Finally, there’s a decent cheap option for regular computer users

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For those needing a Windows device for occasional use in addition to the smartphone, the Surface Go is potentially the ideal solution.

For a reminder of just how much the smartphone has changed our idea of the value of computers, look no further than Apple’s launch last month of its new iPhones.
The flagship iPhone XS will go down in history not for its revolutionary features, which amount to mere incremental improvements on its predecessor, but its eye-watering price. The entry-level model costs $1899 and the XS Max, with the larger 6.5-inch screen, is $2099, making it the most expensive iPhone ever.

But millions will still buy these devices and their increasingly expensive Android rivals, given their sheer usefulness. We’ve developed an intimate relationship with smartphones, which is unlike any regular computer we own.

That’s why laptop, desktop and tablet sales have slumped in recent years. Only this year have global PC shipments finally shown signs of life as people upgrade their ageing computers to do the few remaining tasks that a smartphone can’t.

Those tasks mainly revolve around word processing and working with documents and software applications that are too awkward to use on a smartphone screen. Many of us still need a PC as well, but the chunky line-up of mid-market, sub-$1000 desktops and laptops on offer is uninspiring.

The iPad tried to change that, but Apple’s vision of it as a device primarily for consuming content, rather than productivity, never saw it emerge as a true laptop replacement.

Microsoft, intent on preserving its Windows legacy, finally filled the gap five years ago with the Surface Pro, a device that combined the portability and design aesthetics of the smartphone with the attributes of a computer intended to help you do your work.

The catch is that the Surface Pro is relatively expensive at $1349 for the entry-level model, and that’s before you add on accessories such as a keyboard and stylus, without which the Surface Pro isn’t particularly useful.

Now comes the Surface Go, an entry-level version of the Pro with a smaller screen, less advanced technical specifications, but a sharp price – $699. For those needing a Windows device for occasional use in addition to the smartphone, this is potentially the ideal solution.

After all, you get all the design features of its Pro big brother – the stylish magnesium case and kickstand, the multi-touch screen and front- and rear-facing cameras, including face recognition for unlocking the Go.

It comes in what is called “Windows S” mode, which is designed to work with Microsoft’s app store, much like an iPad or Android tablet. But you can quickly switch it to the fully fledged Windows 10 desktop version, letting you run all the software programs you are used to multitasking with.

The key sacrifice is screen real estate – the 10-inch screen in the Go compares to the Pro’s 12.3 inches. I took longer to adapt to the Go’s smaller-format Type Cover keyboard, though Microsoft has managed to retain full-sized keys.

The Go’s processor is also a step down from the Pro models but it copes fine running Office, accessing Google Drive, watching Netflix through the native Windows app and making Skype calls. Battery life is said to be 9.5 hours.

The screen is great for watching movies and TV shows, although it’s not as sharp as an iPad. There are, however, USB-C and microSD ports for connectivity and supplementing the standard 64GB of storage.

All up, Surface Go is a neat little package, although the must-have Type Cover and stylus are sold separately, bumping up the entry-level price to $1029. Still, among Windows PC makers, this is probably the best option on the market. While you can use Microsoft apps on an Android tablet or iPad with keyboard, there’s still nothing quite like being in the true Windows desktop environment.

Price: From $699 (64GB storage, 4GB memory)

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.