Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Sleek, but software hasn’t caught up yet

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Sleek, but software hasn’t caught up yet

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Sarah Tew/CNET
(*******)(*********)(**********)(***********)The Surface Pro X falls into a very small, very exclusive category of (************)PC products(*************). It’s one of only a handful of (**************)(***************)new releases(*************)(*******) every year that prompt colleagues to proactively email me, asking where, when and how to get one. It’s easy to see why it’s got some serious buzz. The standard (**************)(****************)Surface Pro 7(*************)(*******) is the dictionary definition of a Windows tablet-laptop hybrid, and has been that way for the past several generations, falling into a somewhat too-comfortable middle age. There have been some minor design, component and feature tweaks, but the last few versions have been almost painfully unadventurous, which is really saying something for a category that would have seemed sci-fi-like just a decade ago.  (*****************)(***********)But (******************)Microsoft(*************) hasn’t let its PC hardware group hit cruise control. The dual-screen (**************)(***************)Surface Neo and Duo(*************)(*******) prototypes are already among (**********************************************************************************************************)’s most anticipated products, even if that’s based on a just a few cursory sneak peeks. And one piece of future tech that’s here already is the (**************)(*******************)Surface Pro X(*************)(*******), a new take on the tablet-plus-keyboard concept that combines the feel of a PC with the DNA of a smartphone.  (*****************)(********************) The X factor (*********************)(***********)You can tell the Pro X is supposed to feel futuristic because it’s named X. And not X as in (**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************), like the (**********************)iPhone X(*************). This is a real X-Files, X-Men, X-Com, etc.-type X, the universal shorthand for the mysterious unknown.  (*****************)(***********)This is, after all, a tablet of secrets. It fits most of the (***********************)Surface Pro 7’s(*******) features into a slimmer, lighter body. It tucks an LTE SIM card into a hidden slot under a magnetic panel. Most importantly, it takes a redesigned stylus and fits it into an innocuous magnetic cutout built right into the tiny fold where the clip-on keyboard meets the magnetic hinge.  (*****************)(***)(****)(****)(************************)(******)(*******)(*******)(********)(****)
Sarah Tew/CNET
(*******)(*********)(**********)(***********)There’s more. This is a slimmer, sleeker, more refined take on the Surface Pro idea. The keyboard cover remains excellent, backlit with frankly a more satisfying click to its keys than a (*************************)MacBook(*************). The high-res 2,(************************************************************************************************************************)x1,(**********************************************************************************************************************)-pixel screen is surrounded by a slim, modern bezel, and the rear kickstand remains perfectly adjustable, if still not exactly lap-friendly.  (*****************)(***********)So why then does the Surface Pro X feel like such a missed opportunity? The physical redesign is spot on, but diving deeper into the hardware specs and a confusing price structure, there’s a lot that makes me scratch my head. It’s underpowered relative to Intel-based tablets, it charges too much for its must-have accessories and software support is hit or miss.  (*****************)(**************************)(***************************)(****************************)(*****************************)(******************************)(*******************************)(********************************)(*********************************)(**********************************)(***********************************)(************************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(**************************************)(********************************)(***************************************)(****************************************)(*****************************************)(****************************************)(******************************************)(****************************************)(*******************************************)(*****************************)(********************************************)(*****************************)(*********************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(**********************************************)(********************************)(********************************)(***********************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************)(************************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(**************************************************)(********************************)(********************************)(***************************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************)(****************************************************)(**********************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(*****************************************************)(********************************)(******************************************************)(*****************************)(*******************************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(********************************************************)(********************************)(********************************)(*********************************************************)(**********************************)(*************************************)(********************************)(**********************************************************)(**********************************)(*************************************)(********************************)(***********************************************************)(**********************************)(*************************************)(********************************)(************************************************************)(**********************************)(*************************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(*************************************************************)(********************************)(**************************************************************)(*****************************)(*************************************)(******************************)(***************************************************************)

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First look at Surface Pro X, Pro 7, Laptop 3
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(********************) ARM twisting  (*********************)(***********)Most of these issues stem from the fact that this is not a typical Intel-powered Windows PC (or even an AMD-powered one). It’s one of a very small subset of (**************)(**************************************************************************)PCs that run Windows from an ARM chip(*************)(*******), similar to the ones that are found inside most modern (***************************************************************************)smartphones(*************). Microsoft calls this processor the SQ1, and it’s a (**************)(****************************************************************************)collaboration between Microsoft and Qualcomm(*************)(*******), based on the latter’s Snapdragon chips.  (*****************)(***********)The Pro X, along with the (**************)(*****************************************************************************)upcoming Samsung Galaxy Book S(*************)(*******), is arguably the third wave of these ARM-powered PCs, which started with a handful of initial models from HP, Lenovo and Asus. Most of these, like the (**************)(******************************************************************************)Asus NovaGo(*************)(*******), overpromised and underdelivered, with higher-than-expected prices and lots of performance and software limitations, and lacking the promised (***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************)-hour-plus battery life that was supposed to make up for these shortcomings. It’s tough to be a solution in search of a problem, when your device isn’t too big on solutions.  (*****************)(***********)Your typical Chromebook is similarly limited, but buyers have come to accept that in exchange for simplicity, security and, most importantly, prices that hit a sweet spot of around $(**************************************************************************************************************************************)-$(**********************************************************************************************************************************). Most of the ARM-powered laptops and 2-in-1s to date have been premium-priced systems, making them a tough sell.  (*****************)(********************) The new math (*********************)(***********)And it’s exactly that math that trips up the Surface Pro X more than anything else. The design, from the excellent screen-to-bezel ratio to the hidden stylus, is great, and makes this my favorite Surface to date in terms of an actual hands-on experience. But, while the Intel-based Surface Pro 7 starts at $(**************************************************************************************************************************), the more limited Pro X starts at $(*****************************************************************************************************************).  (*****************)(***********)Based purely on the hands-on feel, and the more agreeable size and weight, I’d be willing to front the extra $(*******************************************************************************************************************************************) as a kind of luxury tax. After all, that’s what you can expect to pay for a new (**************)(*******************************************************************************)MacBook Air(*************)(*******), if you take advantage of the frequent $(************************************************************************************************************************************************************)-off deals some retailers offer on that hugely popular (*******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************)-inch laptop.  (*****************)(***)(****)(****)(********************************************************************************)(******)(*******)(*******)(********)(****)
Sarah Tew/CNET
(*******)(*********)(**********)(***********)But the biggest historical Achilles’ heel of the Surface Pro family muddies the water. That excellent clip-on magnetic keyboard and the newly redesigned stylus don’t come included in the box, no matter which configuration you buy. They’re sold separately, even though I’ve never seen a Surface Pro, X or otherwise, in the wild or in a commercial, without them.  (*****************)(***********)The Surface Pro X keyboard is $(*********************************************************************************************************************************************************) extra, and the best thing I can say about that is that it’s less than the $(******************************************************************************************************************************************************) you’ll pay for a very, very similar Surface Pro 7 keyboard. The stylus, truly different than the regular Surface Pen, as it’s been flattened to tuck into its secret hinge home, is an astonishing $(********************************************************************************************************************************************************) extra, as opposed to the standard $(*************************************************************************************************************************************************************) Surface Pen. That’s more than a (*****************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************)% premium, on top of a starting price that’s already more than any previous ARM-powered Windows PC.  (*****************)(***********)But maybe it’s worth the extra investment, as the engineering is so tight overall, making for a device that feels and looks great. It really depends on what you plan to use it for.  (*****************)(***)(****)(****)(*********************************************************************************)(******)(*******)(*******)(********)(****)(***********)The Surface Pro 7 (left) next to the Surface Pro X. (*****************)(*******)(****)
Sarah Tew/CNET
(*******)(*********)(**********)(********************) Work in progress (*********************)(***********)Try to install Photoshop CC right now, and you get the following message: “Your computer’s (********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************)-bit system cannot run the latest version of Photoshop CC, which requires a (***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************)-bit computer. Please follow the instructions to download the last compatible version.” (**********************************************************************************)Adobe(*************) is well aware of the issue, has already demoed a version of its Fresco painting app for the Surface Pro X and says, “We’re working hard to bring other key parts of Creative Cloud to the Surface Pro X as soon as possible.”  (*****************)(***********)Running Windows apps on something other than a Windows PC starts to get confusing quickly. The basic rule of thumb comes from (***********************************************************************************)Microsoft’s own documentation(*************): “Drivers for hardware, games and apps will only work if they’re designed for a (************************************************************************************)Windows (**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************)(*************) ARM-based PC.” There’s more on the specifics of (**************)(**************************************************************************)how the SQ1 chip works here(*************)(*******), but the takeaway is, “mainstream software for x(*******************************************************************************************************************************************************************) chips won’t run on ARM machines.”  (*****************)(***********)So what’s the pitch here, except that Adobe apps are coming at some point and standard things like Office already work? Much like on a Chromebook, any web-based tool I tried worked great, and that’s easily (*********************************************************************************************************************************************************************) percent of my usual needs: Webmail, Netflix, social media and so on. And that’s certainly a legitimate argument to make. It’s just easier when you’re talking about a $(**************************************************************************************************************************************) Chromebook (or (**************)(*************************************************************************************)even a $(******************************************************************************************************************************) Chromebook(*************)(*******)) than a $1,(*****************************************************************************************************************************************) tablet-plus-keyboard-plus-stylus combo.  (*****************)(***)(****)(****)(**************************************************************************************)(******)(*******)(*******)(********)(****)
Sarah Tew/CNET
(*******)(*********)(**********)(***********)Another big benefit is an always-on LTE connection, via a Micro-SIM slot hidden under a magnetic panel behind the kickstand. That’s still something of a rarity in laptops and tablets, and even the Surface Pro 7 will have to wait for a LTE-ready version. The downside is that you have to actually pay for the monthly service, as is true of LTE (***************************************************************************************)iPads(*************) and your phone.   (*****************)(***********)The other big touted benefit is the supposed extralong battery life of ARM-based laptops. In previous generations, we’ve found the (***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************)-plus hour claims to be oversold, coming in at about a dozen hours instead. For the Surface Pro X, Microsoft only claims “up to (*******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************) hours of battery life based on typical Surface device usage.” In our initial testing, the Pro X ran for 8 hours, (***************************************************************************************************************************************************************************) minutes while streaming video, which is respectable but not record-breaking. Battery testing and benchmarks are continuing in the CNET Labs, and we’ll update with final scores when available.  (*****************)(***********)There’s so much I really like about the bold new Surface Pro direction. The slimmer design; better display and bezel; great stylus implementation; decent battery life; and excellent keyboard experience. But the relatively high price, especially considering the cost of accessories, the software compatibility issues and tough spec comparisons with the mature Surface Pro 7 make this ideal for only a small subset of the tablet-toting population.  (*****************)

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