I love the Microsoft Surface. It is a beautifully crafted device and one of the most powerful and lightweight devices that can install and run a full operating system.
The (fanless and therefore absolutely noiseless) Surface Go is the cheapest entry into the Surface ecosystem. It is already available for less than 400 EUR (without pen and keyboard) and comes with Windows 10 S (the S-Mode can be deactivated free of charge). It offers a USB-C interface, a proprietary dock connector, a micro-SD slot and a headphone jack. The display has a very high resolution and displays text in razor sharpness – although the maximum brightness still leaves room for improvement. A full Windows Hello camera is integrated in the display. The catch in this offer is the processor. It is a rather weak Intel® Pentium® Gold processor 4415Y.
In 2018 I bought the first iteration of the Surface Go in the version with 8 GByte RAM and a 128 GB SSD for less than 500 EUR plus a TypeCover and the Surface Pen. I generally recommend this equipment variant, because the smaller entry level variant with eMMC memory is really unpleasantly slow.
Why I decided to be adventurous …
I was dissatisfied from day one with the pre-installed Windows 10, not because Windows 10 is a bad operating system, but because of the unordered advertising and bloatware on the device and the uncomfortable feeling that someone is constantly looking over your shoulder and sniffing when you do what on the device.
Unfortunately, Microsoft at some point decided to not only deliver unsolicited advertising, which the user must first actively remove, but also – and this weighs more heavily – to disregard any respect for the privacy of its users and to integrate telemetry (a euphemism for invasive data collection) as a non-deactivatable component of the operating system. Apart from the impropriety of this approach, this circumstance also makes the legal use of the operating system in Germany more difficult – because very few users have the necessary consent of all data suppliers (friends, relatives, streaming service providers, software suppliers, etc.) to legally transmit telemetry information, which may also contain fragments of the main memory and thus fragments of elements protected by copyright and other laws.
… and how i got happy
For this reason, I experimented quite early on with installing Linux on the device. Initially with rather moderate success – mainly because there were problems with secure boot and the bootloader and so using it was really uncomfortable and unreliable.
In the meantime, however, the situation has improved significantly. Linux Mint can be installed in parallel to Windows 10 with activated Secure Boot and configured so that it is the primary operating system on the Surface Go. Except for the integrated cameras, everything works (including TypeCover and Surface Pen). The runtime is still good at 4-5 hours – and thanks to the USB-C interface, the device can be charged with any PD-enabled PowerBank.
The perceived performance is consistently better than under Windows 10. On the application side, only a few compromises have to be made – Skype, Skype for Business (via Pidgin with SIPE plugin), Teams, WebEx, Zoom – everything works. Microsoft Office is available either via RDP or via the Office WebApps. Mail – including calendar and address book – can be used almost as comfortably with Evolution as with Outlook.
Microsoft won’t be pleased, but the Surface Go isAxel Napolitano
more fun with Linux than with Windows.
The Surface Go with Linux is incredibly flexible and it’s just fun to work with. Even if Microsoft might not be happy: The Microsoft Surface Go is currently the best Linux tablet and runs better under Linux (apart from the cameras, which are not yet working) than under Windows 10.
I will publish complete instructions with details in a few weeks – until then, interested parties are welcome to network with me and use the comment section below.
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Hey Alex, nice Post. I also bought the Surface Go in 2018 and have exactly the same configuration as you do. I tried first with live USBs with Mint and I was also unhappy. Then had less time to keep playing (moved) and haven’t tried ever since. I would like to give it another chance now, so I would be happy to try out your guide.
Hi Alex, thanks for the post, any ideas on when, if or how to get the camera to work? This is the only thing stopping this from being the perfect portable machine!
Axel Napolitano says
there’s yet to my knowledge no mainstream support available for the Hello Cam. There’s an ongoing discussion e.g. here: https://github.com/linux-surface/linux-surface/issues/91 and it seems that there is some progress – but I wouldn’t expect a mainstream-ready solution in the nearest future. What – however – worked for me, was an external camera. That’s not the best soultion – especially while “on the road” but it helps at home.
Vermont Poet says
I myself have a Surface Go with SSD and I love the hardware but detest the software — namely WIndows Pro. It feels slow. It always has the feeling that something is nattering in the background and slowing it all down. I detest the ads as well and like you am unhappy about all the privacy compromises. A couple weeks ago, it literally took me an hour and a half (between updates and restarts) before I could use the machine.
Did you ever write that follow up post on installing Linux Mint? I would think that Gnome (I’m normally a Plasma user) would be better on a tablet?
Axel Napolitano says
I actually had the draft for the manual ready. However, my Surface Go fell victim to a careless guest in my favorite cafe.I could no longer test it step by step.
My new Surface Go is lying around – but it’s a Surface Go 2 and I just don’t have the time right now to verify and adjust everything step by step.
In principle, however, the only real difficulty – if you will – is to configure the boot loader so that it boots in Linux by default and also with activated secure boot. This is not normally the case.
To the second question:
I deliberately chose Linux Mint with Cinnamon. The performance was good – however, there are much more lightweight window managers, such as XFCE, OpenBox, Enlightment, etc., available. – and if you want ultimate performance and at the same time the best possible display usage, DWM is a good choice (but not for beginners).
Because I really hate GNOME since version 3, I can’t say anything about it.
However, I can advise against KDE and Budgie, for example. Both did not convince me on the Surface Go.
Jan Taranrød says
What bloatware and advertising did you encounter? I haven’t found any on my Go1
Axel Napolitano says
Windows 10 comes with lots of apps no one asked for. Some will be loaded and installed without asking the user. Some of these apps cannot be removed from the system – at least not easily. In addition advertisements and automatic app suggestions appear e.g. in the menu and elesewhere. Also the start screen with bing images and recommendations or the default start page of the browsers are advertisements. Each update of Windows 10 can change everything – including (privacy) settings – and it happened in the past. Because I’m currently not using Windows 10 on my private equipment anymore I cannot say anything about the current status or future development.
Maybe that you never recognized this as bloatware – many people think this is “normal”, because they learned that their computer comes with this behavior during the last years. But it isn’t. Microsoft is a greedy company like Apple or all the other big companies are. They want to track you, collect data about you, analyze you and want to manipulate you in a way that you’re locked into their ecosystem (Apple is the premium example for this strategy) and to make you buy additional services like e.g. Office 365 & Co.
You may also use a search engine to learn more about this. A random link is: https://www.howtogeek.com/269331/how-to-disable-all-of-windows-10s-built-in-advertising/