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Microsoft Surface Pro review: the new normal

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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In Microsoft’s relatively young hardware division, the Surface Pro has always stood for what the company believes is the future of personal computing. Originally billed as “the tablet that can replace your laptop,” it straddles the line between a traditional computer and something different.

Times have changed in the five years since the Surface debuted. Every company that makes PCs has its own take on the “productive tablet,” many of which copy Microsoft’s designs wholesale. Even Apple is pitching its iPad Pro line as something that can be your primary computer. Within Microsoft’s own lineup, the Surface Pro has been joined by the more powerful Surface Book, the more stationary Surface Studio, and most recently, the more traditional Surface Laptop.

Microsoft’s corporate vice president of devices and head of the Surface team, Panos Panay, says the company now thinks of the Pro as a laptop, not as a tablet or some other device. “This really is the laptop. This is how people want to use it; it's how they are using it,” he recently said on The Vergecast podcast. And the new tagline for the Surface Pro is “the most versatile laptop.” So the Surface Pro is a laptop now, I guess. What exactly does that mean?

Now that the Surface Pro is a laptop, what does that mean?

Microsoft says this new Surface Pro is completely redesigned inside and out, but you’d probably have trouble telling it apart from its immediate predecessor, 2015’s Surface Pro 4. It’s still a very thin and light computer that masquerades as a tablet and performs its best with the optional keyboard attached. I’ve found it to be an excellent travel computer, as it provides all the power I can get from a similar laptop in a thinner and lighter form factor.

If anything, the new Pro shows that Microsoft is committed to this idea and design. This is what a Surface looks like and likely will look like for the foreseeable future. As with the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft is in refinement mode with the new Pro, and the improvements here are significant, if not always obvious. That’s the thing about laptops: they don’t change their form very often; they just get more refinement and more powerful. Five years after its debut, the Surface has gone from radical to predictable.

Predictability explains why the new Pro has the same staid port selection as the Pro 3 from three years ago, because corporate customers want interchangeability and support for existing peripherals. Predictability means that this computer is probably faster and lasts longer than the last one, but the experience is largely unchanged. Predictability means the new thing does exactly what you expected the old thing to do, but better.

The danger with predictability is it’s a stone’s throw away from boring.  

As before, the Surface Pro starts at $799, which buys you a Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. I do not recommend this version if you plan to use the Surface Pro as your only computer. Most people will want to step up to the $1,299 model that has a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. If you really want to go crazy, you can kit out the Surface Pro all the way up to a heart-stopping $2,699. I’ve had the opportunity to test both the $1,299 version and the top-of-the-line model and I think most people will be perfectly happy with the Surface they can get for $1,300.

No matter which Surface Pro you opt for, you’ll have to pay at least $129.99 for a Type Cover if you want to use it as a laptop computer. Microsoft is also offering very pretty Type Covers in blue, red, or silver Alcantara fabric for $159.99 if you want to add a little panache to your Surface. (The irony that Microsoft is now referring to the Surface Pro as a “laptop,” yet still doesn’t include a keyboard with it is pretty rich.) Apart from the new color options and new display brightness controls in the function row, this Type Cover is identical to the one before it. It’s comfortable to type on and has a smooth trackpad that could really stand to be a little bigger. It also makes a weird echoing thump-thump noise when you type hard on it on a desk or table.

For the full Surface Pro experience, you’ll also have to pony up $99.99 for the new Surface Pen, which you can get in a color to match your choice of keyboard. This is where the pricing has changed from before: prior to this, Microsoft included the Surface Pen in the box with Surface Pro computers. So this year, the price is effectively $99.99 more than before.

The cost for the average Surface Pro experience is now over $1,500

Add it all up and the basic Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage will cost at least $1,528.98 for the full Surface Pro experience. If you plan to only ever use the computer with its keyboard attached as a traditional laptop, you’re probably better off buying the Surface Laptop, which provides the same specs for an all-in price of $1,299.

Panay says that removing the Pen from the box allows the company to put more investment in the Surface design and performance without having to raise the base cost of the machine. But he also says that “the more Pens [Microsoft] puts into people’s hands, the better off we are,” which feels like a mission that’s in conflict with the new Surface Pro’s pricing strategy.

Either way, if you buy a Surface Pro, you’ll probably want to get the Surface Pen to go with it, because it unlocks yet another way to interact with the computer, and this form factor really lends itself to pen input more than the Surface Laptop or other clamshell laptops. The new Surface Pen has 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity — twice as much as before — and can supports tilting for shading effects. The Surface Pro’s kickstand extends to a flatter position than prior models for a more comfortable writing experience, as well. The Pen feels great on the Pro’s screen when I use it for doodles and handwritten notes, but the prior Pen worked quite well, too. (Actual artists will likely appreciate the enhanced sensitivity and tilt features more than I do.) One thing I miss: Microsoft removed the clip on the top of the Pen, so I can no longer easily attach it to the keyboard when I’m not using it. It will still magnetize to the side of the Pro, but it doesn’t stay there very well when it gets tossed into a bag.

Pen input is also becoming a bigger part of Windows 10: the Creator’s Update from this spring added a handful of new pen-focused features and the Fall Update coming later this year promises to bring even more. Even with its now-familiar design, switching between keyboard, pen, and touch input is the most futuristic-feeling part of the Surface Pro and one of the things that many of its fans point to as why they like the machine.

Battery life has long been a pain point for the Surface line, so Microsoft focused on providing much longer stamina than before. I can report that it’s certainly improved: instead of the four or five hours of use I’m used to seeing with the Surface Pro 4, the new Pro with the Core i5 processor can last seven or even eight hours before needing to be plugged in. That’s with bouncing between a dozen-plus tabs in the web browser, checking email, browsing Twitter, communicating with my colleagues in Slack, and writing articles like this one in Microsoft Word.

Battery life has finally hit the “good” level

It’s not as consistently long as my colleagues Dieter Bohn and Tom Warren reported getting with the Surface Laptop, but the Pro is significantly smaller and lighter than the Laptop, which leaves less room for battery. It’s worth noting that the new Pro’s real-world battery life is nowhere near Microsoft’s claim of 13.5 hours, but that’s based on a looping video test that doesn’t reflect how anyone actually uses their computers.

Should you opt for the more powerful Core i7 model, you can expect to see a roughly 20 percent drop in battery life compared to the Core i5 version, based on my experience. But that hit to battery life does provide a tangible performance increase: the Core i7 Pro is notably more responsive and quicker to do just about anything compared to my old sixth-generation Core i5 Pro 4 or the new Pro with a seventh-generation Core i5 chip. That said, I’m more than happy with the performance of the Core i5 Pro, and I prefer its longer battery life for my needs.

Aside from battery life, the other improvement Microsoft has made is severely reducing, or entirely eliminating, the device’s fan noise. Nothing takes you out of the element like the roar of the Surface Pro 4’s fans, especially when you’re watching video or reading books or articles in tablet mode.

The fanless model is a remarkable feat of engineering

The new Core i5 model is fanless, so it doesn’t make any noise whatsoever, and even though the Core i7 version has fans, I never heard them spin up in my week of testing. Making the Core i5 version fanless is a remarkable engineering achievement, as this isn’t one of Intel’s wimpier Y-series chips as found in other fanless computers; it’s from the same family of processors you’ll find in a lot of thicker and heavier laptops, including Apple’s new MacBook Pro. Even more remarkable is that, despite the reduction or elimination of the fans, neither model got hot or even remotely warm during my typical day-to-day use. That might be different if you try to play games or do intensive tasks like video editing, but it’s not something most people will ever have to worry about.

There are other, so-slight-you’ll-probably-never-notice-them changes to the hardware design of the Surface Pro: the corners are slightly more rounded, and the Core i5 model weighs 0.03 pounds less than the last model. (The Core i7 version is the same weight as the Pro 4.) Everything else is the same as before, so here’s what I wrote about the Pro 4 in 2015, which applies fully to the new Pro in 2017:

The Pro 4’s design is very compact and eminently portable, but it’s still awkward to use on my lap, whether I’m sitting on a chair or sitting on the floor. It’s also difficult to use on a cramped airplane tray table thanks to its unusually long footprint. And it can’t be picked up from a desk with one hand when it’s open (like you can with a laptop) as the attached keyboard will just flop around awkwardly until you close it. None of these things are new or different with the Pro 4, but they are all things to keep in mind if you’re considering a Surface.

The Pro 4 is also just as awkward to use in tablet mode as the Pro 3, and though Windows 10 lets you switch between desktop and tablet mode easily, I found myself leaving it in desktop mode with windowed apps most of the time. It’s an old story, but true tablet apps are still lacking for Windows, and many of the apps I use on the platform are designed for the desktop environment.

The display is the same 12.3-inch, 2736 x 1824 pixel, 3:2 screen as the Pro 4, but it’s sharp and colorful and I really like the aspect ratio for working with multiple documents at the same time. I do wish Microsoft followed the trend of smaller bezels around the screen — the Surface Pro’s are starting to look a bit large compared to those found on Dell or HP’s laptops.

The other thing Microsoft decided not to update or refresh is the port selection: you still get one USB 3.0 port, one Mini DisplayPort, one microSD card slot (hidden behind the kickstand), a headphone jack, and the Surface connector for power and hooking up to Microsoft’s desktop dock. Microsoft has stated its reasons for not moving to USB Type-C for power, peripherals, and displays as much of the industry — most notably Apple — has already done. But like my colleague Dieter noted in his review of the Surface Laptop, a good compromise would have been to provide one of each type of USB port (and maybe send that laughably dated Mini DisplayPort out to pasture).

All of this sameness makes it really hard to see the work that Microsoft says it put into the new Surface Pro. You'll only notice when you use it and it lasts a couple hours longer without the fans spinning up. That’s not to say the new Pro doesn’t work — it’s just as capable as the Pro 4 and is an excellent computer for travel. But even within the frames of this design, I’d have liked to see a little more forward progress, such as a larger screen with smaller bezels, some more modern ports, or a larger trackpad on the Type Cover. Even the most conservative laptop makers make these kinds of updates when they refresh their product lines.

The Surface Pro remains the best of this style of computer you can buy

Still, the Surface Pro is the best execution on this style of computer: it has the power of a full-fledged laptop and the full support of Windows 10 Pro, while still maintaining a very light and portable package. And now it lasts longer away from the wall outlet and goes about its business silently. Elsewhere, Apple’s iPad Pro is still struggling to make iOS work in a highly productive environment, and other PC makers are busy copying Microsoft’s ideas, instead of besting them.

There's another thing about predictability that I haven't mentioned: it means something is ready for the mainstream, that it's no longer a fringe or niche device for only those willing to deal with its eccentricities. Between its battery life improvements and the enhancements to the pen experience that have been added to Windows 10, the new Surface Pro is ready for the mainstream.