Spending Time with the Surface Go

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I may be the editor for a site that got its start exclusively covering the iPad, but I am also a lifelong Windows user. It is the only platform I can use for work, because all of the software in my field of expertise is Windows-based. The only path I have to using a Mac at work is via virtual machines, and that just isn’t attractive to me. That isn’t the only reason, though. I have always used Microsoft Windows, going back to my student days. That familiarity is hard to shake, especially when I’ve never been faced with a convincing reason to leave the platform for unfamiliar waters.

Scratching the Surface

All that said, I haven’t seen the Microsoft Surface lineup as a compelling option for my purposes up to this point for a variety of reasons. First of all, it doesn’t fit what I need for work. I understand that the hardware is well made and unique, but it just isn’t very practical for my uses on the job. I need a machine that will work well in my lap or in tight spaces, and the Surface’s kickstand design just doesn’t fit that use case as well as a traditional laptop design.

Secondly, I have little use for the touchscreen on a Windows laptop. My last three work computers have been Lenovo Yogas, so I have owned machines that have flexible designs and responsive touchscreens. The hardware I’ve been using hasn’t been the issue. However, beyond occasionally using it for scrolling, I just don’t have any need for it.

Out of touch

Windows 8, which I still have on my original Yoga, was a step toward making Windows more tablet friendly. However, Microsoft backtracked with Windows 10 in an effort to appease traditional users who preferred the familiar design of Windows 7. As a result, Windows 10 just isn’t designed to run on a tablet form factor. The touch targets are too small. It is often laggy when processing touch and switching orientations.

Touch isn’t the only issue. There are other tablet features that the Surface doesn’t handle well. Windows as we know it today will NEVER be instant on. At best, it will have to fall back to things like Sleep Mode and Hibernation, which take more time to come out of than an iPad running iOS. My iPad Pro is instant on and instant off, all the time, no matter what. The bottom line for me is, unless you use Windows software that is optimized for touch or pen input, the touchscreen and tablet features and form factor are just a sideshow. The software I use work doesn’t use any of these features, so this just doesn’t do anything for me. Because of that, a lot of the appeal of the Surface Pro and Surface Book gets diminished.

Because the Surface has never really fit my use cases for work and its touchscreen and tablet mode don’t help me with any particular software that I use, the price has also been a big negative factor. Compared to other similarly speced laptops, the Surface Pro runs high, and the Surface Book is even worse. Again, if the form factor and touchscreen aren’t advantages to you, there just isn’t a good reason to go with one. That is for work, but the same applies to home. I’ve never been willing to pay an “Apple tax” for a MacBook for personal use, so I’m not going to do the same thing for a Surface just because it has an interesting design.

Time to Go

I have largely dismissed the Surface lineup for over five years now, but that changed a few weeks ago when I started reading about the Surface Go. I have always seen the iPad Pro and Surface Pro as two very different devices that have some overlap. I think Apple and Microsoft are moving both toward a more common center ground over time, but they are coming at it from different starting points. The iPad-specific multitasking enhancements added to iOS 11 last year were a big shift toward that center. Even though it’s hardware-focused rather than software, the Surface Go feels like a similar move to the center.

While the Surface Pro is aimed at a different audience, the Surface Go is playing in a similar sandbox as the iPad and iPad Pros. The 10″ screen size sits right between the 9.7″ iPad and 10.5″ Pro. Looking at the prices, the two Go models also line up in a middle ground. $399 for the 4 GB model (with slower flash memory) and $549 for the 8 GB model and a faster SSD put the Go in the same neighborhood as Apple’s devices. Add $99 to $129 for a keyboard and $99 for a Surface Pen, and again, you are looking very similar to the iPad and smaller iPad Pro in terms of price.

Different, but same

The Surface Go and Apple’s iPads are very different in terms of software. The Go takes an OS that is geared toward the desktop, and finally puts it into a mobile piece of hardware that is usable. Microsoft certainly isn’t the first to try this, either. I test drove a couple of Windows 8 tablets five or six years ago, and while I was intrigued, they were just too underpowered to handle the software effectively enough to compete with iOS or Android.

The Go is different than those devices in that it succeeds in making Windows truly mobile. However, it is also very different than an iPad in terms of software. The Go cuts against the grain, making some sacrifices to fit a desktop OS into a mobile context. Conversely, iOS was purpose-built for mobile, and is unapologetic about it. And there are times when its limitations get in the way when it comes to professional and productivity tasks.

That said, the Go and the iPads are much more similar in terms of hardware. They both offer beautifully designed and functional hardware at a reasonable price. They are also both powerful but portable devices. They fit well in the hand and travel easily in a small sleeve or bag. Pair them each up with a keyboard, and they feel even more similar, in terms of design.

Both devices now target a more similar set of users, just in different ways. The iPad is built to cover the basics that most users need in a device that is fast and simple and easy to use. While the iPad and iPad Pro may work better as secondary devices, they can be the primary computing device for a lot of users. In my case, the iPad Pro could never be my primary device at work, but it does the job for me, my wife, and my kids at home.

The Surface Go is geared toward those users who need to go a little bit beyond those basics. Maybe they need to run some desktop applications. Maybe they prefer the ability to use a trackpad or mouse. Maybe they need the flexibility that the Go’s USB-C port offers. It is meant to be a computer that can also offer some of the experience of a tablet. Some mind you, not all. Like the iPad, the Go can also be used as a more portable secondary computer for a Windows user that looks and acts like what they are used to.

A toe in the water

Since the Surface Go makes more sense for me and is more affordable than a Surface Pro, I decided to take the plunge and get one a couple of weeks ago. I have done this before. I have bought and test driven lots of different devices over the years. Most recently, I picked up a Google Pixelbook and gave it a shot early this year. I had it back to Best Buy within a week, and that is often the way these test drives turn out. 14 days is enough to know if something is worth the asking price.

However, this trial run has been a little different. I haven’t been able to use the Go as much as I would have liked because of how busy I have been lately. However, the time I have spent with it has been good enough that I want to keep going and give it a much longer run. Today was the last day to return the Go to the store, and here it still sits next to me. I did get rid of the Surface Pen because I know I can either get a used one or a compatible Bamboo Pen for less. But I still have the Go and the keyboard, and will keep on using them alongside my iPad Pro and Lenovo Yoga 720 work machine for comparison over the coming weeks.

I will be posting on the Go a bit going forward- impressions, use cases, and comparisons, mostly. I know this isn’t a Windows site, but the Go is an interesting competitor for the iPad and iPad Pro. When you think about how the Chromebook is aimed more at education, basic web use, and those who are completely immersed in the Google ecosystem, how Amazon’s tablets are geared toward low-cost, basic use and their ecosystem, and how Android tablets have just flat-out fizzed and largely disappeared, the Go is one of the few real direct competitors to the iPad left. I think it makes sense to document how it compares to Apple’s tablets.

If you have any questions about the Surface Go, or any observations of your own, let me know here, on Twitter, or on our new Instagram account. I would love to hear them, either way.

James Rogers

I am a Christian husband and father of 3 living in the Southeastern US. I have worked as a programmer and project manager in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry for over 19 years, so I am hands on with technology almost every day. However, my passion in technology is for mobile devices, specifically Apple's iOS and iPadOS hardware and software. My favorite is still the iPad.

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