The Surface Laptop Go Is a Perfect (and Affordable) Smol Computer for Developers

Just don’t get the base model

Photos courtesy of the author

Microsoft’s latest device, the Surface Laptop Go, is a modern netbook done right.

As soon as you put your eyes on a Surface Laptop Go, you’ll get Chromebook vibes. It’s ultra-light at 1.1kg, tiny enough to throw in a bag at 15mm thick, and it sports a 12.4” touch screen. The materials also give off Chromebook energy, with recycled plastic at the base of the laptop and a metal coating on the top half, making it feel as premium as the rest of the Surface family — including the Surface Go, a predecessor to this device — but starting at a relatively low $599.

Despite being affordable, the hardware is surprisingly lovely. The keys have just the right amount of travel, and are much nicer to type on than the tablet keyboard found on the Surface Go. The trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen on a Windows PC, second only to the Surface Book’s. It has both USB-C and traditional USB ports, as well as a headphone jack and the company’s magnetic charging port.

My favorite part about the Surface Laptop Go, however, is subtle and might seem a little odd: The display has rounded corners, like we’ve seen on the iPad and smartphones in recent years. While I didn’t notice it at first, I found myself wishing every other computer had rounded corners — it’s hard to go back after you’ve experienced it (just like when Twitter switched to rounded avatars rather than squares).

The Surface Laptop Go reminds me of a time when I was excited about netbooks, the makers of which promised small, light laptops with all-day battery life. If you suffered through actually using a netbook, though, you know the reality was very different: The category was dogged by performance problems, cheap chips, and lackluster hardware, which killed anyone’s interest in buying them.

The Surface Laptop Go might be tiny, but it can do everything you’d want it to, from writing code in Visual Studio Code, to editing photos in Adobe Lightroom, thanks to a full-on i5 processor. It became my favorite couch computer to have around the house for quickly writing a few emails, or typing up a story like this one, and if Covid-19 weren’t in full swing where I live, it would be the laptop I’d pick to throw in my bag and work from a cafe.

For the type of work I do, which is largely writing emails, documents, and coding a bit of PHP or Ruby on Rails, it was more than capable of keeping up. Being able to run an entire Linux on Windows (WSL2) environment to code on such a tiny device is a delight, and means I know I could toss it in my bag going away on a vacation and know that I could fix a bug on my site without worrying.

The Surface Laptop Go reminds me of a time when I was excited about netbooks.

The problem with that tempting $599 starting price, however, is that you’ll only get a measly 4GB of memory and 64GB of slower, eMMC-based storage. Four GB of memory in 2020 sounds painful, even if you’re just using it to surf the web, because you’re likely to hit the performance roof quickly with just a few tabs open.

Instead, I’d recommend spending $100 more for the $699 version, with 8GB of memory and 128GB of storage, which is the model I tested, and is much more capable. This model, and the more expensive one with 256GB of storage, also have a fingerprint sensor embedded in the power button for ultra-fast login — a feature that’s also missing in the cheapest version.

That price point puts the Surface Laptop Go square in the sights of Apple’s new iPad Air, which also starts at $599, but for the same price you get a full-on computer, which seems like a steal when you consider that the iPad doesn’t come with a keyboard, nor can it easily be used for tasks like writing code (though there are ways to make it work if you really want to).

While I do wish Microsoft sold a model of the Surface Laptop Go with 16GB of memory, 8GB is probably adequate for most people’s needs, even if you leave a bunch of tabs open, as Windows has become a lot more lightweight in recent years. Just don’t expect to be able to run Chrome, Photoshop, and a bunch of other heavy apps all at the same time, or be playing Fortnite on it. That said, Minecraft works just fine.

There are a few compromises Microsoft made to get to these low prices. The keyboard isn’t backlit at all, on any of the models, even the most expensive one. That might be a deal-breaker for some, though I only noticed it a couple of times late at night, and it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for avid touch-typers.

There’s also no support for using pens on the Laptop Go, unlike almost all of Microsoft’s other devices — presumably because it’s more of a laptop, and the screen doesn’t go back all the way like it would on a tablet. If you want to use a pen, you’ll have to get the Surface Go instead.

But unlike the Surface Go, the Laptop Go does have a fan in it to keep itself cool when it gets hot. It doesn’t really kick in when you’re writing a document, browsing the web, or throwing together some code, but it did kick off when I jumped on a video call with five others. That’s a compromise you have to make for getting a real processor, versus the “m” chip found in the tablet version, but it’s worth knowing about.

Despite these small issues, what’s clear to me is that the Surface Laptop Go is likely to be perfect for students, and I wish it had existed when I was at university. Back then, laptops were big and heavy, and cost a small fortune; but the Surface Laptop Go is the perfect intersection of light, powerful, and affordable that I can imagine would appeal to students.

Even if you’re not a student, and you just don’t feel like spending a few thousand dollars on a laptop, it’s a great computer for people who just want something small for writing emails and watching Netflix around the house. I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who needs a cheap computer, without the restrictions of a tablet like the iPad.

Not only was I surprised by how much I like the Surface Laptop Go, it’s become my go-to computer around the house. Not every task needs a 15-inch powerhouse; sometimes you just want to quickly edit some photos or bang out some email on the couch, and the Laptop Go hits all those right notes, at the right price.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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