Microsoft Subtly Refines Surface Pro Into a More Capable Laptop

REVIEW: Microsoft's latest Surface Pro hybrid tablet-PC is welcome stealth upgrade rather than a radical redesign.

Surface Pro Review

After unboxing the new Surface Pro, it's natural to wonder what changes, if any, Microsoft made to its Windows tablet-laptop hybrid.

It looks and feels a lot like its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4, which has been on market since the fall of 2015, which is an eternity in this industry which is always looking forward to the latest model. The dimensions are practically the same, and the Surface Pro 4's 12.3-inch (2,736 pixels by 1,824 pixels) screen is unchanged.

Buttons and connectors are where Microsoft last left them and there is still not USB-C port in sight. The familiar kickstand still flips out to support the screen on an airport lounge counter or a user's lap.

At first glance, one would be hard-pressed to tell the differences between the new Surface Pro and its forerunner, which itself was a mild revision of 2014's Surface Pro 3. But after spending a little more time with the device, the differences become more apparent.

The new Surface Pro is a product of subtle refinements made by Microsoft's hardware team, most of them unseen according to company executives.

A Nip Here, a Tuck There

Surface Pro now features a slight curve to its edges, a design choice that makes it a bit more comfortable to hold than the previous model with its flatter sides. Microsoft's designers have also cleverly deemphasized the device's cooling vents, making them practically disappear into a tidy seam from most perspectives.

The kickstand now allows the device to sit at a flatter angle, or "Studio Mode" as Microsoft calls it, opening 165 degrees versus 150 degrees in the Surface Pro 4. It provides creative professionals and even the occasional doodler with a "drafting table" experience similar to that of the Surface Studio all-in-one PC.

It's a subtly sharper and sleeker looking device that still stands apart from a sea of laptops, made all the more distinctive with the company's Signature Type Cover with the synthetic Alcantara materia, which lends the keyboard-cover combo a luxurious, suede-like look and feel.

If there's a gripe to be had about the design, it's in the placement of the volume rocker and power/sleep button. As in the Surface Pro 4, they reside close to one another on the top left of the system's chassis. Reflexively trying to lower the volume or completely mute at a website that automatically plays audio often results in putting it to sleep. And in this era of practically bezel-less mobile displays on premium laptops and smartphones, its slightly disappointing to see that the Surface Pro didn't follow suit.

Under the Hood

To its credit, the Surface Pro's speedy components make getting back on track after an inadvertent shutdown a snap. It's in those components where Microsoft has focused most of its efforts.

During a week spent evaluating the Surface Pro, the laptop ran Windows 10 Pro and an assortment of work and entertainment apps without a hitch. Although, it should be noted that the test unit was an Intel Core i7 model with 512GB of SSD storage and 16GB of RAM priced at $2,199, just one rung down from the range-topping Core i7 model with a full terabyte (TB) of storage with a $2,699 price tag.

Its seventh-generation Core i7-7660U "Kaby Lake" chip running at a base frequency of 2.5GHz, integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 subsystem, which is an an upgrade to the Intel HD Graphics 620 and 640 chips in the Core i5 and m3 models along with a generous allotment of RAM enabled the Surface Pro to keep with multiple browser tabs, streaming apps, productivity apps and graphics programs. Power users can confidently push the hardware with more demanding applications, although battery life may suffer.

Long-lived Battery

That battery life can stretch to 13.5 hours on the i5 model, even if those hours are spent watching video. In practical terms and based on this writer's experiences, users can expect the battery to last a cross-country flight if they check up on email, edit a Word document or two and catch up on some episodes of their favorite shows without plugging in. On the i7, barely audible fans can kick in under heavy load (Core i5 and m3 models are fan-less), reducing battery life further.

Another example of how Microsoft has subtly improved the Surface Pro is how the hardware, in combination with Windows 10 and the new Surface Pen, finally delivers on the company's vision of seamless pen input.

Not that the Surface Pro 4 is a slouch in that department. But its successor, undoubtedly aided by its more powerful processors, makes marking up websites, signing documents, sketching and jotting notes on the device's screen as close to second-nature as it gets. The pen tracks faster and more accurately and the digital ink flows smoothly for more natural results.

In short, Surface Pro is a great portable Windows PC for getting work done or following creative pursuits on the road or in the skies.

It may not be for everyone, though. While pixel-packed, the 12.3-inch may feel cramped for users who like a big canvas for their spreadsheets or are accustomed to keeping Word open at legible font sizes alongside a browser window. The lack of USB-C will disappoint those hoping to ditch Microsoft's proprietary charger and the bezel-phobic may balk at its screen.

But for Windows users looking for a powerful, eminently portable and full-fledged Windows PC, few fit the bill like the latest Surface Pro.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of...