Microsoft’s $399 Surface Go aims to stand out from iPads or Chromebooks

Microsoft’s new Surface Go is finally official after months of rumors and leaks. It’s an inexpensive 10-inch tablet designed to be a smaller and less powerful version of the Surface Pro. While the exterior of the Surface Go makes it look like a baby Surface Pro, Microsoft has changed a lot inside. The base model is priced at $399, but it only ships with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of slower eMMC storage, and a less powerful Intel Pentium Gold processor. Prices quickly jump to over $600 after adding the all important Type Cover, more RAM, a faster SSD, and other Surface add-ons. With these specs and price points in mind, who exactly is the Surface Go for?

Microsoft isn’t targeting its Surface Go at any particular customer from what I can tell. It’s not an iPad killer, it’s not going directly after Chromebooks, and it’s not really challenging $400 Windows laptops. While the Surface Laptop launched at an education event alongside Windows 10 S, the Surface Go appears to be targeted far more broadly across education, regular consumers, and even commercial usage. It’s clearly designed to be a cheaper and more portable Surface that lowers the barrier of entry for those put off by the price of a Surface Pro and its more capable specifications. It’s also aiming to be more than an iPad or a Chromebook.

 Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge
Surface Go vs. Surface Pro

It’s natural to compare the Surface Go to Apple’s iPad, but the two are not like-for-like competitors. Apple’s base model iPad is priced at $329. If you only want a pure tablet, the Surface Go won’t offer the best experience as it doesn’t have the 1.3 million apps that are designed and optimized for the iPad. Let’s face it: if you’re going to buy just a tablet, the iPad is the only one worth buying right now.

Surface has carved out its own niche in tablet computing through hybrid devices. That’s why the company continues to advertise its Surface devices with Type Covers that, in the case of Surface Go, cost an extra $99. These keyboards turn the Surface Go into more of a laptop, in the same vein the Surface line has always tried to capitalize on. It’s the unique selling point of Surface tablets, and it leverages Microsoft’s strength in PCs. Apple doesn’t offer a keyboard for its regular iPad, but it has managed to mostly copy the Surface concept with its iPad Pro, as have many of Microsoft’s PC partners. But Apple has so far refused to add cursor support to its iPad lineup, so users are forced to constantly reach out and touch the screen to navigate around. Microsoft’s Surface devices do a better job of bridging that gap between tablet and laptop.

Equally, the Surface Go isn’t directly challenging Chromebooks or $400 Windows laptops. Once you’ve added the Type Cover, the price for the base Surface Go model jumps to $498. If you’re considering a laptop in this range then there are better options with bigger screens, and Google’s Chromebooks regularly sell for less than $500. Microsoft’s higher-specced Surface Go model is priced at $549 for 8GB of RAM and 128GB of faster SSD storage instead of eMMC. Once you’ve added a keyboard to this, it’s $649 and approaching iPad Pro and Surface Pro pricing.

 Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge
Surface Go kickstand

Microsoft appears to be targeting the area of the PC market between budget and premium. The Surface Go, like the $799 Surface Pro, is a tablet with a keyboard and stylus support that offers more than a regular iPad or Chromebook. It’s still dropping into a tricky part of the PC market, though, because the $400-$700 price point is where PC makers typically try to shove slower components into a more premium chassis. Microsoft is pulling the same trick, and the $399 base price is a typical marketing move meant to generate interest with the hope that you’ll buy the $549 model.

While it’s a tricky part of the PC market to play in, it’s also fraught with risk. The Surface 3 debuted three years ago as a cheaper Surface tablet targeted at students. It was a little fiddly to use as a laptop due to its size and kickstand, and performance wasn’t as good compared to similarly priced laptops. Microsoft has certainly learned some lessons from the Surface 3. The Surface Go has a big trackpad, USB-C charging (and a Surface Connector), a much better kickstand, and the type of premium design you don’t typically see at this end of the PC spectrum. But Microsoft’s new device is even smaller than the Surface 3. Microsoft’s risk is betting on a base model, with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage, to power an acceptable Windows 10 experience in such a small form factor.

That risk will either pay off and open up the Surface concept of tablet+laptop to a much broader audience, or it could dent the Surface brand, known for giving users a premium Windows experience. It’s especially risky launching an underpowered machine when Microsoft is still dealing with the fallout from Consumer Reports dropping its “recommended” badge from Surface devices due to reliability problems. We’ll find out if Microsoft’s Surface Go choices will pay off once the devices hit shelves next month.