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Microsoft Surface Pro LTE review: the true mobile computer is here

The cellular-connected laptop for consumers has arrived

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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For the past week or so, I’ve been using a computer to work from a train, at a park, and in a coffee shop. That’s all pretty normal, but what’s been unique about this past week is I haven’t had to connect to Wi-Fi or bother setting up a hot spot on my phone once, thanks to this computer’s built-in LTE connection. Wherever I’ve gone, the internet has followed.

Finding a laptop that has both a built-in cellular connection and a modern design and feature set (aka something you actually want to use every day) hasn’t been easy. Every PC or laptop with a cellular connection has been for the business crowd, with clunky designs and outdated features. The other main option has been an iPad Pro with LTE, something that may not meet your actual computing needs.

But laptops with LTE are poised to become a serious thing this year, as devices running Qualcomm’s Always Connected PC platform are expected to hit shelves any week now. Until they arrive, we have the new Surface Pro LTE from Microsoft, which is the same Surface Pro as released last year, but with an added dose of LTE. It’s available for preorder from Microsoft and Best Buy starting today.

The Surface Pro LTE will still appeal to business users and their buying departments (in fact, it’s been available for purchase to them since late last year), but it will be attractive to everyday PC buyers as well. It’s a modern, capable, 2-in-1 computer that also happens to be able to connect to the internet without the need for a Wi-Fi network or a hot spot device. It’s the first Surface computer that truly lives up to the notion of a real mobile computer that can go anywhere and not lose any of its functionality. (Microsoft tried this before with the underpowered Surface 2 and Surface 3, but this is the first Surface Pro with integrated cellular connectivity.)

I covered the ins and outs of the Surface Pro’s standard features in my review of the Wi-Fi model last year, so check that out for what it’s like to use this computer. For this article, I’ll focus on the unique aspects of using a computer with a built-in internet connection.

The best word I can use to describe using the Surface Pro LTE is “freeing.”

The LTE version of the Surface Pro shares all of the same features and design as the Wi-Fi-only model that was released last summer. It has a 12.3-inch touchscreen display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, a seventh-generation Intel Core processor (sadly, there isn’t upgrade to eighth-generation chips, despite the long wait for the LTE model to arrive), and it weighs less than two pounds (without a keyboard attached). The only visual differences between the Surface Pro LTE and the Wi-Fi model are a polycarbonate strip at the top that’s a slightly different silver color than the rest of the metal chassis and the SIM tray, which is next to the microSD card slot under the kickstand.

For $150 more than the standard Surface Pro, you get an integrated modem that supports 20 bands of LTE service. (It’s a Qualcomm X16 modem, the same one found in many Android smartphones released last year.) Microsoft isn’t explicitly saying what carriers the Pro supports, but it is sold unlocked and supports bands for AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, plus international networks, so it should work almost anywhere you go. Like the cellular-equipped iPad Pro, the Surface Pro LTE has both an integrated eSIM and a tray for a nano-SIM, and you can set up service on both and switch between them through the Windows 10 settings app. The settings app also provides a data usage monitor so you can see how much cellular data you are using and set limits on it.

Microsoft says the LTE Pro lasts 12.5 hours between charges (compared to 13.5 for the Wi-Fi model), but that’s based on a looping video test and not real-world usage. In my experience, battery life on LTE has been closer to seven hours, which is a little less than I saw with the Wi-Fi version, but still in the acceptable range for this size computer. I’d have really loved to see Microsoft stick an even larger battery in this version to really make it a truly mobile computer, but I think most people will be satisfied with the LTE Pro’s battery life.

The differences between using a computer that relies on a Wi-Fi network for internet and one that always just has a connection available are small, but they add up. Instead of having to set up a hot spot on my phone before opening my computer on the train and then waiting for the computer to find the hot spot and connect to it, I was able to just turn on the LTE Pro and get to work. As the train moved and the cellular connection went in and out (I tested it with T-Mobile service, but this applies to any carrier), the LTE Pro was able to find the network and reconnect faster after losing service than when I had to rely on my phone’s hot spot connection. On top of that, I don’t have to worry about draining both my phone’s battery and my laptop’s battery at the same time just to connect to the internet.

Getting online with the LTE Pro is so easy I never had to think about it

Using a cellular-connected computer is also more secure than relying on public Wi-Fi networks, and it’s more convenient than using a hot spot that requires an account and login, such as those provided by Boingo.

Getting online with the LTE Surface Pro is so easy that I never had to think about it. It’s a computer that gets out of my way and just lets me do the things I need to get done, instead of distracting me with network settings or other annoyances. This is the reason I’ve long preferred a cellular-connected iPad over a Wi-Fi-only model, but here it’s extended to a full-fledged work computer.

Since the Surface Pro is a full Windows 10 PC with a desktop browser and desktop applications, data usage is something you’ll want to keep an eye on, especially if you’re using it with a prepaid or capped data plan. In just a few days of exclusive LTE usage, I was able to burn through almost 4GB of data with just my daily workload (Slack, email, lots of browser tabs, lots of Twitter, downloading and updating apps from the Microsoft Store, etc.), which would put me close to 20GB in a month’s time. I’d use even more if I were to stream Netflix or other video. An unlimited data plan is probably the smart move if you’re using a computer like this.

All of this adds up to a more seamless and pleasant working experience when away from my home or office. Instead of having to worry about whether or not I’ll have a connection or mapping out where I’ll be able to get connected ahead of time, I’m just able to turn the Surface Pro on and get to work, saving both time and hassle. That may not be worth the added cost of the LTE capability and the monthly service it requires to everyone, but for those who are constantly mobile and still need to get their jobs done (like me), it definitely is.

Now I want every computer to have a cellular connection

Using a computer with a built-in cellular connection is so convenient that now I want every computer to have it. (It’s also something I’ve explicitly asked Microsoft for in the past.) It foreshadows a time when we won’t have to worry about whether or not the coffee shop we want to work from has Wi-Fi or if we’ll be able to take care of those emails while traveling. That future isn’t far off, and in the case of the Surface Pro LTE, it’s here now.

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