Artist Review: Microsoft Surface Go not the Value Option for Casual Digital Art

Microsoft Surface Go is the latest more portable tablet in the Surface lineup. The first thing that came to my mind when the Surface Go was released was to be reminded of the Surface 3 which was released in 2018. So is the Surface Go better than the Surface 3? It should be. How about the iPad 2018 that was released about four months ago?

To give you the bottom line, the Surface Go is a decent portable tablet for general purpose use with functionality greatly enhanced by the Surface Pen and Surface Go Type Cover (both not included and cost US $100 each). If you're looking for a lightweight devices for basic computing tasks, it's worth a consideration.

As a tablet for drawing purposes, it's alright. It's not significantly better compared to the Surface Pro 2017 in terms of drawing performance or satisfaction. When you consider the price and the competition (iPad 2018), Surface Go is sort of a no-go. It's difficult to see the value if you're getting it just for creating casual art.

The unit that I have was bought secondhand for the purpose of this review. If you want to support me or see more such reviews, consider supporting me on Patreon.

Specs comparison

Here's the tablet for a quick specs comparison.

Models Surface Go Surface 3 Surface Pro 2017 Surface Pro 6 (2018) iPad 2018
Memory 4 - 8GB 4GB 4 - 16GB 8 - 16GB 2GB
Storage 64 or 128GB 64 or 128GB 128GB - 1TB 128GB - 1TB 32 or 64GB
Price US $399 - $549 US $499 - $599 US $799 - $2699 US $899 - $2299 US $329 - $429
Size 17.5 x 24.5 x 8.3cm 18.7 x 26.7 x 8.7cm 20.1 x 29.2 x 8.5cm 20.1 x 29.2 x 8.5cm 17 x 24 x 7.5cm
Weight 522g 622g 768 - 784g 770 - 784g 469g
Body material Magnesium Magnesium Magnesium Magnesium Aluminum
Screen 10-inch, 1800 x 1200 10.8-inch, 1920 by 1280 12.3-inch, 2736 x 1824 12.3-inch, 2736 x 1824 9.7-inch, 2048 by 1536
Stylus support US $99 Surface Pen, Not included US $99 Surface Pen, Not included US $99 Surface Pen, Not included US $99 Surface Pen, Not included US $99 Apple Pencil, Not included
OS Windows 10 Home in S Mode Windows 8 Windows 10 Pro Windows 10 Home iOS
Ports USB C, microSD USB 3, microUSB, microSD, mDisplayPort USB 3, microSD, mDisplayPort USB 3, microSD, mDisplayPort Lightning
Processor Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y Dual-core 1.6Ghz Intel Atom 1.6Ghz Quad Core Intel m3 to i7-7660U dual 2.5Ghz Intel i5 8250U quad 1.6Ghz - Intel i7 8650U quad 1.9Ghz A8X Tri-core 1.5Ghz
Battery life 9 hours as advertised 10 hours as advertised 13.5 hours as advertised 13.5 hours as advertised 10 hours as advertised
Release date August 2018 May 2015 June 2017 Oct 2018 April 2018

The main thing to know is the 64GB storage model is using an eMMC drive and the 128GB storage is a SSD drive. SSD is significantly faster compared to eMMC and makes booting up, launching applications, loading and saving large files snappy.

My previous experience with eMMC storage is with the Lenovo Yoga Book (Windows). There's this disconnect when you expect tablets to be snappy but it takes longer than expected to load apps and open files. Performance is alright but if you have the budget, definitely get the 128GB SSD storage model. Having said, launching apps still took longer than I expected even with the SSD model. I can't imagine the loading time on eMMC.

Note that the actual amount of storage space of a 128GB storage is actually 119GB. After deducting the space taken up by Windows and the apps you install, you'll be looking at less than 100GB of usable storage. 64GB only has 59GB of actual storage, and after Windows and apps you'll be left with 39GB. The good thing is Surface Go does come with a microSD card slot so you can expand storage easily, A 200GB Sandisk microSD card is less than US $45.

The second thing to note is Surface Go comes with Windows 10 in S Mode which only allows you to install apps from the Microsoft App Store. But you can easily upgrade to normal Windows 10 mode so that you can install desktop apps, which you will want to. It's a one-way upgrade so you can't downgrade to S mode afterwards, even with a factory reset.

The third thing to note is Windows 10 and the apps you run will take up memory. So if you're getting only the 4GB memory model, you may run out of memory fast, especially if you are using a web browser with a few tabs opened in the background.

In short, the 128GB SSD model is more worth the money.

Design and build quality

The Surface Go still has the same excellent build quality as earlier Surface products. The magnesium body has a matte surface texture that's nice to touch and has solid feel to it.

The 10-inch screen supports a resolution of 1800 by 1200. The 3:2 aspect ratio is a good for productivity. The 217 PPI pixel density makes everything look quite sharp, though not as sharp compared to the Surface Pro of course. The resolution is very sufficient for general purpose use.

The 1800 x 1200 resolution is not full HD (1920 x 1080) by the way. You can still view 1080P Youtube videos though, just that the 1080P video is downsizes to fit the 1800 width. That's better than watching a scaled up 720P video.

The drawing area of a 10-inch screen is very similar to drawing on an A5-sized sketchbook. Personally, I would have preferred a larger screen. Having said that, I also find the 12.3-inch Surface pro to be small. When it comes to drawing, the larger the surface area, the better, keeping in mind the weight of course.

Because of the screen size and resolution, user interface elements will take up a larger portion of the screen. There's still ample working space. The issue is, eg working in Photoshop or Medibang Paint Pro, when you have panels on the right, and if the palm rejection doesn't work flawlessly (it doesn't), your palm may hit some functions. For example, when using Sketchbook Pro, my drawing hand would accidentally click on the wrong layer to draw on it. Imagine drawing on a layer that's meant for colours. Correcting any mistakes is going to be difficult and frustration. I don't have such problem on the larger Surface Pro because my palm is usually further away from the right-side panels.

10-inch screen is small, so clicking on things accurately is sometimes a problem because some user interface elements are rather small. So having a Surface Pen with the hovering cursor really helps.

I measured 97% sRGB, 73% AdobeRGB and 67% NTSC colour support.

The corners are now even more rounded that makes the design look and feel more inviting. Bezels are still quite thick but the extra space is spacious for holding comfortably with your fingers.

On the side, there's one USB-C port, the Surface Connect port and a 3.5mm audio jack. The USB-C port unfortunately cannot be used to charge the tablet. And the charger included with the Surface Go is just a simple charger, not the one with the huge brick and the extra USB type A port.

To connect the Surface Go to an external monitor, you'll get to get an adapter cable which is cheaper than the US $125 Surface Dock.

Power and volume buttons are at the top. The dual front facing speakers still produce clear audio.

The built-in stand is still very useful. You can set it to any angle. It's tight so the angle's not going to change with a gentle accident nudge. You can set it to any angle. When you're drawing and pressing down, it's going to go down to the lowest position.

The Surface Go Type Cover is not included and cost US $100. It's a rather essential item if you're thinking of doing any sort of typing. You can certainly type on the virtual keyboard but that doesn't feel as good compared to typing on a proper keyboard. This keyboard is small compared to a full-sized keyboard so it's going to feel cramp. Keys have good travel and are well spaced apart despite being a small keyboard. It will take some time getting used to. Definitely better than using the virtual keyboard.

The only thing to note is there's no Control button on the right side. So keyboard shortcuts that require the Control button on the right are not going to possible, eg Ctrl+O, Ctrl+[, Ctrl+] and many more. When you are drawing and using the Surface Pen, your left hand will not be able to get those right handed keyboard shortcuts. The alternative is to get a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard but then you won't have the sleek keyboard cover.

The other thing that annoys me is the Type Cover does not wake the tablet when it's opened. You still have to press a button or swipe the trackpad to wake the tablet.

The keyboard will snap magnetically to the bottom of the tablet. When using the tablet for drawing, I find that it's not ergonomic to have my left hand so close and below my right (drawing) hand. It just feel better to have the keyboard to the side of tablet, so that's where having a Bluetooth keyboard will really improve the comfort of drawing for long periods of time.

If you don't want to get the keyboard and still need to use keyboard shortcuts, the alternative is to use third party apps, eg Tablet Pro, that creates virtual keys on the screen. But that's going to take up screen real estate on an already small screen. If Microsoft had created a Bluetooth Type Cover, that would have solved all these issues.

The Alcantara material they use for the keyboard feels good and looks durable. Only concern is how it's going to hold up with greasy hands.

Drawing performance

Drawing performance is alright, but if I were to compare it with other tablets, I definitely won't be getting the Surface Go for drawing.

In general, it can be difficult to draw with consistent pressure. So when drawing a straight line at moderate speed, you can expect the thickness of the line to vary slightly. Drawing slow lines will have the wobble.

Palm rejection is not as flawless compared to the iPad 2018 or even the Samsung Tab S4 or Tab S3. I get stray strokes occasionally from resting my palm on the screen while drawing. To prevent stray strokes, you have to be very conscious about having the Surface Pen close to the screen, get into hover mode with the mouse cursor appearing, before you let your hand rest on the screen. It's not easy.

Very often, I find myself drawing for a long time only to find out that I've introduced a stray stroke minutes ago. It's very irritating and sometimes it can be very difficult to correct the stray strokes because they have merged with other parts of the drawing.

Affinity Photo
Fast lines are fine. Note the wavering thickness for the slow strokes and the curves (red) on the right side. Those lines should be smooth instead.

ArtRage seems to perform fine. Notice the dots? Those are stray strokes.

Another weird thing I noticed about ArtRage is, when I use the app on Android, eg Huawei MediaPad M5 Pro and Samsung Tab S4, I'm not able to draw a perfect circle with the watercolour brush. But on the Windows version of ArtRage, there's no problem, which is a good thing.

Wacom Bamboo Paper
Strokes from normal writing speed look alright. For slow strokes, it's difficult to control the pressure to achieve consistently thick lines. Slow diagonal lines are sort of straight but the thickness wavers.

Krita works quite well but there's still the issue with wavering thickness.

Same issue here with Sketchable. There are a couple of stray strokes as well. It seems like on some apps, there's higher tendency to create stray strokes.

Same issue with the wavering thickness here with Sketchbook Pro. The finger gestures are not very responsive to the point that it's a deal breaker. On many occasions, I wanted to pan and zoom with my two fingers but unable to do so.

Medibang Paint Pro performs slightly better, but it has always been the app that works really well with Windows tablets. Slow diagonal lines has very slight wobble. Not as obvious compared to other apps thankfully.

Why do I test for slow diagonal lines? When you're drawing portraits or human figures, sometimes you want to be slower to capture the curves more accurately, or you may just want to draw some perspective lines that are always at an angle.

Video review


Drawing performance depends on the app you use. It's still quite disappointing to see some jitter or wobble in the lines. Some apps have it more, some less. Some apps would smooth out the lines so you have less the jitter.

Other than the issues with the strokes, I like everything else about the tablet. I think the target market for this tablet are students and people who want a compact portable device that's able to run Windows software. Having the Type Cover and Surface Pen will greatly enhance the functionality of the tablet, making it significantly easier to type and click on stuff. And I do highly recommend getting the SSD storage model because SSD will provide much faster performance, and you get more storage and memory. Yeah, the base model is indeed very price competitive but after you add all those things up (+US $350) for a better experience, it becomes a rather pricey tablet in the end.

If you want to get an affordable tablet mostly for drawing, I suggest the 128GB iPad 2018 ($429) with Apple Pencil ($99). In you need to run Windows apps, then you have no choice but to get a Windows tablet.

+ Sturdy build quality
+ Has a USB 3 Type C port
+ Has microSD slot for additional storage expansion
+ Nice weight for its size, still light enough for handheld drawing
+ Built in stand with many positions
+ Surface Pen feels good to draw on the screen
+ Some jitter issues with certain drawing apps
+ 3:2 aspect ratio good for productivity
+ 1800 x 1200 resolution sharp enough for a 10-inch screen
+ 97% sRGB support
+ Screen has good viewing angles and colours
+ Good stereo speakers
+ Able to install desktop and tablet apps
+ Decent battery life of 6 - 8 hours
+ Gets warm but still comfortable for hours of sketching

- Performance generally good. Web browsing with Chrome will get occasional stutter. Microsoft Edge works fine.
- Limited number of ports
- Desktop apps not optimized for tablets usually have small menus and user interface
- Surface Pen buttons have limited customization
- Surface Pen is included and cost USD $100.
- Surface Go Type Cover is not included and cost US $100
- Type Cover does not wake up sleep mode
- Type Cover does not have right Control button
- USB C cannot be used for charging, is not Thunderbolt
- eMMC model is slow. SSD model is faster, but could be even faster.


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Hmmm. I wasn't going to get

Hmmm. I wasn't going to get the Surface Go specifically (or only) for sketching, but I need to replace my very old Samsung tablet, and I figured this would be more versatile, and I'd be able to learn to sketch on it, too. But it sounds disappointing in terms of drawing. I'm not going to buy an iPad only for drawing (and I'm not switching to iOS at this point in my life... it would be like changing religions ;-) ), so I guess I'll wait longer for a Windows-based device that can finally compete with iOS. Might be waiting a long time ;-) , but I'm in no hurry. Thanks for the thorough review.

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