Microsoft packed a lot into the Surface Go 2 but it puts a premium on performance

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu May 14, 2020

The Surface Go 2, a pint-sized Windows 10 device, is the most affordable Surface, starting at $399.99. But the phrase "you get what you pay for" is always evident with computers — and unfortunately, the Surface Go 2 does not escape that.

That base model is powered by an Intel Pentium Processor with just 4GB of RAM. Honestly, that's likely fine for very rudimentary tasks and a workload that's heavy on web browsing — but nothing much heavier than that. The fix? Well, you can spend a bit to upgrade to a more powerful processor and additional RAM, but that means costs quickly escalating.

We've been testing the Surface Go 2 with an 8th-Gen Core m3 processor, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage and LTE support. The cost for this model: $729.99. Add another $129.99 for the Type Cover, which is pretty much a necessity. (The good news for anyone upgrading from the original Go is that the Type Cover for the previous generation will also fit here.)

Here's what you need to know about the Surface Go 2, gleaned from a week of testing it out.

It looks like a Surface

Microsoft has kept a similar design language for the Surface since its original launch in 2012. You still get healthy bezels around the display and an aluminum build. It feels substantial, but also isn't one that's going to weigh you down. By default, it's a tablet, but Windows isn't all that good as just a touch interface. That's why it's almost a necessity to attach a Type Cover (aka trackpad and keyboard cover) to it. Then you flip back the built-in kickstand, adjust it to your liking, and you have a traditional laptop setup ready to go.

That's all the same on the Surface G o2, just in a smaller form factor. Our LTE-capable Go2 weighs in at just 1.22 pounds (553 grams), which doesn't include the Type Cover. But either way, it's pretty portable and easy to hold with one hand. It certainly won't cause pain with extended use. The Go 2 is even more petite, at just 9.65 by 6.9 by 0.33 inches. It's on par with an 11-inch iPad Pro or Fire HD 10, but smaller than a Surface Pro 6, MacBook Air or 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Microsoft is offering it in just one color, silver. You can spice up the looks with a colorful Type Cover.

The ports are nearly identical to the original Go, with the addition of a USB Type C. This is welcome in every sense of the word. You can charge via USB Type C, although Microsoft still ships this device with its proprietary Surface connector. Data accessories and dongles work here as well. The Go 2 also has a headphone jack and SD card reader built in on the right side. Your SIM card slot is on the left side, and the top, when held horizontally, houses the power button and volume rocker.

On the rear, the kickstand is easy to engage and move in whatever direction you want. It feels pretty sturdy as well. The bottom of the device has the connectors and slots for the Type Cover to attach. It's an easy enough setup.

You'll want to skip Windows 10S

We can't really recommend the base $399.99 Go 2 unless you're using it for mostly web-based tasks. The basic Pentium processor will likely buckle with any creative tasks and with a few apps open. It's also paired with just 4GB of RAM, and there really isn't much of a runway for a complex workload.

Upgrading to an Intel Core M3 chip means you can throw more at it. It's still not the ideal option, but it packs a solid amount of power. In over a week with the Go 2, we've done some light gaming like Minecraft and Tower 3D Pro, run some Lightroom and Photoshop exports, taken several video calls, read thousands of emails, done a ton of writing and streamed video. The Core M3 handled all of this pretty well, but we can't say the same for how the Pentium processor would have performed.

As we do with any Underscored review, we ran the Surface Go 2 through a series of benchmarks. With GeekBench, the Go 2 scored 832 on single-core and 1590 on multi-core. On the GeekBench 5 Compute test, it got a 4379 OpenCL score. As expected, it's lower than the Galaxy Book Flex, which is running a more advanced Core i7 processor and scored a 1,353 and 4,395 respectively. When head to head against the $1,799 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Go 2 scored a bit lower than the MacBook's 10th-Gen Core i5, which scored 1,121 on single-core and 4,172 on multi-core.

Out of the box, the Surface Go 2 will be running Windows 10S, and to some degree, this a more closed-door approach to Windows. Essentially, you can only get apps from the Windows Store, so no apps from websites, installers or third parties. It's a little frustrating and doesn't really give you the full Windows experience, as you can't install everything you want. On the flip side, it does run Windows quite efficiently with performance boosts and a faster startup.

We opted for full Windows 10. It's easy enough to make the switch, and it happens pretty fast. But be warned: You can't go back to S mode after you make the switch. We think it makes sense to switch, and we didn't notice any slowdowns on performance. The Go 2 still starts up pretty fast and is zippy enough for our tasks. Plus, it gives you an experience akin to normal Windows.

There's also a larger battery inside the Surface Go 2, and while Microsoft isn't sharing the exact size, it is physically larger. Microsoft estimates you can get up to 10 hours of battery life. As with any device we're reviewing, we ran the Go2 through our Underscored battery test. We shut off all connectivity, essentially turning on Airplane mode, and set brightness to 50%. We then play a video on a loop in VLC until the device dies.

The Surface Go 2 lasted eight hours and five minutes, nearly two hours shy of Microsoft's promise. It's in line with our qualitative use, in which we were getting around seven hours of use before needing to plug it back in. This is pretty decent, as it's a portable device, and one that you'll probably want to carry with you, once we all start going out in the world again. Our testing days were filled with video calls, writing, streaming, light gaming, emails and tons of web browsing.

A larger 10.5-inch display

Along with shrinking the bezels, Microsoft managed to bump up the display from a 10-inch to a 10.5-inch while keeping the same overall size of the Go 2. It's pretty impressive and, as expected, this is a 10.5-inch PixelSense Display set in a 3:2 ratio. This ratio lets you fit a bit more on the display, as height (the vertical axis) is extended. You can see more of a webpage, more rows in a spreadsheet and generally more with just one window.

We're also big fans of the PixelSense technology, which features a 1920 x 1080 resolution. That comes to 220 pixels per inch, and the display is pretty impressive. You can't make out individual pixels, and we didn't experience any drastically incorrect color reproductions. We think the Retina display on the 11-inch iPad Pro delivers a better experience, but the Go 2 is no slouch. There's a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 on the display for durability, and it supports 10-point multi-touch. You can also use the Surface Pen, which is sold separately.

Around the display (at the top when it's horizontally or on the right side when it's held vertically) is the front-facing 5-megapixel camera. This lets you log in with facial recognition, using Windows Hello, and it's also in the perfect spot for video calls. We tried Skype, Zoom, WebEx and even GoToMeeting calls on the Go 2 and the quality was good. It was certainly better than the 720p in most Mac laptops. Microsoft also includes dual studio microphones on the Go 2, which aim to block out background noise and deliver your voice clearly. In noisy situations or with background music, it did a good job of lowering noise, but didn't fully remove it.

While not ideal, the Type Cover is a must

Given the smaller size of the Surface Go 2, the Type Cover is not nearly as roomy or expansive as the equivalent for the Pro family. The Type Cover also doesn't come bundled with the cost of the Go 2.

The keys are pretty cramped together, and it doesn't feel nearly as spacious as the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro. The keys are still easy to find, but there's basically no space between the rows or separate keys. You might feel the corner of another key when typing, or hit it by accident.

Microsoft has managed to pack in a full row of function keys along the top, which is greatly appreciated. This gives you easy access to ESC, key backlighting, mute, volume down, volume up, play or pause, brightness, print, home, end, page up, page down and delete. Be warned that these keys are tiny and only about one-quarter the size of the already smaller keys on the Go 2.

Typing as a whole is pretty good on the Type Cover, although it shakes and moves a bit, as the cover itself isn't all that rigid. The keys feel pretty good and punchy with a decent amount of travel. The backlighting can get pretty bright here. All in all, we greatly prefer the experience of typing on the Type Cover to the digital keyboard that Windows 10 offers.

Bottom Line

There's a lot to like about the Surface Go 2, but it really comes down to the model you choose. The $399.99 base model is a good inexpensive option if you're just doing web-based tasks. Anything more and you'll want to opt for the Intel Core m3, which means spending at least $629.

Even at that higher price point, this is one of the best mini Windows PCs, tablets and 2-in-1s on the market. It feels every bit like a Surface, packs in a solid display, offers good performance and has decent battery life. We're also really happy that the USB Type C port made its way to the Go 2.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.