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Surface Go with Linux Review: almost the perfect open source block



You've probably got to fill out Surface Go reviews that seem to share the tech world in two. You've also probably seen brawls between Surface Go and iPad Pro, especially those that rotate around the rhetoric of real PCs. So why not have another Surface Go review? This time, however, we will be taking a different spin and highlighting one aspect that really makes the surface a "real PC": being able to install other operating systems such as Linux. And in that respect it is almost perfect as an on-go Linux digital notepad.

Specifications and Design

I don't want to drill you with the details you've most likely read before. Surface Go is by no means a powerful machine. If pure performance is measured, it can very well be surprised by last year's iPad Pros, especially when it comes to battery life. But just to collect, Microsoft's smallest surface runs on a "special" Intel Pentium Gold 441

5Y. The 10-inch screen still carries Microsoft's unique 3: 2 ratio, this time at 1800 × 1200 pixels. The battery is rated at 27Wh and is charged either through Microsoft's usual proprietary Surface Connect or surprising surprise, a lone USB-C port that makes both power, data and video out.

One point of conflict with previous Surface Go assessments was the fact that most of them have considered the more expensive model with 8 GB RAM and 128 GB SSD, which is also what I bought. Although it can almost be a necessity for Windows 10, especially after turning off the S mode, it may be a small consideration if you have Linux in mind right from the start. Linux is more efficient with both RAM and storage, although the 64 GB eMMC type on the base model can be a bottleneck. If you are planning to start up Windows and Linux, at least you get the third model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage.

Surface Go is definitely a title for its size and has the same design as its larger and more professional siblings. The elegant magnesium chassis makes it a confidence of its dimensional size, while the slightly curved edges and lightweight construction make it comfortable to hold with one hand for extended periods. Not too long, but because it is still 1.1 kg of metal and plastic. All ports, which include a headphone jack, are on the right side while the opposite edge is empty to allow for magnetic sticking of a surface pen. The top has buttons for power and volume buttons along the plastic antenna area while the bottom has the slot and the POGO pins for the Surface Go Type cover. Both accessories are sold separately, of course.

Lives side by side

It is quite impressive and comforting how Linux has come a long way in supporting new devices that have just come out of the market. Perhaps it helps that many of the components that Microsoft used in Surface Go have also been used in other Surface Pros, which have already been tested by bold Linux users.

As such, fortunately, it didn't take much to get Linux cohabitants with Windows 10 on the same machine. It may or may not be easier to delete Microsoft's operating system, but I still needed it. On the Windows page, the biggest step was to disable BitLocker encryption on the C: disk (if it was even enabled) and then shrink the Windows partition to make room for Linux plus 8 GB or so with swap. As mentioned, Linux is not much of a memory hog and non-critical system files can be relieved to a microSD card anyway. Linux distros have also come a long way in ensuring that the installers work with modern features such as UEFI and Secure Boot, so the process was fortunate and unintentional.

It's almost surprising, nice, of course, how many things worked right out of the box. Wi-Fi needed some coaxing, but fortunately it's already documented. Bluetooth worked from day one. Viewing, touching, and even surface pen pressure sensitivity and buttons worked without a notch. The touchscreen of the type screen was also correctly detected and supported for multi-finger gestures. Even power management was on a good start. Accelerometer and proximity sensors are also discovered, although their use depends mainly on the choice of distro and desk. In this case, I used the Ubuntu-based KDE Neon. Long story short, save for a few bits we come to later, the Surface Go Linux experience is almost painless, as if you installed it on another modern laptop.

Performance and Battery

Installing Linux on Surface Go would have been an exercise in invalidity if it ended up being useless. Then again, this piece would probably not have been written in the first place if that was the case. Although it is more difficult to use Linux performance because of the lack of popular tools and the combinations of distros and desktops, one can probably make a generalization and rank it as "Great!"

The screen is light and sharp. It is considered a high DPI screen, but you may need to adjust the resolution or zoom to the comfort level. Touch is completely usable and can even be fun to use, provided you use software that supports it. Linux users may need to fix them, but there is no lack of tools and tools for them. Onboard, for example, provides a great configurable virtual keyboard while Touchegg on Ubuntu lets you get more finger-colored touch screen gestures as well.

Of course, performance varies depending on the software you use. Again, Linux and its programs are nicer to CPU and memory, but there will be times that even 8 GB of RAM can cause the system to suffocate a bit. It is especially true when you have multiple tabs open in Chrome or have multiple lifts in Krita. Comparison in the background with multiple applications can often also cause some noticeable layer, but nothing I threw on it has caused the surface to go to grinding in the end. Yes, you can even play games on it, including those found on Steam for Linux. However, your concern will be medium Intel GPU and throttle due to heat.

Battery life is another of the hard-to-squeeze calculations. Microsoft announces 9 hours, but none of the reviewers reached so much. They consider themselves lucky if they reach 6 hours. On Linux, 7 hours is average normal and may even be on the low end. Surface Go makes up for its disappointing lifetime with its ability to be topped with a power bank. That said, no power bank would. One that has USB-C Power Lever and straighten out 30 to 40 watts is probably the best. A slim 18W would be the smallest minimum, but depending on what you do, it may be a slow trickle or even a slow discharge.

Almost Perfect

Not surprisingly, not everything works, or at least not yet. None of the cameras are detected, for one, and while it saves you being ridiculed, taking pictures with a large disc does not provide video chats and conferences. The sound is also a bit on the soft side, even though the microphone works the least. The biggest problem at the moment, however, is that Surface Go boots directly into Windows, no matter how you installed Linux properly. You need to boot into Advanced Restart Opportunities after Windows startup to get it started in GRUB. Or probably not start again since Suspend works well.

So why go through everything that installs Linux? It's not about "because you can", but there are definitely some bragging rights involved. Surface Go is actually an impressive piece of tech and is probably the lightest, most stylish and well-functioning Linux tablet to get your hands on. Save for a tablet designed and designed to run Linux from that start, of course.

There is no shortage of small-sized Linux computers out there, from Planet Computing's Gemini PDA to GPD Pocket "palm top" to quirky stylus-enabled One Mix Yoga. But when it comes to an eye and a finger-based general Linux tablet that you can do just about everything within the grounds and constraints, Surface Go seems to be almost ironic enough to get closest to the Linux iPad Pro. Now it's a real computer.


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