Late last year, Microsoft unveiled the first-generation Surface Pro X. The 2-in-1 tablet-and-laptop combo looks and works just like Microsoft’s Surface Pro line but with one big distinction: Instead of using a processor made by Intel, the Pro X used a custom ARM processor that’s similar to what you’d find in a smartphone or tablet.
At first glance, a different processor may not seem all that significant. But as we found in our review at the time, the Pro X suffered from a lack of app support caused by the change in the underlying processor tech. In short, apps have to be built specifically for an ARM processor as opposed to Intel or AMD processors, and in late 2019, not many apps were. This is the same kind of issue that Apple will have to overcome when it launches its Apple Silicon Macs later this year.
Fast-forward to the end of 2020, and Microsoft has released a higher-end version of the Pro X, with a faster processor, up to 15 hours of battery life and a shiny new color. Hardware changes aside, where the Pro X is really starting to show the last years’ gains is in the software.
We’ve been testing the updated $1,499 Surface Pro X for the last few weeks, and the experience is vastly improved from a year ago, but there’s still some work to be done before this kind of device can go mainstream.
Same design with a shiny new color
Microsoft realized it had a good thing in the Pro X design and didn’t change a thing with this year’s release. Well, there is a new color option, instead of the fingerprint-prone black coating. The shiny platinum option is limited to the high-end Pro X model, which starts at $1,499 with Microsoft’s improved SQ2 processor, 16GB of memory (RAM) and an upgradeable 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) for storage.
It still features a 3:2 aspect ratio PixelSense display that measures 13 inches, with multi-touch and Surface Pen support. There are two USB-C ports on the left side, with a Surface Connect port for charging (or connecting an accessory like the Surface Dock 2). Also on the sides of the housing are volume keys to the left, with a power button on the right.
On the back of the Pro X is Microsoft’s iconic Surface kickstand that rotates out to act as a kickstand, offering multiple viewing angles. When maxed out, you can get the Pro X to lay nearly flat, with the hinge moving roughly 165 degrees from its starting point. And once the kickstand is in place, you have to exert a considerable amount of pressure to make an adjustment. This, of course, is no different than any other Surface device, but the lack of any sort of screen wobble or bouncing is worth mentioning, yet again. It’s impressive.
Under the kickstand is a small compartment that’s opened with a small tool, similar to a SIM tool that comes in the box with almost every smartphone. Under the removable plate is a SIM card tray and the Pro X’s SSD. You can insert a Nano SIM card into the Pro X to take advantage of its built-in LTE connectivity, or use the eSIM built into the hardware to sign up for ad-hoc data plans while you’re on the go.
A keyboard and stylus aren’t included in the asking price, with a Pro X-specific Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen combo adding $269.99 to the overall cost. You can purchase either item separately, with the keyboard priced at $139.99 and the Slim Pen costing $144.99.
Our favorite feature of the keyboard isn’t its spacious key layout, nor is it the responsiveness of the keys or trackpad — it’s a joy to type on, don’t get us wrong — but it’s the hidden compartment for the Slim Pen that doubles as a wireless charger.
When connected to the Pro X, a small section of the keyboard folds up and magnetically connects to the bottom bezel, just below the screen, putting the keyboard at a slight angle, making it more comfortable to type, instead of lying flat on your desk. However, you can unfold the small portion of the keyboard that’s connected to the display to reveal the Slim Pen, which is always charged and ready for action.
The Pro X has a 5-megapixel 1080p front-facing camera, centered above the display when it’s in landscape orientation. On the back is a 10-megapixel camera that can shoot up to 4K video.
The Pro X is arguably the best-designed Surface product, with slim bezels around the display, a stellar kickstand and a stunning display, all packed into a 2-in-1 shell.
Performance will depend on what apps you use
As we touched on at the start of the review, the Pro X uses either an SQ1 or SQ2 processor, with Microsoft keeping both models in the lineup. The processors were developed in a partnership between Microsoft and Qualcomm, based on the company’s 8cx platform. We reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Book S earlier this year, which uses the Qualcomm 8cx processor, and found it to suffer from the same performance and lack of app support issues as the Pro X due to using an ARM processor.
Without getting too nerdy, the benefits of the ARM platform included improved battery life, better performance and the potential for thinner designs. But the switch to ARM means that developers either have to build their apps specifically for the platform or companies like Microsoft and Apple need to build tools into the operating system that will allow apps to run in an emulator. Essentially, the app runs as it would on the full version of Windows 10, but does so with the potential for poor battery life and performance.
Currently, Windows 10 on ARM supports 32-bit apps, allowing apps like iTunes or 1Password to run. In November, Microsoft is going to release support for 64-bit emulation, but it’ll be a slow rollout. The update will start with the Insider Program, allowing developers and users to test the new feature. It won’t be until sometime next year that we begin to see the true payoff of x64 emulation.
Why the history lesson? Because it’s getting clear that ARM-based computers are where the industry is heading, and it’s important to be aware of the benefits and the shortcomings that come with this technology being used in a new way.
That said, the improvements Microsoft has made over the last year have us feeling hopeful for the future of ARM-powered computers. Last year, we struggled with Google’s Chrome browser being even more resource-intensive than it normally is. This year, Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser is widely available, built for the Pro X, and it’s capable of keeping up with whatever task we threw at it.
We were frequently doing some combination of bouncing between multiple open tabs, keeping track of our calendar, watching a YouTube video, listening to Spotify or catching up on the latest news in Edge, and not once did we have any sort of performance hiccup or issue.
When you open the Microsoft Store app on the Pro X, it will show you apps that are either built specifically for ARM devices or have been optimized to run on the platform. Apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify, iTunes, Tweeten and Slack. All of which we installed and used.
iTunes was the only app to give us any real issues, but only when we tried to view the “Browse” section of our Apple Music account. It came to a crawl and wouldn’t load any of the album art. You’re not limited to installing apps only from the Microsoft Store. We installed Typora, 1Password, Steam and Discord without issue as long as we ensured there was a 32-bit version available.
Speaking of Steam, we were able to purchase and install Among Us through Steam. Gameplay was fast and fluid, without any issues. Well, except for Red. Red was sus and somehow convinced our fellow players we were the imposter and voted us out. Next time, Red! We weren’t able to install Fall Guys, which was a big letdown.
Another letdown is that if you use any of the Adobe Creative Cloud apps, like Photoshop, you’ll need to find another app or service if you plan on using the Pro X.
The last time we tried to use 1Password on an ARM-based laptop, the app was very slow, taking upward of 10 seconds between each mouse click or keypress for the interface to refresh. This time, the delay was still present, but a much more manageable two to three seconds.
Microsoft puts the Pro X’s battery life at 15 hours, something the company was able to achieve strictly through software improvements and nothing that’s specific to the new SQ2-based Pro X. That’s a long time for any laptop or 2-in-1, and while we never reached the high mark, we were able to get through a full workday of use, with the majority of our time spent in Edge, Mail, Slack and with Spotify streaming music over Wi-Fi and, occasionally, LTE.
We ran CNN Underscored’s battery benchmark test, which consists of playing a video on loop, with the display brightness set to 50% and airplane mode enabled, and the Pro X powered through eight hours and 27 minutes. That was with the keyboard attached and its backlight turned off as well.
We also put every device we test through a series of performance-based benchmarks. As with the Galaxy Book S, we ran PCMark 10’s Application Test on the Pro X. The Galaxy Book S had a score of 4,493 in the test, which at the time didn’t mean much since we didn’t have anything to compare it to. However, the SQ2-equipped Pro X produced a score of 5,263.
The overall experience and performance of the Pro X exceeded our expectations this time around, and with Microsoft poised to release tools for broader application support, it’s entirely possible we could see the Pro X becoming equal with the rest of the Surface Pro line, in terms of what you can and can’t install.
The main takeaway here is that even though the overall experience has improved significantly, there’s still a lot of work left to be done before the Pro X is a device that we feel comfortable recommending to more than just early adopters.
It’s pricey, with the base model starting at $999 before you add a keyboard and pen, or $1,499 for the model we tested, again, without the accessories that make it truly useful. And you’re going to have to have patience as Microsoft and developers continue to work on improving compatibility.
For someone who lives and works primarily in a web browser, forgoing any heavy video or photo editing, the Pro X is more than capable. But for everyone else, there are less expensive options, like the Surface Laptop 3, that don’t have the same kind of limitations.