When I set out to review Microsoft’s new $399 Surface Go last week, I expected to encounter a dog. After all, listing for $400 less than the lowest end Surface Pro, the company’s corner-cutting decisions are plain as day: Pentium Gold processor? 64 GB eMMC?
But I resisted the temptation to purchase the significantly upgraded $549 version with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD because I know that many of my readers are artists or students on very tight budgets. Like me, they’d want to know “is the entry level model good enough?”
What I didn’t expect to find was a device that isn’t just “good enough,” it’s actually pretty great. I keep reading the word “fun” used to describe the Go and I can’t think of a better adjective. For students and light home and office users, the Go is good enough to be your only computer. And as a companion or travel device, it’s so good it’s almost a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, I also didn’t expect to find the worst out-of-the-box Surface inking experience since Microsoft adopted N-Trig’s pen technology in the Surface Pro 3. (The company subsequently bought N-Trig and rebranded its tech as Microsoft Pen Protocol).
Many users have reported issues with the $99 Surface Pen since this version was released last year. But I love mine and use it regularly on the Surface Pro 4, Surface Books 1 and 2, 2017 Surface Pro and the Surface Studio. Tilt is now supported on three of those devices and all benefit from greatly reduced jitter and increased performance.
While you can shade with the pen on the Surface Go, that’s the only benefit that the Surface Pen has to offer on that device. Slowly drawn diagonal strokes are so wobbly that the max stabilization some apps offer can’t fully eliminate the wobble. And even worse, nearly every vertical pen stroke in every app I tested produced annoying artifacts —fish hooks—at the end of every stroke.
If you hand write or doodle quickly, you may not notice either issue, but if you want to draw accurately or write neatly, you’ll find yourself battling with the pen 100% of the time.
Is it possible that Microsoft could issue a firmware update to correct this problem? I think so, assuming they’re aware of the issue. Since the Go’s release last week, I think I may be the only reviewer besides the persnickety inkers over at TabletPCReview.com forums who seems to have noticed the problem.
The last generation of Surfaces included pen acceleration “silicon that sits between the display and graphics controllers” that greatly reduced ink latency. That chip was removed from the Surface Go and might explain why the new pen performs so poorly. Hopefully, Microsoft will issue a patch that will dampen the ink response, which today behaves as if the pen nib is either sticking at the end of the stroke or failing to recognize that the tip is no longer in contact with the display.
So does this pen flop disqualify the Go for anyone looking for a 10-inch digital Moleskin? It almost did for me, but fortunately I had other pen options on hand to test.
I’ve used the Go with six different MPP-compatible pens and while none are perfect, I found they all behave slightly differently and most do better than the Surface Pen does.
The dual protocol Wacom Bamboo Ink Smart Stylus is the hands down winner when it comes to mitigating the fish hook issue. Without any smoothing, vertical strokes appear exactly as I drew them in all applications I tested with the Wacom pen. Sadly, if you detest diagonal jitter and don’t use software that can correct for it, the Wacom isn’t the pen for you. It suffers from very bad wobble that I couldn’t eliminate in Sketchable (see image).
The least wobbly pen is the recently released Adonit Ink, but it offers the worst pressure response of any of my MPP pens. It’s impossible to ink thin lines with it.
If you can find an older Surface Pro 4 pen, you’ll get a decent compromise with less obvious fish hooks and lower jitter.
But if inking is the only reason you’re considering the Go, there is one 10.6-inch alternative to consider, the Samsung Galaxy Book, which retails for $629 with keyboard and S-Pen. Only $30 more than a base Surface Go with pen and keyboard, the Galaxy Book is a dream device that sports a seventh generation m3 processor. I own the 12-inch Galaxy Book and love it and with my new-found respect for the advantages of a smaller device, I may have to give the 10.6 a second look.
RETURNING TO THE GO, most early reviewers opted to migrate their devices to Windows 10 Home or Pro immediately. The Surface Go ships in S Mode, which limits users to Windows Store apps. For artists, this means a healthy selection of options including Autodesk Sketchbook, Sketchable, Krita, Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer and the newly released Concepts which is a popular iPad design app.
Along with the full Office suite, several PDF readers, music, film and tv players, I could imagine living securely and comfortably in S Mode. If you buy a Go and don’t need to run Adobe software or Clip Studio, resist the urge to migrate just for the sake of Chrome. The Edge browser has come a long way. Give it a chance before you set it aside.
Battery life is good but more like six hours per charge vs. the advertised nine. There’s only a Type C connector, which I’m sure I’ll come to loath at some point. I hate dongles and I don’t yet have a type C flash drive. The Surface Go also has a microSD slot under the kickstand which will be useful for storing images and documents. After a week of work and installing all the apps I intend to, I’ve got 27.7 GB of storage left.
While living in S, I also tried to use the Go in tablet mode, sans keyboard. The touch keyboard has improved dramatically over the years and touch response on the Go is perfect. Setting up my full screen start menu full of colorful live tiles got me very nostalgic for the pleasures of Windows 8.x on tablets. It’s too bad Microsoft abandoned horizontal navigation and side swipes in Windows 10. But the new tablet mode has improved too and I could also see myself using it more often now that I’ve rediscovered it.
I bought the basic black type cover and I’m really impressed with it, especially compared to the godawful type cover that came with my Surface 3. This new cover is narrow but the backlit keys are well spaced and easy to become accustomed to (as I usually do, I typed this entire review on the device). Key travel is excellent, and typing is not too noisy. The keyboard itself is stiff and doesn’t flex as you type. The touch pad is large and responsive.
While in S Mode, I ran the only benchmark available in Windows Store, TabletMark 2017 from BAPCo. Predictably, the Go scored neared the bottom of the devices I tested, but I was surprised to find it just behind my beloved m3 Surface Pro 4 which has never let me down over several years of nearly daily use.
When I was ready to install Clip Studio Paint and Adobe Photoshop CC 2018, migrating to Windows 10 Home was instantaneous and didn’t even require a reboot.
Despite the benchmark score, I was pleasantly surprised to find no significant slow down in Adobe Photoshop. Tablet Pro’s Justice Frangipane has published a couple of videos showing significant slow downs in Clip Studio, but I produced the 15”x10” 300 dpi drawing above without the slightest hiccup.
Previous eMMC devices I've tested have consistently bogged down on loads and saves, but I haven't yet found that to be a problem here. A Wall Street Journal reviewer likened the slowdowns in the Surface Go to something like "death by a 1000 cuts," but I haven't found that to be the case at all. While the Go isn't a speed demon, that reviewer has obviously never tried to run Windows 10 on an underpowered machine like the Asus Vivotab TF810C!
Is the Surface Go, the only computer or tablet an artist will ever need? Absolutely not. But does it deliver fun-size productivity in a bargain priced package? Yes, absolutely!
It’s unfortunate that serious pen users can’t count on Microsoft’s own pen to deliver a respectable experience, but at least there are alternatives. And that’s the ultimate beauty of the Windows eco-system: countless variations appropriate for nearly every budget.