Patrick Lucas Austin
May 11, 2020 1:54 PM EDT

Microsoft’s done a good job when it comes to reclaiming its position as a contender in personal computers. What was once missing from its line of Surface notebooks, its creation-focused Surface Studio, and its tablet-adjacent Surface Pro convertible notebooks, was a more budget-friendly version, solved by the introduction of the Surface Go in 2018. Microsoft’s refreshed version, the new $399 Surface Go 2, is a welcome addition to the lineup. But that budget price comes with a few caveats — caveats that make its selling point feel too good to be true, and make you frustrated enough to abandon the tiny laptop entirely. The worst part? More Windows 10 confusion.

But it’s so cute it’s almost worth it.

The Surface Go 2, all sleek and silvery, looks and feels like a winner at first glance, starting with its 10.5-inch touchscreen display. With a 1920 x 1280 resolution, it’s got more than enough pixels to show off 1080p videos with ease, and leaves your text clear and crisp when cranking out words or browsing the web. That high resolution also makes drawing using the pressure-sensitive Surface Pen a real delight, with lines looking smooth and fluid on what could be the perfect size for a portable, pen-friendly tablet. That screen is also equipped with a front-facing five-megapixel and rear-facing eight-megapixel camera, both of which support 1080p video streaming, beating other devices like Apple’s own MacBook Pro and their 720p cameras. Furthermore, it supports Windows Hello, the company’s take on biometric security (using, in this case, your face) and what should be considered the gold standard in speedy logins. It’s a great device for someone who needs to show their mug while they work from home, at least if that’s all you need it for. It also has that sweet kickstand found on the Surface Pro, for adjusting the display’s angle from ramrod straight to nearly flat.

But the Surface Go 2 does a disservice to its potential customers by making the backlit keyboard cover another pricey accessory rather than a standard feature. While you can use it as a tablet, the Go 2’s tablet interface leaves a lot to be desired, and having a keyboard and trackpad really help. Even so, the keyboard might be more suited for smaller hands, as its cramped spacing makes long bouts of typing particularly frustrating.

When it comes to budget devices, you’re making sacrifices no matter how you slice it. While the Surface Go 2 has a pretty stellar display and camera setup, it has to take a hit somewhere. In terms of processing power, you’ll find an underpowered Intel processor paired with an abysmal 4GB of RAM, along with 64GB of internal storage. While an extra $150 doubles both the RAM and internal storage, you’re still stuck with a processor designed for efficiency and longevity rather than high performance.

At least you won’t have to worry about gaming, because you won’t be doing much of it. The innards of the Go 2 are not the most powerful, nor will they make activities with a focus on graphics particularly appealing. But its updated wireless connectivity options (including LTE support) make streaming games to the Go 2 a real cinch, using software like Steam.

Granted, the budget convertible notebook isn’t designed for high performance, but for staying alive for as long as you need it — up to ten hours, in this case. In order to achieve such stellar battery life, the Surface Go 2 runs Windows 10 S Mode, a variant of Windows 10 the company claims achieves more battery life, better performance, and improved security. The catch? You’re limited to using apps available exclusively in the Microsoft Store. The other catch? Should you choose to install an app outside the Microsoft Store, you’ll need to “switch out” of S Mode, without the option to return to the battery-saving, performance-boosting version.

The additional operating system variant, coupled with the inscrutable instructions, create a formula for confusion that benefits no one. In the Windows world, many popular or downright essential apps exist outside the boundaries of the Microsoft Store, including web browsers like Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, communication and streaming apps, and utilities made by developers unwilling to participate in Microsoft’s marketplace. Many users will sooner or later realize that S Mode is more trouble than it’s worth. And the inability to return to S Mode, even when you’re done using the app in question, makes it all the more likely users will simply throw their hands in the air and forget about this nonsense entirely.

The Surface Go 2, like its Pro counterparts and Go predecessor, nails the looks that makes the Surface lineup so iconic. But that doesn’t mean its masquerade is worth the price of admission. It does manage to strike an unusual balance between budget tablet and lightweight laptop. It doesn’t feel thrown together; it’s solid as a rock, and the perfect size to carry around the house for some reading, watching, or general doodling. Its battery-friendly processors and Windows 10 S Mode software grant it pretty lengthy uptime for such a small laptop. Its USB-C port, headphone jack, MicroSD card slot, and delightfully modern cameras beat those on certain high-end laptops.

But to get a decent processor, be prepared to ditch that $399 price point. Want to do some actual typing? Get ready to add another $130 for a keyboard cover too essential to forego, yet too tiny for its own good. Doodling with a Surface Pen will tack on another $80 to $100 to the mix. Bundling all these in a slightly more expensive package would alleviate the issue without resorting to this nickel and dime approach on what’s marketed as a budget-minded device. Why not include the keyboard, bump the price up a few bucks, and call it a day so I can just grab it and, you know, go?

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