One of the most interesting initiatives for those of us who are extremely mobile was the “Always Connected PC” initiative that was a joint project between Microsoft and Qualcomm. The first generation of the products from several OEMs was strong on battery life and connectivity, but the products were painfully slow. The second generation addressed the performance problems, but both generations begged the question because there was no Surface version. Why was Microsoft not participating in their initiative?
The answer is that Microsoft, given that the Surface line targets Apple and is considered a premium product, wanted to get it right, and for a tablet-forward design, the Surface Pro X seems to get it exactly right. Let’s talk about the Surface Pro X.
Tablet Forward Designs
The Surface line began life as a tablet forward design. It was created to address what was a huge competitive problem with Steve Jobs’ iPad, which created the impression that PCs were dead and that tablets would rule the world. While Apple did kickstart the lagging tablet market when Jobs died in 2011, Apple cut marketing to the bone, and the resulting loss of momentum largely eliminated the risk, and the PC market remained strong.
Still, there are those who like tablet-forward designs that are light, have long battery life and are increasingly “always connected.” These designs always have had ugly trade-offs that generally meant you either had horrid battery life, too much weight or horrid performance. This ugly trade-off was largely because they were based on phone technology, which lacked the performance needed to drive a large screen product; or they were based on PC technology, which had the performance but required too much power for such an extremely thin form factor.
Intel has been working on a new processor using its 10nm Faveros 3D packaging code (named Lakefield) that was co-developed with Microsoft, and it looks to be very interesting. Sadly, it won’t show up until this time next year in the dual-screened Surface Neo product. But Qualcomm has also been working with Microsoft for another unique part called the SQ1, based on Snapdragon, and that’s what is in the Surface X.
The Surface Pro X
I’ve been using this product for several days, and I’m impressed. Weight is well under 2 pounds (774g) without the keyboard. This light weight is important because tablets over 2 pounds tend to be too heavy to use. It has a decent set of specs in that it has the infrared camera needed for Microsoft Hello, and the backward-facing camera will record 4K video. It has Wi-Fi 5, 4G and built-in GPS along with eSIM support (which is rare in the U.S. but more common in Europe).
It has a TPM, which is unusual for an ARM-based product but critical for compliance with large company and government accounts. The sensor suite includes an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer and an ambient light sensor, which are generally more common in smartphones than PCs. It also has Dolby sound and, for a small and light product, a decent set of speakers, but you’ll want to use headphones if you want an immersive sound experience. As you would expect, it has an SSD, and you can get 128GB, 256GB or 512GB configurations. You can get eight or 16GB of RAM. Finally, it has a PixelSense display, which is optimized both for your eyes and for Windows coupled with 10-point multi-touch and decent brightness at 450 nits (about the minimum needed for outdoor use).
In use, you should get more than 8 hours (up to 13 hours depending on use) of battery life, and it has the Surface magnetic charger. It ships with Windows Home, but Windows 10 Pro is a $99 additional charge. One interesting feature is a built-in dock and charger on the optional keyboard for the pen. I never get used to using pens on these things because I’m always losing them with this dock, at least with this tablet, I shouldn’t lose the pen (and the things aren’t cheap to replace, either).
I tend to prefer laptop designs over tablet designs generally, and my favorite Surface product up till now has been the Surface Notebook. Having said that, the Surface X is winning me over. It is amazing how light it is, and with its always-connected feature and Alcantara keyboard, it is very easy to carry and use. You can generally leave the power supply in your hotel room or bag and carry the product. I’m a huge fan of being able to leave my overweight backpack behind.
You can’t play games natively, but it streams games reasonably well, and it does fine with videos. As you would expect, it works well with Office 365, and while I still wish Amazon would update its PC Kindle reader, it works fine on the product as well. With Movies Anywhere, I get my Google, Microsoft and Amazon video content I’ve purchased on the device as well as downloaded and streamed Netflix content.
The kickstand does still tend to fall off the back of airplane tables, and I haven’t found a good typing fix for that (you can fold the keyboard under the kickstand for movies to prevent this, but then you can’t type on the thing). One thing I appreciate is the magnetically connected charger. Apple used to have these exclusively, but it keeps you, or anyone else, who trips over the cord from sending the tablet flying off the desk.
I should add that it is also one of the cleanest-looking products in the segment, and the box it comes in looks like it was designed by Steve Jobs’ old packaging department. This last thing is fascinating, because years ago the Microsoft packaging department got upset with the Microsoft product managers and produced this video, which showcases what used to be wrong with Microsoft product packaging. It’s pretty funny.
Wrapping Up: Getting It Right The First Time
In looking at the Surface Pro X, I’m reminded of another Apple-targeted product: the Zune. When they first showed the Zune to me, I thought it was a brown turd, and the product manager laughed and said that it took Microsoft three tries to get things right. I didn’t laugh and told the guy he’d likely be gone in six months, and he was. Microsoft did get the Zune right by the third try, but the market had moved on by then. I think Microsoft learned that you need to get the product right the first time, and the Surface Pro X reflects that thinking because, for a tablet-forward PC design, which is by nature compromised, this is the first product in which I don’t notice the compromises.
It is interesting that to get there Microsoft needed not only its special Pixel Sense screen but a unique processor co-designed with Qualcomm. I wonder how long it will take the other PC OEMs to realize that maybe they need to dive deeper into the technology and collaborate to this level as well. This custom work could be a strong indicator that the entire PC market is about to change dramatically, and I think it needs to do so. So, the Surface Pro X’s strongest feature may be that it could be the beginning of a PC revolution. We’ll see.
Rob Enderle is a principal at Enderle Group. He is a nationally recognized analyst and a longtime contributor to QuinStreet publications and Pund-IT.