Surface Go vs. Chromebooks: Which should you buy?

When a company makes a computer "for schools" these days, what that really means is that the 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 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 do 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 initially 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.

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.

Cuphead

Cuphead (Image credit: Windows Central)

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 to that model you're spending close to $700 and that just doesn't fit the market. You can buy two of the Acer Chromebook Tab 10 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 you over at Android Central!

Russell Holly

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!

52 Comments
  • Is this a trick question? The only people that should get a chromebook are those that either want something bigger or can't afford a surface go
  • The only people that should get a chrome book device are people who are google loyalists, or people who already own windows devices...there fixed that for you dare2blink
  • I have a Windows laptop as my main computer and a Chromebook as a secondary computer. Both are good for different reasons.
  • That's sort of what I was getting at in a joking way VAVA. A chrome book is probably not the best PRIMARY computer. However, a great secondary unit.
  • Nah... Being a (insert company name here) loyalist is unhealthy (especially if it get to the point of acquiring a chrome book over a surface go) and one should always choose whatever device will better acomodate their needs. Cost and screen size aside, there is nothing that could ever be better suited for anyone on a chromebooks when contrasted with a surface go.
  • I would suggest that one area that Chromebooks would be preferred is less savvy computer users that have fairly basic requirements, e-mail, some social, entertainment, browsing. Even some production with word processing or spreadsheet work. They are pretty secure, and dirt simple to reset back to default if things go awry. With them being predominantly web/cloud based, you lose very little, resetting and logging back in with your Google account.
  • Then the Go in S mode could do all that. Use the mobile versions of the Office apps.
  • It's a bit like saying, would you prefer a Kia or a Mercedes Benz?
    Both work fine and will get you there OK, but there's one that has no soul, is made on the cheap and I wouldn't be seen dead in......and it's not the Merc
  • You haven't touched a PixelBook, have you?
  • The PixelBooks are very well made but a more apt comparison would be a Surface laptop in that example.
  • "When a company makes a computer "for schools" these days, what that really means is that the product is positioned to compete with Chromebooks" This conclusion is sooo US centric; Chromebooks are a footnote in the rest of the world...
  • To me, the choice is simple. Which one runs Microsoft Windows? Sold.
  • I'm looking forward to that Google shill/troll, Bleached, trying to tell us why the Chromebook is better.
  • They make great secondary computers.
  • Windows is just too complicated and insecure if you don't need the extra capability. Leaving it in S-Mode helps, but then you leave the extra capability behind. The capability gap lessens everyday too. Eventually, Windows will only be for the heaviest of tasks.
  • Windows 10 S is a wonderful thing. Chromebooks suck I know use it.
  • The advantage of iOS devices is that they're really built for touch. Chromebooks are only so-so with touch (though better than Windows) and are second-rate when it comes to the desktop experience. It seems like the best compromise for school boards might be Windows. But we'll have to see how it all plays out. Also, I do want to harp on the whole kickstand thing. I'm amazed more companies aren't trying to copy it. If you want a device that can do it all, you don't want a pure tablet with a crappy folio cover stand. Though I suppose convertibles are still an option.
  • If they are going to do a folio cover, at least copy a good design like the ARM equipped HPEnvy X2
  • 1-2 years ago, I would have said Surface in a heartbeat. Now it's Chromebook all the way
  • Surface go period. Limits u less. Looks better and i don't like chrome or the typical android looks and feels.
  • It would be a mistake to think that Surface Go is for students only. It will appeal to hordes of people. Not in the least to my 80- year old mother in law. But we are after an LTE version for her as a belated birthday gift, 8 Gb RAM of course, to show off 360 photos and videos to family and friends, as well as the occasional email and Office productivity, listening to music, exploring VeeR VR, YouTube, watching tele without set top box and what more comes around. Hey, we both want one too. All off us with pen, we already have wireless keyboards and mouses.
  • Have you tried an iPad? They are much cheaper and the software is better if she doesn't need to type much. The use you describe sounds perfect for iPad. Windows would be over.
  • I'd have to second that. Even if there is some typing required, Logitech makes some great folio cases. The Office mobile apps work great, if the built in iWorks apps won't work because of compatibility or familiarity.
  • How much do you get paid for Apple to come here lol
  • Put LTE on a Surface Go and that is the tablet hybrid to buy. Even without LTE it is the tablet to buy!
  • I'm planning on picking up an LTE model when it comes out. The Surface Go looks like a perfect secondary for me.
  • Not sure about MS, but I don't see Surface Go as an option for schools. I do see it as an option for students. There is a distinction there. Schools need something cheap, easy to repurpose, relatively disposable. That's not a Surface Go, or any Surface for that matter. Students need something flexible, very portable and with some longevity. That is distinctly the Surface Go. It also meets the affordability checkbox, though I wouldn't call it cheap. Quality rarely is. A significant revelation in the article is when the author notes that it comes with a "version of Windows that was almost useless to me." There you go. The rest is flavored by using the device in a way it was not reall designed to be used, like putting a trailer hitch on a Mustang. Yes, you can change to 'full' Windows and yes you can run legacy/X86 applications, like Chrome, a poster child for resource hogging, but the store should provide you with sufficient applications to support what should be the intent of these devices. That's not gaming, not high end professional apps. Stay with S and stay with the store and you get applications much more suited to a 10" touch screen tablet focused device.
  • I'm convinced Google intentionally gimps Chrome to run worse on low spec windows PC's. That being said, the only place I use Chrome is on my work PC, and it is for one reason only....... We are stuck on Windows 7 for the foreseeable future.
  • It is not that they gimp Chrome, Chrome is a heavy piece of software which compromises performance, especially as a computer's hardware weakens.
  • How about Vivaldi, Firefox or Opera on W7?
  • Windows needs a lite version, with a lighter smaller footprint than a 500 pound gorilla. Maybe like Windows XP ;-)
  • I personally try to avoid as many products from a company whose core business is internet tracking + ads. And hardware wise the Go looks like a more compelling product. If money is an issue for people I would probably get the entry version, buy a microsd cart and a chinese keyboard cover (light and good enough for quick emails etc, and can be fairly protective).
  • The 4 gb Ram limits the utility of using a Windows-powered device. I also think if a school wants to buy 200 Go's they will get a "discount". How many Go's would a school district buy? How many years would a Go last compared to a Chromebook? If a Go lasts twice as long, then the Go is very competitive. For my kids, they were issued a MacBook they kept for 4 years (9th through 12th--although they had to return them during the summer after 9th and 10th grade.
  • Hi, I am not going to think from the perspective of schools cause I don't know what prices they pay for chromebooks/chrometablets and microsoft devices (they probably both get sizeable discounts on big orders). I was thinking more about individual students etc. Since the Go has a tablet form factor (low weight & can be hold for long times), I will compare it to Chrometablets. Surface Go would probably last longer than the average chrometablet cause of most likely better internals. If you get the model with the ssd that most likely helps too, compared to the tablets that use eMMC. However since tablets are weak to clumsy usage (which can happen to everyone) a really good protective case is important imo.
    Besides that I think devices that only run chrome can be limiting for some studies but that it is another story. For the comparison with chromebooks, I would compare it with other 2-1 windows laptops with the same size (eg in my country the best deal I found was ~180 euro including taxes for similar hardware and fairly good budget brand). 250 euro for a model with 4 gb memory and 64 gb storage. Though chromebooks are probably more rugged.
  • A Surface Go will not outlast a Chromebook. One drop and that screen is shattered.
  • lol How do you know this lol kids
  • Has anyone compared a Go running Edge versus a Chromebook running Chrome? Edge supposedly is more efficeint than Chrome. But I don't know and have not seen any reliable comparisons. Obviously, comparing a Pro versus a Chromebook is pointless. But the Go is the first real effort by the WinTel ecosystem to compete in the Tablet/mobile or iOS/Android mobile market. A side note. I have now bought two books from the Miscorosft store, versus the many other books I have bought from Amazon. The Kindle was never a comparable experience to a book. The Kindel was easier to carry around. But I always felt the Kindle was hard to navigate. I now find Edge provides a superior reading experience than a Kindle or the Kindle app on my Surface Pro (for some reason, Kindle app and a Kindle don't replicate the visual nuances that Edge provides (especially things like maps you might find in a book). I hope more books become available on the Microsoft store. I think Edge in Tablet mode is getting better. I also think the importance of inking will play out in MSFT's benefit going forward. I also think the IT department will find managing lots of WinTel devices easier than a bunch of MacBooks and iPads.
  • As an educator, Chromebooks are a pile of trash. With that being said. The surface doesn't have a chance at penetrating Student use of Chromebooks in both Elementary and High schools. The current crop of tech educators is run by Teachers who are totally sold on the google universe. It's a total pain to convince them otherwise. Honestly, Microsoft had the perfect opportunity to cut into Chromebooks with Windows RT but Microsoft crushed the OS...
  • I have the Go 8gig model and I have to say...its one versatile little device, I love it. It's handled everything I've thrown at it so far and the pen performance is beyond great. I use it in both tablet and laptop mode depending on the task and both do trick. In terms of games...Cuphead, Minecraft story mode season 2, Moonlighter, Ori...its all running great.
  • The simple question is: Do you want a huge cellphone or a professional tool?
  • I'm sorry, which is which? Neither has phone capabilities, nor run phone OSs. Neither has ever been suggested as a professional device, not withstanding that some professionals could use either.
  • Surface Go keyboard: $100
    Cheapest Chromebook on Amazon: $140 Is this even a valid comparison?
  • On the basis of performance it seems to be a no-brainer, buy a CBook. Looks like another candidate for Nadella's axe.
  • It's very simple to Get the surface Go. Chromebooks suck I know Use them.
  • What is the target group for this device? Certainly not primary education because $399 plus a keyboard for $100 does not compete well with Chromebooks. Its not a iPad comparable device in fact most would agree the Surface Go is terrible at a tablet. Which is why everyone asks why the type cover isn't included and yet Microsoft throws one in with every ad. Because even Microsoft knows you have to have a keyboard. Seems to me the weak hardware places this device in basically the hands of frequent travels who don't use heavy software or has to do processor intensive tasks. The salesman, the business associate who travels. Its not your daily driver as a mainstream notebook in terms of giving you multi tasking performance. Its not supposed too.
  • If history is any indicator, Microsoft prices its Surface systems high enough that its OEMs can create similar designs, offer them at lower prices, and still garner a good enough return to justify the development and marketing investments. I think this sets the bar for a small system with these approximate specs for OEMs at sub $300. At that price, it's competing in the same pricing world with the bulk of the viable Chromebooks. It's an interesting business model -- offer systems as reference designs to inspire diverse manufactures to flood the market with lower cost alternatives, prove there's market interest to reduce risk to those same OEM's, and to gain the high-margin hardware sales for those willing to pay the premium for the Microsoft Surface brand, and justify it with exceptional build quality and beautiful design.
  • If you think schools are paying anywhere near those prices that would be a mistake. I bet discounts are at least 25%.
  • One is a full PC in a versatile portable format. I think that's the one to get for education and work. Anything else is a toy and even then the iPad is probably better as a toy.
  • I think the Surface Go is a nice portable PC. That being said so is the Surface Pro and it's internals are better. A Surface Pro bundle @ Costco with an iCore 5 and cover was about the same as the 8 GB Go with cover. As far as either competing in the educational market with a Chromebook in the K-12 market here in US forget it. Neither Surface in any current configuration can compete on price or with the Google software for classroom environment. Set up, usage and security between any number of different users on a Chromebook is ideal and unmatched. To say otherwise would indicate a lack of working knowledge in using either. You can get a phenomenal Chromebook that is durable, houses a stylus that never needs to be charged and absolutely flies for all thing's students use them for (Lenovo 500e- Acer Spin 11) for less than half of the lowest end Surface Go with case and pen. Money, value, durability and ease of use are ALWAYS are important to school districts. Chromebooks beat the Surface and iPad hands down and all day long. With the Surface the covers and pens would get damaged and lost. Same for the iPad. Imagine kids in k-6 trying to charge ipencils sticking out of the Lighting ports or snapping those charging off. Even the thought of the school departments have to keep track of all the pieces to make the GO or IPad comparable is laughable. In our household we own 2 very good '17 Acer Windows 10 laptops with iCore 5, several HP Windows 10 desktops between our home and business. 3 Samsung S9's and a 128 iPhone 6s. (for our middle school daughter) We use multiple platforms and can afford pretty much what we want. After fairly exhaustive research into a portable, hybrid computer for our middle school child we bought Chromebook and the Lenovo 500e this past month. Usage and performance has exceeded our every expectation and around the house our daughters iPhone now usually sits idle on the counter top. My mom was recently in the hospital for a week and I took it over my Windows laptop and worked flawlessly via Chrome and our company's web based software. We would buy another in a snap if needed.
  • One of the uses for "tablet" is reading. Windows in S Mode means "no Amazon Kindle Reader app" and, even if you turn "S Mode" off, it still means no reading periodicals in Amazon Kindle Reader (those are limited to true "tablet" devices). Is it of Amazon's doing? Absolutely. Is it a serious problem for Windows-based tablets (including this one)? Unfortunately...
  • Maybe the increased emphasis on S mode devices may encourage Amazon to rectify the lack of Kindle Reader in the store. They have partnered more with MS of late, largely due to a common rivalry with Google.
  • just buy e-books at the Microsoft Store