Surface Go vs iPad 2018

So I'm a long time iPad and iPhone user. I've been a fan of portable internet ever since I figured out how to read Google Reader feeds on my Blackberry 8100. Stepping up to the iPhone made for a more graphical experience, and then stepping up again to an iPad mini when it first became available made that internet use even more regular. The iPad mini was pretty much a constant companion in the house for its first four years with us.

More recently, I traded my iPad mini to my son for his iPad3 because A) the sound works on the mini (he's somehow managed to break it on the iPad3) and B) the wifi on the iPad 3 is crap (probably because there's a ton of damage on the front right over where the wifi antenna is). This has been less useful for me, but it has got me by as long as I've been sitting on top of an access point.

On the desktop side I've got a four year old i5 that can't be upgraded beyond 8GB of RAM and that's starting to become constricting, plus the fact that the computer is starting to do the won't boot-on-reboot trick that preceded the last Dell's just-won't-power-on problem (which I understand is also known as the "sleeping orange" problem, for the flashing orange light given to you by the power button when it's faulted this way). So that computer is going to need an upgrade soon.

In the meantime, technology has rushed forward since all of these machines were "current". The Surface Pro line of tablets is delivering usable tablet technology for the desktop user, while the iPad line has improved in polish, speed, and has added the Apple Pencil functionality.

Put this all together and you have a situation where I can re-think how I go about my personal computing; we can contemplate a radical change in the pieces I have and the way I work.

I was sort of hoping that I could buy a small machine that would do everything, replacing my desktop and still granting me the tablet usability that I'd come to depend on over the last few years. Between the iPad 2018 and the Surface Go I was hoping that I'd find this magic machine at a reasonable price.

Back in May I bought a iPad 2018 and a Pencil. So far it as lived up to expectations as a powerful, usable evolution of what I already had. The apps I was already using were already there, and my workflow was pretty much unchanged except where more power or storage space made such a change possible. The Pencil, on the other hand, is a bit of a gimmick, but I have found it useful in meetings -- I find that if I am falling asleep in a meeting, writing down everything that is happening helps me stay awake. (I don't think my coworkers have figured out that to be the reason why I occasionally take very detailed notes.)

However, it isn't a desktop replacement by any means.

  • The on screen keyboard is usable in a pinch but it isn't suited to solid text entry. This is the reason why I ended up getting a Pencil. I also have a couple of bluetooth keyboards, one of which has a slot to mount a tablet in, and that is quite usable when the need arises. Unfortunately… now I have to drag around a thick keyboard as well as the iPad.
  • There's no decent way to manage Blogger/Blogspot blogs. All the apps are out of date, and the web browser experience -- even in Chrome -- is terrible. Specifically, I was unable to reliably resize pictures inserted into articles, and paging around multi-screen-length articles was dodgy at best.
  • There isn't really a decent ssh/mosh terminal option.

So when I learned of the Surface Go in late July, I figured that it might be a decent option. It was reviewing really well, and lots of people seemed to really like it. So when it came out, I discovered that Costco was selling them online, so I decided to order one.

A word about the Costco version: it's actually a "third" version of the Go. Microsoft sells two versions:

  • 4GB RAM + 64GB slow flash storage; or
  • 8GB RAM + 128GB fast SSD storage

The Costco version is 4GB + the 128 fast SSD storage PLUS the black typecover, for a price just under the 8GB RAM version. You also get two full years of warranty through Costco instead of just the standard one, and there's an included "concierge" service which I didn't explore.

I tried to put away the iPad for a week and use the Go exclusively. I also used it exclusively in Windows-S mode, where only signed apps from the Microsoft Store will run on it -- I figured that would most closely match the iPad curated-application and semi-secure-sandbox experience.

In that week, I discovered:
  • You have to do everything that’s not Microsoft Native in the browser. Reddit? Edge. Tweetdeck? Edge. Google Mail? Edge. Google photos? Edge. We have the Office 365 subscription, so I did have the full-stack Office applications, and they work as expected.
  • Web applications that see a desktop browser experience are not always usable on a touch tablet. A lot of the hyperlink targets are small, and it is much easier to miss them than on the iPad.
  • Edge isn't a terrible browser, but it isn't great either.
  • The Go is slow. Apps and browser pages are slow to appear at times. A lot of the time there's no feedback for 3/4 of a second from hitting a web element to make something happen, long enough to wonder if you've just merely missed the target element again. Things that pop on the desktop obviously don't, but more importantly, things that pop on the iPad don't pop either. The vast majority of the time, the iPad lets you know that something is happening, even if it isn't happening immediately.
  • The keyboard on the TypeCover isn't terrible, but again it isn't great. My fingers are too big to comfortably  use the 4/5ths scale keys (or whatever it is). I will say that having both a backlighting system and a touchpad are improvements over the iPad solution. I did like the Logitech bluetooth keyboard I have with the Go, however that keyboard lacks a Windows-key so makes it impossible for me to use a lot of the shortcuts I use on the desktop.
  • If the ssh/mosh ecosystem in iOS is bad, it is non-existant in the Microsoft Store. Only one app even mentions mosh, and that's to say that it is only currently supported in an older version that you can't currently get from the Store.
  • You can't install Bash For Windows when you are in S mode. So there's no way to back-door your way to a decent environment.
  • Because it's a $120 option, I didn't get the Microsoft Pen to play with, although I wanted to. I was considering a 8GB model with a Pen, but that priced out higher than the Costco model did.

I don't want to make this sound like its all bad.

  • Physical construction of the Go is beautiful. For some reason I like these more squared-off devices that have a bit of thickness and heft to them. The iPad always feels like I'm about to bend it if it isn't in a case.
  • Setup was very easy, if a little slow. The setup noticed my O365 subscription and automatically installed the Office apps I was entitled to.
  • Having multiple user profiles on the tablet makes the sysadmin in me happy. Even if all I did was have a "guest" profile for other users to use, I would know that my data and apps and websites were safely tucked away from others "accidentally" seeing them.
  • Windows Hello just worked all the time for me. I don't know how robust it was, but some experimenting with the kids showed me that Hello wouldn't think they were me.
  • The battery charged incredibly quickly. I'm not sure I was getting the runtime that was advertised, but I was never stranded with a dry battery either.
  • It is simultaneously nice and a chore to be able to manage which files on your OneDrive are "really" present on your tablet. With the iPad it's a toss-up as to what's actually cached, but with OneDrive you can make sure ahead of time that what you need will be available when you are offline. At the same time, remembering to go back later to say "save space" on directory trees is a chore sometimes, one that I'm sure would result in the disk filling occasionally…

So in summary, I'd say these two devices are very different. The iPad is an attempt to move the tablet more towards business/desktop usage, while the Surface Go is an attempt to make the desktop usable in the low-cost tablet space.

However, while the iPad is a lousy desktop replacement, the fact of the matter is that the lack of speed and usable apps makes the Go both a lousy tablet and a lousy desktop. It is an attempt to bridge both worlds and ends up not doing either of them well.

I suspect for a non-tablet user the Go would work very well as a way to have portable access to the programs and files that are used on the desktop. I think that the reason why it is reviewing really well is because most of the reviewers are Microsoft Power Users and the extension of the desktop environment into the tablet space is more in line with what they are expecting. It makes the Go a good "second screen" that I think is an excellent next step towards the vision that Microsoft had with the first Surface Pro. And if there was a way to pack more power into this form factor, such as an i5 and 8GB of RAM, being able to plug my tablet into a multi-monitor dock with a proper keyboard and mice, and then just pop it off and take it away with me, would be a killer application. I'm sure it's coming, but the current Surface Pros are too big for me.

For my own use, I decided that I wasn't willing to give up the excellent tablet experience in order to gain half-assed access to desktop functionality that I only occasionally used. It means for my usage I'll still need to sit at (or more likely, remote into) my desktop periodically to do the things I can't from the iPad.

I tried very hard to use the Go for longer than I did, but it just ended up being unpleasant. I think in the end the keyboard options were not good enough, it wasn't fast enough, and there wasn't a usable way to make the desktop experience translate better to a tablet. Sure, much of that is the last four or five years that I've been an iOS user and that colors my opinion somewhat. I'll admit that. But it's a mindset that the Go will have to break for other iOS users to switch, so it is representative of a real-world hurdle facing the Go. The Go is a huge step forward in this space, but it isn't there enough for me to stick with it.

Put it all together, and I'm going to be returning this Go to Costco.