The Surface Go 2 (Photo: Henry Burrell)

This small, ultra-basic computer is the key to my work-from-home productivity

Finding it hard to focus in this era of remote work and pandemic-induced anxiety? A scaled-down tablet and keyboard set-up might be the productivity hack you’re looking for, writes Henry Burrell.

As a writer who works from home, I have been slowly building a home office set up that puts me into the best workflow possible. A stand for my large-screen laptop with a wireless keyboard and mouse for a desktop computer feel, a decent set of headphones, and a desk chair set me well on my way to productivity when I first went freelance.

You might have had to arrange something similar recently thanks to lockdown, so I was more ready than some. I already worked from home, and my tiny office was more than prepared to carry on as relatively usual.

Why then, did my productivity fall off a cliff? I have all the right gear! My monitor is at eye level! I take breaks! My posture is exemplary!

Ah yes, the crushing mental anxiety of a global pandemic. That was it.

Despite me being lucky enough to hold onto work and able to carry on doing it from home, suddenly my desk and computer stared back, asking more questions of me than I could answer. I was getting work done but not as fast or as well as before. The feeling lingered even after we went back to the relative normality of level one.

Then a few weeks ago, Microsoft asked me if I wanted to test out its new Surface Go 2. It’s a tiny 2-in-1 (a tablet that can also be used like a laptop) that is the little brother of the popular Surface Pro computers. It’s the cheapest Microsoft computer you can buy, though it’s not what I’d describe as cheap.

I reviewed the original Surface Go in 2018 but had found its size and low specifications limiting. It runs Windows on a low-end Intel Pentium processor (the more powerful version is not available in New Zealand) and annoyingly the essential keyboard cover accessory costs $219 on top of the $729 machine itself. I really believe the keyboard should be part of the cost as this is not a computer you can realistically use without one.

I also tested the dinky Surface Mobile Mouse and the Surface Pen, though you only need the latter if you want to get artistic with illustration software.

The Surface Go 2, sans keyboard (Photo: Henry Burrell)

I expected the Surface Go 2 to be much of the same, a fun little computer best for light tasks – the PC equivalent of an iPad that might do for Netflix and students or kids.

To my surprise it not only fills those expectations but surpasses them and has been a device that has helped me refocus my mind on my work after lockdown. It’s proof that the hardware we choose to do our work on is really important, and that the computer that might not have worked for you before could be the one that unlocks your productivity later on.

The Surface Go 2 is as close to cute as a modern computer can be. Its touchscreen display is just 10.5 inches and its keyboard is less than full size, so I had to readjust to its diminutive dimensions. My posture has admittedly taken a hit as I’ve hunched over the thing, but the built-in kickstand that the Surface Pro range popularised is still genius design. Despite the Go 2’s lower price, this is still well made premium hardware.

When I sat down to write with it, the Go 2’s size meant I was not tempted to procrastinate or open a few more browser tabs. After I had got used to the poky screen and the slight flex of the keyboard cover that snaps into place at a raised angle, I was turning out copy faster than I had in weeks.

Large screens are great for working if you need several windows open or you use software that needs to display a lot of information. But as a writer I often need to get my head down and think only about the blank page in front of me that I need to fill in order to get paid.

The Surface Go 2 is so small that I only had one program up at a time. I can do this on a larger computer of course, but I found that the Go 2’s size limitations were a positive thing for my productivity, with one small screen to conquer one big task. It’s the 2020 equivalent of sitting at a typewriter.

For my sanity I sometimes get out of the house to work, which means stuffing my heavy 15-inch laptop and bulky power cable into my bag and trudging off to a cafe in search of wifi and a power outlet. Some days it seems like too much bother.

But with the Surface Go 2, I had a small computer that I can grab and, well, go with – Microsoft named it that for a reason. The keyboard cover magnetically snaps over the screen and the kickstand tucks away, so I just carry it like a book. I found the battery life excellent, easily lasting a five-hour stint away from the mains. I loved how freeing it was to grab the Go 2 and get out the house compared to packing up a whole bag of big laptop and cables.

Thanks to my ongoing use of Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud service I can access all my files from any device at any time, so work I have started on my office computer I could finish down at the café with the Surface Go 2 without having to transfer a single file. I appreciate that I’m privileged as a tech reviewer to have more than one computer at my disposal, but when I’m able to compare in this way I’ve found the Go 2 has given me a laser focus on certain tasks.

The Surface Go 2, side on (Photo: Henry Burrell)

The odd problem is that I still find it hard to recommend the Go 2 as your sole computer. While I have waxed lyrical about how its hardware has helped me to get on with work, I’m not sure I would want to hunch over it for the next year. Then again thanks to the USB-C port, you can hook the Go 2 up to a compatible monitor when at a desk very easily.

Monitor or not, the Go 2 isn’t up to much beyond simple tasks because of the low-end processor, so gaming, Photoshop, and video editing are a definite no. Even having a few programs open at once makes it sweat.

If you need a new laptop and you’re on a budget, you’ll have to spend $729 for the 64GB model or $989 for the 128GB model I tested. The $219 keyboard is essential, so the least you’ll spend on the package is $948.

Despite being portable and charming, you’re paying for the Microsoft name. There are plenty of budget Windows laptops on the market for less than $1,000 that will do the same things as the Surface Go 2 with possibly better processing power, larger displays, and full-sized keyboards.

Yet if I had that money to spend, I would still buy the Surface Go 2. For me, it’s a computer with the rare combination of good looks, true portability, decent battery life, and most importantly an ability to get out of the way and let me get my work done. The Surface Go 2 proves that power and high-end specifications aren’t everything for everyone when it comes to computers.

It has reminded me that the computers we use are highly personal things that can sometimes hinder us as much as help us, and that splashing out on the latest most expensive laptop you can afford won’t necessarily equal an improvement to your professional productivity.

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