What is the point of a Surface device? The latest model in Microsoft’s line of Windows PCs, the Surface Laptop Go, forces buyers to confront why they want a Surface machine in the first place.
For that amount, the Surface Laptop Go still provides most of Microsoft’s signatures: an attractive design, high build quality, a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, a display with a taller 3:2 aspect ratio, the proprietary Surface Connect port, and so on.
But with any savings comes compromise, and the Surface Laptop Go’s trade-offs are not insignificant—especially if you want to buy its most affordable configuration.
The result is a device that’s not quite the bargain as Microsoft’s marketing might suggest but can still be a good value for those who prioritize a premium design. We’ve spent most of the past month testing it out, so let’s take a closer look.
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
There are three configurations available for the Surface Laptop Go, with a big divide between the entry-level model and the two higher-priced options. All three models, however, are equipped with Intel’s Core i5-1035G1, a 15W processor with four cores and eight threads based on Intel’s “Ice Lake” microarchitecture. It has a base clock speed of 1GHz, which is low but lessens power consumption, and can boost up to 3.6GHz when required. Alongside the CPU is Intel’s integrated UHD Graphics G1.
This is a 10th-generation Intel processor at a time when the chipmaker is just introducing its 11th-gen platform, and there’s no AMD Ryzen option as we saw with the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. Still, this is a solid CPU for this type of ultra-portable device, one that is generally more capable than the Y-series chips found in the Surface Go 2. Having Ice Lake also means support for Wi-Fi 6 via Intel’s AX201 module. That’s good for the Surface Laptop Go’s long-term viability, as is the notebook’s Bluetooth 5.0 support.
Also the same with each model is the 12.4-inch touch display. Like other Surface laptops, this panel has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes it physically taller than typical 16:9 notebook displays. This makes it easier to fit more of a webpage or Word document on the screen at once, though you lose some width for placing multiple windows side by side.
Of note is the display’s 1536×1024 resolution, which equates to a pixel density of 148 pixels per inch (PPI). That’s a step below the sharpness of the Surface Laptop 3’s 200 PPI display and a smidge behind what you’d get from a common 13.3-inch 1080p panel. The drop-off is not massive in practice, but text isn’t quite as crisp as it could be. On the plus side, this is still a 10-point touch display, which isn’t a given for a mid-priced Windows laptop. Above the display is a 720p webcam with an f/2.0 aperture.
Where things really get hairy is Microsoft’s storage and memory options. The base configuration only offers 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage, which is a tough sell even at $550. In an October briefing, a Microsoft representative said this model is aimed at users who largely work with Web- and cloud-based applications. Reading between the lines, this version makes more sense when viewed as a Chromebook alternative.
We have not tested the entry-level configuration, so we can’t give a definitive judgment on how well it performs in practice. But our experience with similar-powered Windows machines would strongly suggest a middling experience even if we did stick to lightweight tasks. I’d go so far as to say eMMC is indefensible in any PC around this price; there are smartphones with faster UFS storage that can be found for less. That there is only 64GB of space makes it worse.
The upper two configurations are more appealing. For $700, you step up to 8GB of LPDDR4x RAM and a “real” 128GB NVMe solid state drive. For $900, you get a 256GB SSD. This was the model used for our review.
The most appealing bits of the Surface Laptop Go are its look and feel. It is unusually svelte and well-built for a laptop in its price range. Like the Surface Laptop 3, it has an elegant, uncomplicated design, with curved, flowing edges and few visual frills outside of a chrome Microsoft logo on the center of the lid.
The lid and the deck surrounding the keyboard and trackpad are made of an aluminum that’s smooth and cool to the touch. Nothing about it creaks or flexes when pressed. The chassis is almost entirely sealed, save for a thin grille for airflow that is recessed below the display hinge. The lid can easily be opened with one finger, which is great. The bottom cover, meanwhile, is made of a polycarbonate resin that isn’t quite as premium but still has a soft feel that doesn’t come off as cheap.
The whole package certainly fits into the ultraportable category: it measures less than 11 inches wide, just over 0.6 inches thin, and 2.45 pounds in total. This supreme portability would be more of a selling point in a world that wasn’t constrained by a global pandemic, but the Surface Laptop Go won’t be a burden to lug around in any setting.
Microsoft sells the Surface Laptop Go in three finishes: Ice Blue, Platinum, and Sandstone. I’ve enjoyed the gray-blue color of my Ice Blue loaner unit, but each model benefits from having the colors of the keyboard and trackpad lightly contrast with the darker finish of the deck. To my eyes at least, it creates a more thoughtful and coherent design than simply plopping black or gray keys on whatever finish you pick at checkout.
Keyboard, trackpad, and speakers
Likewise, the trackpad yields few complaints from a responsiveness standpoint. It’s generous but not oversized, with accurate and predictable tracking aided by Microsoft’s Windows Precision drivers. It does well with palm rejection, and I had no problems performing multi-finger gestures. It has a large clickable surface, and while it could stand to be a little less stiff to my fingers, it has a generally sturdy feel.
The touchpad and keyboard do suffer from a few obvious cost-cutting measures, though. The former is made of mylar instead of glass, so while it’s still smooth, it presents just a bit more friction to your swipes. The latter’s issue is harder to swallow: it’s not backlit. Plenty of people may be able to look past this given the rest of the keyboard’s quality, but it would be an understandable dealbreaker for night owls or hunt-and-peck types.
Underneath the keyboard are the Surface Laptop Go’s “omnisonic” speakers. They are fine relative to their inherent spatial limitations—they don’t destroy all audio at moderate volumes, but they’re likely to distort at 100-percent volume, and they don’t produce much in the way of bass. You’ll have a better time just using headphones whenever you want to listen to something more complicated than a podcast.
Another price-related sacrifice is the webcam. It renders colors with reasonable accuracy, but it can still get grainy, and as noted above, it’s limited to a 720p resolution. A sharper 1080p cam would be more useful in our brave, new Zoom world.
There’s also no way to sign in to the Surface Laptop Go through Windows Hello facial recognition. There is a quick and consistent fingerprint sensor baked into the power button at the top-right corner of the keyboard—but only in the $700 or $900 configurations. These tradeoffs aren’t egregious given Microsoft’s price targets, but they’re more reason to avoid the entry-level model.
It’s a similar “yes, but” story with the 12.4-inch 3:2 display. As previously mentioned, it’s not quite as sharp as a true 1080p panel. You can see a slight drop-off in sharpness when you scroll through text side by side with a sharper display. But the difference is minute enough in practice that I can’t see most users having serious complaints. That said, it’s more reason to avoid the highest-end model, since sharper panels are a given on most laptops in the $900 range. At $700, though, it’s fine.
More important is that, outside of the resolution, the display’s quality is great. Microsoft color-calibrates its Surface panels to sRGB, and we measured the display as covering around 77 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut. The results are pleasantly accurate and relatively vivid colors, especially when compared to other laptops in this price range.
We measured the display’s maximum brightness, meanwhile, at nearly 330 nits. That’s not the highest we’ve seen, but it’s still above average and usable outdoors. At its lowest brightness, the panel drops all the way down to 2 nits, which is low enough to use at night without seriously disturbing anyone who may be sleeping around you. The display can utilize an auto-brightness sensor as well.
Touch controls on the display are not as quick as they’d be on a panel with a higher refresh rate, but they’re plenty responsive. At this price, merely having a 10-point touch panel at all is a plus. Similarly, the bezels surrounding the display aren’t as razor-thin as those of Dell’s XPS 13, but they’re slim enough to lend the design a higher-end look that belies the Surface Laptop Go’s approachable price.
The Surface Laptop Go’s port selection is identical across its three configurations. Each model comes with both a USB-A port and a USB Type-C port, a pairing that should cover most peripherals you may have accumulated over the years. Beyond that, there’s a 3.5mm audio jack and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port. The latter handles charging and supports certain Microsoft-made docks and accessories. You can also charge through the USB-C port.
As with every other Surface notebook, there’s no Thunderbolt 3 here, but that’s to be expected given the class of device and the laptop’s lower price. In all, the minimal port selection isn’t particularly objectionable, but you may need a USB-C hub to have all your bases covered.
Overall, the aesthetic and build quality of the Surface Laptop Go wouldn’t feel terribly out of place on a $1,000 laptop. It’s a nice piece of hardware, and that’s the best thing it has going for it.
Share this story
Channel Ars Technica