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Microsoft Surface Pro X Review: Hands-On With The ARM-Based 2-in-1

Slimmer and lighter than the Surface Pro 7, the Pro X is quite a radical departure for Microsoft. Based around its own SQ1 processor, can it justify the high prices? Here's a first look at the tablet.

Should I Buy The Microsoft Surface Pro X?
Initial impressions are good: the Pro X looks and feels great, and it has a brilliant screen. The updated Slim Pen can be stowed in the keyboard, too. There are worries about the performance of the ARM processor, as well as compatibility with 64-bit apps.

Price When Reviewed
  • From $999, Slim Pen $144.99, Slim Pen + Signature Keyboard $269.99
Microsoft has subtly updated its Surface Pro over the years, but fundamentally the design of the Surface Pro 7 in 2019 is the same as ever. And that’s one reason why the Surface Pro X is arguably the most interesting new device Microsoft unveiled at its hardware event earlier in October.

Slimmer, sleeker and with a thinner bezel around the screen, the Pro X looks like the next-generation Surface that Microsoft says it is. Along with some other clever changes, such as a flatter stylus which fits into and charges from the keyboard, it looks to be a strong rival for the 12.9 inch iPad Pro.

Price & Availability
As the flagship Surface tablet, the £999 / $999 starting price isn’t too surprising, but it’s a shame that doesn’t include the new keyboard or Surface Slim Pen. They’re £129.99 each or £259.99 as a bundle (yes, there’s no discount). Just note that the non-Signature version of the keyboard does not have the recess to hold the Slim Pen, so it makes sense to buy the bundle if you want both.

In the US, it's available from the bundle is $269.99, and the pen on its own is $144.99.
The base model has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, but you can opt for 256GB of storage if you’re willing for fork out an extra £269 / $300, or go higher and get 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for £1819 / $1799.

There’s only one colour: matt black.

The Surface Pro X goes on sale on 19 November in the UK, and on 5 November in the US.

Features & Design
Weighing only 774g, the tablet feels quite light. Its rounded corners feel better than the angular edges of the Surface Pro 7, and even with the keyboard and pen attached, it’s still a device you can carry around without really noticing it in your bag.

But one of the key features is something you can’t see. Somewhere inside is a brand new processor made not by Intel or AMD. The Microsoft SQ1 is a collaboration between Microsoft and Qualcomm and is therefore an ARM-based chip.
It’s not the first time a Windows 10 device has run on ARM, but the track record isn't great. In fact, if you cast your mind back to 2012, the original Microsoft Surface RT (with the crappy Windows RT - not Windows 10) used an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra processor!

Returning to 2019, the Microsoft SQ1 has an integrated AI engine, which is the first in a Windows computer, and while we’re still somewhat in the dark about the range of possible uses for this, Microsoft has demonstrated its ability to make it appear that you’re looking directly into the camera on a video call even if you’re looking at the screen.

Without the AI engine, the processing power required to do that on a regular CPU or GPU would consume far too much battery power, making it unfeasible. Yet in the Pro X, it can be done using a fraction of the battery power.

The chip also has Adreno 685 graphics (which are said to be "class leading") and it also integrates LTE, so you can pop in a nano SIM and stay connected just about anywhere.

Oddly, there’s only 802.11ac Wi-Fi, not Wi-Fi 6, so the Pro X isn’t fully forward looking. The same goes for the USB-C ports: yes, it’s great that there’s a pair of them on the side, but they don’t support Thunderbolt 3 so while you’ll still get reasonably fast transfer speeds, you won’t get the 40Gbps of Thunderbolt 3, nor the potential to use either of those USB-C ports for an external monitor.

Really, though, that isn’t what the Surface Pro X is designed for: it’s for anyone that needs a lightweight 13 inch tablet for sketching, drawing or even watching Netflix. That means the absence of Wi-Fi 6 isn't a major problem and is also why it comes with Windows 10 Home.

If you do need any of the features in Windows 10 Pro you can buy a Surface Pro X for business. Regardless, the hardware includes a firmware TPM and a Windows Hello camera for face unlock.

The screen has the usual 3:2 aspect ratio and a resolution of 2880 x 1920, which is plenty at this size. It should be bright enough at 450 nits, though the highly reflective finish could be a bit of an issue if you’re trying to work or watch outdoors or on the train. Not that there’s really an alternative: you won’t want it to have a matt finish for most of the time.

Stereo speakers are located either side of the screen in the bezel and sound reasonably good: the fact they're forward facing means you get more direct sound than the side-firing iPad Pro, but the 12.9in iPad has four speakers and more bass.

As you’d expect, the kickstand has an infinite number of positions so you can adjust screen angle precisely, but there’s no microSD slot. There’s no headphone jack either, so you’ll have to use Bluetooth headphones (the new Surface Earbuds, obviously) or USB-C.

Surface Slim Pen
One of the annoyances with most styluses – first world problems, granted – is that they tend to get lost in your bag, or just lost full stop. The Slim Pen solves this by slotting into the keyboard in the section which magnetises to the Surface Pro X’s screen.

Handily, it charges when in the keyboard but most importantly means it’s right there when you need it.

It has a side button as well as a second on the end, and has the same tech as the regular Surface Pen: 4096 levels of pressure detection and a tilt sensor.

The fact it’s flattened will divide opinion on whether it’s comfortable to use or not. I found it was fine for a few minutes, but then again I’m not an artist who might be sketching for hours on end. It’s probably a good idea to try one out before you buy: you can always opt for a normal Surface Pen, but it won’t fit in the keyboard.

Performance
In my short amount of time with the Surface Pro X Windows ran responsively on the 3GHz SQ1 chip. Opening and switching between apps all happened at the sort of speed you’d expect from a Surface and if you didn’t know there was an ARM chip inside, you wouldn’t even be analysing performance.

Thus far, ARM-based Windows devices have not troubled Intel chips in benchmarks but until I can run benchmarks on the Surface Pro X, I’ll have to reserve judgement on whether it is good enough to satisfy demanding users and also justify the prices Microsoft is charging.

My colleague Neil spent some time using Photoshop and found that the Surface Pro X was more sluggish than expected when asking it to enlarge a multi-layer image by 500%. However, this was a pre-production device.
Artwork created by  Hazel Mead  for our sister site Digital Arts'  review of Adobe Fresco , which will be launched for Windows for the first time on the Surface platform.

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There’s another worry, too. Although this is full-blown Windows and can run all your favourite apps (including some that are still not available on the iPad Pro) they may not all be optimised to run on an ARM chip, and specifically the SQ1.

Microsoft outlines the limitations of Windows 10 on ARM-based devices on its website, explaining that hardware drivers, games and apps will only work if they’re designed for an ARM-based PC.

64-bit – x64 – apps won’t run, but x86 32-bit app will. This means you may well find a key app won’t run, nor games or apps which use an OpenGL version later than 1.1. It also calls out certain antivirus apps which can’t be installed.

Bottom line: you can’t treat the Surface Pro X as a regular Windows 10 2-in-1 and you should check compatibility first if you need to run specific apps or games.

Early verdict
The Surface Pro X looks and feels great. The updated design, including the nifty stowage of the Slim Pen, is impressive, and it’s good to see USB-C ports.

There are still unknowns, including benchmark performance and battery life (Microsoft claims 13 hours, which needs to be tested) and concerns about app compatibility.

Ultimately those questions need answers before any final conclusions can be drawn. But soon we’ll find out if this really is serious competition for the iPad Pro.

View my Flipboard Magazine.

View the original article here

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