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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Amazing battery life
Excellent Slim Pen
The Slim Pen storage system needs a little work
32-bit (not 64) Windows 10
Wonky screen brightness
The Microsoft Surface Pro X is is the kind of always connected, lightweight workhorse every mobile professional dreams of, and the touch screen, pen, and upcoming design apps should excite creative professionals. Plus, everyone will love the battery life, which will surely outlast anyone’s workday.
More is more, right? When you get a bigger screen without adding a few extra ounces, it’s a good thing. Certainly, Microsoft’s new Surface Pro X, which has a large and gorgeous 13-inch display and is still thinner (though not lighter) than a Surface Pro 6, is a good thing. Is it a great thing? At turns, yes, but I’m not yet convinced Microsoft’s first ARM-based Windows 10 device fulfills its promise.
This is not the first always-connected (LTE) Windows 10 ARM convertible. Last year, I took the Samsung Galaxy Book 2 for a test drive. It ran on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 mobile CPU. Thanks to that and a power-sipping AMOLED display, it ran 20 hours on a single charge.
With the Surface Pro X, Microsoft took the unusual tack of working with Qualcomm to customize its Snapdragon chipset to create its SQ1 chip. That work pays dividends in benchmarks and battery performance, but more on that later.
As with other Surface Pros, the Surface Pro X ships as a tablet ($999). The optional Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen Bundle adds another $269.99, though I cannot imagine using the sleek, black Pro X without it. Even more so because this is one of Microsoft’s largest and most responsive keyboard covers. The trackpad is roughly the same width as what you’d find on a Surface Pro 6 Type Cover, but it’s significantly taller. I appreciate the extra tap-friendly real estate.
The Signature Keyboard also marks a significant change in the near iconic Surface Pen and how that pen stays connects to the Surface System.
First, Microsoft completely redesigned the pen into more of a draftsman style and renamed it the Slim Pen. Second, the pen now sits in a hidden channel along the top edge of the keyboard. Like other Type Cover keyboards, the Signature Keyboard also magnetically and securely clips into the bottom edge of the Surface Pro X and then folds the first three-quarters of an inch of its body against the Surface Pro X screen. It’s in that folded space that the Slim Pen hides and charges—no more replaceable battery.
I think this is a good idea, but the execution leaves a little something to be desired. For some reason the keyboard no longer feels as securely married to the screen. I can literally wiggle the keyboard back and forth and, if I carry the Surface Pro X by just the screen, the fold opens up, exposing the Slim Pen. The Pen never fell out, but it was disconcerting. I’ve spent years using Surface Pros and absolutely love how the Type Covers hug the screen. It makes for a secure typing, carrying, and lapability experience. It’s not the same with the Surface Pro X and I think this design needs a little more polish.
You can, by the way, magnetically attach one flat edge of the Slim Pen to the right side of the Surface Pro X, but it doesn’t hold on as securely as the Surface Pen holds onto the Surface Pro 6’s edge. I almost lost the Slim Pen carrying it this way.
On the back of the display is the trademark Surface kickstand. It can fluidly bend back almost 180-degrees onto the back of the Surface Pro X, which turns it into a very nice drawing surface.
Aside from some keyboard design issues, I enjoyed using the Surface Pro X. The 13-inch screen is lightweight and thin. So thin (7.3 mm), in fact, that Microsoft finally can’t fit the classic USB 3 port. Instead, I got a pair of USB-C ports and, lucky for me, I have enough USB 3-to-USB-C dongles to make it work. This is also the first Surface Pro to skip the 3.5 mm headphone jack. Most of us have Bluetooth headphones these days and I had no trouble connecting my Apple AirPods Pro to the Surface Pro X.
I like how the bezels now almost disappear (the top edge is thicker to house the 5 MP front facing camera and the very effective Windows Hello biometric face recognition system) and it’s a pleasure to use the Slim Pen on the 267 ppi display (that the same resolution as the Surface Pro 6’s smaller 12.3-inch display). This is a sublime marriage of hardware and a responsive software sub system.
The Slim Pen glides across the screen and its tip is met with a steady flow of digital ink that never skips a beat. The pen also recognizes pressure and tilt. In addition, when I flipped the pen over and touched the back end to the screen, the system instantly recognized that I wanted to erase. The harder I pressed, the larger the eraser grew. Very smart and intuitive.
Also, if I pressed the eraser end with my thumb, the Whiteboard under the Windows Ink Workspace launched. If the Surface Pro X was asleep and/or locked, that same press woke the system up.
This is a Windows 10 system, which means it performs pretty much the same as any other Windows 10 system running on an Intel CPU, even though this one is on a custom ARM CPU. It is, though, the 32-bit version of the operating system, which means that certain 64-bit applications, like the most recent version of Adobe Photoshop CC, will not run on it. That’s a little annoying because I’ve always liked that our Surface Pros are no-compromises Windows systems. This feels like a bit of a compromise.
The good news is companies like Adobe are custom building some apps to run on the Surface Pro X’s SQ1 chip. Adobe Fresco, the innovative drawing app, is coming to the Surface Pro X but wasn’t ready in time for my review.
In addition to the 5 MP camera on the front, there’s another 10 MP camera on the back that’s capable of shooting up to 4K video. These cameras are fine, but if your experience with the Surface Pro X is anything like mine with the Surface Pro 6, you’ll never use the rear camera (which is average at best) and will rely heavily on the front-facing camera for crystal clear Skype Video. Also coming soon is Microsoft’s built-in, AI-based gaze adjustment, which will make it look as if you’re staring into the front-facing camera even when you’re not. This may or may not make your future Skype conversations better or a little weird.
While this is a mobile system running a bespoke, ARM-based mobile CPU (the SQ1 backed by, in my case, 16MB of RAM), its performance is solidly laptop-level. When I ran Geekbench 4.3 (the system can’t run the latest Geekbench), its multi-core scores blew away those of any other system running Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 CPU, ad well the multi-core score for my Surface Pro 6's the Intel Core i7. The i7 did squeak by the Surface Pro X's single-core scores.
Actual performance did nothing to dispute those numbers. Granted, I wasn’t pushing the system with high-performance games, but for everything from Web browsing (with multiple browser instances and tabs open–Chrome and Edge) to word processing, drawing, and streaming Netflix video while on the train, Surface Pro handled it all with ease.
My Surface Pro X shipped with a T-Mobile nano sim that I slipped into the hatch underneath the kickstand. That same space also houses the ungradable hard drive. Mine shipped with a 256 GB SSD, but the $999 version will start with a 128 GB.
Once you start using an LTE laptop, you quickly start wondering how you survived without persistent connectivity. Obviously, there are enough Starbucks around that I could almost always find a Wi-Fi connection when I needed one, but for those times when I’m on the train, in the park, or just out of range of my backyard Wi-Fi, the LTE is a lifesaver. Connectivity isn’t free, but it’s almost always worth the price of admission.
Battery life is incredible. I could work an 18 hours day and still have hours of battery life to spare. My only issue is the weird stuff the Surface Pro X does with its screen brightness. It would often dim the screen when I wasn’t using it, which is fine, but then it wouldn’t immediately return to full brightness until after I hit a few keys. At one point, and with about 50% power left, the screen got dim and not matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to return to full brightness until I plugged the system back into power. I assume this is the Surface Pro X’s way of managing battery consumption, but there was no warning that it was in Battery Saver mode. In fact, when I checked, the system had not activated Battery Saver, so I have no idea why the screen was so dim.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is an exciting and major step along a new path for its popular Surface line. It’s a big-screen tablet with the trademark Surface Pro productivity flair. I like the keyboard and touch pad and love the new Slim Pen. I’m not sold on the Slim Pen storage system as it seems to undermine the keyboard’s magnetic connection to the display. I want the whole thing to feel a little more solid.
Still, as a package, this is the kind of always-connected, lightweight workhorse every mobile professional dreams of, and the touch screen, pen and upcoming design apps should excite creative professionals. Plus, everyone will love the battery life, which will surely outlast anyone’s workday.
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