Can Microsoft's Surface Go tablet take on the iPad?

by Peter Griffin / 27 July, 2018
The Surface Go.
RelatedArticlesModule - Peter's reviews

NOTED gets an exclusive preview of Microsoft’s new iPad rival, the Surface Go.

After a successful run with its premium Surface tablets and laptops, Microsoft is seeking to truly go mainstream with a lower-cost tablet aimed at casual, multi-tasking computer users.

The $699 Surface Go will debut in New Zealand on August 28 and includes much of the functionality of Microsoft’s flagship Surface Pro – a tablet with a detachable keyboard that has proven popular in the corporate sector, as well as among consumers wanting the full Windows experience on a tablet.

Surface Go is a bold move for Microsoft which had a shaky debut in computer hardware in 2012 with the Surface RT. It sold poorly and resulted in Microsoft having to make a US$900 million write-down in its Surface business the following year.

The next couple of iterations of the Surface Pro gradually overcame the awkwardness of combining Windows 8 with a device that doubled as laptop and tablet, something mainstream PC makers such as Dell, HP and Toshiba had also struggled with.

It wasn’t until 2015 and the release of the Surface 3, now running a much improved Windows 10, that Microsoft finally turned a corner.

“That truly was the first one that broke through, both for multi-tasking and in terms of the form factor. It was the first hit for the Surface,” says Dan Laycock, senior communications manager, Modern Work, Life & Gaming, at Microsoft.

“With the Surface Pro it was about removing you from the mouse and keyboard world. You can use touch, you can use a pen, use it as a tablet or laptop.”

Dan Laycock holds the new Surface Go. Photo / supplied

The Surface Pro wasn’t cheap compared to laptops with the same specifications. But for people who needed access to Windows and the Office productivity suite on the move, it was the go-to alternative to the iPad.

An innovative fabric-coated clip-on keyboard and quality magnesium case gave the Surface a quality feel and the digital ink pen and touch screen actually worked as intended. It is hard to know exactly how well the Surface Pro and more conventional siblings, the Surface Laptop and Surface Book, have done since then as Microsoft doesn’t break out its sales figures.

But the company flagged the Surface products as a highlight of the fiscal year ending June 30. An analysis of Microsoft’s revenue based on filings the company makes with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US puts Surface revenue at US$5 billion in the last year.

That’s small change for a company now surpassing annual revenue of US$110 billion, but impressive for a six year-old hardware business.

PC sales have finally recovered after a six-year slump though tablet sales remain static, sending mixed messages for the Surface Go as it enters the world. But it still has few strong contenders in the tablet space other than the iPad.

"We see tremendous loyalty from previous customers and we see a lot of interest from new ones. We have to be growing in the market to push the revenue growth that we've seen,"  says Laycock.

Scaled down computing

NOTED had a hands-on preview with the Surface Go on Microsoft’s Redmond, Seattle campus, not far from Building 87, Microsoft’s hardware lab where the Surface computers and Xbox gaming consoles are designed.

With a 10-inch screen, the Surface Go’s dimensions fit in between a large smartphone and the 12-inch Surface Pro. All the visual cues from the Pro – the distinctive kickstand and squarish body are there. The telling difference is the lightweight feel to it and the more compact keyboard, which Laycock says takes some getting used to but still delivers a comfortable typing experience.

“It's about 85 per cent the size of the Pro keyboard. The keys are obviously closer together and are more concave. As you build that muscle memory you'll start to learn it,” he says.

“Our testing shows people get to about 97 per cent of their word typing rate when typing on this.”

The big price difference between the Go and the Pro naturally means the internal hardware specifications differ. The Go is powered by an Intel Pentium Gold dual-core processor which can’t match the Core i5 and Core i7 processors available in Pro models. The Surface Go is rated for nine hours of battery life, versus the Pro’s 13.5 hours.

Surface Go on the go. Photo / supplied

Those factors will likely serve to separate Go from Pro buyers. While the Go performed well rendering 3D images in Powerpoint and can easily handle other Office applications, it is really intended for less processor-intensive applications than a business user needs.

“We think the customer need for this is much different than for someone buying a Surface Book 2 or a laptop,” says Laycock.

“We can imagine this in the hands of a frontline worker who needs to scan a document. This is also a great personal device, it is much more than a phone.”

It could also prove popular at the premium end of the education market, where cheap but bulkier Chromebook devices, powered by Google’s Chrome operating system, dominate.

Laycock says pre-orders for the Surface Go which goes on sale in the US and Canada on August 2 have been strong.

The Surface computers can fairly be credited with lifting design standards across the PC industry in recent years. While Microsoft is effectively competing with its partners in the computer industry, it also has an interest in Windows thriving on rival hardware.

“There are folks in the building who say, 'hey, they stole our idea',” says Laycock.

“But more importantly, it's a virtuous cycle, because the more touchscreens there are, the more apps that implement touch well. The more people who support the pen, the more apps that support pen.”

Surface Go

Most of what you get with the Surface Pro in a more compact format that means greater portability but some compromises in terms of processing power, battery life, screen and keyboard real estate.

From $699 (available August 28)

Surface Pro

The flagship Surface device that really got the ball rolling with the successful Surface 3. Microsoft had an iPad rival in mind but added a decent keyboard and the Windows experience for full access to productivity apps like Office. It has been a winning combination.

From $1,349

Surface Laptop

Strong appetite for the Surface Pro gave Microsoft the confidence to delve into the laptop market with a lightweight, well-designed model.

From $1,249

Surface Book 2

A fully-fledged Laptop to rival high-end HP, Dell and Toshiba laptops and an alternative to the MacBook Pro. The tablet theme continues with the Book’s screen detaching for separate use with the touchscreen and pen. A powerful, well-built laptop running Windows 10 Pro.

From $2,549

Surface Studio

A high-end, high-powered all-in-one desktop consumer aimed squarely at designers, architects and photographers with all the design flourish those professionals most appreciate. It introduced the Surface Dial as a new way to navigate applications. A niche product given the high entry-level price, but a device that showcases Microsoft’s rapidly evolving design pedigree.

From $5,199


Peter Griffin visited Microsoft’s Seattle HQ as a guest of Microsoft.


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