Why Microsoft's Surface Go is no 'iPad-killer'

I hoped the whole ‘iPad-killer’ meme had finally kicked the bucket, but I was wrong: The hype is back around Microsoft’s overpriced and underpowered Surface Go. Here are the facts.

Apple, Microsoft, Surface, iPad, iOS, Windows 10, Mobile
Mark Hachman / IDG

I hoped the "iPad-killer" meme had finally kicked the bucket, but I was wrong: the hype is back around Microsoft’s overpriced and underpowered Surface Go. I’ve not used a Surface Go yet (Microsoft could change that), but reports that it’s about to kill the iPad are over-exaggerated. Here’s why:

It’s not an iPad Pro

Let’s get something out of the way. Surface Go does not compete with the iPad Pro on any metric that matters: It holds a slower processor, offers nothing like the performance, lacks battery life, and doesn’t even have the same high-resolution display.

Limited processor capability means the device does less, of course – so when you read the adulation for Surface Go, try to remember the product it actually does compete with is the excellent 2018 iPad.

Even then, Surface Go seems to be a fairly poor choice on the basis of price, performance, apps, and capability.

What is Surface Go?

Microsoft’s new addition to its Surface range, Surface Go, is being described as the low-cost, entry-level, two-in-one hybrid that combines mobility with some of the features you get from a PC.

Both Surface Go and iPad can work with optional external keyboards, and both offer stylus support.

Let’s take a look at the differences.

Price and performance                                                  

Apple’s 2018 iPad costs from $329 (and $30 less for education customers). It hosts a 64-bit A10 Fusion chip.

Surface Go provides a 1.6GHz 64-bit Intel Pentium Gold chip. Check the benchmarks for both chips, and it should be clear the A10 Fusion is far faster than the Pentium, particularly when it comes to graphics.

Entry-level Surface Go devices use eMMC storage, which will also impact performance. If you want the same kind of SSD performance you get from an iPad, you’ll need to spend another $150.

You can choose a higher-specification Surface Go if you like. Doing so puts an even bigger gap in place between the prices of the two products.

When it comes to price and performance, iPad is much better value. It even delivers better battery life. (Though Surface Go users will be happy they have a microSD card slot.)

Size matters

Apple’s tablet is slimmer and lighter than Microsoft’s.

The 9.4 x 6.6-inch iPad is just 0.29 inches thick and weighs 1.05 pounds. Surface Go is 9.6 x 7 inches and weighs 1.15 pounds.

With an eye to creativity and communications, both iPad and Surface Go host cameras. (Surface’s 5-megapixel front-facing camera is actually slightly better.)

Display quality

The bottom line is that the iPad offers 264ppi to the Surface Go's 217ppi. Microsoft has put an 1,800 x 1,200 resolution display in Surface Go, in comparison to iPads 2,048 x 1,536 pixels.

This means that while the iPad’s display is slightly smaller, it delivers a much crisper, much more color-accurate image. (Apple’s superior graphics mean images will look better and act better, too.)

Apple Pencil

The Apple Pencil is arguably the most highly responsive stylus anywhere. You can expect near zero latency when working on an iPad Pro.

In part, this is because Apple owns the OS and the hardware, but it’s also because the company designed it that way. Apple Pencil is a stylus for serious creativity and productivity.

What about the OS?

The iPad ships with iOS 11 (launched September 2017), but we already know it will support iOS 12 when that operating system ships in fall.

Why does that matter?

Well, not only can you expect new feature enhancements, but you can also look forward to significant performance improvements for the iPad.

Apple updates iOS every year, and it’s reasonable to assume that the current iPad will not only support iOS 12, but also iOS 13, and even version 14 after that.

Surface Go provides support for the already-veteran Windows 10 S (launched May 2017) and lets users upgrade to Windows 10 Home (free) for access to a full Windows system. Microsoft has committed to regular OS updates for Windows 10, but it has previously implied no Windows 11 will ever happen.

The company is working on another OS (Redstone), but nothing has been announced, so there’s no way of knowing if the Surface Go will ever see a serious software upgrade other than v10 patches.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to focus on OS features that really matter in a mobile age: security, privacy, and ever-improving continuity across all the devices on its platform.

What about the apps?

Apple once ran an ads campaign along the lines of “There’s an app for that.” That’s great, and these days Apple’s App Store has 1.3 million apps you can run on an iPad – far more than those available for the Surface Go.

These are highly capable solutions, spanning the productivity and creativity gamut – think Procreate, Affinity Photo, GarageBand, iMovie, and so many more.

This universe of apps makes Apple’s system far more flexible, far more personizable, and far more useful than its competitor.

In addition, because Apple is committed to making major feature improvements in its products, you can rest assured that developers will remain committed to building more apps in future. These apps will be designed to take advantage of new technologies Apple brings to market: Metal for graphics, ARKit, CoreML, and so much more. You aren't just investing in the present, but the future.

What about LTE?

Both systems provide LTE as an option. Microsoft says a Surface Go that includes LTE support will be added to the range in future, but it doesn’t say when or how much it will cost. The entry-level iPad with LTE costs from $459 and is available now.

Which is better?

I think the iPad beats Surface Go, not just in terms of price, but also in what it will offer in future as Apple upgrades the OS. That long-term commitment makes a big difference in how many years use you can expect from your system.

Who is Surface Go for?

I imagine it will appeal mainly to Microsoft’s core market of PC users looking to for a cheap way to upgrade unsupported computers from earlier times (such as XP). They may see Surface Go as a neat way to keep using Windows.

Enterprises may see it as a good way to equip employees with systems that may continue to be compatible with proprietary back-end systems while they struggle to find the budget to upgrade those.

A lot of people also argue these systems may do well in the education sector, but I’m not convinced: Is there any point teaching children Windows when most mobile enterprises are coalescing around iOS?

I really don't see Surface Go as an iPad killer. I think its primary purpose is to help Windows hold onto a little enterprise marketshare. And if you really want Windows, why not get an iPad and a copy of Parallels Access?

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