Microsoft Surface Pro X review: not yet ready for prime time

The Surface Pro X is a glimpse of an ARM-powered Windows future, combining the best bits of phones and computers, but while that future is closer than ever, it isn’t quite ready yet.

The new £999 Surface Pro X might look like the rest of Microsoft’s Surface tablets on the outside, but it is fundamentally a different beast on the inside.

It has a new processor at its heart called the SQ1, which Microsoft partnered with mobile-chip maker Qualcomm to create, instead of a traditional Intel or AMD chip. It is ARM-based, just like the one inside your phone, not an x86 chip, which has been used in most computers for decades.

Switching to an ARM system has certain advantages, including potential for longer battery life, built-in 4G and a slimmer profile, but it also complicates things on the software front.

Slimline Surface

You can use the Surface Pro X hand-held, but at 774g it is not that light. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
You can use the Surface Pro X hand-held, but at 774g it is not that light. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Surface Pro X takes the Surface Pro 6’s design, maximises the screen widthways and shaves off 1.2mm of thickness. The fanless design looks and feels fantastic: solid, thin and exceedingly well-made in black magnesium and glass, the sides nicely sculpted to make them hand-friendly. At 774g it’s not light, but this is a fairly large tablet – the Surface Pro 6 weighs 770-784g, while Apple’s 4G 12.9in iPad Pro weighs 633g.

The 13in screen is sharp, gorgeous and responsive, in line with most high-end laptops. The Windows Hello face recognition camera above the screen is simply brilliant, logging you in instantly when you look at it.

The kickstand out the back is the best in the business: stable at a wide range of angles then neatly tucked away when not in use. It also hides a compartment for a nano sim and the SSD.

There are two USB-C ports and a volume button on the left side of the machine, with the power button and Surface Connect port in the right. Unfortunately there is no headphone socket or microSD card slot, which is disappointing. The front-facing speakers are tiny but surprisingly loud and good for a tablet.

Keyboards and styluses

The Slim Pen docks into a small tray hidden in the magnetic strip of the Signature keyboard for travel and charging. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The Slim Pen docks into a small tray hidden in the magnetic strip of the Signature keyboard for travel and charging. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Surface Pro X also supports a new version of Microsoft’s excellent detachable keyboard and a new stylus called the Slim Pen.

The keyboard continues to be brilliant, providing excellent backlit typing with good travel and key feel, a smooth and responsive but fairly small trackpad, and the flexibility to use it flat or at an angle. It attaches to the bottom of the tablet with strong magnets and folds all the way around the back of the tablet, out the way, or closes shut on the screen when not in use.

It is an essential part of the Surface experience, but unfortunately it isn’t included in the price, costing £129.99 on its own or £259.99 with the Slim Pen. The Surface Pro X is not compatible with standard Surface Pro keyboards.

If you buy the one with the Slim Pen, it has a neat trick. The new flattened stylus, which worked as well as Microsoft’s excellent standard Surface Pen, magnetically clips into a tray at the base of the keyboard. The tray charges the stylus and hides it away when the keyboard is propped up against the tablet or when closed. It’s one of the smartest storage solutions I’ve seen for something so easy to lose.

The Slim Pen is available on its own for £129.99, and has a little charging tray, but is best bought with the keyboard.

Specifications

  • Screen: 13in LCD 2880×1920 (267 PPI)
  • Processor: Microsoft SQ1 (ARM)
  • RAM: 8 or 16GB
  • Storage: 128, 256 and 512GB
  • Graphics: Adreno 685
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home
  • Camera: 10MP rear, 5MP front-facing, Windows Hello
  • Connectivity: Wifi ac, Bluetooth 5, 2x USB-C, Surface Connect, LTE, nano sim, esim
  • Dimensions: 287 x 208 x 7.3mm
  • Weight: 774g

Performance depends on your app

The Surface Connect port handles power, but can also be used to connect to accessories such as the Surface Dock. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The Surface Connect port handles power, but can also be used to connect to accessories such as the Surface Dock. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

On paper, ARM chips are on a similar performance level with many traditional laptop x86 processors. But how the Surface Pro X performs is entirely dependent on the program you happen to be using, split between apps that run natively on the ARM architecture and those that don’t, which are then relegated to running in a 32-bit x86 emulation layer.

Performance is, unsurprisingly, night and day. Apps that are ARM-native absolutely fly along. Microsoft’s new Chromium-based Edge browser is a prime example, performing just as well on the Surface Pro X with 30 tabs open as it does on a top-spec desktop PC with a traditional Intel processor. The same goes for most of Microsoft’s Windows apps, except Office, which is still x86.

Apps that aren’t ARM-native operate as if you have the handbrake on. Google’s Chrome browser is a great example. It uses the same underlying Chromium technology as Microsoft’s Edge browser but doesn’t have an ARM-native version, so is slow and ponderous. Evernote is equally slow, but tolerable.

Simple text editors, such as Typora, run perfectly fine as a 32-bit app, but are noticeably slower than when used on a Surface Pro 6.

The other wrinkle is that Windows can only emulate 32-bit x86, not the more performant 64-bit. While some programs have 32-bit versions, many do not, such as Signal or Google’s Gsuite Chat. One big missing area is photo editing, where none of the top photo editors have ARM or 32-bit, including Affinity Photo or any of Adobe’s Creative Cloud.

Adobe says it is working on ARM-native Creative Cloud and other apps, but at the time of writing only the cut-down Photoshop Express is available, and even that is 32-bit x86 and therefore incredibly slow.

In terms of general computing performance, the Surface Pro X handled a multi-monitor setup just fine, including a 4K 60Hz display via a Surface Dock or a USB-C-to-HDMI cable, so with the right apps it will match Microsoft’s other Surface Pro devices.

Battery life for a day of work

The two USB-C ports can be used for power or connecting to any number of accessories, but there’s no USB-A port. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The two USB-C ports can be used for power or connecting to any number of accessories, but there’s no USB-A port. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Surface Pro X lasts for about nine hours of work, mainly using Edge with 10 or so tabs, Windows Mail, Evernote, Typora, Nextgen Reader and various different messaging apps. That’s about the same as the Core i5 version of the Surface Pro 6, and therefore slightly disappointing, given ARM processors are meant to be more battery-efficient. But nine hours is good enough to comfortably finish a full work day without reaching for the charger.

Thanks to the USB-C ports you have options for charging the tablet. The included 65W Surface Connect charger works great, but a USB-C Power Delivery charger, which is now the common standard for phones, tablets and most laptops, works just fine too.

With the included charger the Surface Pro X hit 80% in an hour while being used, and reached 100% in 85 minutes.

Ports and connections

Under the kickstand is a hatch, released by a pin, which hides the SSD and a nano sim slot for mobile broadband connection. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Under the kickstand is a hatch, released by a pin, which hides the SSD and a nano sim slot for mobile broadband connection. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Surface Pro X has two USB-C ports, plus Microsoft’s Surface Connect for power or connecting to the optional Surface Dock (£189.99).

The two USB-C ports are very welcome, but note that they are not Thunderbolt 3. A USB-C dock, Ethernet adapter, HDMI cable, card reader, headphone adapter and various USB-C to USB-A adapters with flash drives all worked as expected.

Built-in mobile broadband is transformational for working on the move too, better than using a mobile hotspot, because Windows and you can see when you’re actually in range of good signal.

The Surface Pro X follows the lead of Microsoft’s recent Surface Laptop 3 in being more repairable than previous machines. Repair specialists iFixit gave the Surface Pro X a score of six out of 10 thanks to some modular, replaceable elements.

Microsoft states that the battery is not user-replaceable, and while the SSD can be replaced by a user it will not be covered by warranty; instead both can be repaired or replaced by authorised service providers.

The company also operates both trade-in and recycling schemes for old machines.

Windows 10 Home

The Windows Hello face recognition cameras can log you in as the computer boots up or resumes from standby. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The Windows Hello face recognition cameras can log you in as the computer boots up or resumes from standby. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Windows 10 Home runs on the Surface Pro X just like any other machine: a stable, well-featured and useful operating system. You likely won’t have an option to run Linux or any other operating system, but then you’re buying a computer from Microsoft, so there are certainly better options for non-Windows users.

Observations

You can buy the Surface Pro X without a keyboard, but it is the detachable keyboard and pen that make the tablet great. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
You can buy the Surface Pro X without a keyboard, but it is the detachable keyboard and pen that make the tablet great. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The screen is far too dim on resuming from sleep until you hit the brightness button, at which point it returns to normal
  • The machine ran cool throughout, barely getting warmer than room temperature even when pushed hard
  • There’s no real mis-touch rejection at the edges of the screen, which means you have to be careful where you put your fingers when holding the tablet

Price

The Microsoft Surface Pro X is available in a variety of storage and memory versions, starting at £999 for 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The version with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage costs £1,269, 16GB of RAM and 256GB costs £1,449 and 16GB and 512GB costs £1,819.

The Surface Pro X Keyboard costs an additional £129.99, while the Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen costs £259.99.

For comparison, the Surface Pro 7 starts at an RRP of £799, the Surface Go starts at £379 and the Surface Laptop 3 starts at £999.

Verdict

The Surface Pro X is Microsoft’s gamble on ARM chips as one future of Windows devices, enabling thinner, lighter, longer-lasting and always-connected machines.

But it hasn’t paid off just yet. For something promising to be a fully-fledged Windows 10 computer costing upwards of £999, there just isn’t enough ARM-native software available.

Attempt to run something that’s not designed for an ARM chip and you either straight-up can’t, if there isn’t a 32-bit version of the app, or Windows is forced to run it in an emulation layer, which is like having the handbrake on – slow and ponderous.

The Surface Pro X has a lot of potential. Use an ARM-native app such as Microsoft’s new Edge browser and it absolutely flies. But even things such as Office aren’t ARM.

The killer blow for me is a lack of photo-editing apps. Without Photoshop, Affinity Photo or something similarly powerful I simply can’t get my work done. It essentially relegates the Surface Pro X into the Chromebook camp: it’ll do most of the things you need to do most of the time, but can’t be your only computer.

The Surface Pro X is a beautiful, premium machine that has totally unrealised potential. If Microsoft can convince developers to jump on the ARM bandwagon it’ll be amazing. Until then, if you want a Microsoft tablet you’re better off with a Surface Pro 6 or 7.

Pros: slim, great 13in screen, 4G, kickstand, nine-hour battery, 2x USB-C, quick charging, Windows Hello, brilliant keyboard (essential additional purchase), smart stylus holder, Windows 10

Cons: not much ARM-native software, no good photo editors, no SD card reader, no headphone socket, no Thunderbolt 3, keyboard not included

All Rights Reserved for Samuel Gibbs 

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