Microsoft Surface Pro X review: A cutting-edge compromise

Microsoft’s first Snapdragon-powered Surface is impressive, but not impressive enough

Price
£1,087 exc VAT
  • Surprisingly versatile
  • Gorgeous screen
  • Outstanding battery life
  • Great 4G support
  • Some compatibility issues remain
  • Doesn’t differentiate itself enough against rivals

We’re currently living in something of a topsy turvy time. If you need more evidence of that, look no further than the fact that Apple is now the company making predictable, safe laptops while Microsoft is experimenting with bold new ideas. The latest of these is the Surface Pro X - a first-party Microsoft Surface device that’s powered not by Intel, but by a Qualcomm-produced ARM processor.

This may sound like madness, but there’s method to it. The Pro X is designed to take advantage of 4G connectivity and uses a Qualcomm chip in order to maintain strong battery life while it does so. The rub, however, is that it can’t run the full gamut of x86 Windows apps. 

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Design

The design of the Pro X is immediately familiar; it's essentially just a more rounded (and thinner) version of the well-established Surface Pro design. It's attractive enough, although a little dull-looking compared to the regular Surface Pro. The round edges look much more generic than the distinctive angles and lines of the Pro's frame, and while matte black is a safe, professional colour, making it the only option is a shame when the rest of the range is so vibrant.

It's also amazingly petite, weighing just 774g (sans keyboard) and measuring 7.3mm thick. That's very portable indeed (if not quite as portable as the Acer Swift 7) but it may also have its downsides. A chassis that thin leaves little room for cooling, for example, and it does have a tendency to get a little toasty if you push it too hard.

The super-thin bezels are an interesting choice, too. Microsoft has boasted that it's crammed a 13in display into a 12in form factor, but in doing so, it's dramatically reduced the size of the screen bezels. The generally-accepted wisdom with any touch-centric device is that thicker bezels are an acceptable (or even desirable) trade-off in exchange for not accidentally pressing stuff with your thumb whenever you hold it like a tablet, but it's hard to deny that it does look good. In fact, for all its ‘safe’ design, it does exude an air of premium quality.

Using it in tablet mode, it didn't feel like we could get quite as comfortable a grip without obscuring the screen as on previous devices, but that's not necessarily a deal-breaker since we generally find ourselves using Surface devices in laptop mode 90% of the time anyway. One thing that was a little more annoying is that we found it harder than usual to get the necessary purchase to open up the hinge.

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Display

If you do want to use it as a tablet, however, you won't be disappointed. As previously mentioned, it's a 13in panel and unsurprisingly, it's sporting the Surface range's standard 3:2 aspect ratio, along with a highly commendable resolution of 2880 x 1920 - higher than the Surface Laptop 3, along with most other ultraportables on the market. It's crisp, sharp, bright and, as our testing revealed, it lives up to the exceedingly high standard set by previous Surface devices.

A brightness of 425cd/m2 is up there with the best laptops - better than the Surface Pro 7, for example, but a little behind the outstanding 538cd/m2 registered by the outstanding Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. Its 91.7% coverage of the sRGB colour gamut and 1,394:1 contrast ratio further demonstrate its bonafides - but as with the Surface Pro 7, be sure to change the slightly wonky ‘enhanced’ colour profile to sRGB in the display settings.

By the looks of Microsoft’s marketing, the Pro X is primarily being sold as a business device, but artists and designers will be relieved to hear that - in terms of display fidelity, at any rate - it’s just as well-equipped for creative work like the rest of its stablemates. 

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: TypeCover keyboard and Surface Pen

What more is there to say about Microsoft’s TypeCover keyboard that we haven’t said already? It’s the best removable keyboard around (and up there with the best overall), and this iteration doesn’t change anything about the core experience - although the Alcantara covering doesn’t feel as plush as we remember previous keyboards feeling. It's almost identical to the old one, with a single glaring exception - it now has a space hollowed out of it to house the all-new, slimmed-down Surface Pen. The new pen is nestled just at the top of the keyboard, in the strip that magnetically connects to the front of the screen in order to tilt the keyboard slightly.

It's a great idea; we've been crying out for a better, more efficient way to take the Surface Pen with us while we're out and about, and this is a solid option. The pen also charges whenever it magnetically clips into the slot, and it will be fully backwards-compatible with previous surfaces, complete with the digital eraser on the other end of the pen.

The new housing is convenient for transporting the pen and solves the problem of the Surface Pen coming detached from its magnetic slot on the side of the regular Surface Pro (which you can still use here if you prefer). On the other hand, removing the stylus from its slot involves detaching it from the screen, removing the pen and reattaching the keyboard, which is a little awkward. 

After a short adjustment period, the pen itself isn’t too uncomfortable to use; the slimmed-down design is slightly less intuitive to hold, but the technology behind it is as smooth and fluid as ever. 

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Specs and performance

It's all well and good talking about the accessories, but everyone knows that it's what's inside that counts - and nowhere is this more accurate than with the Pro X. This is the first Surface device to be built using Qualcomm Snapdragon hardware, but Microsoft has done more than simply sticking a Snapdragon 855 in it and calling it a day.

Instead, it's co-engineered an entirely new hardware platform specifically for the Pro X, which it's calling the 'Microsoft SQ1' chipset. The rub is that this is an ARM chip - which is an issue for compatibility, as it means it won’t natively run any applications built for Intel chips (which means basically all of them). To get around this issue, Microsoft has built an emulation engine allowing the Pro X to run 32-bit Windows applications. 

We were expecting a severely spotty performance from these emulated 32-bit apps, but we have to admit that we were pleasantly surprised. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but Adobe’s latest Photoshop software ran with only occasional complaints. We experienced intermittent crashes - an issue that we also found with Chrome tabs - but aside from that, the performance was better than we’d expected.

The crashes are far from ideal, and the compatibility issue is still a problem even outside of this. For example, there are some apps that simply aren’t available as either an ARM or a 32-bit Windows version - so the Pro X won’t be able to run them at all. One case in point is Adobe’s Lightroom and Premiere Pro applications.

Elsewhere, there's an Adreno 685 iGPU and either 8GB or 16GB of RAM. Our review unit came with 16GB, and it powered the Pro X to an unexpectedly capable result in our benchmark tests. In the Geekbench 5 tests, the Pro X racked up single and multi-core results of 736 and 2,891 - less than 10% behind the Core i7 Surface Pro 7. In other words, it’s got the raw horsepower to cope with even demanding business workloads, assuming the software can support it.

We did, however, have one weird issue where the tablet’s gyroscope kept getting confused and briefly activating its autorotate function for a split second, locking us out of whatever we were doing - it’s not a massive issue - but it was frequent and disrupting enough to be annoying.

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Battery

Microsoft has focused on power-efficiency with the SQ1 chipset, and the goal of the device is to provide ‘all-day connectivity’. Thankfully, this goal has pretty much been achieved, as evidenced by its score of 9hrs 3mins in our battery tests. That’s better than the Pro 7 by some two hours and strong enough to stand up against any other Windows ultraportable.

It also shares the same fast-charging features as the rest of the new Surface devices, offering a 70% increase in battery levels after just an hour's charging. Like most of the range, it charges via Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connector, but thanks to its USB-C ports (which we’ll cover in more detail shortly), it also charges when attached to an external monitor or docking station, which is very handy indeed.

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Ports and features

As with all of Microsoft's latest Surface products, the Pro X is sporting a USB-C port - two of them, in fact, making up for the fact that the slimmer chassis means no full-size USB-A port. Sadly, this is just USB-C 3.2 Gen2 rather than Thunderbolt 3, but they will provide power, data and display, including up to two external 4K displays running at 60Hz.

The other notable selling-point for the Pro X - and arguably its whole raison-d'etre - is its LTE Advanced connectivity support, for 'always on' connectivity. It's somewhat surprising that Microsoft hasn't attempted to climb aboard the 5G bandwagon with this device, but we can see why it might want to err on the side of caution, given that an ARM-based laptop is already a sizeable gamble in and of itself.

Thankfully, that gamble has paid off. The LTE connectivity works well; when using it, we barely noticed a difference in speed or stability compared to our usual wired connection, and the battery life easily lasted us through an entire day of pretty much exclusive LTE connectivity. However, it's worth remembering that this will require a separate data contract, so many individuals or smaller businesses may be better off sticking with WiFi unless they're willing to shell out for additional mobile data plans.

Naturally, it also supports facial recognition via Windows Hello, as well as twin far-field Studio Mics for enhanced video calling and collaboration. The latter is particularly useful for business users who spend a lot of their time on conference calls or conducting remote meetings and works well for picking up clear audio while filtering out background noise.

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Verdict

The Surface Pro X seemed at first like a slightly mad prospect; a Windows device that could only run certain apps felt far too close to the bad old days of Windows RT, and the spectre of compatibility issues looms large. However, this isn’t nearly as much of a problem in reality as we anticipated. Sure, there are some apps which aren’t available at all but, barring a few intermittent stability hiccups, our experience was untroubled by performance woes. 

There’s a lot to like about the Pro X, too; it’s sleek, it’s lightweight, and the 4G optimisation makes it absolute perfection for on-the-go working. In the time we spent with it, we lamented having to put it down to use another machine.

The elephant in the room, however, is that there’s simply not that much reason to accept the few compromises it asks of us. The Acer Swift 7 offers a comparably lightweight package, while the Surface Pro 7 isn’t any less technically accomplished (outside of a less impressive battery life) - and given that the only real gamechanger the Pro X has on its side is strong 4G support, the potential compatibility trade-off is a hard sell for all but the most hyper-mobile of users. 

All told, while Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is undoubtedly an impressive feat of engineering - and hopefully the start of a very promising sub-category - it’s too compromised to earn anything more than a half-hearted endorsement as a cutting-edge curio.

Microsoft Surface Pro X specifications

Processor

Microsoft SQ1

RAM

16GB

Additional memory slots

No

Max. memory

16GB

Graphics adapter

Qualcomm Adreno 640

Graphics memory

Shared

Storage

256GB

Screen size (in)

13

Screen resolution

2,880 x 1,920

Pixel density (PPI)

267

Screen type

IPS

Touchscreen

Yes (10-point multitouch)

Pointing devices

Touchpad, active stylus (optional)

Optical drive

No

Memory card slot

No

3.5mm audio jack

No

Graphics outputs

USB Type-C

Other ports

2 x USB Type-C (total)

Web Cam

4K (5MP)

Speakers

Stereo

Wi-Fi

802.11ac

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 5

NFC

No

W (mm)

287

D (mm)

208

H (mm)

7.3

Dimensions (WDH) - tablet only

287 x 208 x 7.3mm

Weight (kg) - tablet only

0.77

Battery size (Wh)

38Wh

Operating system

Windows 10 Home

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