Microsoft Surface Pro X review: ARM processor hurts app compatibility
The Surface Pro X is the computer Microsoft has tried to make for at least seven years. It is the computer Microsoft hopes will be the platform on which the future of Windows 10 is built. It is a beautiful, well-made hybrid tablet device that looks better than any other computer I’ve tried in at least the past year.
The entire reason for the Pro X to exist is as a platform to show off how Windows could run on an ARM processor — specifically one co-developed between Microsoft and Qualcomm. If you want to participate in that grand experiment, it will cost you: the base spec with a keyboard costs $1,138.99 while the model I’m testing runs $1,768.99.
Unlike previous attempts at ARM, Windows itself runs quite well on the Surface Pro X. But like previous attempts, Microsoft hasn’t done enough to offset the compromises this aspirational computer asks of customers.
It’s a computer built for a world that doesn’t exist — and I don’t know if I can add “yet” to the end of that sentence.
After four years of sticking to the exact same design for the Surface Pro line, Microsoft finally updated it for the Surface Pro X. It’s virtually the same size as Surface Pro tablets you’ve seen before, just subtly wider and thinner. Microsoft also went with black anodized aluminum, which looks sick as hell the first time you see it. But just as we found on the black Surface Laptop, it picks up fingerprints immediately and persistently.
The most important change Microsoft made to the classic Surface formula was to trim down the bezels, especially on the left and right. That gives the Surface a 13-inch touchscreen in a body that normally would have a 12.3-inch screen.
The PixelSense touchscreen looks good. It’s 2800 x 1920 pixels, which means it maintains the classic 3:2 aspect ratio Microsoft has gone for on many of its devices (and which is the Correct Aspect Ratio). It’s not the brightest screen around — it maxes out at 450 nits. (I will note that my colleague Tom Warren had a unit arrive with cracked glass, however.)
There are differences from the Surface Pro 7. The Pro X is thinner, lighter, and doesn’t have (or need) any fans. The power and volume buttons have moved to the sides of the tablet, an acknowledgement that few people bother using Surfaces in portrait mode. There’s no microSD card slot, but you can pop open a door to access the SIM card slot and replaceable SSD (though it’s an uncommon size).
There’s no headphone jack, but Bluetooth performance with headphones is thankfully fine — I had no issues using it with my AirPods, anyway. Microsoft also has gone with two USB-C ports, one Surface Connector port, and nothing else. I’m glad to see Microsoft has finally embraced USB-C and while I know some people will bemoan the lack of USB-A, I’m not one of them. You can use either of those USB-C ports to charge the laptop, transfer data, or connect to an external display, but like the Pro 7 and Laptop, the Pro X does not support Thunderbolt 3 speeds on either port.
There are two keyboard options, each of which costs extra on top of the base price for the Surface (which is annoying — who doesn’t buy the keyboard?). There’s the traditional $139.99 Surface keyboard — which I didn’t test — and the so-called “Signature Keyboard,” which comes bundled with the new Slim Surface Pen for $269.99.
The Signature Keyboard is clever because the little flap that folds up to magnetically attach to the screen for stability has a slot for the new Slim stylus Microsoft makes. The whole setup is actually really clever — the stylus magnetically snaps into place and starts charging immediately. It makes it much, much more likely that you’ll actually have it with you at all times instead of lost at the bottom of your bag or back at your desk.
There is a trade-off for all that cleverness, though, beyond it costing more. The keyboard has just a little more wobble than a classic Surface keyboard when you’re using it on your lap. And it can also make it hard to tap items on the task bar at the bottom of the screen — or even see them, depending on how you’re sitting. Those trade-offs might be worth it to you if you depend on having a stylus.
I am admittedly not a heavy stylus user, but the new $144.99 Slim Pen (also not included in the box) seems nice. It could get a little tiring to use over several hours because it is, as the name says, slim. But it does all the stylus stuff you could ask for: it supports pressure and angles, has two buttons, and also lets you flip it around to use the top of it as an eraser.
Mainly, Microsoft hasn’t messed with the traditional Surface formula, which I think is good. The edges are a little more softly curved, but the kickstand still firmly adjusts to any angle you could ask for. There are two front-firing speakers flanking the screen and they get very loud and sound better than your average laptop.
Instead, that classic Surface formula has been refined and improved. I really do think this is the best-looking computer I’ve used in the past year. I even think it looks better than the iPad Pro — which has a superior screen but a soulless industrial design. And compared to the Surface Pro 7, the Pro X just looks so much better.
The Surface Pro 7’s design is four years old now, and so the Surface Pro X is the redesign we’ve all been waiting for. But that redesign comes with something else: that new ARM processor and all the compromises it entails.
We’ve seen Windows computers with ARM processors before, but the Surface Pro X is something a little different. The whole push to get Windows running well on ARM processors makes perfect sense to me. Although ARM processors still can’t maintain top speeds like Intel chips can, they whomp Intel on battery life and LTE compatibility. And frankly, there’s a lot more development and innovation happening over on the ARM side of things.
Mostly, ARM processors are used on phones and tablets. On Windows PCs, they’ve run fairly poorly so far. So Microsoft co-developed a processor with Qualcomm to improve the graphics performance over and above what Qualcomm’s 8cx could do. Microsoft’s version of the chip is called the SQ1, and by and large it performs better than my expectation.
Not that my expectations were very high — other ARM laptops have been dog slow. But the core of Windows 10 runs just fine for me. It’s the full version of Windows 10, by the way, not some RT or S version. At the extreme, I have had several apps open — including two different browsers with a dozen or so tabs open in each — and nothing ground to a halt.
There are still occasional, confounding slowdowns, especially when waking from sleep. In general, I just didn’t have as strong a feel for what would and would not bog down this computer — with an Intel chip, I know what to expect.
But it wasn’t fast, certainly not as fast as an equivalently priced Intel device would be. Still, the main problem with this ARM chip doesn’t come from slowness with Windows itself, but with many of the apps.
I need to give some brief context about why app compatibility is a thing on the Surface Pro X. The fact that the following paragraphs are even necessary is a little damning.
When a developer codes an app, it needs to be compiled, which optimizes the code in several ways. One of those ways is ensuring it is designed for the right processor. Before you even consider the Surface Pro X, there’s a four-part matrix you need to learn. On one axis you have 32 bit versus 64 bit — it refers to a class of processor, and of course 64 bit is faster. On the other axis you have ARM versus x86 — that’s the architecture, and x86 is what Intel runs.
With me so far? Well, because the Surface Pro X runs a 64-bit ARM processor, the apps that run best on it are 64-bit ARM apps, of which there aren’t very many beyond what Microsoft itself has made and a smattering of others in the Microsoft app store. (Since Windows on ARM is so new, we can skip over worrying about 32-bit ARM apps.)
Most Windows apps are compiled to x86, though. So Microsoft built an emulation layer for Windows to run them. That emulation layer is able to run 32-bit Windows apps, but not more modern 64-bit apps. Luckily, most of the apps you’re probably wondering about right now are still available in 32-bit versions.
The big one is Chrome. It runs on the Surface Pro X, but I wouldn’t say it sprints. It is discernibly slower than the 64-bit ARM version of Edge on this computer — that’s been true even on Intel computers, but it’s a little slower here. Still, totally usable.
In fact, most of the apps you’ll use day to day are 32-bit x86 apps and they tend to run just a step behind what they’d be on an Intel computer. That includes Microsoft’s own Office apps, by the way, as well as the beta version of the next big update for the Edge browser that’s arriving in January.
More intense apps like Photoshop do technically run on this computer, but they’re so slow they may as well not. Microsoft says that Adobe is committed to creating 64-bit ARM versions of its Creative Cloud apps, but there’s no timeline for when that’ll happen.
Gaming is — quite literally — a non-starter. Fortnite or Xbox Game Pass games simply aren’t installable and while you can install Steam, good luck running anything you download from it. The only gaming that’s possible here are the casual games you’ll find in the Microsoft Store, like Angry Birds 2.
The problem gets worse, though: 64-bit x86 apps won’t run at all on the Surface Pro X. That ironically means some of the most advanced Windows apps can’t work here. It’s particularly depressing for me because Adobe Lightroom (both Lightroom Classic and the more modern Lightroom CC) can’t be installed on the Surface Pro X and several of the popular alternatives from indie developers are also only available as 64-bit x86 apps.
Everybody has one or two apps they absolutely need to do their job. With the Surface Pro X, there’s no real way to know if it will run well (or at all) without doing a ton of research ahead of time. Dropbox, for example, only works as an insular “S-Mode” app and can’t sync your files automatically.
Heck, even Microsoft’s own app store doesn’t properly filter out incompatible apps when you visit it from this computer. You can (and I did!) buy apps in the Microsoft Store and only find out after the fact that they’re incompatible. Microsoft promises that it will fix this issue, but for now consumers are left to their own devices to figure it out.
If having an ARM processor causes all of those app compatibility problems, why would anybody choose an ARM-based Windows computer? The first benefit is that it allows this device to be thinner and lighter than even a low-power Y-Series Intel chip would likely allow. The second is that it’s much easier to integrate LTE. Even though it seems like a minor thing, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been thankful I didn’t have to fight with some saturated Wi-Fi networks to get phone tethering working.
The third and most common reason to get an ARM Windows computer is battery life. Here, though, I have strange news to report: it’s okay, but it’s not stellar. Other ARM computers promise 20-plus hours of battery, but Microsoft promises a much more modest 13 hours of “typical device usage,” which includes some portion of downtime and keeps the screen at only about one-third of its max brightness.
I didn’t get to 13 hours, but I did get around five to six hours of active use each of the four days I tested it so far — more in the later days as Windows settled down and I started working more within its limitations. By Microsoft’s metric, which includes “a mixture of active use and modern standby,” I’d say I got around nine or 10 hours.
That’s not atrocious by 2019 Intel laptop standards, but the promise of ARM is that I wouldn’t need to be reaching for a charge by mid-afternoon, and I definitely needed to. Especially at the prices Microsoft is charging, I was hoping for more.
The good news is that Microsoft’s claims around fast charging are totally real. With the Surface Pro X in standby, I went from five percent to 55 percent battery life in just 30 minutes. It was fast when I was using the device as well. You’ll only get those speeds when charging with the included 65W adapter, however.
Microsoft has a very strong, clear vision with the Surface Pro X. It’s a thin-and-light tablet with no fans, the processor architecture that could help Windows 10 compete with the iPad Pro, and an operating system that’s more open and flexible than iPadOS. These are all things I want to exist in the world, and it’s exciting that they are all real and instantiated in the Surface Pro X.
The ideas are exciting, but not exciting enough for me to recommend anybody pay money for them. The apps simply aren’t ready yet — either because they don’t work with this processor or because they’re too slow on it. Buying this machine is essentially making a huge bet that the Windows app ecosystem will rally to support a new Windows initiative in short order. Very few people have won that bet in the past 20 years: just ask the developers of Windows Phone and Metro / Modern / Microsoft Store / UWP apps.
You should never buy a gadget today based on the hope that the software will come tomorrow. That rule applies to the Surface Pro X more than usual because the investment is so large. For the near $1,800 you’d have to spend to get the Pro X model I reviewed, you would be able to buy a Surface Pro 7 kitted out with equivalent RAM, storage, keyboard, stylus, and an Intel Core i7 processor that would be loads faster and also be compatible with all Windows apps.
Is getting a thinner device with LTE, a bigger screen, and the happy feeling you’re living slightly further in the future worth the app trade-off? Maybe for a sliver of people who can afford to buy very nice things to do Office, email, and browsing tasks. This is a CEO’s computer, not an engineer’s computer, and certainly not a computer for the rest of us.
The Surface Pro X is the best-looking computer I’ve used all year. But we don’t need to look at computers, we need to use them.
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