Surface Go vs. Chromebooks: Which should you buy?

When a company makes a computer "for schools" these days, what that really means is that product is positioned to compete with Chromebooks.

Google's lightweight OS and the inexpensive hardware it tends to live in has been largely responsible for the first reals signs of growth the standard PC market has seen over the last two years, due in no small part to the popularity of these products in school settings. Earlier this year we saw Apple try to appeal directly to this market with a less expensive iPad packed with educational software, and now it appears Microsoft is going the same route with its new Surface Go tablet.

Microsoft's Surface line has always been exceptional, but you pay for the privilege of owning something this nice and that makes buying a dozen for a classroom a little complicated. With the base model Surface Go launching at $399, Microsoft is hoping it will appeal to this market. But how does this experience stack up against a Chromebook? Let's take a look!

It's just so damn pretty.

Surface Go vs. Chromebook: Hardware

If you've never used a Surface before, the build quality of a Surface Go will surprise you. In fact, even if you have a used a Surface before the build quality of a Surface Go will surprise you. This is a well-built machine, complete with a sturdy feel and stylishly polished edges.

The back hinge is better than ever, allowing me to prop up on my lap or on a table at just about any angle. The power and volume buttons on the top of the tablet are rigid, with a satisfying click as you press them in. On the right side, you have the magnetic Surface charging port, a USB-C port, and a headphone jack.

Across the bottom, you'll find the magnetic connectors for the keyboard cover, which does not come included in the $399 price tag. Microsoft offers several options for the keyboard cover starting around $100, but I went with the slightly more expensive $130 Alcantara cover in maroon. Because when you are offered an accessory in Alcantara, you buy it. End of discussion.

There are no Chromebooks which look and feel this nice in this price range. Google makes the infamous Pixelbook, but the $1,000 price tag hardly makes sense to compare here. In this price range, Chromebooks tend to be black or white plastic. The $539 HP Chromebook X2 is almost exactly the same price as a Surface Go with a keyboard attached, and you get the benefit of a 13-inch display over the smaller 10-inch Surface Go.

Naturally, that size increase means a weight increase though, which makes the Surface Go a more portable option. Another solid comparison is the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, which is a standalone Chromebook tablet with no keyboard priced at $339. Comparing Acer's design to what Microsoft has created with the Surface Go is mildly akin to comparing a cardboard box with wheels to a Tesla. To say Microsoft's design in this category is unparalleled really feels like I am underselling it.

To say Microsoft's design in this category is unparalleled really feels like I am underselling it.

Under the hood, the Surface Go is packing a fanless Pentium Gold CPU with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage. While most Chromebooks tend to lean on lower powered processors, the specs sheet on your average modern Chromebook is fairly comparable to the Surface Go. The same goes for the display, Microsoft's 1800x1200 resolution display with touch input is pretty close to what you'll find just about everywhere else these days. Where the Surface Go really stands out is the Surface Pen, which you also have to buy separately. Several Chromebooks come with pen input, but none of them offer the accuracy or quality of what Microsoft has built with the Surface Pen.

Battery life on the Surface Go does not hold up to your average Chromebook. Microsoft claims "up to 9 hours" with the Surface Go, where most Chromebooks push 10-12 hours of use with no problem. But again, this is a compromise made to achieve the size this tablet PC currents sets in. If there was a Chromebook made in the shape and size of a Surface Go, it wouldn't likely be capable of the same 10-12 hour push. I'm not sure how much that matters to people buying things for classrooms, but for someone like me who appreciates having an ultraportable machine to take places the size and weight really does matter.

Apps are all that matter.

Surface Go vs Chromebooks: Software

When you set up a Chromebook for the first time, it takes about three minutes. When you already have a Google account and have already used a Chromebook before, that set up time is cut in half. Google's minimalist approach to Chrome OS makes it so ridiculously easy to set up a Chromebook it makes everything else feel slow and terrible, and the Surface Go is no exception. Setting this computer up the first time took almost 20 minutes, and when that was done what I got was a version of Windows that was almost useless to me.

Windows 10 S doesn't allow you to install anything that isn't in the Microsoft Store, and the contents of the Microsoft Store still isn't great by modern standards. Fortunately, switching from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Home is much easier than it was when the Surface Laptop was released, but by the time this computer was ready to actually be used a full half hour had passed.

You'll find a lot of reviews for the Surface Go saying very nice things about the performance of the computer throughout daily use, but an important caveat of those reviews is they are all using the higher end and more expensive version of this machine. The base model claims to be faster than the Surface 3, but my testing yielded different results. If I had three or four Chrome tabs open with Slack running in the background, a fairly standard set up for my workflow, the Surface Go would slow down considerably.

In some places, there would even be a lag between my pressing keys on the keyboard and the letters appearing on the screen. Running the same test with Edge instead of Chrome, I was able to have five tabs open before the same problem would occur. This computer is clearly not a workhorse, but I consider the workload I put this machine under to be quite modest. And, to be frank, I can do the exact same thing on a Chromebook or an iPad Pro and never see a moment's problem.

Chrome OS is much closer to a mobile operating system than Windows, and that reflects in how apps look and feel.

Part of the difficulty in comparing a Surface to a Chromebook is the way apps run is so very different. On a Surface, everything is a PC app built for Windows and not necessarily optimized for lesser processors or systems with less RAM. On a Chromebook, everything is either built to exist as a mobile app and optimized for a mobile processor or exist in the highly optimized version of Chrome built for this OS. Chrome OS starts out as a browser and lets you add things on, and the apps simply don't need the kind of processing power you get from a traditional desktop CPU.

Because Windows is trying to fit a legacy experience into a modern hardware profile, these software struggles can be exaggerated based on how modern or optimized the apps you need are. Chrome OS has the opposite problem, the apps are all going to run pretty well, but because most of them are built for phones they don't always look great on a giant tablet screen and in some cases refuse to orient correctly to the angle you are holding your Chromebook.

The benefit to Microsoft's legacy approach is clearer when doing things you simply can't do on a Chromebook. I'm currently running a full version of Adobe Lightroom on the Surface Go, where I have to use the mobile-focused Lightroom CC on my Chromebook. I can use either fairly interchangeably, and Lightroom on the Surface Go is fairly slow when I'm processing multiple images, but having access to every feature is occasionally important to me, and is only possible with the Desktop version of this app.

A less niche example can be found in gaming. Through the Xbox Play Anywhere system I'm able to install the Xbox One game Cuphead on my Surface Go, pair an Xbox Controller, and play Cuphead literally anywhere and have that game feel exactly the same as it does on my TV at home. That obviously doesn't work for every Xbox Play Anywhere game, but it does work on a significant number of games in the Steam Store, which is not something I can say for Chromebooks. This isn't a great example for a school environment, but it makes me happy knowing I can pack a controller with me places and have a good time.

Price is always important.

Surface Go vs Chromebooks: Which should you buy?

Overall, I am thrilled with this Surface Go. I think Microsoft has come a long way from the Surface RT, and really made something great for people who want something portable and a little less expensive than a standard Surface. This is a fantastic piece of hardware, and there are things about Windows 10 you straight up can't replicate in Chrome OS.

See at Microsoft (opens in new tab)

That having been said, I wouldn't recommend this base model to anyone. The model with 8GB of RAM is clearly the model people should buy, but by the time you add a keyboard you're spending close to $700 and that just doesn't fit the market. You can buy two of the Acer Chromebook Tab 10 (opens in new tab) units for the same price, and schools are going to notice that sort of thing when it comes to buying for a group. There's also less overhead in setting up and maintaining a Chromebook, which is not a small detail for schools.

If you're looking for a small, lightweight Windows machine there's no doubt the Surface Go is the nicest option available today. But if all you want is an all-day portable workhorse on the cheap, you still can't beat a Chromebook.

Check out the best Chromebook for your in our handy review guide!{.cta}

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

22 Comments
  • Good article and I think you are spot on with your assessment. Having sons who went to school where they started with school issued Windows machines which were eventually ditched from Chromebooks I know first hand many of your arguments hold true in real world scenarios. There is just no way for Microsoft to compete at the price point it takes for their product to perform comparably to a Chromebook. I think the surface go at $400 is great but with a $100 extra cost on a keyboard is just a deal killer especially for educational institutions with limited budgets and having to purchase such large quantities.
  • This was a good read. I'm finding a lot of basic requirements for my day-to-day and those around me, are starting to sound more and more like a Chromebook/Box would suffice. Except my son. Having a PC for games is nice to have in the house, and if I get a hankering to play something, and he's not, Steam Link to it through a phone or Shield TV. I just wish I could do more with Google Docs and Sheets compared to Microsoft and One Drive, but time will tell I guess.
  • I tried a Pixelbook recently, but it wasn't light enough for me to comfortably use as a tablet, and I have one particular program (the slicer software for my 3D printer) that only runs on Windows/MacOS/Linux. I also use a lot of Word and Excel features that aren't available in the Web/Android versions or in Google Docs/Sheets. As well, there's the lack of USB printer support. I have an aging Brother laserjet that's USB-only. I don't print often enough at home that it's worth spending another $100-200 on a wireless printer, and I hate to replace something that works perfectly well. I really liked the Pixelbook, but for now I think I'm better off sticking with my Windows 10 laptop.
  • The biggest single benefit of Chrome over Windows is admin. The second biggest is the availability of cheap, toughened Chromebooks for use in schools. That docking station is a disaster waiting to happen. My spy in the classroom says most iPads survive under 2 years and I expect the Surface to do the same. Simply having a reasonably rigid case and a keyboard that folds over the screen eliminates a lot of damage.
    For schools it's more important to have something that is good enough, affordable and maintainable than to have something with compatibility with an office environment which will have changed by the time the kids are in work.
  • I purchased the Surface Go, was initially very pleased with it because I have small hands and my Surface Pro seems like a distance from the keyboard to the screen - it was not the keyboard of the Go that is the issue it is because I have a vision issue so I enlarged the size of the content on the screen so I was having to swipe to the left to see everything and I don't have to do that with the Surface Pro.
  • This is an uncommonly unbiased review. The next time I am undecided about buying anything I will search for a review by Russell Holly. Thank you.
  • For me, looking at a secondary device, the Chromebook X2 makes way more sense. I need a pen and a keyboard, so after extras the surface is about the same price. At that price, the surface is embarrassingly slow, despite looking way better. The biggest downside of the X2 is the lack of dedicated programs, but I can remote into my gaming desktop with chrome remote desktop. Hearing about the performance of the base surface, remote desktop might even be more usable. I like the simplicity of Chrome os, and the functionality meets my needs. I really wanted to fill an ipad pro niche for college note taking, and the X2 wins in almost every way. I'm happy giving up a little bit of style and portability for simplicity, performance, and battery life.
  • Very good article! No complaints, though I would like to add that you can quite easily modify a Chromebook to run Windows, as I have. Just get the right set of drivers and you are in business, feels great, looks great, and cheaper.
  • Are you serious? You can't get a Chromebook to run Windows. You can install Windows on hardware that came with Chrome OS. No that's not semantics. If you install Windows on the hardware, it is no longer a Chromebook. That's what the OEMs do. Look at the various flavors of the HP X2 Convertible, or cheap Acer laptops. What's the point though? You can buy a Windows device as cheap as you can buy a Chromebook, not inexpensive; cheap. Buy what you want. At the same price the Chromebook will have better performance, but less functionality. Comes down to user needs. P.S. If you want to be amused, note that this exact same article is posted at Windows Central, and the comments are distinct to the sites. Fun to read the different views from the different audiences ;)
  • We can install and run Android on Surface go.. game on and debate Is over!!
  • I have a Chromebook plus from Samsung, I think the only things it lack is memory and LTE...
  • Like most Surface devices, they are meant as high end examples for their partner manufacturers (HP, Dell, Lenova, etc.). Successful sales of Surfaces is a bonus side effect that proves their design is on point. Obviously the partners can make more, cheaper devices that schools could better afford, but then build quality is really no better than your average Chromebook. Personally, I believe schools should be focusing on providing students a learning experience more akin to what they will use in college and business after the elementary school level. Obviously you can't buy Macs and Microsoft's Windows is still the overwhelmingly dominant OS used in business. Chromebooks and iPads aren't really preparing children for their future, and odds are they are already familiar with those devices because they've been glued to then since they were 3 years old. I had a young man interview a few weeks ago. He came in dressed for business, had a great attitude and had an iPad in a portfolio - which was different, but we're a tech company and it made me think that he would be tech savvy. I casually mentioned Microsoft Office... that's where he lost consideration for the job. His eyes glassed over like I started talking Mandarin. He didn't know what Excel was or even Outlook. Best of luck young fella.
  • You don't teach electricians how to take apart a steam engine just because the system used to run on steam. The future is Mr Edison. Your office needs to get with the modern era.
  • Lol... This is going to be a rough transition if every job seeker has that attitude. I know I wouldn't hire someone expected to do computer based work in a corporate setting without knowledge of MS Office.
  • All in all, an excellent review, although I would argue that the Samsung Chromebook Plus offers at least the same quality build as the Surface Go. The last paragraph provides an excellent summary: "If you're looking for a small, lightweight Windows machine there's no doubt the Surface Go is the nicest option available today. But if all you want is an all-day portable workhorse on the cheap, you still can't beat a Chromebook." Only one point is missing: The better device is the one that better meets your needs. For some people, that means Windows — period. For others (like me) that means anything BUT Windows, which I have loathed since the days of Windows 98. My personal computing devices have never included anything that runs Windows, apart from an early Netbook, which I immediately wiped and installed Linux. Since this is AndroidCentral, I suspect that the readership will be highly interested in support for Android apps, which tilts toward Chromebooks. Bottom line: buy the one that best fits *your* needs.
  • I disagree that the surface go and pixelbook are not close enough in the price range to even compare them. With the Pixelbook, you typically only have to wait a few weeks before you find it on sale again at around the $750 mark. And with the Surface Go, to make it something comfortable to use, you have to pay between 700 and $800, very close to the same price. and at that price point, I daresay the pixelbook is not only equal in build quality but probably Superior.
  • Great review, and the conclusion is: Chromebooks of course.
    And soon, with virtual almost pass through GPUs for the debian container Steam and stage wine Steam will be usable for not recent AAA titles.
    And the reason is : Linux kernel
    I do not understand why MS after their mobile great fall did not decide to migrate to a POSIX kernel, FreeBSD based as Apple, or anything newer,
    And of course if what you want is a MS WOS 10 good computer also do not buy a Surface Go, put your money where your choice is and buy a real computer that can run Photoshop. Isn't it MS?
  • I've ditched Windows and really can't think of any argument for ever picking it back up. You can go on about hardware and games and Photoshop, but I don't game or use Photoshop. I work. I want something that turns on and works every time I open the lid. I don't want to be stuck waiting for MS to finish updates. I don't want to have to take my laptop to IT when I get invariably get something on it that makes the whole OS slow to a crawl. I don't want to replace my computer every single year just to have something that actually sorta works when it feels like it. For all of Google's many flaws, they got the OS right. Adding Linux for power users is a much better solution than wasting more money hoping that Windows will ever be usable.
  • Can someone, please, confirm how does Amazon Kindle treats these devices WRT subscriptions to periodicals: you can read those on the "tablets" but not on "PCs". I would assume that I would be able to read periodicals on the Chromebook with Android Kindle app installed, but not on Surface Go...
  • Depends. Personally I would get the Surface Go.
  • Really it is not longer a contest. With GNU/Linux built into ChromeOS and then also get Android with the far better security than Windows makes it an easy decision which is the better choice. But then also get longer battery life and much more peppy performance on similar hardware. It is why Chromebooks grew over 50% YoY while PC sales peaked 10 years ago.
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