Microsoft has been using its Surface line to chase the dream of a laptop that transforms into a tablet for almost five years now. Through near-annual iteration, the Surface Pro has become thinner and lighter, while the display has grown larger, brighter, and sharper. Its kickstand has become more flexible, its stylus a more realistic simulation of a traditional writing instrument, and its attachable keyboard and trackpad cover more laptop-like.
The fifth-generation Surface Pro, which starts at $799, is the culmination of those efforts. With a handful of seemingly small changes, the new Surface Pro chips away almost every last flaw of its predecessors, and serves as a testament to what years of steady, incremental improvement can accomplish.
But the hardware’s excellence also underscores how the software has failed to keep up. I’ve owned a Surface Pro 3 for the past few years, and too often it feels like the baggage of Windows hinders the tablet experience Microsoft is working so hard to create.
Now, the company is running out of time to get it right. With Apple’s latest iPad Pro tablets, which will gain new PC-like features in iOS 11, the pursuit of a perfect laptop-tablet hybrid is no longer exclusive to Windows. And Apple might get there first.
Once More, With Feeling
Although Microsoft touts the Surface Pro as being 20% faster than the previous Surface Pro 4, with 40% longer battery life, most of its improvements don’t show up on a typical PC spec sheet.
The mid-tier model equipped with an Intel Core i5 processor, for instance, no longer needs a cooling fan. Nor does a new version running an Intel M3 processor. And the fan inside the Intel Core i7 model, which I tested, runs quieter and less frequently than its predecessors. The integrated kickstand is also more capable, swiveling around to within an inch of the tablet’s top edge for a slightly inclined drawing surface, which Microsoft points out is reminiscent of its high-end Surface Studio device. (On the downside, the new kickstand doesn’t make a satisfying snap when it closes, and I’m ambivalent about the new tablet’s more rounded edges.)
The Surface’s accessories received their own substantial changes. Microsoft now sells a more luxurious $160 version of its Type Cover keyboard, whose keys feel a bit snappier and which is covered in the same Alcantara fabric as the new Surface laptop. The Surface Pen is also now a separate $100 accessory–bummer–but it has quadruple the pressure sensitivity of the old pen, reduces latency to just 21ms, and lets you shade drawing by tilting its angle. (Apps must add support for tilt detection, and at the moment, few have.) You can also still use the new Surface Pro with the older pen, which costs $60 on its own. Both have a bit of texture on the tip, making them feel more like pen-and-paper than the iPad’s Apple Pencil, and last for months on AAAA batteries rather than requiring frequent recharging like the Pencil.
While none of these changes are drastic compared to the Surface Pro 4, they all help make the compromise between laptop and tablet less awkward. The keyboard now rivals that of any Mac or Windows laptop, yet there’s no longer persistent fan noise to remind users of the Surface’s laptop innards. And all of this comes without any sacrifice in processing power or portability. If you bought a Surface Pro a few years ago, the new Pro will feel like a substantial upgrade.
Windows In The Way
I won’t be among the upgraders, however. Like Microsoft, I’ve been intoxicated with the concept of laptop-tablet hybrids, so a few years ago I bought a Surface Pro 3, which I use for computing whenever I’m away from my Windows desktop PC.
But over time, I’ve become exhausted with Windows’ baggage, much of which the new hardware does not alleviate. Leave the new Surface Pro alone for an hour or two, and startup time jumps from tablet-like instantaneousness to a more PC-like 15 seconds. Windows’ routine updates and security patches are a constant nuisance, delaying startup and demanding restarts at inopportune times. Windows is also still prone to inexplicable weirdness. One example on the new tablet: At one point I couldn’t get the volume rocker to respond without rebooting.
The biggest problem of all, however, is battery life. Microsoft is advertising up to 13.5 hours of battery life in the new Surface Pro, a big step up from the Surface Pro 4’s nine hours and the Surface Pro 3’s eight hours. But that claim is based on watching video (streaming from the Surface Pro’s storage rather than across the internet), which doesn’t reflect the kind of professional uses that Microsoft promotes for the Surface Pro line. In my normal routine, which includes juggling multiple browser tabs in Vivaldi, editing Markdown documents in Typora, and conversing with team members in Slack, the Surface Pro used about two thirds of its battery from the morning through lunchtime. I wouldn’t count on it to last a full day. (A rule of thumb for all PCs, Microsoft’s included: Cut the advertised battery life in half for a more realistic estimate.)
Granted, Windows offers ways to minimize battery usage. There’s a “Battery Saver” mode that dims the screen and throttles the processor, and a section in Windows Settings that helps identify battery-killing apps. Microsoft is also fond of pointing out how its own Edge browser gets better battery life than Chrome (or Chromium-based browsers like Vivaldi). Yet with all those tools, the burden is on users to micromanage battery life. This just creates another distraction, one that doesn’t seem worth dealing with on a mobile device.
In fairness, I’ve had some great times over the years as a Surface Pro user. I have fond memories of playing Hearthstone on the touchscreen while checking Twitter in a sidebar view, and I enjoy being able to play games in any room with an Xbox controller while folding the Surface’s keyboard out of the way. I’m not an artist, but I have used the Surface Pen to sign documents–including a fairly intense home-buying process while out of town. And sometimes, it’s just nice to scroll along on a touchscreen instead of the trackpad, even while using a desktop web browser in laptop mode.
Last week, however, I bought a 10.5-inch iPad Pro, with the intention of using it in most of the scenarios where I’d previously pulled out the Surface. Apple’s tablet is now powerful enough for the kind of multitasking that once required a PC, and the upcoming iOS 11 will add PC creature comforts such as an app dock, system-wide drag-and-drop, and a proper file browser that integrates with cloud storage services. Even without iOS 11, I’m already enjoying the iPad Pro’s superior battery life, instant wake time, and lack of weird Windows-like glitches.
What’s Next For Surface?
Microsoft does have a couple of plans to give Windows the speed and efficiency you’d expect from a tablet. The first is a specialized version called Windows 10 S–available as an optional install on the Surface Pro–which only lets you run apps from the Windows Store, and is already installed by default on the new Surface Laptop. The second, coming later this year, is support for ARM-based processors, including the chips that Qualcomm uses in high-end smartphones and tablets. Those devices will support traditional desktop programs from outside the Windows Store, but only through an emulation layer that’s meant to be used sparingly. (It’s too early to know if such chips will show up in future Surface devices.)
In both cases, Microsoft is trying to gain more control over the software that runs on its platform, so it can manage resources more efficiently through processes like power throttling. But that plan comes at a price: Microsoft’s app store still doesn’t feel like a vibrant ecosystem compared to the wider Windows software world, or to iOS and Android for that matter. I’ve yet to find, for instance, a Markdown editor, calendar app, or email client from the Windows Store that I really enjoy using, and high-quality music-creation apps are practically nonexistent. Microsoft’s store also doesn’t offer the kind of must-have art and design programs that the Surface Pro is designed to run, such as Adobe Photoshop and Autodesk’s AutoCAD.
Besides, once you strip away the unrestrained freedom of full-blown Windows, what’s left that’s still worth caring about? For many people, the ability to run all sorts of wacky PC programs–battery efficiency be damned–is the entire point of a device like the Surface Pro.
The undeniable, expansive versatility of Windows is why I don’t think the Surface Pro is in imminent danger. The PC market has stabilized in recent months, and within it, Microsoft’s Surface line has carved out a healthy niche. Still, it’s hard to envision how the mainline version of Windows will shed its baggage. And over time, that means more people like me will realize they can do fine without it.