Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 Is an Ideal Machine for Light Work

While it’s still not for gaming, the Surface Go 2 it can handle coding, Photoshop, and more

Photos: Owen Williams

Take an iPad Pro’s convenient form factor, mix in an actual, full-on computer, and you get the Surface Go 2 — for a few hundred dollars less than the price of Apple’s tablet.

The Surface Go 2 ($399.99 and up, depending on specs) is Microsoft’s latest update to the smallest Surface PC in its lineup. It arrives two years after the original debuted. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Surface Go because the size is both adorable and ultra-lightweight, but it still allows me to do actual work with full desktop apps. The new model ups the performance, allowing for light coding and smoother processing overall compared to the previous model.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been using a review unit of the Surface Go 2 with the Intel m3 processor, eight GB of RAM, 128 GB of storage, and most importantly, an LTE modem. Not only did it surprise me how much of a difference the new processor option made to my day-to-day use, but it’s also become my favorite couch computer, dethroning the iPad Pro entirely.

I had a few problems with the last generation of Surface Go, which I purchased myself. It was fairly easy to hit the performance roof by doing a moderately complex task, and it was simply slow to respond sometimes. I appreciated the ability to run Photoshop or my code environment on it, but had learned that it required patience to actually use them. And vain though it may be, I was bothered by the thick screen bezels relative to the streamlined, rounded frame of the iPad Pro’s screen.

With the Surface Go 2’s new m3 processor option and performance improvements, those performance frustrations have disappeared; it’s much more capable of navigating a standard workday and doesn’t choke up when you’re trying to fire up a heavier app like Photoshop or do some quick light coding with VS Code. Because it’s more responsive across the board, I can trust it to actually get the job done, while knowing it’s not designed for full-on gaming.

That translates to a much better experience in the real world, notably with the face unlock features being much faster when logging in or accessing my 1Password vault, and it also starts up much faster, allowing you to instantly resume your tasks more reliably.

The onboard LTE modem, which is optional, will also be a boon when we return to the Normal Times. I’ve resolved to always spring for the LTE option if it’s available in a laptop, popping in a SIM-card that data-shares with my phone because it’s a huge improvement to my workflow: Being able to open up your computer and not fumble around with a phone’s hotspot is magical.

While the pandemic and subsequent lockdown here in Toronto means I wasn’t able to test it in a coffee shop (or anywhere outside of my home), the magic was demonstrated when we had a sudden hours-long power outage this week. The lights went out and our Wi-Fi went down when I was in the middle of a call, but the Surface Go 2 just flipped over to LTE without missing a beat. I could keep working without worrying about it, and I didn’t need to drain my phone’s battery tethering the entire time.

This versatility combined with the petite size and weight is what I love about the Surface Go. I cycle everywhere and hate carrying big, heavy laptops around. Generally, I carry around an iPad Pro because it’s got an LTE modem and is great for quick work on the go, but I don’t feel like I can do everything on it if something goes wrong with my website or I need to jump into a design tool.

Knowing I can throw a Surface Go in my backpack and feel confident I can get any work done, be it a quick coding edit to my site, or editing photos for a blog post, is worth the investment. While it’s nice to run full desktop apps, the real advantage is being able to run a real web browser, like Google Chrome, which doesn’t come with the quirks and limitations of mobile Safari.

On that point, it’s worth noting that Microsoft ships the Surface Go 2 with the new Chromium-based Edge browser out of the box. Not only is the new Microsoft Edge actually good, but it’s also the first time I’ve not used the built-in browser to search “download Google Chrome” before deleting it forever. I’m using Edge full-time, now.

Still, the Surface Go 2 isn’t perfect. Windows’ interface design is a disappointment. The computer is great in desktop mode with a keyboard attached, but the tablet mode is quirky, half-baked, and not great at anything in particular, as Microsoft continues to try and balance supporting both touch and a mouse in the same OS.

That’s made more frustrating knowing that Windows 10X, which features a new touch-friendly interface design, will release some time this year, and would probably be perfect for a device as small as the Surface Go. Despite the company’s announcement that it’s working on bringing that new OS to single-screen devices like Surface Go 2, it hasn’t committed to a date.

Given that it competes with similarly priced Chromebooks, that makes the Surface Go 2 a tricky sell because they run an operating system that’s designed for limited hardware like this. But, as a lover of tiny computers, I can see the value in being able to do more than run a Chrome browser and a few Android apps — I’m just not sure the average person feels the same way.

Despite that, the updates to the Surface Go 2 make it much easier to recommend this time around, and I doubt it’ll bother most people anyway. Because it’s an actual computer despite the size, I’m comfortable going on vacation without any other devices, which isn’t true when I travel with my iPad Pro. (Not that anyone’s going on a vacation any time soon, of course.)

With a more capable processor and a much better display, it’s a computer that would fit most people’s work lives pretty well. In fact, it’s the computer I wish had existed when I was in university.

If you’re aware of those quirks and are looking for something ultra-small that can get everything done on the go beyond the walled garden of iPadOS, the Surface Go 2 is a great computer that sets the bar. Being able to throw it in your bag and forget about it is worth the price alone — along with the peace of mind that you’ll actually be able to get all of your work done, not just some of it.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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