Hands on the New Microsoft Surface Pro X

Microsoft reimagines its popular portable

Microsoft Surface Pro X
Microsoft's new Surface Pro X is more tablet-y than ever.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’ve been using Microsoft Surface computers since the start. Whenever I pull a Surface Pro 3 or 4 or, nowadays, a Surface Pro 6 out of my backpack, people marvel: "You get work done on that thing?" I always answer, “yes, it’s a no-compromises full Windows PC.”

Microsoft’s delicate touch with the Surface Pro design has meant that the transition from one edition to the next has been effortless, with the changes ranging from just what I needed to almost imperceptible.

There is a new Surface Pro 7 that hews closely to that tradition, but the Surface Pro X, which Microsoft unveiled on Wednesday, is a major departure and potential leap forward for Microsoft and the Surface brand.

Up Close with Mobile Excitement

From the design to the components and even the venerable Surface Pen (which has probably changed the least over almost a decade) this is a brand-new device with what might be described as Surface essence.

Microsoft Surface Pro X sideview
The Surface Pro X has more curves than a traditional Surface Pro.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

All black with an aluminum chassis (the Surface has been magnesium since the start), the 11.3-inch x 8.2-inch by 2.8 mm (only thick enough for a pair of USB-C ports and no traditional USB-3), the Surface Pro X has more curves and more of a tablet flair than any Surface Pro before it. It has a 13-inch PixelSense touch screen that comes closer than any other Surface to eliminating that unsightly black bezel. There’s still a black border and it’s larger at the top to accommodate a 4K video ready camera and stereo microphones.

Don’t get me wrong, it still looks like a Surface, especially with the Type Cover, now called a Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard, attached and the fully adjustable kickstand on the back extended. Like previous Type Covers, this one has a hinge near the top row of keys that lets it magnetically hug the bottom half inch of the screen. However, hidden in the folded space is a surprise: the all new Surface Slim Pen. Not only does it hide out in that space (making it almost impossible to lose), but it gets a charge as well. Previous Surface Pens use long-lasting batteries.

Surface Slim Pen in Surface Pro X
The new Surface Slim Pen sitting in its Surface Pro X nook.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The black Surface Slim Pen looks nothing like previous Surface implements; it’s shaped more like a draftsman pencil. Fortunately, it’s still quite comfortable to hold and, in my brief drawing experience, easily as responsive as any Surface Pen I’ve ever used. The soft tip glided smoothly across the Surface Pro X screen, recognizing an impressive range of pressure. When I flipped the pen over, I was able to use the other end as a digital eraser.

Drawing on Surface Pro X
It's fun and easy to draw with the new Slim Pen on the Surface pro X, but you can use the pen with productivity apps like Excel, as well.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Chip Talk

Owing to their weight and size, Surface Pros have always been mobile devices, but the Surface Pro X leans harder into the mobile-first space with lighter materials (it weighs 1.7 pounds), built in LTE, instant-on, and a custom-built mobile CPU.

In Apple fashion, Microsoft built bespoke silicon for its new Surface, co-developing the SQ1 chip with Qualcomm.

Surface Pro X ports
You get to USB-C ports on the Surface Pro X for data and, fast charging.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The chip has performance traits normally associated with modern mobile CPUs. It can run fast when necessary but is also built to be highly efficient for mobile use. It also has on-board AI that Microsoft is only beginning to tap.

During this week’s Microsoft Surface Event, Microsoft Technology fellow Steven Bathiche gave me a hands-on demonstration of the Surface Pro X’s new gaze compensation technology. Put simply, the system uses AI during video calls to make it look like your eyes are focused on the camera even when they’re not.

I’ve been on many Skype and Google Hangout calls on my Surface and I naturally look at the image of the other person on my screen, which means my eyes are never looking directly at the person on the other end of the call. With the demo of Gaze correction, I pressed a keyboard button (Microsoft is still working on the final code) to enable the software and virtually shifted my gaze up to the camera. It was a wild and somewhat weird experience.

Bathiche told me that this is basically the tip of the iceberg. The SQ1’s AI engine can be used for everything from smart battery management to blurring the background of a video call for privacy and helping the studio mics detect your voice while suppressing background audio.

More Than a Partnership

While Microsoft has a long history of working closely with chip partners like Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm, it has not traditionally asked for processor changes. Bathiche called this “a more intentional partnership,” adding, “We’ve designed bespoke silicon to light up different form factors.”

This is not the first time we’ve seen Windows 10 running on ARM architecture chips. Samsung’s battery-sipping Galaxy Book 2 runs Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 850 CPU. When I pressed Bathiche why Microsoft didn’t simply go with Qualcomm’s existing architecture or even an Intel mobile part, he used a bicycling analogy to explain the choice.

Microsoft Surface Pro X
At 1.7 lbs., the Surface Pro X is light enough to hold in one hand.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

“Generally, Intel is about high gears: bikes can go really fast but takes a fair bit of force. Qualcomm has low gears, really efficient for the amount of computation. We wanted something that goes from low gear to high gear and back again. That’s the SQ1.”

He described how the SQ1 uses a combination of big cores and little cores to either “hit the hammer when you need it” or “quiet down.”

By the way, if the Surface Pro X sounds like a premium product, that’s because it is. It ships November 5 and starts in premium price territory of $999 and that’s without the new pen and keyboard.

Overall, I like the look and slim feel of the Surface Pro X and will probably get used to that new pen. I’m intrigued by the SQ1 and its potential combination of power and long battery life and I’m already impressed with the new Signature Keyboard (the keys feel great and that track pad is huge and responsive). Would I choose it over the new slightly upgraded Surface Pro 7? It’s too soon to tell.