A Month with the Surface Go: Hardware Design and Build Quality

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I picked up the higher end of the two Surface Go models right after release, along with a Type Cover and a Surface Pen. I’ve taken my time with the device, and used it in different situations to try to get a feel for it. Being that I am already a Windows user at work who’s had a Lenovo Yoga (original), Yoga 2, and Yoga 720 spanning the last five years, the experience certainly isn’t unfamiliar. The Yoga has been a very good touchscreen ultrabook line since the original, and I have no complaints with it as a laptop.

The Yogas can also be used as tablets, although that experience certainly leaves something to be desired. Frankly, a LOT to be desired. Ultimately, my ambivalence toward touch on Windows based on my experience with what is a good, high-end touchscreen convertible device kept my interest in Microsoft’s Surface products low over the years.

However, I have been interested in the rumors of Microsoft’s foldable Andromeda device and its accompanying OS enhancements (which are sadly yet to arrive). If Microsoft could slim down the Windows experience to work on a smaller device, then it would be of more interest to someone like myself who HAS to use Windows daily. The Surface Go fell into similar territory for me. The Pro was too big to be anything but a laptop for me, and I need a traditional laptop form factor for work. However, the smaller size of the Go changed things. It is small and light enough for some broader applications that do get into traditional tablet territory.

I’ve always felt like the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro were very different devices that were approaching a common center ground from opposite directions: A traditional computing OS moving toward touch and mobility, and a touch-centric, mobile OS branching out into higher-end productivity. I think the Surface Go gets the closest to that overlap point on Microsoft’s side, and it is interesting to note where it and the iPad Pro intersect and which device handles different things better. In this article, I am going to focus on the hardware design and build quality of the Go and its main accessories, and how they measure up with the iPad Pro.

Hardware Design

I think this is ultimately the biggest strength of the entire Surface line from Microsoft. They have put a lot of time and effort into the designs of the Pro, Book and Laptop, and what they have learned has trickled down into the newer Go. I’ll lead off by saying that the only criticism I have is that the outer case can get warm with extended use. Not hot, just warm. However, this is something you don’t experience with an iPad Pro unless you are really hammering it for an extended period. This is more a product of Microsoft’s decision to go with an Intel chip for the Go, rather than an ARM processor. They don’t have much choice at the moment, but that may change in the coming years.

The Kickstand

It’s not quite as thin as the iPad Pro, but it’s thin enough to be very comfortable in the hand. It is also light, and no problem to carry around. The best feature of the Go is the Surface’s signature kickstand. It is easy enough to move to any position, but then it says in that position reliably. No matter how steep or shallow the angle, it supports the device with no issues.

Microsoft has really nailed this design feature down over the last six years. It just works, and we all know that’s a phrase that Apple fans take very seriously.

I am not surprised that I like this feature. In fact, I have been using it on my iPad Pro for months. My Pro is hardly ever removed from my Logitech Slim Combo Keyboard Case. They added a similar, albeit thicker and heavier kickstand to this keyboard case. It works very well, and makes me more productive with my iPad. It is by far and away the best keyboard case I’ve ever used, and I have used many.

While I like to have the option to take my iPad Pro out of the case for other uses, in practice, I very rarely do. Even if I detach the Slim Combo’s keyboard, I still use the kickstand. So, there is something to be said for having a kickstand built-in, especially when it is integrated into the overall design so well. I have to give this point to Microsoft and the Surface Go, especially since Apple’s own Smart Keyboard can’t even come remotely close to touching the Go’s kickstand in terms of flexibility. More on the Apple accessory I dislike the most in a moment.

The Rest of the Go Hardware

The Surface Go hardware is solid. The feel. The buttons, the ports, the speakers- all are fine. While the Kickstand is certainly its standout advantage, the rest of the hardware is good too. It just doesn’t all stack up to the iPad Pro. When it comes to the screen, the Go really can’t come close the iPad Pro. Honestly, it’s probably neck and neck to just under the less expensive iPad. That said, it certainly isn’t bad. You can just tell that Microsoft didn’t go all out on the screen, where Apple does.

I can also say that, while the Surface does feel good in the hand, the iPad feels superior to pretty much anything in terms of quality of construction, materials, and just overall solidity. However, I don’t think this outweighs the utility of the kickstand. Who prefers what will come down to usage and preference.

A feature where the Surface Go does have the upper hand is the USB-C port.

This provides a level of flexibility that Apple’s Lightning can’t match. Well, let me rephrase that. It is possible that Lightning could, if only Apple would allow that. As we all know, they don’t. I can turn the Go into a mini-desktop with Bluetooth accessories, a desktop monitor or a TV, and additional storage. I can do some of that with an iPad, but even what I can do is still limited. With the Go, an input device is an input device and storage is storage. There are fewer workarounds necessary to get certain things done. Apple is moving this direction, but they haven’t quite arrived yet.

I will also point out that Microsoft took a page out of Apple’s playbook when it comes to charging. Well, at least their previous one. While the Go has the new ability to charge using USB-C, making it compatible with many battery packs and existing fast chargers, it comes bundled with a magnetic charger. While there is nothing remarkable about this, it is a little ironic, if you ask me. However, it does provide an advantage you lose with the iPad Pro- you can charge and still have full access to the USB-C port. Other than outputting sound or video with special adapters, you are very limited in this regard with the iPad Pro.

The Type Cover

Like some others, I poked fun at Microsoft for their use of “Alcantara” fabric on their Surface Book and recent Type Cover keyboards. I saw no practicality in it. However, I’ve always been partial to the color blue, so I decided to give the blue Alcantara Type Cover a shot when I saw it at BestBuy.

After using it, I actually kind of like it. It really doesn’t make any difference to me on the keyboard side, but it is easy and comfortable to hold when the the cover is closed over the Go’s screen. It has a high quality look and feel, and it has held up against dirt and wear so far.

As for the performance of the keyboard, this is another area where you can see how much time and effort Microsoft has poured into the development of the Surface. When the first Surface and Surface Pros were released, Microsoft had a less expensive Touch Cover that, like Apple’s Smart Keyboard, didn’t have mechanical keys. It relied on pressure sensors to register keystrokes. It was thinner, cheaper, and also spill resistant. And today it no longer exists. Why? Because it provided an inferior typing experience. Microsoft wisely switched gears and put their time and effort into perfecting their Type Covers.

I’m not going to say that the Go’s Type Cover is revolutionary. As I sit here, switching back and forth between my Yoga 720 and the Go, the difference is noticeable. Lenovo makes a good keyboard, and it is quite a bit better. However, for what it is and how thin and light it is, the Type Cover is a very nice mobile keyboard that I am capable of typing on for extended periods without complaint.

I would still put the Logitech Slim Combo’s keyboard a little ahead of this one. It would probably be a fairer fight if they were the same size. I have gotten a little spoiled by my 12.9″ iPad Pro keyboard’s width, and going back to 10″ is an adjustment. However, the keys on the Go’s Type Cover are big enough and spaced well enough that, once you get in the groove, things flow just fine.

The Logitech Slim Combo’s keyboard is a little thicker and heavier, and I think you get a little more with that. It is much quieter to type on than the Type Cover, which I like. The last thing I need to do is disturb my sleeping wife as I’m cranking out a late night review. The Type Cover isn’t awful, but I tend pound the keys, and that is just more noticeable with less key travel. Many say the same about Apple’s Butterfly keyboards.

The key travel and response on the Logitech is a little better than the Type Cover, but the two are close enough that it comes down to personal preference. The keys on the Go’s Type Cover have less give and a snappy feedback. If you like that in a keyboard, then you will prefer the Type Cover. While I would choose the balance of the Logitech, I’ll take the response of the Type Cover over a “mushy” keyboard with a laggy response any day. That’s the worst.

I also think the Go’s Type Cover is still far more balanced than Apple’s Smart Keyboard, which is really stiff and rigid in my opinion. The Logitech is as close to perfection as I have found for me, but that shouldn’t be a surprise- it’s what they do. Still, the Type Cover is a close second, and I think that’s worth noting.

While it may not be remarkable vs a high-end laptop, the touchpad on the Type Cover is actually quite good, especially at this size. While the Go may have a touchscreen, a touchpad is still more efficient in Windows, especially if you are using classic Windows apps. I’ve used many laptops that had touchpads that weren’t half this good, so I think Microsoft did as well as can be expected in this form factor.

Another point for the Go’s Type Cover is how uncomplicated it is. It is a very simple design. As the name adequately explains, it covers the Go’s screen when closed.

If there is one drawback here, it is that there isn’t a magnet on the other side of the Go’s screen to hold it closed. My Logitech Split Combo has this, and I like the security of it, especially for drop protection. It is easy enough to hold the Type Cover closed to the Go while carrying it, but I do think Microsoft would be smart to add this for a little extra piece of mind.

You can fold the keyboard down flat if you prefer.

There is one “hinge” in the fabric that lets you set the keyboard at a slight angle, like most of us are used to with laptop keyboards.

I always type this way, and I suspect this is how most people will use a Type Cover.

One of the best features of this keyboard is that you can hold it open like a book, or fold it behind the Go when you don’t need it.

Apple’s Smart Keyboard can do this, although its more complicated design makes holding it as a book a little more difficult. This is the one area where my Logitech really falls down, as you can’t fold the keyboard back without the Smart Connector magnets disengaging and it falling off. You have to remove it, giving you another piece to have to hold or deal with.

One of the major issues that I have with Apple’s Smart Keyboard is that, in my opinion, it is a niche design. I am always of a mind that, if a manufacturer is only going to offer one accessory option, it should be versatile enough to work for most users. The Smart Keyboard is thin and light, which Apple has an absolute obsession with lately, but it falls down in other ways. There is no way to adjust screen angles with the keyboard attached, and without it, you have no flexibility at all. Without an accessory, you are holding the iPad, or it is sitting flat on something else.

As for the keyboard experience, I know that many Apple fans don’t agree with me, but I loathe typing on the Smart Keyboard. I absolutely hate it. Like, it actually makes me angry, probably because it costs so much to get so little. I’ve tried it twice, and I hated it more the second time than the first, I guess because I wasted the time going back again. If Phil takes the stage tomorrow and tells us the Smart Keyboard has been revamped with a mechanical action (even the dreaded Butterfly keys) and a backlight, then I would give it another shot. Otherwise, I won’t bother again. I’ll wait for Logitech’s far superior solution and stick with that for my next iPad Pro.

As for the Surface Go Type Cover, I give this round to Microsoft again. Handily. Not even close. The Type Cover is easy to use, it’s uncomplicated, and it does more (by virtue of having a function keys, a touchpad, and a good backlight). As for typing experience, it is far more “general.” It’s not too stiff, not too mushy. The Type Cover may not be the “Goldilocks” of keyboards, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than Apple. It is going to work well enough for most people, and to me, that’s the smarter play for a single OEM accessory. Once you adjust to the small size, you are fine. With the Smart Keyboard, I felt like I would have to adjust everything about the way I type to get out a paragraph without multiple missing letters.

My hope for Apple is that, one day, they will make a keyboard accessory that is thicker and heavier, but brings the style of the Magic Keyboard and backlit keys to the iPad Pro. There are many of us who would prefer a more laptop-like experience using a keyboard with the Pro, and right now, all of us are going with either Logitech or Brydge. I won’t hold my breath.

The Surface Pen

The Surface Pen is good, but I wouldn’t say that it’s great. I’m not an artist, but I can still feel a little more lag here than I get when using the Apple Pencil. My son, who is an art student and has a new iPad and Apple Pencil, also noticed this and I trust his opinion more than my own. He liked the Surface Go and Pen, but said that he still preferred the iPad and Pencil, overall. So, I have to give this round to Apple, as far as stylus performance goes. However, both are better than anything else I’ve tried.

However, I think MS has an upper hand in Pen design that can’t be ignored. There are two simple design elements that make the Pen stand out. First of all, Microsoft built in a couple of ways to attach the Pen to your Surface device. You can attach it to a magnet at the top of the Surface, which is clear of buttons, speakers, etc.

Second, you can also attach it to the outside of the Type Cover, if you prefer.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why Apple hasn’t addressed this shortcoming after three years. My Logitech Slim Combo case has a holder for the Pencil, like most iPad Pro cases, so it hasn’t been a major issue for me personally. I just can’t understand why Apple’s own solutions don’t account for keeping up with the Pencil.

Another design advantage for the Surface Pen is the addition of a couple of buttons. Now, I know this could easily become too complicated and mar the experience of using a stylus for some. However, having a right click button is handy on Windows. I’m not going to knock Apple for this, because this isn’t a necessity on an iOS device.

However, the Pen’s ability to erase with its “eraser” is an advantage over the Pencil. This is a natural thing we are used to doing with traditional pencil and paper, and I really wish Apple would copy this feature whenever they redesign their Pencil.

As for charging/power, I’m frankly not a big fan of either the Pen or Pencil. The Surface Pen uses a AAAA battery. While it should last a long time, per many reviews, that battery size is not easy to find on short notice. Murphy’s Law says that battery will die on you at the worst possible time, which can be a problem.

As ridiculous as iPad Pro users look with a Pencil hanging off the side of the device, at least they can top up if they have to. It’s still wonky though, and oh so easy for the techno elite to make fun of. I have managed to hang onto the charging dongle for my Pencil, so I usually charge it with a Lightning Cable. It would seem that most Pro and Pencil users make due with what was originally supposed to be the backup plan, though.

Apple could kill two birds with one stone here with a nifty Pro and Pencil redesign. Just add a magnetic wireless charging pad to the iPad Pro, and give us an adapted Pencil to take advantage. Done. There’s a new, undefined button or port on one side of those recently leaked iPad Pro renders, so maybe just maybe…

Overall, I think the Apple Pencil still edges out the Surface Pen by a nose. Features are great, but performance is the main thing, and Apple still wins there, at least for now. However, an upgrade here or there on either side could easily change this.

Conclusion

I wrote this article to compare aspects of the iPad Pro and the Surface Go, but not to keep score or rate one over the other overall. The fact is, they are both still different enough that which one you prefer will largely be based on what ecosystem you are in and what you need.

I can definitely say that I’m not giving up my iPad Pro for a Surface Go. However, I’m not taking the Go back or getting rid of it, either. I like both for different reasons, and will use them in different ways. If I HAD to pick one right now, it would still be the iPad Pro.

However, if you asked me that question between a regular 9.7″ iPad and a Surface Go, that would take some time and thought, and the Go might edge that one out. I had completely lost interest in the iPad 2 before getting the iPad Pro for a reason. I can’t see a smaller screen iPad cutting it for me again. The Go is more productive with its smaller screen real estate than the regular iPad, in my opinion. Since I want to be productive with my tablet, I think the Go probably takes that one.

All that aside, the design and build quality of the Surface Go really are very good. I won’t pay good money for a Samsung tablet, because I have never thought much of their build quality, at least not in comparison to Apple. However the Surface Go is deep in this conversation. It has the design and build chops to stand next to an Apple device. It is really a wash in my book, with the Go well ahead in some areas, the iPad Pro in others, and the two pretty close in a few. It really comes down to personal preferences in design and build.

Now, the equation and some of this parity will change when we get to software and performance in the next article. Stay tuned.


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