Microsoft Surface Go 2 review: A gorgeous, pricey tablet with a decent CPU

Microsoft still makes you buy the keyboard separately, though.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 primary
Mark Hachman / IDG
At a Glance

The Surface Go 2 is a tablet that doesn’t fit easily into traditional niches. As the entry-level product in Microsoft’s Surface line, it’s still somewhat expensive, but it offers a beautiful screen and one of the best camera sets you’ll find anywhere. Performance is another matter: At its best, with an 8th-gen Intel Core m3 under the hood, the Surface Go 2 is comparable to the Surface Pro 3 from 2014. That’s fine if you stick with everyday productivity, but don’t expect much more.

What’s a competent, though pricey, ultramobile tablet to do? The Surface Go 2 could be an ideal secondary device for business travelers, who will appreciate its fanless design, LTE options, and its ability to squeeze onto a tray table. The kid-sized display and keyboard may make it a good option for students, especially given the app protections afforded by Windows 10 S. It may not compete with an iPad, but it could be your family’s Netflix tablet. We just wouldn't recommend the $400 lowest-end version, as it has skimpy memory and storage.

This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best laptops. Go there for information on competing products and how we tested them. 

Microsoft surface go 2 surface pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Microsoft Surface Go 2 compared to its larger sibling, the Surface Pro 7. My kids (who contributed the Lego minifigs) prefer the larger tablet for drawing.

Surface Go 2 prices, specs and features

Like many of its other Surface tablets, Microsoft will sell the Surface Go 2 in both consumer and commercial editions. The consumer version ships with Windows 10 Home in S Mode, from which you may switch to Windows 10 Home if you wish. Microsoft sells the Surface Go 2 Signature Type Cover and Surface Pen separately, though the former, at least, is essential.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 propped up Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 ships without a Type Cover keyboard, though your interaction is quite limited without one.

As we reviewed one of the consumer versions, we'll reiterate that pricing below. For the full list of prices for all models, see our original Surface Go 2 news story

Surface Go 2 consumer prices

  • Pentium Gold 4425Y, 4GB RAM, 64GB eMMC: $400
  • Pentium Gold 4425Y, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD: $550
  • Core m3-8100Y, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD: $630
  • Core m3-8100Y, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, LTE: $730 (our test unit)

While the $400 price of the entry-level model is tempting, resist. No one should be using a tablet with a measly 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage. The minimum configuration should be the $550 (8GB RAM/128GB SSD) model. 

Surface Go 2 specifications

Surface Go 2: Solid build, brilliant display

Microsoft Surface Go alt primary Mark Hachman / IDG

This photo of the original Surface Go on an Amtrak train tablet shows how well the tablet works for commuters and travelers.

For this second-gen Surface Go, Microsoft maintains the magnesium chassis and fanless design of its predecessor. A small section on the rear of the tablet warmed as we ran various tests, but never approached hot.

You need a bit of bezel for gripping a tablet, but Microsoft slimmed them down enough to squeeze in a larger 10.5-inch PixelSense display and more pixels (1920x1280, 220 ppi). Save for the additional pixels, the display remains virtually unchanged from the prior generation's. The colors are vivid and accurate, though the Go 2 lacks the color profile options of the Surface Book 2. The display brightness is a high 493 nits. That's substantially more than what we consider necessary for everyday work, though not enough to work outside during the noon sun.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 rear Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 includes an integrated kickstand, which solidly holds the tablet in place. 

A physical kickstand—still a rarity in the tablet world—folds down from the rear. It can recline to about fifteen degrees off of the horizontal, making it easier for use with a Surface Pen (which we tried—it worked fine) or Surface Dial (which we didn't). The kickstand gives a bit when in full recline, but the friction hinge keeps the Surface Go 2 steady. 

Pogo pins secure the tablet to the keyboard. But the secondary hinge that angles the keyboard up just weakly holds it in place. And, of course, the kickstand is narrow enough to dig into your thighs. Just typing with the Surface Go 2 perched on my lap in a fixed office chair was not especially sturdy or pleasant.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 left side Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 in full recline. Note the small SIM tray along the edge, and how the secondary keyboard hinge doesn’t want to stick tightly to the tablet.

The Surface Go 2 can power its own screen, one 4K display, and a 1080p display, all at 60Hz, through the first-generation Surface Dock. The Dock didn’t always connect to both displays (even after updating its firmware), but it's been flaky occasionally with other Surfaces.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 right side Mark Hachman / IDG

The right side of the Surface Go 2 includes the Surface Connector, USB-C port, and power jack.

Don’t forget about the microSD (technically, a microSDXC slot) underneath the kickstand. Many USB-C hubs already have that slot, but Microsoft’s own USB-C Travel Hub does not.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 microsd card slot Mark Hachman / IDG

Don’t forget about the microSD slot!

The Surface Go 2’s dual 2W speakers aren’t especially loud, but tonally they’re pretty accurate. Low-end bass is lacking, as you might expect. Dolby Audio is listed as part of the device’s specifications, but I couldn’t find either Dolby or Realtek audio controls on the tablet, nor in the Store. 

Surface Go 2’s webcam: A definite selling point

The Surface devices offer the best integrated, user-facing cameras I’ve ever used, period. The 5MP user-facing camera fits neatly within the top bezel, and it captures 1080p video without a hitch. Its HDR capabilities are good, too. A pair of far-field mics capture your voice well without the need for a headset.

lenovo thinkpad x1 carbon vs surface go 2 selfie Mark Hachman / IDG

We've compared the 1MP user-facing camera on Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon (6th Gen) to the 5MP camera on the Surface Go 2 (right), to show the clear differences in crispness and color quality.

The 8MP rear camera may not surpass your smartphone's, but it’s still rather good. (The image flickered occasionally, but our inquiry about that to Microsoft has yet to receive a response.) It's primarily there to capture the contents of documents and whiteboards using the integrated Office Lens function, which recognizes and auto-orients the content into something like a traditional Office document for easy sharing.

The Camera app’s “pro mode” hides the ability to swap between 6MP (16:9) or 8MP(4:3) photos, implement digital video stabilization, or zoom manually. There’s no HDR. 

Surface Go 2 typing experience: Still unpleasant

The Surface Go’s compact form factor simply doesn’t leave room for a spacious keyboard, and the Surface Go 2 is no different. The keyboard measures 9.4 inches across from key to key, versus 10.75 inches for the Surface Pro 7. That’s almost two keys’ worth of difference.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 keyboard Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go 2's cramped keyboard is hard to type on. 

My opinion of the Surface Go Type Cover hasn’t changed. Microsoft has engineered the keys to be supportive and firm, optimizing the short 1mm travel distance. To be fair, my fingers adjusted to the narrow keys, and my accuracy didn’t suffer greatly. Still, the keys are a bit stiff, and are spaced too close together to be comfortable over longer periods. Perhaps slipping in two new mouse-and-keyboard combos at the tail end of its Surface launch was a deliberate move?

Our Surface Go Signature Type Cover was coated with Alcantara fabric (the Black version is microfiber). The Type Cover still features three levels of backlighting.

Microsoft surface go 2 side reclined with Signature Type Cover Microsoft

By default, the keyboard is propped at a slight angle.

The Surface Go’s Precision touchpad is average, smooth and tappable across the full range of the sensor. Its clickiness stopped at about the top third of the touchpad.

Surface Go 2’s LTE performance

Our review unit included the LTE option, which you can turn on either by inserting your own microSIM into the side-mounted slot, or else enabling the eSIM functionality included in the machine. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 sim card slot Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go 2's SIM slot is easily removed with a tool. It's a conventional SIM slot, unlike the elegant, magnetically sealed repository on the Surface Pro X.

For testing, I used a physical T-Mobile SIM and drove around the city, trying out the connection at various points on both the Surface Go 2 and my smartphone. Both my phone and the Surface Go 2 achieved similar results using Bing's speed test. However, my Surface Go 2 unit appeared to have trouble holding a sustained connection, or at least buffering enough data to stream a 1080p video continuously over YouTube. (The streams were manually set  to 1080p, as the default setting was a lower resolution.) 

cellular connection windows 10 Surface Go 2 Microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

This behavior continued at multiple locations. (I was unable to double-check this against other LTE-equipped laptops because my carrier, T-Mobile, wouldn't authorize the connection for some reason.) We notified Microsoft of this issue, and have not yet received a response.

Keep reading for performance, battery life and more. 

At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Surface Go 2 is the most inexpensive, compact Surface Microsoft offers. This 10.5-inch tablet offers improved performance, though the optional keyboard is extra and is uncomfortable to use.

    Pros

    • Compact size, light weight
    • One of the best webcams in any laptop
    • Solid productivity performance
    • Bright, high-resolution display

    Cons

    • Cramped keyboard makes prolonged typing awkward
    • Cheap for a Surface, but not necessarily compared to other tablets
    • Battery life is just average
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