Surface Go Is Microsoft’s Big Bet on a Tiny-Computer Future

Panos Panay is the betting type. You can see the evidence in Microsoft’s Building 37, where two $1 bills stick out from beneath a Surface tablet sitting on a shelf.

When I ask Panay about the dollars during a recent visit to Microsoft, he says it was a wager he made a few years back on a specific product. I ask if it was a bet on Surface RT, the very first Surface product Microsoft made, and he seems genuinely surprised. “I would have lost that bet, and I’m going to win this one,” he says. “It’s about a product that’s in market right now.” And that’s all he’ll volunteer.

Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer, isn’t there to talk about the ghosts of Surface’s past, or even the present. Panay wants to talk about his next big bet in the Surface product lineup: the brand-new Surface Go. But to call it “big” would be a misnomer, because the Surface Go was designed to disappear.

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If you’ve followed the trajectory of the Surface product line, you might say that the Surface Go previously existed in some form, if not as a prototype then in sketches and leaks and rumors and in our own imaginations. But Panay insists that this new 2-in-1 device is not the offspring of anything else—not the Surface RT, not the Surface 3, and not the Surface Mini (which served as a kind of fever-dream notepad for Panay, but never shipped).

Instead, the new Surface Go is an attempt to bring most of the premium features of a $1,000 Surface Pro to something that’s both ultra-portable and more affordable.

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Like a Surface Pro, the Go is a “detachable”—a tablet that attaches to Microsoft’s alcantara Type Cover keyboard. It has the same magnesium enclosure; a bright, high-res touchscreen display that has a 3:2 aspect ratio and is bonded with Gorilla Glass; a kickstand in the back that extends to 165 degrees; support for Microsoft’s stylus pen, which attaches magnetically to the tablet; a Windows Hello face recognition camera, for bio-authentication; two front-facing speakers, an 8-megapixel rear camera; and on and on. It’s a veritable checklist of Surface Go’s external features.

But the Surface Go is tiny. It measures just 9.6 by 6.9 by .33 inches, with a 10-inch diagonal display. It also weighs 1.15 pounds. The first time I saw the Go, Natalia Urbanowicz, a product marketing manager at Microsoft, pulled the thing out of a 10-inch, leather, cross-body Knomo bag to show just how easily it can be tucked away. It’s light enough to mistake for a notebook; the last time I felt that way about a computer was when Lenovo released the YogaBook back in 2016.

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The Go also happens to be the least expensive Surface ever. When it ships in early August, it will have a base price of $399. That’s for a configuration that includes 64 gigabytes of internal storage and 4 gigabytes of RAM, and ships with Windows 10 Home in S Mode (the S stands for “streamlined,” which means you can only download apps from the Windows Store). You’ll also have to shell out extra for a Type Cover keyboard and stylus pen.

From there, specs and prices creep up: A Surface Go with 256 gigabytes of storage, 8 gigabytes of RAM, and LTE will cost you more, though Microsoft hasn’t shared how much yet. All configurations have a microSD slot for additional storage too.

The Surface Go is not the first 10-inch Surface that Panay and his team have shipped. The original Surface had a 10.6-inch display. And in 2015, Microsoft released the 10.8-inch Surface 3. It started at $499, and ran a “real” version of Windows, not Windows RT. But it was also underpowered; and, Panay admits now, it had an inelegant charging mechanism.

“To this day I regret the charging port on Surface 3,” Panay says. “I’d convinced myself that this ubiquitous USB 2.0 connector was going to solve the thing people asked me for: Can I just charge it with the charger I already have? And what I learned is that people want a charger with the device, they want a very seamless charging experience…I know that seems small, but I don’t think I can overstate that every single little detail can be a major difference maker.”

Panay says there’s been clear demand for a successor to the Surface 3, which would, by definition, have been the Surface 4. But “that evolution wasn’t right,” he says. “That would be too close to the original Surface Pro, and that’s not what this product should be at all.” Instead, he’s been noodling something like the Surface Go—codenamed “Libra”—for the past three years.

The new Surface Go benefits from all those learnings. It has the same Surface Connect port as the Pro lineup, along with a USB-C 3.1 port for data transfers and backup charging. It’s supposed to get around nine hours of battery life. It also runs on an Intel Pentium Gold processor. This is not one of Intel’s top-of-the-line Core processors, but it’s still a significant jump up from the Cherry Trail Atom processor in the Surface 3.

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Pete Kyriacou, general manager of program management for Surface, says Microsoft has worked closely with Intel to tune the processor for this particular form factor. “If you compare the graphics here to the Surface Pro 3 running on an i5 [chip], it’s 33 percent better; and if you compare it to the i7, it’s 20 percent better,” Kyriacou says. “So we’re talking about Pentium processing, but, it’s better from a graphics perspective than a Core processor was just three years ago.”

A lot about the new Surface has been “tuned”—not just the guts of the Go, but its software, too. “We tuned Office, we then tuned the Intel part, we tuned Windows, we made sure that, in portrait, it came to life,” Panay says. “We brought the Cortana [team] in to better design the Cortana box—we went after the details on what we think our customers need at 10 inches.”

There’s usually a tradeoff when you’re buying a computer this small. You get portability at the expense of space for apps and browser windows. The Surface Go has a built-in scaler that optimizes apps for a 10-inch screen, and Microsoft says that it’s working with third-parties to make sure certain apps run great. There’s only so much control, though, you have over software that’s not your own. I was reminded of this when I had a few minutes to use the Surface Go, went to download the Amazon Kindle app in the Windows Store, and couldn’t find it there.

Making the Surface smaller was no small feat, according to Ralf Groene, Microsoft’s longtime head of design. Groene walks me through part of Building 87 on Microsoft’s campus, where the design studio is housed and where Groene’s team of 60 are tasked with coming up with a steady stream of ideas for potential products.

Ralf Groene, Microsoft’s head of design.

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Behind a door that says “Absolutely No Tailgating”—a warning against letting someone in behind you, not a ban on barbecues and cornhole—a small multimedia team makes concept videos. “Before products get made, we have a vision, we have an idea, and we express it in a video,” Groene tells me. If the video is received well by top executives, they know they have a winner. “Since there’s usually a timeline on how long processors are good for, we try to build as many iterations as possible of a product within that timeline.”

Once the Surface Go got the go ahead, Groene’s job became that of a geometrist: How do you fit all this stuff into a 9.6-inch enclosure? Going with magnesium again was an easy choice; it’s up to 36 percent lighter than aluminum, Groene says, and Microsoft has already invested in the machinery needed to work with magnesium. Some of the angles of the Go’s body are softer—Groene calls these “curvatures and radii”—making it more comfortable to hold close for extended time periods, like if you’re reading or drawing.

By far the biggest challenge was the Go’s Type Cover keyboard. The factor that always stays the same is the human, Groene says, and that includes fingers. Shrink a keyboard too much in your quest to make a laptop thin and light, and you’ll inevitably get complaints from people that their fingers are cramped, or that they land on each key with an unsatisfying thud. (Or worse, that the keyboard is essentially broken.)

The Go’s keyboard is undoubtedly smaller than the one that attaches to the Surface Pro. But it still has a precision glass trackpad, and a key travel that Groene says is fractionally less than the key travel on the Pro.

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Most notably, the Go’s keyboard uses a scissor-switch mechanism that was designed to give, as Groene describes it, the right “force to fire.” Each key is also slightly dished, a decision that Microsoft made after watching hours of footage of people typing, captured with a high-speed camera. The keys are supposed to feel plush and good under your fingers and not at all like a tiny accessory keyboard. (I only used the keyboard on the Go for a brief period of time, so I can’t really say what it would be like to use the keyboard to, say, type of a story of this length.)

I mention to Groene that Apple has long held the stance that touchscreens aren’t right for PC’s, something that Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi underscored in a recent WIRED interview when he said that they’re “fatiguing.” And yet, Microsoft is pretty committed to touchscreen PCs. What does Microsoft’s research show about how people use touchscreen PCs?

Groene first points out that the Surface laptop is the only one in Microsoft’s product line that has a classic laptop form factor and a touchscreen; the others are detachables, or, there’s the giant Surface Studio PC. But, more to the point, he says, “By offering multiple ways to get things done doesn’t mean that we add things. It’s not like the Swiss army knife, where every tool you put in makes it bigger.”

Sure, if you sit there for eight hours holding your arm up, it will get tired, Groene acknowledges. But that’s not the way people are supposed to use these things. “It’s the same thing with the pen. ‘We don’t need the pen because we are born with ten styluses,’” Groene says, wiggling his fingers, making an oblique reference to a well-known Steve Jobs quote about styluses. “However, having the tool of a pen is awesome when you want to go sketch something.”

“We are trying to design products for people,” he says, “and we don’t try to dictate how people use our devices.”

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So who is this tiny Surface Go actually made for? It depends on who you ask at Microsoft, but the short answer seems to be: anybody and everybody.

Urbanowicz, the product marketing manager, says Go is about “reaching more audiences, and embracing the word ‘and’: I can be a mother, and an entrepreneurial badass; I can be a student, and a social justice warrior.” Kyriacou, when describing the Go’s cameras, says to “think about the front line worker in the field—a construction worker, architect, they can capture what they need to or even scan a document.” You can also dock the Go, Kyriacou points out, using the Surface Connect port, which makes it ideal for business travelers. Groene talks about reading, about drawing, about running software applications like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Almost everyone talks about watching Hulu and Netflix on it.

Panos Panay initially has a philosophical answer to this. It’s his “dream,” he says, to just get Surface products to more people. “I mean, that’s not my ultimate dream. But there are these blurred lines of life and work that are happening, and if you collect all that, Go was an obvious step for us.”

The evening before Panay and I chatted, he went to the Bellevue Square shopping center with his son, and at one point, had to pull out his LTE-equipped Surface Go to address what he said was an urgent work issue. His son asked if it was a new product, and Panay, realizing the blunder of having the thing out in public, tucked the Go in his jacket. To him, that’s the perfect anecdote: The lines between work and family time were blurred, he had to do something quickly, and when he was done, he could make his computer disappear.

Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer.

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Panay’s team also has a lot more insight into how people are using Surface products than it did eight years ago, he says, when Surface was still just a concept being developed in a dark lab. To be sure, Microsoft has been making hardware for decades—keyboards, mice, web cameras, Xbox consoles. But when Microsoft made the decision to start making its own PCs (and ultimately, take more control over how its software ran on laptops), it was a new hardware category for the company. It was a chance to get consumers excited about Microsoft again, not just enterprise customers.

The first few years of Surface were rocky. The first one, known as Surface RT, seems to be something that Microsoft executives would rather forget about; I don’t see it anywhere in the product lineups that Microsoft’s PR team has laid out ahead of my visit. Its 2012 launch coincided with the rollout of Windows 8, which had an entirely new UI from the previous version of Windows. It ran on a 32-bit ARM architecture, which meant it ran a version of the operating system called Windows RT. Depending on who you ask, the Surface RT was either a terrible idea or ahead of its time. (Panay says it was visionary.) Microsoft ending up taking a massive write-down on it the following year.

Since then, Microsoft has rolled out a series of Surface products that, due to the company’s design ethos, a newer operating system, and plain old Moore’s Law, have only gotten better. In 2013 it introduced the Surface Pro line, which are still detachables, but are built to perform like a premium laptop and can cost anywhere from $799 to $2,600. There’s the Surface Book line; the Surface Book 2 starts at $1,199 and clocks in around 3.5 pounds, making it a serious commitment of a laptop. The Surface Studio is a gorgeous, $2,999, all-in-one desktop PC, aimed at creative types. The Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s MacBook Air. It starts at $799, and got largely positive reviews when it launched last year.

Even still, Microsoft’s Surface line has struggled to make a significant dent in the market for personal computing. HP and Lenovo dominate the broader PC market, while Apple leads in the tablet category (including both detachables and slate tablets).“From a shipment perspective, the entire Surface portfolio has been fairly soft,” says Linn Huang, an IDC research director who tracks devices and displays. “It was growing tremendously, and then the iPad Pro launched and Surface shipments have either been negative, year-over-year, for the past several quarters, or flat.”

Microsoft has new competition to worry about, too: Google’s inexpensive Chromebooks, which in a short amount of time have taken over a large share of the education market.

“Do I think about Chromebooks? Absolutely,” Panay says, when I ask him about them. “Do I think about iPads? Absolutely. I use multiple devices. It’s exhausting. But this product is meant to bring you a full app suite.” Panay is highlighting one of the drawbacks of lightweight Chromebooks: Their lack of local storage. Meanwhile, he says, Surfaces are designed to let people be productive both locally on the device, and in the cloud when they need to work in the cloud.

And, while Panay says he’s keeping an eye on Chromebooks, he insists that Microsoft didn’t build Go to compete with Chromebooks. That said, Surface Go will have a school-specific software option: IT administrators for schools can choose whether they want a batch of Go’s imaged with Windows 10 Pro Education, or Windows 10 S mode-enabled.

Panay wouldn’t comment on Microsoft’s plans for the future beyond Surface Go, although there have long been rumors of a possible Microsoft handheld device, codenamed Andromeda. If the Surface Go is something of a return to a smaller, 10-inch detachable, then a pocketable device that folds in half, one that could potentially run on an ARM processor, would be something of a return to mobile for Microsoft. Qualcomm has also been making mobile chips that are designed to compete directly with Intel’s Core processors for PCs.

For now, though, Panay is throwing all his chips behind the Surface Go, and making a big bet that this little device is the one that will make the masses fall in love with Surface. He tends to chalk up past Surface products, even the ones that didn’t do well, as simply before their time. Now, with the Go, he says, “it’s time.”

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