The Surface Laptop Go is Microsoft’s second try at an affordable Surface, and it hits the mark better than the original Surface Go tablet did. It still offers compromises, with strategic cuts to keep the price competitive with a Chromebook. Still, they’re mostly smart decisions—even a sub-1080p display and Windows 10 in S Mode didn’t turn us off. Although the Surface Laptop Go lacks the easy expansion of some competing laptops, it’s otherwise a solid budget offering.

Still, be picky in what you consider buying. We wouldn’t recommend the Surface Laptop Go’s minimum $549 configuration, but the middle $699 option (which we didn’t test) seems like the best bang for the buck. At $899, the 12.5-inch Surface Laptop Go review unit we tested bobs up to the very top of the “budget” category, though it shows off this new product at its best. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go primary 2 Mark Hachman / IDG

This photo highlights how visually interesting the new Ice Blue finish is: in the right light, the chassis can look either metallic or tend toward blue.

Surface Laptop Go: Specs and features

  • Display: 12.45-inch (1536×1024, 148 ppi, 330 nits rated) multitouch PixelSense display (Microsoft says there is no pen support.)
  • Processor: Core i5-1035G1
  • Graphics: UHD Graphics
  • Memory:  4GB-8GB LPDDR4x (8GB as tested)
  • Storage: 64GB eMMC, 128GB-256GB SSD (256GB SSD as tested)
  • Ports: 1 USB-C, 1 USB-A, Surface Connect, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Camera: 720p f2.0 (user-facing)
  • Battery: 39.7Wh (design), 41Wh (full charge)
  • Wireless: WiFi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5.0
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home in S Mode
  • Dimensions (inches): 10.95 x 8.10 x 0.62 inches
  • Weight: 2.45 pounds
  • Chassis: Aluminum, with plastic resin
  • Colors: Ice Blue, Sandstone, Platinum
  • Price: Beginning at $549 (Microsoft), $899 as tested (Amazon)

Surface Laptop Go: Prices and configurations

All Surface Laptop Go models being selling October 13. Microsoft is offering overlapping configurations of the Surface Laptop Go for consumers, education, and business. The Business models upgrade the OS to Windows 10 Pro and offer (in supported markets) a $100 warranty service that includes expedited device replacement. Finally, Microsoft’s education channel offers an additional model not shown here. 

  • Core i5/4GB RAM/64GB SSD: $549 Consumer/Education (Platinum only)
  • Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB SSD: $699 Consumer/Education, $799 Business
  • Core i5/8GB RAM/256GB SSD: $899 Consumer/Education, $999 Business
  • Core i5/16GB RAM/256GB SSD: $1,099 Education, $1,199 Business

While that $549 starting price is appealing, the basic Core i5/4GB RAM/64GB configuration should probably be passed over in favor of more powerful options. The $699 Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB SSD (which we haven’t tested) appears to offer the most value of all the Surface Laptop Go configuration, especially when paired with Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage.  

It’s a better deal than our review unit, given the $200(!) premium Microsoft charges for an additional 128GB worth of storage. Unlike the Surface Pro X or Surface Laptop 3, the SSD does not appear to be user-accessible, leaving upgrades out of the picture.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go surface laptop go 15 inch surface laptop Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop Go, nestled into the lap of the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. My younger son uses Chromebooks, so what better place to show off the Surface Laptop Go than his desk?

Solid build quality

Our Surface Laptop Go review unit was the new Ice Blue configuration, which looks a lot less blue than Microsoft’s imagery would suggest. In fact, the chassis looks almost like the Sandstone color under the right light, but with a deeper blue paint coating the keyboard. The lid is made of anodized aluminum, but the keyboard deck and base are made of plastic resin, with 40 percent glass fiber and 30 percent post-consumer resin. It’s all designed to reduce weight while still maintaining rigidity. 

If it matters, Microsoft is using a different paint on top of the plastic resin of the keyboard, which gives it a different feel. (More on that in a bit.) The Laptop Go reclines to about the same angle as the other Surface Laptops, or a comfortable 50 degrees off of the horizontal. At 2.45 pounds, it feels light and comfortable in the hand.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go right side Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Laptop Go holds no surprises in terms of port layout: there’s a Surface Connector port on tie right side of the laptop…

The Surface Laptop Go isn’t afraid to spin up its fan, which is noticeable though not annoying, even in a quiet room. Other Surface Laptops pulled air in and then pushed it out through a hidden exhaust port in the hinge. Microsoft’s tweaked that, so that both the intake and the exhaust are hidden inside the hinge. I favor a brutalist approach—who cares what the bottom of a laptop looks like?—but perhaps Microsoft was worried about crumbs or dust. The Laptop Go doesn’t get hot, but it does stay warm for long periods.

One flaw Microsoft may want to take a look at: Microsoft uses a new, 39W charger for the Surface Laptop Go, which charges the laptop via the Surface Connector, as before. On my review unit, the connection was never loose, and there didn’t seem to be any schmutz inside the Surface Connector slot. However, the charger sometimes, even frequently, wouldn’t charge unless carefully inserted. (Fortunately there’s a charging LED on the connector itself to let you know something’s up.)

I reported the problem to Microsoft, then set the charger aside and used an older Surface charger instead once our benchmark testing completed. You can also charge the Surface Laptop Go directly through the USB-C port, or via a hub.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go left side Mark Hachman / IDG

…and on the left, there’s a USB-A port, a USB-C port, and the headphone jack.

Two specific features distinguish the Surface Laptop Go from other Microsoft Surfaces, and from other laptops: the new fingerprint reader, and the Surface Laptop Go’s lower-res display. Let’s look at each.

Meet the new fingerprint reader

Microsoft helped usher in biometric identification with Windows Hello, and specifically its outstanding depth camera, which can recognize you and unlock your PC almost immediately. Some rival laptops have chosen Hello-certified fingerprint readers instead, either broad circular ones hidden under the power button (like the Huawei Matebook X Pro) or “strip” readers placed elsewhere on the device.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go fingerprint reader 1 Mark Hachman / IDG

If the Surface Laptop Go is locked, the LED ring will light to guide your finger in for a landing. Maybe Microsoft’s Surface engineers took a cue from Flight Simulator?

The Surface Laptop Go combines the two, with the fingerprint reader hidden within the  rectangular power button. When the laptop is locked, a somewhat gaudy LED ring outlines the power button, illuminating the landing pad. The reader worked very well, about as quick and accurate as a newly calibrated depth camera. It even asked me to move my finger when it wasn’t aligned correctly. The fingerprint reader stores your fingerprint long enough that you can depress the power button with your finger, remove it, and you’ll still be logged in once the Surface Laptop Go completes its short boot cycle.

Fingerprint readers can accumulate schmutz over time, just as depth cameras don’t recognize changes in my facial hair after I pull them from the shelf. On one occasion, the reader didn’t grant me access until I dried my hands. Still, Microsoft’s fingerprint experiment may turn out to be a smart play.

Is the Surface Laptop Go’s 1024p display worth it?

In our original report on the Surface Laptop Go, we immediately noted that its display resolution fell beneath the 1080p threshold that we consider acceptable for laptops with 14-inch or wider displays. The Laptop Go’s screen is a little smaller than that, so we wondered whether its resolution of 1536×1024 (148 ppi) would appear deficient to the naked eye.

The answer is yes…and no. Working on a 720p laptop is an unquestionably poor experience, but 1536×1024 (1,572,864 total pixels) is closer to 1920×1080 (2,073,600 pixels) than 1280×720 (921,600 pixels). Consider, too, that the Surface Laptop Go’s pixels-per-inch count is comparable to that of a budget 15-inch 1080p notebook, such as an Asus VivoBook. 

In this section you’ll see photos of the Surface Laptop Go’s display, captured with the Samsung Galaxy S20+ camera in its 4:3 64MP mode. The images were captured at a distance of five inches, far less than a typical viewing distance of about two feet. Because of the different display sizes and scaling settings, the portion of the screen the camera captured doesn’t match up perfectly. Still, this should help provide some insight as to what it’s like working on the Surface Laptop Go.

surface laptop go display closeup Mark Hachman / IDG

We shot high-resolution photos at a fixed distance of five inches of the Surface Laptop Go to offer some evidence of how its display compares visually. (Ignore the color anomalies and moire, as they don’t show up in the real world.) We’ve used Microsoft’s recommended scaling settings. Click the photo to zoom in for more detail.

This is the 12.45-inch Surface Laptop Go (1536×1024) at scaling of 100 percent.

While my eyes could never discern an individual pixel, there’s a palpable sense that you’re looking at a cloud of individual elements, like fog. The lower resolution slightly contradicts the smoothed curves of antialiased fonts, exposing their jagged edges. The downgrade is most apparent if you compare the display to that of a Surface Laptop or Surface Book. 

Still, the Surface Laptop Go’s resolution is close enough to 1080p that the differences never became annoying, especially when interacting with text. It’s when you start throwing more pixels at the display—higher-resolution images, say, or 1080p video—that the deficiencies become more pronounced. (The Surface Laptop Go’s display is rated at 330 nits, which is somewhat above the brightness level we consider comfortable for working on a laptop and a mark in its favor.) In part, that may be because a Surface display is typically colorful and vibrant; it’s color-calibrated at the factory. Our 4K/60-fps YouTube test video looked good—though YouTube was only sending down a 1536×864 viewport because of the Surface Laptop Go’s smaller, lower-res display. 

surface go 2 display closeup Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s 10.5-inch Surface Go 2 at the default resolution of 1800 x 1200, at 150 percent scaling.

Weirdly, I was most conscious of the Surface Laptop Go’s display when I connected to my home’s 4K monitor, and not because the Laptop Go had any technical issues. Microsoft’s low-res Surface Laptop Go wallpaper—a fever dream of cotton-candy shag carpet and sand—looked even worse in 4K. 

pavilion reshoot Mark Hachman / IDG

This is an image captured from the 14-inch HP Pavilion x360 Convertible 14, with a 14-inch, 1080p display.

The display options are an area of compromise. You can use the USB-C port to connect to a single external 1080p display without issue, but if you need an HDMI port you’ll probably need to attach a USB-C hub that includes it. If you want to get fancier—I like to have two displays attached to my laptop—My Surface Laptop Go connected easily to my 4K display and a separate 1080p monitor at full resolution, but only thanks to the first-generation $175 Surface Dock I happened to have on hand, along with a pair of miniDP-to-HDMI cables. Via a USB-C hub, the Surface Laptop Go limited my 4K display to a subpar 24Hz refresh rate. I had to manually force it to 30Hz, still far inferior to the preferred 60Hz frequency.

surface laptop go reshoot Mark Hachman / IDG

This is the same image captured on the display of the Surface Laptop Go. Click to zoom in.

Surface Laptop Go keyboard: Same difference

If you’ve ever used a Surface keyboard, there’s a resilient springiness that tends to carry over from one Surface device to another. The Surface Laptop Go feels somewhat like a traditional Surface keyboard, and Microsoft says it retains the 1.3mm of key travel of the Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Laptop 2. I perceived a very plasticky feel to the keys, but Microsoft says the only change is the paint atop the keyboard resin. They’re certainly very comfortable to use. Unfortunately, there’s no keyboard backlighting, however.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go keyboard 1 Mark Hachman / IDG

A large, slick trackpad dominates the Surface Laptop Go’s keyboard.

Microsoft included a Precision touchpad in the Surface Laptop Go, and it, too has its quirks. I’ve never felt a touchpad so slick, to the point that I’m not sure it always registered my fingers when they slid across the surface. It’s clickable all the way to the top, though with more pressure required as you move upward. 

We’ve seen Microsoft Surface devices yield unexpectedly powerful audio from their internal speakers, and the Surface Laptop Go aspires to that standard. While Dell’s Latitude 9510 and recent XPS notebooks produce astoundingly rich, resonant audio, the Surface Laptop Go falls neatly in the category of “good”—a solid mix of midrange and high-end, and even adequate bass. Some Surface devices, like the Surface Book line, ship with Dolby Atmos audio enhancement. The Laptop Go does not, though the dual Omnisonic speakers are Dolby-enhanced. Headphones are still advised, but if you or your child has to play back video, listen to Spotify, or some other audio file on the Laptop Go’s internal speakers, no one will complain.