Surface Laptop Go: Microsoft delivers a decent budget PC
PCWorld|November 2020
Microsoft promised an affordable Surface, and the Surface Laptop Go delivers. Even compromises like its sub-1080p screen surprisingly work.
MARK HACHMAN

The Surface Laptop Go is Microsoft’s second try at an affordable Surface, and it hits the mark better than the original Surface Go tablet did (go.pcworld.com/golp). It still offers compromises, with strategic cuts to keep the price competitive with a Chromebook. Still, they’re mostly smart decisions—even a sub-1080p display and Windows 10 in S Mode didn’t turn us off. Although the Surface Laptop Go lacks the easy expansion of some competing laptops, it’s otherwise a solid budget offering.

Still, be picky in what you consider buying. We wouldn’t recommend the Surface Laptop Go’s minimum $549 configuration, but the middle $699 option (which we didn’t test) seems like the best bang for the buck. At $899, the 12.5-inch Surface Laptop Go review unit we tested bobs up to the very top of the “budget” category, though it shows off this new product at its best.

SPECS AND FEATURES

Display: 12.45-inch (1536x1024, 148 ppi, 330 nits rated) multitouch PixelSense display (Microsoft says there is no pen support.)

Processor: Core i5-1035G1

Graphics: UHD Graphics

Memory: 4GB-8GB LPDDR4x (8GB as tested)

Storage: 64GB eMMC, 128GB-256GB SSD (256GB SSD as tested)

Ports: 1 USB-C, 1 USB-A, Surface Connect, 3.5mm audio jack

Camera: 720p f2.0 (user-facing)

Battery: 39.7Wh (design), 41Wh (full charge)

Wireless: WiFi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.0

Operating system: Windows 10 Home in S Mode

Dimensions (inches): 10.95 x 8.10 x 0.62 inches

Weight: 2.45 pounds

Chassis: Aluminum, with plastic resin

Colors: Ice Blue, Sandstone, Platinum

Price: Beginning at $549 (Microsoft), $899 as tested (Amazon)

PRICES AND CONFIGURATIONS

All Surface Laptop Go models began selling October 13. Microsoft is offering overlapping configurations of the Surface Laptop Go for consumers, education, and business. The Business models upgrade the OS to Windows 10 Pro and offer (in supported markets) a $100 warranty service that includes expedited device replacement. Finally, Microsoft’s education channel offers an additional model not shown here.

Core i5/4GB RAM/64GB SSD: $549 Consumer/Education (Platinum only)

Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB SSD: $699 Consumer/Education, $799 Business

Core i5/8GB RAM/256GB SSD: $899 Consumer/Education, $999 Business

Core i5/16GB RAM/256GB SSD: $1,099 Education, $1,199 Business

While that $549 starting price is appealing, the basic Core i5/4GB RAM/64GB configuration should probably be passed over in favor of more powerful options. The $699 Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB SSD (which we haven’t tested) appears to offer the most value of all the Surface Laptop Go configuration, especially when paired with Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage.

It’s a better deal than our review unit, given the $200(!) premium Microsoft charges for an additional 128GB worth of storage. Unlike the Surface Pro X or Surface Laptop 3, the SSD does not appear to be user-accessible, leaving upgrades out of the picture.

SOLID BUILD QUALITY

Our Surface Laptop Go review unit was the new Ice Blue configuration, which looks a lot less blue than Microsoft’s imagery would suggest. In fact, the chassis looks almost like the Sandstone color under the right light, but with a deeper blue paint coating the keyboard. The lid is made of anodized aluminum, but the keyboard deck and base are made of plastic resin, with 40 percent glass fiber and 30 percent post-consumer resin. It’s all designed to reduce weight while still maintaining rigidity.

If it matters, Microsoft is using a different paint on top of the plastic resin of the keyboard, which gives it a different feel. (More on that in a bit.) The Laptop Go reclines to about the same angle as the other Surface Laptops, or a comfortable 50 degrees off of the horizontal. At 2.45 pounds, it feels light and comfortable in the hand.

The Surface Laptop Go isn’t afraid to spin up its fan, which is noticeable though not annoying, even in a quiet room. Other Surface Laptops pulled air in and then pushed it out through a hidden exhaust port in the hinge. Microsoft’s tweaked that, so that both the intake and the exhaust are hidden inside the hinge. I favor a brutal approach—who cares what the bottom of a laptop looks like?—but perhaps Microsoft was worried about crumbs or dust. The Laptop Go doesn’t get hot, but it does stay warm for long periods.

One flaw Microsoft may want to take a look at: Microsoft uses a new, 39W charger for the Surface Laptop Go, which charges the laptop via the Surface Connector, as before. On my review unit, the connection was never loose, and there didn’t seem to be any schmutz inside the Surface Connector slot. However, the charger sometimes, even frequently, wouldn’t charge unless carefully inserted. (Fortunately, there’s a charging LED on the connector itself to let you know something’s up.)

I reported the problem to Microsoft, then set the charger aside and used an older Surface charger instead once our benchmark testing completed. You can also charge the Surface Laptop Go directly through the USB-C port, or via a hub.

Two specific features distinguish the Surface Laptop Go from other Microsoft Surfaces, and from other laptops: the new fingerprint reader, and the Surface Laptop Go’s lower-res display. Let’s look at each.

MEET THE NEW FINGERPRINT READER

Microsoft helped usher in biometric identification with Windows Hello, and specifically its outstanding depth camera, which can recognize you and unlock your PC almost immediately. Some rival laptops have chosen Hello-certified fingerprint readers instead, either broad circular ones hidden under the power button (like the Huawei Matebook X Pro [go.pcworld.com/hmxp]) or “strip” readers placed elsewhere on the device.

The Surface Laptop Go combines the two, with the fingerprint reader hidden within the rectangular power button. When the laptop is locked, a somewhat gaudy LED ring outlines the power button, illuminating the landing pad. The reader worked very well, about as quick and accurate as a newly calibrated depth camera. It even asked me to move my finger when it wasn’t aligned correctly. The fingerprint reader stores your fingerprint long enough that you can depress the power button with your finger, remove it, and you’ll still be logged in once the Surface Laptop Go completes its short boot cycle.

Fingerprint readers can accumulate schmutz over time, just as depth cameras don’t recognize changes in my facial hair after I pull them from the shelf. On one occasion, the reader didn’t grant me access until I dried my hands. Still, Microsoft’s fingerprint experiment may turn out to be a smart play.

IS THE SURFACE LAPTOP GO’S 1024P DISPLAY WORTH IT?

In our original report on the Surface Laptop Go (go.pcworld.com/mlgo), we immediately noted that its display resolution fell beneath the 1080p threshold that we consider acceptable for laptops with 14-inch or wider displays. The Laptop Go’s screen is a little smaller than that, so we wondered whether its resolution of 1536x1024 (148 ppi) would appear deficient to the naked eye.

The answer is yes...and no. Working on a 720p laptop is an unquestionably poor experience, but 1536x1024 (1,572,864 total pixels) is closer to 1920x1080 (2,073,600 pixels) than 1280x720 (921,600 pixels). Consider, too, that the Surface Laptop Go’s pixels-per-inch count is comparable to that of a budget 15-inch 1080p notebook, such as an Asus VivoBook (go.pcworld.com/vibk).

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