After several days of using the Qualcomm-powered Surface Pro 9 as my daily driver for every task in my daily process, video calling has been, hands down, the best experience I’ve had on it. This device has a good webcam with some great features. But most other tasks you might need to do in a workday were frustratingly slow.
That is due — at least in part, I’m sure — to the fact that most of the apps I use are not running natively on Arm. These are not obscure apps, however. I chat with people, I watch video, and I game, and I tend to use the same programs that lots of other people use to do those things.
I will not go so far as to say that this laptop will be as slow for everyone as it was for me. This is just to illustrate the gamble that one is taking when purchasing the Arm version of the Surface Pro 9 — how heavily dependent the payoff will be on the makeup of the constellation of apps that comprises your online life.
The Surface Pro 9 is nice-looking, nice-feeling, well-built, and portable, keeping all the traits that were excellent about the Surface Pro 8’s chassis. Unfortunately, it is also quite expensive. The cheapest SQ3 model is $1,579.98 including the keyboard and stylus (which, remember, are not included in the base price). My test unit (and it’s still not the most expensive Pro 9 you can get) is $1,879.98 with the keyboard and pen included. And for heavy users of many emulated apps, this device is too slow to be asking for well over $1,000 of your money.
Here’s the good news: the design department didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken, and the Pro 9 is as portable, well-built, and nice-looking as the Pro 8 was. The keyboard deck is sturdy, the kickstand holds its shape, and the stylus is quite comfortable (with a very handy garage folded into the keyboard). The 2880 x 1920, 120Hz display is as smooth as ever. The Pro 9 is slightly lighter than the Pro 8, but it’s not noticeable.
The only really visible change that’s been made to the chassis is the color scheme. Surface Pro 8 models only came in graphite (black) and platinum (silver) last year, and the only way to customize them further was to buy a funky-colored keyboard deck. The Pro 9 has added new colors to the full exterior, with options including Sapphire, Graphite, Forest (which is my personal favorite) and Platinum. (As of now, it looks like only Intel Core i7 models have this medley of color options; the SQ3 and Core i5 SKUs are platinum-only.)
There’s also a limited-edition floral design. I, however, was sent the plain-old platinum one, so that’s what you’ll see here. If you want to see the cuter colors, Verge editor Tom Warren got a look at them in Redmond earlier this month.
In what’s likely to be a controversial move, Microsoft has also removed the headphone jack from the Pro 9. (There are otherwise two USB-C 3.2 ports, as well as the slot for the funky little Surface charger.) Power and volume buttons have been moved to the top. The design is now quite close to that of the once-niche Surface Pro X, with the latter a bit thinner and lighter.
Inside, the big news is 5G. This is a feature the Intel model doesn’t have and may partially explain why the Arm version is more expensive. I ended up purchasing a prepaid plan through Ubigi, which runs on T-Mobile’s network in the US. (Getting this plan set up was a bit of a process that had me bouncing back and forth between Microsoft’s Mobile Plans app and Ubigi’s website several times. The Mobile Plans app, speaking of which, was very slow and froze up at multiple points during the process.)
Once 5G was up and running, I was getting speeds of around 40mbps down and 55mbps up in The Verge’s Manhattan office. These would be fine LTE speeds, but it seems likely that Ubigi is using T-Mobile’s low-band 5G network, at least where I’m located. Pages all loaded fine, but nothing was lightning-fast. (Also to note: 5G models appear to be capped at 16GB of RAM and come with LPDDR4x, while those without 5G can go up to 32GB and get LPDDR5).
The other advantage Qualcomm has over the Intel model is its Neural Processing Unit (NPU). The idea behind this is that it handles some AI features directly, taking that load off of the Pro 9’s CPU. It powers some new camera features, including portrait background blur, automatic eye contact, and a Voice Focus feature that removes background sound.
These features did work, but their efficacy was slightly inconsistent. The one that worked well across the board was automatic eye contact; regardless of where my gaze was, co-workers consistently told me that it looked like I was staring directly at them. This actually seems like a very useful feature and something I’d have on all the time since my eyes tend to wander during calls, even when I’m paying attention. The blur effect was pretty good as well and did a fine job of differentiating me from my background. Automatic Framing generally followed me as the name promised, panning while I moved from side to side, but there were times here and there when it didn’t pick up that I was moving.
Voice Focus seemed to have some trouble. On a Zoom call with loud music playing behind me, my co-worker Umar Shakir told me that while he could consistently hear me, the tracks seemed to be fading in and out in the background. There were times when instrumental portions would be muted entirely, then lyrics would be clear when they came back in and then would fade out again. He could, however, consistently hear the same songs playing behind me on a Teams call and didn’t get the sense that anything at all was being done to suppress them (though he could still hear me).
Putting a super-smart camera on this device feels to me like putting fancy headlights on a car that can only go 15 miles an hour. I really wish that Microsoft had put these great features on the Intel models (or on the Surface Laptop 5) for reasons that will shortly become clear.
The Pro 8, with an Intel Core i7 inside, was fast. It’s unsurprising to me that Microsoft is continuing to sell an Intel model of the Pro 9 alongside this Qualcomm model because shifting away from Intel entirely would likely have been a dangerous bet. While Windows on Arm is no longer in 2020 territory where compatibility was an absolute disaster, it is far from where it needs to be worth $1,800.
My frustration with this computer wasn’t a workload thing. It didn’t start out fast and gradually slow down as I opened more things and started more processes. It was peppered with glitches and freezes from start to finish.
I’d have only Slack open, and switching between channels would still take almost three seconds (yes, I timed it on my phone). Spotify, also with nothing in the background, would take 11 seconds to open, then be frozen for another four seconds before I could finally press play. When I typed in Chrome, I often saw significant lag, which led to all kinds of typos (because my words weren’t coming out until well after I’d written them). I’d try to watch YouTube videos, and the video would freeze while the audio continued. I’d use the Surface Pen to annotate a PDF, and my strokes would either be frustratingly late or not show up at all. I’d try to open Lightroom, and it would freeze multiple times and then crash.
It quickly became clear that I should try to stick to apps that were running natively on Arm. Trust me, I tried. I switched from Chrome to Edge, and the latter was certainly faster than Chrome (even while I was using Google’s apps), but it was still a notch slower than what you’ll see from other high-end computers — including other Arm-based devices, such as those that a certain company in Cupertino makes. While the actual experience of calling on Teams was fine, the app was still a bit unresponsive and slow to load. I literally had to force quit the Settings app one time because it completely froze. OneNote was the only Arm app I used that felt totally zippy, with no hiccups. I guess Paint was also fine. (I let Microsoft know about these issues but didn’t hear back in time for publication.)
Underscoring all of this, though, is the fact that I can fairly easily swap my whole workload over to these few Arm-optimized apps. Many people don’t have that luxury or desire, which is what makes buying the Pro 9 a risk.
Generally, the deal with these mobile SoCs (this one is called the SQ3, and it’s based on the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3) is that you’re giving up some power in exchange for long battery life. That’s a legitimate trade for many people, and the 10 hours of continuous use that I averaged from this device is more than I’ve seen from most Windows laptops this year. I was able to eke out 12 hours and 23 minutes by bumping the refresh rate down to 60Hz. Fine. I’m sure this is a longer lifespan than you’ll get out of the Intel model.
That lifespan and built-in cellular connectivity strengthen the SQ3 Pro’s case as a portable computer, but I don’t see it as quite enough to overcome the shortcomings in performance here. Charging was also on the slow side; as much as I like the Surface connector’s compact size and magnetic attachment, it only got the Pro up to 57 percent in an hour. 5G also wrecked the battery life — I only got six hours and 42 minutes of continuous 5G use.
With an extremely lightweight build, 5G support, and good battery life, the Surface Pro 9 could be the perfect on-the-go device. And that’s a goal Microsoft has been pushing toward for years. A fanless, beautiful tablet with a fancy camera that happens to also run a full desktop operating system. An iPad alternative for those who love Apple’s hardware but are fed up with the limitations of iPadOS.
Microsoft has that hardware part down to a science. But it still hasn’t figured out how to make Windows on Arm viable for the high-end mainstream. In the past several years, Apple has created a specialized chip architecture that revolutionized its product platform, along with an emulation layer that worked almost seamlessly on its first day of release. Microsoft has not yet achieved that seamless experience with its Arm devices.
I can only speculate as to how much of that is Microsoft’s fault and how much is Qualcomm’s fault, and I’m not sure my speculation is worth more than anyone else’s. But I’m reminded of former Verge editor Dieter Bohn’s review of the original Surface Pro X, the 2019 Arm device that started it all. “Windows itself runs quite well on the Surface Pro X,” Bohn wrote. “But like previous attempts, Microsoft hasn’t done enough to offset the compromises this aspirational computer asks of customers.” While that experience has improved in the past three years, the story I find myself telling about the SQ3 Surface Pro 9 is fundamentally the same. Windows on Arm, while functional, is not ready for the $2,000 big leagues.
I’ll go a step further: AMD, whose current processor line excels in both power and efficiency, was right there. Microsoft has dropped AMD from the Surface line this year (the Surface Laptop 5 is Intel-only) but has kept Snapdragon in. That, to me, is a miss.
Look, I understand that nobody is buying a Qualcomm-powered device and expecting the power of a Threadripper. I don’t want to discount battery life and build quality as selling points, and I know the 5G is convenient. I am prepared for this comments section to be full of complaints that my performance issues are solvable and that people should just suck it up and use Microsoft’s software 24/7.
But I am fairly confident that if you are someone who uses any of the emulated apps I mentioned even once a day, most other computers, regardless of their price will give you a better experience, whether it’s an iPad Pro or a Dell XPS or, hell, even an AMD Surface Laptop from the last generation. Windows on Arm is not ubiquitously unusable — but it is ubiquitously limited.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
Correction: A previous version of this article included the Surface Pen twice in the review unit’s quoted price. We regret the error.