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

Microsoft still makes you buy the keyboard separately, though.

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Surface Go 2: That S Mode...

The Surface Go 2's default operating system of Windows 10 in S Mode isn't doing you any favors. Windows 10 S restricts you to using apps from the Microsoft Store, a somewhat meager supply compared to the rich app ecosystems on iOS and Android. 

Fortunately, it’s now incredibly, incredibly simple to swap from Windows 10 in S Mode to Windows 10 Home, though it’s a one-way street. All you’ll need to do is visit the Windows 10 Settings menu, click the appropriate link to take you to the Windows Store, and then click the option to switch out of Windows 10 S. The process takes a moment, and it doesn’t even require a reboot. Beautiful!

Surface Go 2: Performance

Given the energy-efficient Y-class processor in our Surface Go 2 unit, you shouldn't expect much of its performance. Our benchmarks bear that out, as it posted middling to lower scores on most tests. 

We include results for the original Surface Go we tested. Because it has a Pentium chip, it gives some indication of how the Pentium-based Surface Go 2 would perform if we tested it. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 crystaldiskmark ssd speed Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go's internal SSD (not eMMC!) seems relatively fast. This is the CrystalDiskMark score, which measures sustained and random reads and writes.

Though we expect the majority of users will convert the Surface Go 2 from Windows 10 Home in S Mode to Windows 10 Home, we tested the Surface Go 2 (red bars below) in S Mode first, against older cross-platform hardware. This allowed us to include the results for the original Surface Go (orange bars below), which finished near the bottom against a pile of devices including Apple Macs, PCs, tablets, and so on. These older benchmarks are from our database, but we re-ran the Surface Go and Go 2 numbers for a more direct comparison, and also used the new Microsoft Edge browser.

Both of Principled Technologies’ WebXPRT tests are designed to mimic “real-world,” web-based HTML5 and JavaScript tasks like photo enhancement, online homework, and stock option pricing. The WebXPRT 3 test is the more recent (see shorter bars below), though we have more results with the 2015 test (see longer bars below). The Surface Go 2 does well here, landing in the upper middle of the rankings. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 webxprt Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Go 2 significantly improves over the first generation in this test.

We see a milder improvement in the JetStream 1.1 benchmark, which covers JavaScript performance over a variety of advanced workloads and programming techniques. The Surface Go 2 leads the back of the pack, with a significant lead over our first-gen Surface Go unit. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 jetstream Mark Hachman / IDG

JetStream’s benchmark shows that the Surface Go 2 nearly doubles the performance of the Surface Go.

Speedometer is another longstanding web benchmark. We show results both for version 1.0 (lighter bar) and version 2.0 (darker bar). In both cases, the Surface Go 2 scores at or near the top, an impressive feat. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 speedometer Mark Hachman / IDG

Speedometer isn’t the most revealing test, but there’s a good indication that the Surface Go 2 will do well in web apps.

The Surface Go 2 falls back to earth in the Octane 2.0 broad-based web test, landing squarely in the middle of the pack. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 octane 2.0 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Octane 2.0 test is a legacy benchmark, but still indicative of good performance.

After upgrading to Windows 10 Home, we were able to use pseudo-real-world test suites like the PCMark 8 and PCMark 10. Both tests tend to also run on Qualcomm Snapdragon machines, another option in the tablet space. We were also able to add laptops in the same price range as the Surface Go 2: the Walmart Motile M142 and Acer Aspire 5, both traditional laptops, and the latest $650 Ryzen Mobile 4000-powered Swift 3, a clamshell PC that delivers insane performance for less money than the Surface Go 2. 

For PCMark 8 we ran the Work and Creative tests, which mimic the way in which (older) PCs run, testing spreadsheet work, video call performance, light gaming, and more. The Surface Go 2 lands in the middle. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 pcmark 8 Mark Hachman / IDG

PCMark 8 puts the Surface Go 2 in the neighborhood of the first Surface Laptop. Don’t expect any issues with general office work, including video calls.

PCMark 10’s Apps benchmark (blue bars above) goes further by actually interacting with Microsoft Edge, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, testing app startup, and how well the machine handles large spreadsheets and surfs the web. It’s a real-world test that puts significant emphasis on startup times and general responsiveness. The Surface Go 2 did well here, too. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 pcmark 10 apps Mark Hachman / IDG

PCMark 10 shows a fairly dramatic jump between generations

By now, you’re probably familiar with Cinebench, Maxon’s CPU stress test. The dual-core Core m will never keep up with its quad-core rivals, but it keeps well ahead of the Pentium-based Surface Go.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 cinebench r15 Mark Hachman / IDG

From a pure computing perspective, the Surface Go 2 won’t knock anyone’s socks off.

HandBrake is a video conversion tool that transcodes a feature-length movie into a format suitable for a tablet. As a fanless device, the only way for the Surface Go 2 to keep up is to throttle down or try to passively vent as much heat as it can. It struggles.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

In graphics, we turn to a cross-platform benchmark, 3DMark’s Night Raid test. It’s the only graphics benchmark that manages to run on both Core and Qualcomm Snapdragon platforms, so we can compare a breadth of offerings. The Surface Go 2 labors in the lower middle of the results. 

Microsoft Surface Go 2 3dmark night raid Mark Hachman / IDG

Graphics is another weak point for the Surface Go 2.

While the Surface Go 2's benchmarks are mostly average, the biggest limitation I found in real-world usage was the small primary display, which made viewing spreadsheets or loading dozens of browser tabs unwieldy. After hooking up an external monitor, I was able to do most of my work without a hitch. The Surface Go 2 does noticeably drop frames when playing back 4K/60 video, at higher bitrates than most use, but it handles 1080p and 1440p video just fine. We wouldn’t recommend the Go 2 for gaming or graphics-intensive rendering, though image manipulation is within its grasp. 

Finally, there’s battery life. The Surface Go 2 is relatively tiny, and the battery is too: 26.8Wh, versus 26.1Wh in the first-generation Surface Go. With a slightly more efficient chip and a bit larger display, we expected a wash with the original Surface Go. That’s about right. About 7 hours and 20 minutes of batter is acceptable.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 battery life windows 10 home Mark Hachman / IDG

Battery life is limited by the small size of the Surface Go 2’s battery. We didn’t notice any battery-life differences between Windows 10 Home in S Mode and Windows 10 Home, as we have in the past.

Conclusion: Should you buy the Surface Go 2?

The Surface Go 2 debuts at an uncertain time. When everyone is sheltering in place, an ultramobile tablet for travelers isn’t especially valuable. On the other hand, students attending classes online could use a relatively low-cost Surface that’s optimized for videoconferencing as well as everyday web and office work. 

But the Surface Go 2 is pricey. For $170 more than our review unit, you can buy a 8GB RAM/128GB SSD version of the Surface Pro 7, with a bigger screen and keyboard and a more powerful processor, though without LTE. 

Our rating reflects how we feel about the Microsoft Surface Go 2. We give it polite applause for its design and features, with reservations about its performance and especially its price. You won't be unhappy when you buy it, but you probably won't be thrilled either. That's the difference between a good product and a great one. 

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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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