Microsoft’s Beautiful But Flawed Computer

Updated Nov 26 with Black Friday deals; Article originally posted Nov 24.

 Microsoft launched the Surface Laptop Go in October this year, following on from the success of the Surface Laptop over three iterations. The use of the ‘Go’ designation signified a smaller and cheaper Surface device, much like the titular Surface Go flowed from the Surface Pro.

There’s no doubt that the initial impression of the Surface Laptop Go is a good one. Opening the box on my review unit supplied by Microsoft reveals a burst of aluminium, a mirrored Microsoft logo, and a cool edged small laptop. But an absolute winner needs more than looks.

Nov 26 update: If you are looking to purchase the top-specced Microsoft Surface Laptop Go reviewed her, Walmart has the model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage with a $100 discount in its Black Friday sales. Here’s your link to the Walmart Deal.

Nov 27 update: If you’d rather go direct to Microsoft, it is also offering $100 off the list price of the top consumer version of the Surface Laptop Go (the aforementioned 8GB/256GB model). Here’s your link to the Microsoft Store.

The powerful first impression continues as you open the laptop. The two-tone keyboard and the casing catches the eye while the bezels around the screen are subtle, it feels solid but not too heavy in the hand, and the slight angle to the base of the machine make it easy to pick up and carry around.

The problem is after that great opening experience, the Surface Laptop Go’s first impression starts to slide away in small but perceptible amounts. In isolation each feels like a reasonably compromise, but in the round they all add up to something that needs carful consideration.

Opening the Laptop Go from a standing start is ungainly. Rather than a small cutout on the base of the laptop, the chassis around the screen has a small overhang, barely a milimeter, that you can catch with your finger or thumb to aid opening. It contributes to the clean lines and look of the laptop, but it’s not winning me over from a practical point of view. 

The resolution on the screen is a relatively low 1536×1024 pixels. A 4K screen doesn’t make a huge amount of sense on a 12.4 inch display, especially given the useful 3:2 ratio of the screen, as opposed to the more media-friendly 16:9, but the screen used here feels a little bit cramped. 

It does come with a touchscreen, but it’s important to note that it does not work with Microsoft’s Surface Pen. Given the amount of marketing effort to ensure the Surface Pen is associated with new Surface devices, this is an inexplicable miss in terms of branding. The suspicion must be that the technology to allow the accuracy of the Surface Pen has been removed to keep the build cost down.

My biggest issue has to be the keyboard. Using the laptop in any sort of low light environment leads to the white etching of the keys disappearing into the gloom of the grey keys in a darkened environment. That’s great you can touch type absolutely everything; but the second you need to look down, check for punctuation, or lose your place, and you’re back to ‘take your best guess’.

Compare the Surface Laptop Go’s keyboard to my Apple wireless keyboard which has seen sterling service over the years. Even with this picture the lower contrast of the Surface is visible. Now picture this in a low light environment (such as a lecture hall) with eyes that don’t have AI routines to process low light images.

This is why backlit keyboards are really good ideas.

The smaller function keys are almost impossible to make out unless you tilt the screen over them to cast some light on them – and the irony of using the screen light to turn down the screen brightness is not lost on me. The only lit key is the one around the combined power button and fingerprint sensor.

I’m trying to decide if the lack of backlit is a dealbreaker for everyone, or just for me. Given the list price is $899 in the US for the top end model, it’s an inexplicable miss.

One of the selling points of the Surface Laptop Go is the price point, offering the Surface design and solid performance in what Microsoft calls an everyday laptop. The entry level model at $549 certainly covers the design sensibilities, but the specs are… anemic. 

If the Surface Laptop Go is a premium product, then why is the lowest spec option just 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage using eMMC? There isn’t even a decent speed SSD in the base model I would love to see just how the entry-level model performs with a regular load-out of Windows 10 and the apps that everyone installs out of the box.

My review unit, provided by Microsoft, was the top-end consumer model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage. All the models ship with Intel’s Core i5-1035G1 processor. The middle model with 8 GB RAM and 128 GB of storage comes in at $699, while my review model comes in at $799.

(There is a model with 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, but this is limited to Microsoft’s business partners).

While the Surface Laptop Go starts at $549, the lower model is a tough sell with the limited specs. Those specs would leave you pretty much inside the web browser working on the cloud, at which point you might be better looking at a well-specced Chromebook. For me the Laptop Go range really starts at that $699 price point, and that puts it into competition with the likes of the Acer Aspire 6, Asus VivoBook 15, and 

Any laptop has compromises, and the Surface Laptop Go has to make a significant number to get to this price point. It looks and feels like a Surface design; the choice to go with a plastic base on the machine works for me, especially as the keyboard chassis and top lid remain aluminium, helping that design look.

The keyboard feels good, and I can feel a good amount of travel in the keys… but I still can’t get over the lack of backlit keys.

Performance wise the Laptop Go is good enough for everyday browsing and document work. It does have an i5 chip but the Ice Lake chipset has already been superseded, and with Intel’s UHD graphics you can’t really ask for any sort of advanced graphical power – but that’s not what the Surface Laptop Go was intended for. 

The Surface Laptop Go has one natural competitor… Apple’s 12-inch MacBook. It’s a tough comparison because Apple cancelled that laptop in 2019, but the same discussion points around the MacBook are here for the Laptop Go. It packs in the style, it offers the same experience as the more expensive machines in the portfolio, it’s a touch underpowered, and it feels more expensive than it should be.

The difference is that the MacBook did not have any other competition – thanks to macOS the only hardware in town was Apple’s hardware. The Surface Laptop Go does not have that luxury. There are cheaper machines with the same specs, and there are similarly priced machines with higher specs. In my opinion Microsoft has missed the landing point in the specs/price department. Where Microsoft does win out is the design and the look of the Laptop Go.

If you’re looking to lean heavily into the design of a small and portable laptop, then Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go is for you.

Now read more about the latest award for the Surface family…

Disclaimer: Microsoft provided a Surface Laptop Go for review purposes. Black Friday deals in this article do not use affiliate links.

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