Microsoft released the diminutive Surface Go to comparatively little fanfare. Something the size of a tablet that’s not really a tablet… but sometimes can be a tablet? For most people, it’s a weird and tiny oddball of a device.
But for me, it seemed perfect. When I wrote about it originally, I had the suspicion it was going to be the best option for me, a digital nomad that spends most of the year travelling.
In February I finally got one, and after several weeks in the Caribbean, Japan, and Taiwan, I’m ready to call it: this is the best travel computer.
Let me back up and explain what I mean by “travel computer.” Generally speaking, you don’t need the power and capabilities of a desktop, or even high-end laptop, while you’re on the road. If all you need to do is check email, watch Netflix, maybe edit and post a photo or eight, you don’t need a high-powered laptop. If, for some reason, you want to do gaming on the go, or extensive video editing, OK, then you need a powerful laptop. Most people don’t, though.
So what’s far more important in a travel laptop is size, weight, and battery life. For years I traveled with inexpensive ~$300 10-inch laptops from Asus and Acer. The low price for those was also a key selling point.
The Surface Go takes everything I love about those small laptops and improves on nearly every aspect.
Essentially the Surface Go is a high-end budget laptop. It’s small and relatively inexpensive, but has more RAM, processing power, and a better screen than similarly-sized laptops. While those other cheap laptops always felt like a significant compromise for size, the Surface Go feels and acts like a traditional laptop, just smaller.
Let’s start with the screen. While the resolution is “only” 1800×1200, this never feels like a sub-HD resolution. It’s far more detailed than the lower resolution counterparts, but not as tiny-feeling as much of the UI does in the few higher-resolution 10-inch laptops I’ve used. More importantly, it looks great, with excellent color and contrast, which are both infinitely more important than the resolution spec. It doesn’t get quite as bright as some laptop screens, but I haven’t found this to be an issue.
Then there’s the keyboard. This has been an on-and-off issue with small laptops. While small overall, of course, it’s actually quite pleasant to type on. The keys offer great feedback, with short travel.
Under the hood is a 1.6 GHz Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y. This is slow, there’s no doubt about that. It does take a little while to load bigger programs, like Photoshop. It doesn’t feel sluggish though. A crucial component is it actually has an dedicated graphics processor. While you won’t be using this as a gaming device, that does mean it can do more than you might expect. For instance, it can (slowly) load Sea of Thievesand play it… at 540p resolution at around 25fps. Still, for an inexpensive laptop that’s pretty impressive.
The only place where the Surface Go isn’t as good as those lower-end “craptops” is in battery life. I was able to get 10 hours or more out of my old laptops. This one is more like 6, which is still pretty solid. If you put it in airplane mode and turn down the screen brightness, you’ll probably get most of a day out of it, no problem.
Then there’s the most important aspect to any travel laptop, one that the Surface Go has but most laptops don’t: the ability to charge via an external battery. USB battery packs are a vital travel accessory, and because the Go can charge via its USB-C, you can use one to extend its life by several more hours. Perfect.
But then, there’s the price
The real main drawback to the Surface Go is the price. I’ve long been a proponent of cheap laptops for travel, since if they get lost, broken, or stolen, well, you’re only out $300 instead of $1500 for a nice Mac.
The Surface Go pushes the limits to what I’d call “cheap,” at least in the specs that you’d want. While available with 4GB of RAM, at that level you might as well get one of the cheaper competitors. The fact that it’s even available with 8 is one of the main reasons to consider the Go. 8GB of RAM means, for example, you can have a lot of tabs open in Chrome without everything slowing to a crawl.
The 8GB model is available with either a 128 or 256GB solid state hard drive. Personally, I think 128 is fine, since you can cheaply buy a 128GB SD card for backup/storage, and it can live in the Go like the second drive it is.
With 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage you’re looking at $550, which isn’t bad… except you also need to buy the keyboard. That’s a dirty trick, to be honest, and adds around $100. $650 is now beyond what I’d call cheap. However, I bought one and it’s in every way (except battery life and price) better than the cheaper 10-inch laptop I’ve used for years.
Lastly, there’s one other option that I went for that added another $130. Definitely no longer “cheap.” This last option is 4G, i.e. the ability to add a data-only SIM card. This means you can have high-speed data wherever you have cell phone coverage. I’m not sure I would buy it again, since $130 is a lot and it’s really no different than tethering to your phone. However, it is pretty neat to be able to click one button in a menu and have internet access everywhere.
But overall, this is definitely the best travel laptop I’ve ever used, even if it’s a bit expensive.