entertainment and productivity software from the Microsoft Store, including Office 365, Spotify, iTunes, Netflix, and the Twitter app. Everything worked as expected.

Performance-wise, if you're concerned about the ability of that Pentium Gold CPU to keep up, you can relax. This isn't a netbook. In fact, it felt downright zippy on every productivity task I threw at it. Graphics performance was surprisingly good, even when I connected the Surface Go to a large external monitor.

Also: Can Microsoft's Surface Go unseat Apple's iPad?

(There's no guarantee that performance of the lower-spec machine will be as good, especially with that slower eMMC storage.)

The display resolution of 1800x1200 keeps the signature 3:2 aspect ratio of the rest of the Surface family. That means some letterboxing when you watch an HD movie, but it also makes working with side-by-side windows easier than on a 16:9 display.

This is, of course, not a gaming PC or a professional workstation. I wouldn't count on this configuration to do heavy video editing or run a demanding game at maximum FPS. But for mainstream productivity work and casual gaming, it's more than good enough.

It's also a good enough tablet, capable of playing movies and music and browsing websites as well as an iPad, although it lacks the deep selection of apps for iOS.

Microsoft claims that the Surface Go will play video nonstop for 9 hours. Because I've had this device in hand for less than 72 hours, it's impossible to get definitive numbers on battery life, but based on my informal tests I estimate this device should last for 5 to 7 hours of steady productivity work, which is effectively all day for anyone who isn't chained to their keyboard.

The bottom line is this is a real PC in a highly portable package. In fact, it's the best cheap PC I've ever used, especially when connected to desktop peripherals with a USB Type-C dock.

If portability is important to you, and your workloads are primarily productivity based, the small but mighty Surface Go should be on your shortlist.

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