Review

Microsoft Surface Pro X (SQ2) review: Still the best Windows tablet

Almost exactly a year ago, I reviewed the original Surface Pro X saying that it's the perfect portable PC (for me). It was my favorite PC of 2019, and thanks to a minor refresh, it's my favorite PC of 2020 too.

To be clear, this is a very minor refresh. The big internal change is that it comes with an SQ2 chipset instead of an SQ1. Just like the Microsoft SQ1 was based on the Snapdragon 8cx, the SQ2 is based on the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2, and the 8cx Gen 2 is already a minor update on the 8cx. The other big change in the Pro X is that it comes in a new, beautiful Platinum color.

Microsoft isn't shy about how minor of a refresh this is. You might recall that the Surface Pro 6 was basically a spec bump (to Intel eighth-gen) and a new color variant (Black), but it was still considered a product refresh. The new Surface Pro X is similar; it's simply a new configuration of the existing Surface Pro X.

I wanted to be up front with that in this review. If you bought the first one, this isn't about whether or not you should buy the new one. Microsoft isn't even branding it as such. It's an improved model, and frankly, a sexier one.

Specs

CPU Microsoft SQ2
GPU Adreno 690
Body 11.3x8.2x0.28in (287x208x7.3mm), 1.7lbs (774g)
Display 13 inches, PixelSense, 2880x1920, 267ppi, 3:2, 10-point multi-touch
Ports (2) USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C
(1) Surface Connect
Nano-SIM
Surface Keyboard
RAM 16GB LPDDR4x
Storage 256GB removable SSD
Battery life Up to 15 hours of typical device usage
Connectivity

Wi-Fi 5: 802.11ac compatible
Bluetooth Wireless 5.0 technology
Qualcomm Snapdragon X24 LTE modem

Cameras, video, and audio

Windows Hello face authentication camera (front-facing)
5.0MP front-facing camera with 1080p full HD video
10.0MP rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD and 4k video
Dual far-field Studio Mics
2W stereo speakers with Dolby Audio sound

Material Aluminum
Color Platinum
OS Windows 10 Home
Price $1,499.99


Claims made in the specs, such as battery life, are based on Microsoft's own spec sheet.

Day one

Design and new Platinum color

The Surface Pro X is thin, lightweight, compact, and I love it. I'm not usually a fan of the tablet form factor, but I make an exception for this lovely device. To be clear though, while it's much thinner than an Intel-powered Surface Pro, it's not lighter. It's the same weight at 1.7 pounds.

That's because the Surface Pro X is made out of aluminum, a heavier material than magnesium. Microsoft actually made a lot of different design choices for this product, because the ARM64 processor allowed for a thinner build. That's why the pen doesn't magnetically attach to the side, and the ports for the Surface Keyboard are different. And you read that right; don't call it a Type Cover.

Let's talk about the color though. The Surface Pro X now comes in Platinum, which is a more traditional Surface color. I was not excited about this nearly as much as I was about the SQ2 chipset. Honestly, when Microsoft told me that it was sending me a Surface Pro X with an SQ2, I was secretly hoping I'd get a Black one with a Poppy Red Surface Keyboard.

Of course, I've got the new color, and it blew my socks off. I did not expect it to look this pretty. I often look at silver, aluminum laptops as basic, but there's nothing basic about the new Surface Pro X. It has a white strip across the top for cellular antennas, and the rest is Platinum with a chrome Microsoft logo on the kickstand. It's beautiful.

The new SQ2 processor is just for higher-end configurations of the Surface Pro X, and so is the Platinum color. Starting at $1,499, you'll need to get 16GB RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of storage. If you want to spend less than that, you have to get Black and an SQ1 chipset.

On the left side, you'll find two USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C ports that will get you up to 10Gbps data transfer speeds. That's another big design change that we saw which switching to the aluminum Surface Pro X; there's no USB Type-C, something that Microsoft often boasted about in its Intel-based Surface Pro. That side also has a volume rocker.

On the right side, there's still a Surface Connect port, which is also USB 3.2 Gen 2, so the port is equal to the actual USB ports. One thing that you'll notice is that there's no 3.5mm audio jack, which always feels a bit weird from a PC. I suppose you can always pick up some Surface Earbuds if you want.

Another thing I'd like to see is a charging indicator, something that Microsoft never really puts on a product. You know, it could just be a tiny yellow LED that turns white when the battery is full.

Underneath the kickstand, you'll find a little panel that can be opened with a SIM tool. As you'd expect, you can find the nano-SIM slot in there, but you can also find the SSD. Yes, the SSD is removable, which is pretty awesome. It's also a feature that you won't find on the Intel Surface Pro.

To be clear, the removable SSD is not meant for upgrading your storage, although you could totally do that. Just be aware that you'll need a recovery image for the Surface Pro X to do it. What it's actually meant for is if you sell or recycle the device, so you can properly destroy your data.

Display and audio

The Surface Pro X has a 13-inch 2880x1920 display. In fact, it's very much a Surface display, rocking the 3:2 aspect ratio that we've seen since the Surface Pro 3, and using the same 267ppi pixel density that you'll find on the 12.3-inch screen on the Surface Pro 7. As always, the color accuracy is fantastic.

Frankly, you can always count on Microsoft for a solid display. It does make some lower-resolution ones, such as the one in the Surface Laptop Go, but even that was pretty solid in terms of color reproduction. The one thing that I always criticize is that I wish it was a bit brighter. It's not incredibly easy to use outdoors, a shame for an ultra-portable PC with cellular connectivity.

You'll notice that it has narrow bezels on the sides, and these are the smallest bezels that you'll find on any Surface PC. In fact, many are still hoping that the Surface Pro 8 looks similar to this because frankly, Surface Pro 7 looks ancient with its big bezels next to a Surface Pro X.

The bottom and top bezels are actually quite large. In fact, the Surface Laptop Go has a smaller top bezel than the Pro X, which is why this PC has an IR camera in it for facial recognition.

Audio quality is also pretty great for a tablet. Like I said last year, the speakers are clear and it's loud, once again, for a tablet. This is a great machine for streaming movies on, just like for work. It has a great display with great speakers, but to revisit the display for a moment, it has a 3:2 aspect ratio. It gives you a bit taller of a display than your regular 16:9 screen, but it's still wider than the 4:3 aspect ratio that you'll find on Apple's iPads.

In short, the screen quality and audio quality make this great for work, play, and more. Speaking of play, Xbox Game Streaming should be coming soon.

Surface Keyboard and new accessories

Like I said, the original Surface Pro X came in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. That was true of the Surface Keyboard and the Slim Pen as well, but no more. Even if you're not going out and spending $1,499 for a brand-new Surface Pro X, you can even spice up your old one with a new keyboard.

The one that Microsoft sent me is Ice Blue, which is a very pale shade of blue. I wasn't even sure if it was Platinum at first because it doesn't say on the box. But the new set of keyboards comes in Platinum, Poppy Red, and Ice Blue, and they have an Alcantara coating. You can still get the original Black one if you want.

But also, be careful of Microsoft's marketing. It loves to pair black accessories with black products, and it really annoys me. That Poppy Red keyboard would look hot with a Black Surface Pro X, so make sure to look around before you buy.

As I mentioned earlier, this is called the Surface Keyboard, not the Type Cover, because the ports have been redesigned. You can actually use the original Type Cover from 2012 with the Surface Pro 7. The cover size won't match, but the ports are the same, and it works. You can not use one with a Surface Pro X, nor can you use the Surface Pro X Keyboard with a Surface Pro 7. They are not compatible.

Another thing that's redesigned is that it has a pen garage. When you prop the display against the display, the pen is hidden away. Moreover, when it's in there, it wirelessly charges the pen, so no more having to buy AAAA batteries.

Sadly, there aren't any new colors for the Slim Pen. That's still only available in Black, unlike the Surface Pens that are available in the same new colors as the keyboards. To be clear, you can totally use whatever Surface pen that you want with this. They all use the same technology. But this is just designed to be used with the Slim Pen.

4G LTE

A key feature of the Surface Pro X is 4G LTE cellular connectivity, which means that you're always connected. Well, as long as you're near a cellular network. Personally, this is a must-have feature for me on a PC. In 2020, everything should connect to the internet instantly.

The nice thing about cellular connectivity is that you don't have to worry about connecting to Wi-Fi. Sure, I'm on Wi-Fi when at home, since I don't want to use up my data plan. But when I'm out, it's just so much easier to use cellular. You don't have to worry about ending up on the Starbucks mailing list, the insecurity of public Wi-Fi, dealing with slow hotel Wi-Fi or hunting down a password in an airport lounge. It just makes life easier.

The thing that really surprised me is that there's no 5G on the Surface Pro X, and frankly, that needed to be said. One of the key features of the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 is that it will require a 5G modem, just like Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 in phones. With Microsoft's custom version of it, there's no 5G modem. It's also not that hard to build support for sub6 5G. Presumably, the team is waiting until it's more mature.

But as that statement implies, 5G is not mature, and right now, you won't see any noticeable speed improvement from 4G LTE to sub6 5G.

Performance, battery life, and Windows on ARM

This is sort of the meat of the review, because it's where you decide if this device is right for you. The SQ2 processor isn't a meaningful improvement over the SQ1, and Microsoft isn't trying to pretend that it is. In fact, those higher-end models that come with an SQ2 are priced exactly the same as their SQ1 counterparts.

Let's start with some benchmarks. I used Geekbench because it's the only benchmarking application that I know of that runs natively on ARM64 (we'll get to native apps in a moment).

Surface Pro X
Microsoft SQ2
Surface Pro X
Microsoft SQ1
Samsung Galaxy Book S
Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx
Huawei MateBook E
Qualcomm Snapdragon 850
Lenovo Miix 630
Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Single-core 794 766 726 494 378
Multi-core 3,036 2,946 2,909 2,045 1,553


As you can see, the Snapdragon 8cx is when we start seeing some major improvements. After all, it was the first ARM64 chipset designed from the ground up for PCs. The Microsoft SQ1 was pretty much an overclocked version of it, and then the SQ2 is a minor improvement on that.

Now, let's talk about real-world performance. It's great, as long as you're using a native ARM64 application. If you compare a Snapdragon 8cx Windows on ARM PC to Intel's Y-series - which is for fanless devices - the Snapdragon PC easily wins in a speed test, assuming that both are running native apps.

But not all apps are native. Windows on ARM supports native ARM and ARM64 apps, as well as emulated x86 (32-bit) apps. So you can still run most of what you want, like Chrome, Slack, and so on. Like I said, they run in emulation, so there's a performance impact. The biggest performance impact is in web browsers as they produce code in real-time, which can't be cached.

Both Microsoft's Chromium-based Edge browser and Firefox run native to ARM64. Edge being built from Chromium is key, as Google has had Chrome ready to ship for over a year and just hasn't done it due to politics. I'd say stick to Edge wherever possible, and you can install PWAs as apps.

Right now, there's no x64 emulation though. A year ago, we exclusively reported that x64 emulation is coming to Windows on ARM, and Microsoft made it official in September. The bad news is that it's coming to Insiders this month, meaning that unless you want to sign up for beta testing and put your PC in a potentially unstable state, you won't see the feature until probably next fall.

Honestly, I don't miss x64 apps though. Sure, Adobe's apps like Premiere Pro and new versions of Photoshop require x64, although native Photoshop is coming. But seriously, this isn't really your video editing machine. I compared it to Intel Y-series earlier, and this is how I think of this type of PC. On an Intel Y-series PC, Premiere Pro would run so poorly that it might as well not be able to run.

Finally, battery life is decent, although you're not getting the 15 hours promised in Microsoft's specs. Standby battery life easily beats Intel, and the promise of better battery life overall is actually true. But a thinner and lighter device almost always means a smaller battery. Combine a smaller battery with better battery life and you get, well, pretty much the same battery life you'd get on an Intel-powered product.

Conclusion

I love the Surface Pro X, and it's still the only truly premium Windows on ARM PC out there. Lenovo put out the Flex 5G this summer for $1,499, but for such a price, it only came with 8GB RAM and an FHD display. To my knowledge, I do believe that Microsoft is the only one offering a Windows on ARM PC with 16GB RAM.

Another thing that I love about this particular iteration is that it really doesn't have a good reason to exist. It's a very minor upgrade, and Microsoft didn't have to do it. The Surface team is known for being conservative with such things too. But rather than just wait for when it can produce a major upgrade, Microsoft saw a way that it could provide a better experience for users, and it went for it.

All of my complaints are really minor. The biggest one is that there's no headphone jack, and that's really the only thing worth knocking a point off of the verdict for. There's also no charging indicator, and no 5G. Like I said about the latter, you really won't miss 5G anyway. If it was a phone, I'd tell you to future-proof and wait for 5G, but assuming that you're not using cellular as much on a PC, it's fine. And of course, I want more pen colors.

But this device is a delight. Other than loving that Microsoft even bothered with an upgraded chipset, I love the new colors. The Platinum chassis blew me away in a way that I didn't think it would, and the new Surface Keyboard colors make the Surface Pro X official to me, as colorful accessories have been a staple to the Surface lineup in day one.

If you're looking for a buy or don't buy, obviously don't buy if you've got a Surface Pro X with an SQ1. But if you're looking for a slim, ultra-portable tablet that's stylish and is frankly a lot of fun, definitely have a look at the Surface Pro X.

 

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