Review

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: It's the perfect portable PC...for me

The first Surface PC to use an ARM processor was actually the original Surface, but things have changed a lot since then. At Snapdragon Technology Summit in 2016, Qualcomm and Microsoft announced their plans to bring full Windows 10 to ARM processors, running native ARM apps like Windows RT did, but filling in a key gap by offering support for x86 apps through emulation.

It's been a long road since then though. The first two generations, the Snapdragon 835 and 850, weren't powerful enough for premium PCs. And then came the Snapdragon 8cx, a chipset built from the ground up for PCs, with Qualcomm promising performance on par with an eighth-generation Intel Core i5.

Now, it seems like Windows on ARM is ready for prime time. Microsoft's Surface Pro X legitimizes Windows 10 on ARM, using its custom SQ1 processor. The new chip architecture brings with it a design overhaul from the Intel models, packing a slimmer design that's possible with the smaller chipset and lack of a need for a fan.

I've always been a fan of Windows on ARM PCs, for their slim and light designs, integrated 4G LTE connectivity, instant-on functionality, and frankly, it's nice to see a little bit of diversity in the processor lineup with Windows PCs.

Specs

Processor Microsoft SQ1
GPU Microsoft SQ1 Adreno 685
Display 13 inches, 2880x1920, 267ppi, 3:2, 450 nits
Body 11.3x8.2x0.28in (287x208x7.3mm), 1.7lbs (774g)
RAM 16GB LPDDR4x RAM at 3733Mbps
Storage 256GB removable SSD
Ports (2) USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C
(1) Surface Connect
(1) Nano-SIM
Surface Keyboard connector
Battery life Up to 13 hours
Windows Hello IR camera
OS Windows 10 Home
Color Black
Material Aluminum
Price $1,499


The Surface Pro X comes in four configurations, with the base model coming in at $999 for 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. You can boost the storage to 256GB for $1,299, and then the specced out model has 16GB RAM and 512GB storage for $1,799.

Day one


Who is it for or: The Y-series conundrum

The Surface Pro X isn't for everyone, and in fact, no single PC is right for everyone. With any Windows on ARM PC, you can run native ARM64 apps and emulated 32-bit Intel apps. The problem is that most apps haven't been recompiled for ARM. UWP apps are usually compiled for ARM, and right now, there are two browsers: Legacy Edge and Firefox.

More are coming though. Edge Chromium can run natively on ARM64 if you install it from the Canary channel, and Adobe is committed to bringing Creative Cloud to ARM. There are also some games on the way, such as Asphalt 9.

But here's where you'll run into problems. Adobe will give you Photoshop 2018 as well as some other select apps that are available in 32-bit flavors, but that's about it. 64-bit only apps, like Premiere Pro, are out of the question.

So it comes down to your use case. For me, most of my heavy lifting gets done in my office on a desktop PC. When I'm on the road, I want something thin and light that I can use to type articles, take handwritten notes, and maybe some light Photoshop for cropping or straightening images.

The Surface Pro X has met mixed reviews, and I've been shocked to see people complain about things like gaming and video editing. This isn't the machine for those use cases. Even when the Snapdragon 8cx was announced and it was compared to a U-series Core i5, I asked some people at Qualcomm about making gaming hardware, and I was simply told, "That's not in our wheelhouse."

And that's OK. Being a product reviewer, I understand that I have to consider all use cases. I remember the first time I reviewed a PC with Intel's Y-series CPUs. Intel's Y-series is vastly underpowered for many tasks, but it's made for fanless PCs. What really struck me was when I realized that these chips are priced similarly to a proper U-series CPU.

Just look at Acer's Swift 7, which will run you about $1,699. It weighs less than two pounds, and while you can absolutely install things like Adobe Premiere Pro, don't even think about trying to use it. So who would buy one of those things when you can't use those power-hungry apps? Well, those that want a PC that's under two pounds, and don't need those power-hungry apps.

What it comes down to is this: premium does not equal performance. If it did, we'd all be walking around with six-pound gaming laptops that have a 45W Core i9 and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 inside of it. It comes down to your use case. You might be more concerned with portability (carrying a six-pound PC isn't fun), or battery life, or a great screen, or connectivity, or form factor, or something entirely different.

Windows on ARM PCs favor those who want portability, connectivity, productivity, and battery life. If that sounds like you, then read on.

Design

OK, on to the PC itself. The Surface Pro X is thinner than the Intel-based Surface Pro 7 at just 7.3mm. That's right, it's a full 0.8mm thinner than my iPhone 11 Pro. There are a number of reasons for this, but it all comes down to the ARM processor. The Microsoft SQ1 is much smaller than an Intel chip, and it also has different thermal requirements, meaning there's no need for a fan. By their very nature, ARM devices are thinner than Intel ones.

However, it's not lighter. Both the Surface Pro X and the Surface Pro 7 come in at 1.7 pounds. The main reason for this, when the Pro X has a smaller volume, is that the Pro X is made out of aluminum, one of the heaviest materials that you can build a PC out of. The only other aluminum Surface is the Surface Laptop; the rest are magnesium. I haven't confirmed this since the person at the demo area at October's Surface event refused to talk to me, but I assume that the reason aluminum was used was because it can be thinner than magnesium while maintaining its strength.

It also only comes in black, as does the new Surface Keyboard. This is the first portable Surface that's ever only come in one color without different color keyboards. My suspicion is that after Microsoft's first attempt at ARM PCs - the Surface RT and Surface 2 - were spectacular failures, it was being conservative.

As is the case with any Surface tablet, there's a kickstand on the back, and the hinge feels really smooth and sturdy. If there's one thing that Microsoft can really do, it's hinges. Stamped on the back is the Microsoft logo.

Underneath the hinge, there's a small area with a lid that you can pop off with a SIM pin. There, you'll find a nano-SIM slot, and a removable SSD. Yes, swapping out the SSD is easy with the Surface Pro X. While you could use this to upgrade your storage - since $300 just to go from 128GB to 256GB is absurd - it's meant to make your storage easy to destroy when recycling the PC. Note that while you can also remove the storage on the Surface Laptop 3, this isn't an option on the Pro 7.

As far as ports go, it's a big change from the usual selection on Surface PCs. On the left side, there are two USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C ports. This is the first Surface device to include two USB Type-C ports, and the only one besides the Surface Go to not include USB Type-A.

If you're worried about the lack of Thunderbolt 3, get over it. For one thing, either USB Type-C port can handle external monitors. But also, Thunderbolt 3 is an Intel thing, at least until USB 4.0 is out. There are no Windows on ARM PCs with Thunderbolt 3, and even AMD PCs with Thunderbolt 3 are incredibly rare. If you're upset about the inability to plug in an external GPU (a complaint that I've actually seen), keep in mind that the drivers probably wouldn't even work anyway.

On the right side, there's a power button and below that, a Surface Connect port, which is Microsoft's own proprietary charging and docking solution. It's equivalent to USB 3.1 Gen 1, meaning that it supports 5Gbps data transfer speeds and so on.

This device does ship with a Surface Connect charger, a 65W charger in fact, making it the first Windows on ARM PC that I know of to ship with anything bigger than 45W. It has fast charging though, so that's likely the reason. You can charge via USB Type-C if you have a charger, and I suspect that this will be Microsoft's charging port going forward. When other OEMs started using USB Type-C years ago, they all went through that one awkward year where they included both a Type-C port and their proprietary port, before moving to Type-C entirely.

One thing that annoyed me is that there's no charging indicator if you're using USB Type-C. There's a charging indicator on the Surface Connect charger, but it's only a white light; it doesn't change color when it's done charging. Of course, this is true of all Surface devices.

One thing that you won't find on this device is a 3.5mm headphone jack. Microsoft does sell a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter, but this is one thing that annoys me.

Display and audio

The Surface Pro X includes a 13-inch 3:2, giving it a bigger screen than the Surface Pro 7. It's 267ppi, giving it the pixel density that Microsoft likes to use on portable PCs.

As usual, Microsoft put a beautiful display on the Surface Pro X. Really, it's stunning. The colors are accurate, the light doesn't bleed, and it's just pretty for watching movies and such.

One thing that I want to call attention to is the viewing angle. You can look at this screen from a full 178 degrees and it's not distorted at all.

The screen has narrow side bezels, another thing that's different from the Surface Pro 7. The top and bottom bezels are larger though. The top one houses a webcam and an IR camera, so it needs more room. The bottom one needs room for the keyboard to attach to it.

As far as audio quality, it's pretty good. Or more specifically, it's great for a tablet. It's clear, and it's loud (for a tablet). This is actually pretty important for a machine like this, because not only will you be using it for productivity, but you'll also likely be streaming some media on it. I know I did. Whenever I was traveling on a train or a plane, I'd watch shows on Netflix. Of course, this is where the lack of a headphone jack becomes a pain point.

But this is a great media consumption machine. Both Netflix and Hulu have apps in the Microsoft Store, and they run native on ARM. iTunes is there too, but it's x86, and it runs fine. The real limitations don't come from ARM though, they come from Windows itself. I really wish we had apps in the Store for Amazon Video, Kindle, Comixology, Apple TV, Disney+, and so on. For those, I had to use the web. The nice thing about Edge Chromium is that you can install websites as apps, so that helps.

Surface Pro X Keyboard and Slim Pen

Strangely, the keyboard isn't called a Type Cover, like it always has been. It's called the Surface Pro X Keyboard, or depending on where you look, the Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard. I'm just going to call it the Surface Keyboard.

It's worth noting that for only the second time, Microsoft has redesigned the connectors in the keyboard. The only other time that this has happened is with the Surface Go. Even when the company redesigned the Surface Pro with the Pro 3, you could still use the old Type Covers with the new model, even if they weren't the same size as the device. Of course, this time, the change was made because the Surface Pro X is so much thinner.

Another thing that's changed is that there's a pen garage, which holds an all new Slim Pen. This is another result of how thin the device is, since magnetically attaching a pen to the side wasn't practical anymore. If you ask me, this method is better in every single way.

For one thing, the pen recharges while it's stored, so you don't have to think about swapping out AAAA batteries. What's cool is that the Slim Pen can only be charged on one side, and if you try to insert it upside down, it flips itself over. For another thing, you no longer have to worry about the pen getting knocked off of its magnet, as it's securely stored.

The Slim Pen also stays in position no matter how the keyboard is folded. It's always facing outward, even if you're using the device as a tablet.

I really like how the Slim Pen feels to use too. I was skeptical about this after testing it out at the launch event since it's flatter than a regular pen, but it grew on me. The first time you use it, it will ask what hand you write with, and that's for palm rejection.

Going back to the Surface Keyboard, that was fine. The fact that you can fold it up and attach it to the bottom bezel is still nice, although that's been there for five generations now. It makes it a whole lot easier to type on your lap. It's still a bit wobbly, which is probably to be expected.

The Precision trackpad is good, but it's also loud. I tried using it in a quiet room once and ended up using the Slim Pen for my clicking needs, because there's no way at all to click quietly on the trackpad.

Performance, battery life, and apps

You might have noticed that I've referred to the Microsoft SQ1 and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx a few times, and that's because they're almost the same thing. The SQ1 has a slightly higher clock speed, a slightly different GPU, and it's branded as a Microsoft chip. I've asked a lot of people what other differences there are, and I couldn't get any other answer.

SQ1 stands for Surface Qualcomm 1. Microsoft says that it designed it alongside Qualcomm, and I have no doubt about that. It also designed the Snapdragon 8cx alongside Qualcomm, and there aren't even any PCs with the 8cx out yet. The idea of the SQ1 being something entirely different from the 8cx has always been insane.

Performance on the Surface Pro X is a mixed bag between native apps, emulated apps, and AMD64 apps that you can't install at all. Anything that runs native is super fast. Browsers are particularly important, since they generate code in real time, and that's hard to cache. Right now, the only stable browsers are Legacy Edge and Firefox, which isn't an optimal scenario.

Chromium browsers are coming though. Edge Chromium is available now through the Canary branch, and if you really want to see the difference between native ARM64 and x86 in a browser, install Edge Canary and Edge Dev. The difference between the two is like night and day. Edge Canary is blazing fast, and I cannot stress that enough. Chrome, on the other hand, is coming some time next year.

Then there's the question of apps in general. My point of view is that if you're looking for an app that is AMD64-only, then this probably isn't the machine for you anyway, even if those apps did work. For example, if Adobe came out with native ARM64 Premiere Pro, you're probably still not going to want to use it.

But either way, Adobe is committed to bringing its apps to ARM64. Don't bank on it any time soon though. Things like Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and so on, have a lot of old code in them, and a lot of extensions that need to be sorted out. Expect to see things like Photoshop Elements first.

I did use the Photoshop 2018 that's available in 32-bit, and it's not great. Like I said though, my use case when I'm on the go is light Photoshop, so I was OK with that. It's slow and clunky, but if that's not your primary use case, it's fine. If it is your primary use case, there's a Surface Pro 7 for you.

Battery life isn't as good as it's made out to be. This was one of the big promises of Windows on ARM, that we'd get days if not weeks of battery life. Honestly, it's no better than a solid Intel ultrabook, but it's also no worse. I suspect that none of these Windows on ARM PCs have particularly spectacular battery life because they're in thinner chasses, and therefore have smaller batteries.

One thing that is nice is standby battery life. ARM uses big.LITTLE architecture, using powerful cores for powerful tasks, and efficient cores for low-power tasks. That means that it can run background tasks while the machine is asleep without sucking down power. It also means that when you press the power button, the PC instantly wakes up, like your phone would.

I think we've all had that moment with an Intel laptop where we press the power button to wake it up, wait a few seconds, and it doesn't turn on. Then, it turns on right before we press it again, it shuts off, and we have to start all over again. That's not a problem with an ARM PC, and it's more pleasant than you'll give it credit for until you experience it.

4G LTE, and being always connected

I'll always praise PCs that have cellular connectivity built into them. It just makes the experience so much more pleasant. It's not popular on Intel PCs since LTE comes at a premium, but with Qualcomm chipsets, the LTE model is built into the chipset, so cellular connectivity comes standard.

Imagine never having to ask for a Wi-Fi password again, or having to give up your email address and end up on a mailing list just to connect to Wi-Fi in a coffee shop like Starbucks. You just open up your PC, from anywhere, and you're connected to the internet.

I feel like in 2019, everything should be connected to the internet all the time. When I'm on the train, I can easily stream music. When I'm in the park, my OneNote and Microsoft To Do still sync. Cellular connectivity just makes life so much easier, and it's that kind of convenience that we deserve from technology.

One thing that deters people from cellular is the data plan. Yes, you need one, and most carriers will charge you around $10 a month for the line. Google Fi doesn't though. If you've got Fi, data SIMs are free; they just use your data in the same way that all Fi service does.

Conclusion

The Surface Pro X might be my favorite PC that I've reviewed this year. It's actually the fifth Windows on ARM PC that I've reviewed out of the seven that have existed, so I'm used to the ins and outs of them. What I've always loved about them is that they're light and easy to carry, they're always connected to the internet, and they wake instantly.

The Pro X brings Windows on ARM into maturity. One of the problems with earlier Windows on ARM PCs is that none of them were really premium. The Samsung Galaxy Book2 had a beautiful Super AMOLED display, but only 4GB RAM. The Lenovo Yoga C630 offered 8GB RAM, but a subpar 1080p display. The Surface Pro X has a beautiful screen, up to 16GB RAM, up to 512GB storage, and it's an all-around premium machine. And of course, it has the performance boost of the Snapdragon 8cx generation.

My biggest issue with it is the lack of a headphone jack. For a device that did a wonderful job of replacing my iPad in my time with it, I did miss the simplicity of being able to plug in a pair of headphones. My other complaint is that minor annoyance that I mentioned earlier, which is that there's no charging indicator when charging via USB Type-C, and no way to tell it's fully charged with Surface Connect.

I'd call out the lack of support for AMD64 apps, but I didn't miss them. This was my to-go PC. For the powerful tasks, I have a desktop. Microsoft is really pushing the idea that there's a Surface for everyone. This isn't a Surface Pro 7 replacement; if it was, there wouldn't be a Surface Pro 7. You have to decide what you need here.

For me, it's the Surface Pro X. Personally, I think this is nearly a perfect PC, and Microsoft really nailed this one. If you want to check out the Surface Pro X on the Microsoft Store, you can find it here.

 

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