Surface Go – A near perfect companion device

I bought myself a Surface Go (8Gb/128Gb) a few weeks ago, and I’ve had it long enough now to pass judgment.

As I noted in my ‘hardware I use’ post, I was previously using a Surface Pro 3, until I sadly dropped it on the hard floor after a lecture. To be honest, I’d been considering changing up for a while; the Pro was a few years old but it wasn’t the performance that was the problem. Having a work computer and a home desktop meant that I didn’t need a huge amount of power on the go in between (on the train to work, or when travelling to conferences etc). I really wanted to use the Surface Pro 3 for reading and note-taking, as well as giving lectures, but I was finding it was ever so slightly on the large side for comfortably reading a paper or taking notes in a meeting.

So when the Surface Go was announced, I was intrigued. While the Surface Pro (v3 onwards) has a 12” screen, the Surface Go has a 10” screen, so it’s just a bit smaller. I went for the 8Gb Ram, 128Gb ssd version (the other version has 4Gb of Ram and 64Gb ssd). I managed to pick one up from Amazon for £417, which was the best part of £80 less than it was direct from the Microsoft store. I also grabbed a burgundy type cover from Amazon for £80, rather than the £125 that they cost from Microsoft. Both were brand new, sealed, and in excellent condition (Prices at the links above will vary based on sellers’ availability). I also replaced my old 2016 Pen (4th Gen) with the latest that supports tilt, buying a used one from CEX.

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The new Surface Go on the left, and my old, injured, Surface Pro 3 (with Pro 4 type cover) on the right).  There’s only 2″ difference in screen size, but they do feel and look substantially different sizes.

Windows 10 Home in S-mode

The Surface go comes with Windows 10 Home in S-mode. If you’re not familiar, this is a more restricted version of Windows 10 that only allows installation of apps from the windows store. I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I use the store whenever I can – installation and uninstallation are so much easier, and having programs kept up to date in the background is brilliant. But, there’s always that one program you need that’s not in the store. In my case, that’s a range of softwares: Photoshop, Maya, Matlab, Endnote…. Luckily turning off S-mode is really easy, and took just a couple of minutes. I was then happy to install those core programs and turn S-mode on (well, restrict installations to store-apps only), because frankly it just makes the device a little more secure. Hopefully one day everything I need will be in the Windows store and I won’t need to do this.

I was also a bit worried about it being windows 10 home and not Pro. The main differentiators for me are bitlocker and connecting to the device via remote desktop. The former is encryption on the harddrive, and it’s most vital for portable, mobile devices like this. Thankfully, the Go does utilize bitlocker even though it’s Windows 10 Home. Remote desktop is a nicety, but frankly apps like Team Viewer do a better job anyway, and now it’s been pointed out to me, it would be rare I’d be remoting into the surface Go, rather than the other way around. You’d also need Win 10 pro to use Hyper-V, the virtualization technology, but let’s be honest: you probably don’t want to be running virtual machines on this thing.

Specs and performance

As with all surface devices, the build quality really is excellent. Fit and finish never feel less than premium. I do have a little light bleed on the bottom edge of the device, but it’s not noticeable when the taskbar is there in desktop mode, and it’s not noticeable in portrait when I’m reading PDFs with a white background, either. Mildly annoying, but not a deal breaker (and it may be the reason my device was £80 less than RRP).

Now, the reason that it took a big crack running across my Pro 3’s screen to push me to make the jump is because I’m finding with a lot of devices these days that the performance/portability trade off is an incredibly difficult compromise for me to make. The work I do, namely high performance simulations, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, and rendering, generally takes a lot of power. But every step towards more portability is a step away from performance. The Pro 3 I’d been using had 4gb of Ram, 128 Gb storage, and an i5 processor. The i5 was good, but not super powerful, and while I could just about render small animations in Maya, and process data, it took a while.

The move to a Surface Go was something of a sideways transition – the version I bought has double the Ram, but the processor, a Y-series 4415Y (dual core 1.6GHz) is about on par with the i5 in the Pro 3. It’s no powerhouse, but it can absolutely run photoshop, or Maya, and render out some videos if I need to when travelling. To give you another idea of performance (if you’re into gaming): I’ve been playing Divinity Original Sin 2 with my wife, and I chivalrously let her use the Surface Go while I use my Desktop. But the little machine can handle this modern game on low settings (and medium textures) surprisingly well!

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Here’s the Surface GO running a simple Maya scene, impressively running the IPR Arnold Renderer in the top right view.

But… and this is something I didn’t fully appreciate before I pulled the trigger: the size is fantastic. Those 2” really make a difference (*ahem*). The screen is a 3:2 ratio, 1800×1200 resolution, and looks absolutely fantastic. but unlike the Pro 3, it’s small enough to comfortably hold in one hand, in portrait mode, reading a PDF. It’s not a world of difference in size, but the feeling of getting it out to read a paper on the train is substantially better than pulling out the larger, heavier, surface pro. My Pro was a few generations old, and I know the newer Pros have an improved design, but the more rounded corners of the Go also make it far more comfortable to hold than the Pro 3 ever was.

The size does mean that the type cover is a little smaller than I was used to on the Surface Pro, but the keys are excellent, and the Alcantara covering feels really premium. As a matter of principle, I switched here from writing this post on my desktop to writing it on the Surface Go, and my speed of typing has barely changed, and I’m not seeing many more mistakes. To test this, I went to typingtest.com and tried to touch type with both the Surface Go and my desktop (with a Microsoft Designer Keyboard): On the Surface Go I got 51 words per minute with 7 mistakes, while on the desktop I got 56 words per minute with 1 mistake. My mistakes on the Go were mostly associated with needing to press shift – I just don’t seem to be hitting those keys as easily as on the larger keyboard. Luckily that’s the kind of mistake Word autocorrects! I’m sure with a little more practice and writing on the Go, I’ll improve that significantly.

The SSD is fast, and the extra Ram gives me a little more breathing room than I had on the Pro 3. I wouldn’t want to go down to the 64Gb SSD because after windows is installed, it doesn’t leave a lot of space, and by all accounts the smaller SSD is also slower than that in the 128GB model.

This is the first device I’ve had with the Face-recognizing Windows Hello, and while the reviews I’d read told me it was fast, I didn’t expect it to be this fast. Honestly, it’s an unbelievably convenient way to sign into a device – I find it quicker and more reliable that the fingerprint reader on my Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and it’s obviously far quicker than entering a password or Pin.

Obviously the screen is touch-screen and works with the Surface Pen (and several 3rd party pens now available). Using the new Surface Pen gets you 4096 pressure levels and tilt sensitivity, meaning you can shade with pencils and so forth if you’re artistically inclined. I mainly use the pen for Onenote, where I keep my lab notes (I may write a blog post at some point on using Onenote in a lab environment), and signing/annotating PDFs and the like, and it works pretty perfectly. Another great advantage is that you can use the top button to advance slides in powerpoint. The pen is connected to the Surface via Bluetooth, and has worked across the width of even the largest lecture theatres I’ve been in (I do tend to wander when lecturing). Which brings me onto a use case that readers may be interested in:

Using the Surface Go for lecturing

The performance is absolutely plenty for running PowerPoint slideshows, including embedded 1080p videos, and clicking links to content-heavy websites. On top of that, you can use the pen to ink directly on the screen, annotating images and text, or using blank slides as digital whiteboards. This has been really useful during my lectures.

In order to hook up the Surface Go you’ll sadly need a dongle. The device is pretty limited with ports: there’s a USB-C port, which can be used for peripherals (including display-out) as well as for charging, there’s the awesome magnetic surface-connect charging port, and there’s a 3.5 mm headphone jack. In order to be prepared for every eventualality, I picked up this dongle from Amazon for ~£20 that can handle VGA, DVI, HDMI, and supplies a USB-A port. So I can rock up to a lecture with just my small surface, hook it up to the VGA or HDMI cables, and I’m good to go.

The one downside is Battery Life. The Go isn’t bad, but you’re looking at about 4-5 hours of battery life. I can get a couple of two hour lectures out of it without charging, but I wouldn’t want to go for a third without a charger handy. The USB-C charging is good, meaning I can hook up to a generic cable over lunch, but charging this way is slower than using the surface-connect port, and annoyingly if you’re using the USB-C port for display out, you have to use the surface charger, and that means carrying more crap around, defeating the point of having such a portable device.

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My work bag – Surface Go, Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse (old version), 2017 Surface Pen, USB-C dongle for video out (and USB-A), and a USB-C cable for a little charging top-up occasionally. These are all packed in my nice Waterfield Designs Surface Pro Satchel.

Using the Surface Go for research

Obviously, the Surface Go can handle writing manuscripts and simple figure making as well as any computer (better, I’d argue, given the touch and pen capabilities in the recent versions of Office), but can you do anything more demanding on it? The answer is… yes, but you’ll really want to make sure your workflow is set up so that you don’t need constant high power. To that end, I make a lot of use of two tools: Windows Subsystem for Linux, which is probably the most significant improvement to Windows in a decade, and Team Viewer. The former means I can not only run linux programs locally (usually running test scenarios in my simulation software), but SSH and other such tools can be used natively to connect to supercomputers like ARCHER and run massively parallel simulations. I can visualise and analyse data pretty well on the machine itself, but for heavier tasks I use Team Viewer to remote into my home desktop and set-up large simulations or photogrammetry projects. I know it’s faint praise, but being able to use the Go to easily connect to other computers, whatever their operating system, provides the power that would otherwise be missing from a small portable computer.

Where the Go does excel is in writing and reading papers. My commute involves a 30 minute train ride each way, and being able to pull out the device to read – and annotate – PDFs is great. I can write papers or respond to emails easily; short responses and notes can be accomplished easily with the on-screen keyboard or pen, but for longer pieces of text I just pull the keyboard around and start typing away. Thankfully the keys are much quieter than the terrible butterfly keyboards on the new MacBooks.

Using the Surface Go at Home

While the device gets a lot of attention for work-related stuff, it is a personal device and so gets used about the house for normal-people things. Watching movies, browsing reddit/twitter, and reading RSS feeds. Windows 10 offers some really nice apps in the store for these tasks, that make touch or keyboard comfortable to use. My wife and I tend to watch programs/movies on the Go, and certainly the smaller screen than the Pro 3 isn’t great, but moving from room to room while listening to music is much better (the speakers are surprisingly good for such a small device).

Conclusions

I’d definitely struggle if the Surface Go was my only device. But having a decent computer at work and a desktop at home, I have no problem relying on this handy little fella while I’m out and about. I’ll happily attend a week-long conference with only the Go, using it to take notes during talks, as well as render video and construct PowerPoints if I’m presenting myself (not that I’d be putting a presentation together at the last minute or anything…). As a device to commute with, I don’t think there’s any comparison out there – the portability is phenomenal, but at a moment’s notice I can write a manuscript using EndNote, or work with a 3D scene in Maya, or process RAW images in photoshop. I love being able to give all my lectures from it, use it to read books and papers, write manuscripts and even process data on the go. Full windows in a package this small and capable is really something wonderful. It’s a nearly perfect companion device.

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3 thoughts on “Surface Go – A near perfect companion device

  1. Great review, thanks! Awaiting my LTE Surface Go and was pleased to read about your experience. As a fellow academic, I am curious about which Windows productivity apps you are using for your work. I am coming from Linux and looking for Windows replacements for some of my core tools.

    1. Office is the first thing I install. I do so from the windows store so I only get what I need (Word, PowerPoint, excel, and Access). Onenote comes preinstalled and is invaluable. I put endnote on there for reference management.

      I use Xodo for PDF reading and annotation
      I’m happy using Edge with the uBlock extension (I have edge on all my devices so sync works for me. I gather Chrome can be a bit janky when scrolling)
      For RSS I use nextgen reader, and poki as a pocket client.
      ReddPlanet is an excellent reddit client.
      I usually install photoshop and illustrator, but I’ve been using krita and inkscape (both in the store) and doing just fine.

      I get windows subsystem for Linux installed, then that just leaves specialist programs (maya, ovito etc)

      1. This is terrific, thank you for these. I am still awaiting my Surface Go, but I will try all of these once I get it. I use Zotero as my reference manager, so I need a desktop word processor to get that working. I use LibreOffice, but it’s nice to know that I can get the mobile MS Office apps working (or the full-fledged Office 365). I will definitely use Xodo for PDF because I use that extensively on my Android phone. That’s a great tip there.

        I’m also curious about Android virtualization to see if that could fill in some of the mobile app gaps in the Windows Store. I’ll have to see how that works with a relatively low-power processor like the Pentium. I’ll leave another post about my success or failure there!

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