When the Surface range began life as a single 2-in-1 back in 2012, few could have imagined just how quickly Microsoft’s hardware would expand. There are now a staggering nine product lines, with four brand new devices launching in the last three years alone.
The latest of these is the Surface Laptop Go, a traditional clamshell device pitched as an affordable alternative to the flagship Surface Laptop 3. Microsoft is attempting to repeat the success it’s enjoyed with the Surface Go line, which began life in 2018 as a cheaper Surface Pro and is now in its second generation.
With demand for laptops extremely high in 2020, it would appear to be a great time to launch a budget device. But is the money you save over the regular Surface Laptop enough to justify the inevitable trade-offs? Read on to find out.
Let’s start with arguably the most important part of any laptop – the display. The Laptop Go comes packing a 12.4in LCD panel at a resolution of 1536×1024. It’s a bit smaller than you’ll be used to on a laptop, and falls just short of Full HD, but once you start using the device these potential drawbacks soon fade into the background.
Colours are rich and vibrant, offering an excellent level of detail. It also reached a maximum brightness of 310 nits in testing, making working outside a real possibility. You might struggle in direct sunlight, though.
Any loss of resolution over the 2256×1054 Surface Laptop 3 is barely noticeable here, although the smaller display can feel a bit restrictive at times. My workflow often involves having multiple windows open at once, I found myself only able to comfortably one at a time. I’d therefore feel much more comfortable using it as a personal device instead of one I relied on to get work done, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
The 3:2 aspect ratio helps in that regard, giving a boxier look than traditional 16:9 displays and allowing more content to be displayed vertically. It’s also worth drawing attention to the impressively slim bezels, which give the device a more modern look and feel than even the Surface Laptop 3.
Where you do lose out over the flagship device is the choice of screen sizes, so you’ll have to be content with a 12.4in display unless you want to pay more. Touch support is still here, but without being a convertible I found its usefulness to be relatively limited.
Design and build
As I alluded to above, the Laptop Go has a premium design which belies its relative affordability. The aluminium and polycarbonate blend is nothing out of the ordinary for modern laptops, but it looks extremely sleek and modern. The choice of materials also allows the device to remain impressively light – at just 1.1kg it’s significantly less weighty than both Surface Laptop 3 models.
Aside from the display, the single most impressive thing about this laptop is its keyboard. Microsoft has managed to fit a full-size keyboard into a device that’s under 11 inches wide, and the Laptop Go benefits hugely as a result.
Keys are tactile and responsive, offering an impressive amount of travel considering the slimline body. It’s not quite as good as the Surface Book 3, but you have to consider that this device costs less than half the price in many cases.
However, the big thing you lose out on when compared to similarly priced rivals is backlit keys. That was little more than a minor inconvenience for me but might be an issue if you regularly work in low light. The one key that does light up is the power button, which doubles as a fingerprint scanner for password-free login. That’s a feature you won’t find on the Book 3.
The other biometric option is face unlock via the 0.9Mp webcam, which is also capable of outputting 720p video for the all-important video calls. I found it to be slightly clearer than your typical webcam, but certainly nothing to write home about.
This laptop has clearly been designed with the work from home crew in mind, though. Dual far-field studio mics allow for clear, crisp calling, while Dolby Audio speakers ensure audio output is just as impressive. The latter is slightly lacking in bass, but that’s to be expected in this sort of form factor.
In order to make room for that keyboard, the touchpad is relatively small and a bit fiddly. I was able to move through Windows just fine, but everything seemed to take a bit longer than usual. There’s also very little room to rest your palms while typing, which can make everything feel a bit cramped. One of those problems can be solved by switching to the Surface Mobile Mouse, which connects seamlessly and works extremely well if you’re on a flat surface.
The range of ports is in line with most other Surface PCs. There’s one USB-C, one USB-A, a 3.5mm headphone jack and Surface Connect for charging. Microsoft continues to persist with its proprietary charging solution, which remains fiddly and has the tendency to be dislodged relatively easily. Should the company ever switch to USB-C, we’d expect its flagship hardware to be among the first to adopt it.
The Surface Laptop Go is marketed as a more fun, accessible alternative to the Laptop 3, and that’s reflected in the colour options available. The Platinum model I tested is joined by Ice Blue and Sandstone variants.
Hardware and performance
Before getting into its performance, it’s worth detailing the variation in specs and pricing between Surface Laptop Go models.
All come with 10th-gen Intel Core i5 processors and UHD graphics, but the entry-level £549 model only pairs that with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage. With system files often taking up around 20GB, that gives you very little free space to play with. Stepping up to £699 gets you 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, while doubling the storage on the model I tested costs £899.
Therefore, I can only comment on how well the top-spec Surface Laptop Go performs, and it’s highly unlikely to be the same across all configurations. My daily workflow involves lots of Chrome tabs, Slack and occasional photo editing, and the Laptop Go was able to handle all that with ease. There were occasional hesitations when quickly switching between apps, but nothing that significantly affected my productivity.
The solid performance doesn’t quite stretch to graphic-intensive tasks like gaming or video editing, but that’s probably not a priority if you’re considering this laptop.
As you can see from the below benchmarks, the Laptop Go is roughly in keeping with many similarly priced devices. It looks to be a huge step up from the Surface Go 2 on paper, but it’s worth remembering that I was only able to test the Intel Pentium Gold version of that device.
However, one thing I found particularly frustrating was the extremely loud fan noise. This kicks in even when performing the most basic tasks and sounds like a plane is taking off when starting a big download. With many laptops now sporting fanless designs, surely Microsoft could have introduced a more efficient cooling system. The device only ever gets slightly warm to the touch, but at what cost?
There’s no need to talk in detail about the pros and cons of Windows 10 in a separate section, but it’s worth noting the Laptop 3 ships running the operating system in S mode. This means you can’t download software outside of the Microsoft Store, but you can easily switch to Windows 10 Home in Settings. Unless you’re planning on giving the device to students or young children, it’s something I’d highly recommend doing straight away.
Battery life is one area where the Laptop Go struggles slightly. Microsoft doesn’t quote a specific capacity but claims the device can provide ‘all-day battery life’ with up to 13 hours of typical usage.
With the brightness set to 120 nits (63%), I recorded 10 hours and 47 minutes of 720p video playback. That’s around average among the laptops I tested, although it’s highly unlikely you’ll be staying on one task for the whole day.
In my typical workday, which involves lots of internet browsing, email, word documents and Slack, I struggled to make through a full 7 hours without needing a top up. However, I had the device set to ‘better performance’, so you might be able to eke out a bit extra if you prioritise battery life.
Either way, if you want to use the Surface Laptop Go as your everyday machine, make sure you don’t stray too far from a source of power. Speaking of power, using the included 39W adapter I was able to get 37% of battery in 30 minutes. That means you’re looking at around 2 hours 40 minutes for a full charge.
Price and value for money
As I detailed in the Hardware and Performance section, there’s a lot to consider when buying the Surface Laptop Go. Unusually, you get i5 processors and UHD graphics on all configurations, with the variation coming in RAM and storage.
The £549/US$549 figure that’s advertised only gets you 4GB RAM and 64GB of slower eMMC storage, so you’ll need to pay £699/US$699 to double the RAM and get a 128GB SSD instead. The high-end 8GB/256GB model I tested will set you back £899/US$899.
All configurations are available from the Microsoft Store, although the top-spec is currently discounted to £764 at Amazon.
It’s worth noting that the cheapest Surface Laptop 3 configuration is usually just £100 more at £999. That and several other entries in our best laptop chart provide fierce competition which make the Laptop Go a tough sell.
Unless you’re happy with the paltry RAM and storage offerings on the entry-level model, you’ll probably find better value for money elsewhere.
Considering the success of the Surface Go line, it was perhaps inevitable that Microsoft would release a cheaper clamshell device at some point. The Surface Laptop Go is exactly that, although it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The big factor is price, with the poor entry-level specs meaning you’ll need to pay at least £699 for a model that’s worth buying. Any more than 128GB of storage will set you back £899, putting it well out of budget laptop territory. What’s more, the wealth of great options at this price point means the Laptop Go loses its big selling point of affordability.
Battery life is also a concern, with the device struggling to make it through a full working day during testing.
Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to like about the Surface Laptop Go. Performance on the top-spec model I tested is solid, while including a great keyboard and display in such a slimline body is really impressive. The Dolby Audio speakers and dual studio mics also make for a great audio experience.
There are plenty of laptop that also excel in these areas though, many of which are more affordable. There’s definitely a market for a device like the Surface Laptop Go, but the strength of the competition makes this one hard to recommend.
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go: Specs
12.4in 1536×1024 display
Intel Core i5 processor
Intel UHD Graphics
64/128/256GB storage (eMMC/SSD)
Windows 10 in S mode
0.9Mp front-facing camera with Windows Hello
Up to 13 hours battery life (quoted)