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June 15, 2017

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) review

by John_A

Research Center:
Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)

Microsoft kicked off the detachable tablet segment of the modern 2-in-1 market with its original Surface device, which also heralded the company’s entry into the PC hardware business. Microsoft has continued to improve the lineup since then, while other PC makers jumped into the 2-in-1 market with a vengeance, offering their own variants of ever-increasing quality and performance. The PC market is starting to recover from its years-long slide in sales volume, and the 2-in-1 has been an important part of its resurgence.

Even with all the competition, the Surface Pro 4 remained our favorite Windows 10 detachable tablet and emerged as one of the best-selling Surface products. Now, after more than 18 months on the market, Microsoft has finally introduced the fifth generation in the Surface Pro family. But don’t call it the Surface Pro 5. The number is no more.

The new Surface Pro is in some ways an incremental update to the Surface Pro 4 and doesn’t bring the pizzazz of recent innovations like the Surface Book and Surface Studio. Incrementing on the best product in its class isn’t anything to sneeze at, however – and neither is the hardware in our review unit. It came with a Core i7-7660U CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB solid state drive, which brought the price tag to $2,200.

Does the Surface Pro maintain Microsoft’s place at the top? Or have the 2-in-1s it has inspired caught up?

World-class engineering

The Surface Pro enjoys the same outstanding attention to detail as every other modern Surface machine, and Microsoft’s ability to produce extremely well-built machines is as apparent as always. Simply put, the Surface Pro is solid as a rock, and exudes a sense of futuristic quality.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

It’s also well-designed, with a look and feel that, while minimally changed from the Surface Pro 4, is still an improvement. The corners are more rounded, and the exhaust vents along the edges are less pronounced. In fact, the vents are absent if you buy the Core m3 or Core i5 models, as they both ditch the cooling fan.

There aren’t many moving parts in the Surface Pro itself. The power and volume buttons along the top are easy to find by feel, and have a crisp action, while the kickstand is smooth and reliably holds the tablet at your chosen angle. It now opens up to 165 degrees, an increase from the Surface Pro 4, which opened 150 degrees. Fully flexed, the kickstand can turn Surface Pro into a nearly-flat slate.

A slightly improved typing experience

The Surface Pro is no longer marketed as “the tablet that can replace your notebook.” Microsoft is simply calling it a laptop, which makes it unfortunate that the $160 Signature Type Cover keyboard (received with our review unit) isn’t included. It’s frankly essential, and we can’t imagine why you’d buy a Surface Pro without it. You can save some money with the standard Type Cover, but it’s still $130, and isn’t covered in Alcantara.

Fortunately, this vital accessory shares the high-quality aspects of the Surface Pro, and adds a splash of color as well. Our review unit came with the Cobalt Blue version, but Burgundy, Platinum, and Black versions are also available. The Alcantara fabric feels great, and remains a unique feature not found on competing 2-in-1s.

The Signature Type Cover’s key travel is more than sufficient at 1.5mm, with just the right amount of pressure required to register key presses. The action is crisp with just a hint of bottoming out, and it’s quite a bit quieter than the previous Type Cover that shipped alongside the Surface Pro 4. It’s backlit with three levels of brightness, and suffers from minimal light bleed.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

If you decide to flip into tablet mode for a moment and fold back the Type Cover, the keyboard will turn off when the cover is tucked back. It can even switch Windows 10 into tablet mode, if desired. It attaches to the tablet with strong magnets and connects via a physical port, meaning there’s zero lag when typing. That’s a nice improvement over the Bluetooth keyboard covers used by the Samsung Galaxy Book and Apple iPad.

The touchpad is a little small, but it works extremely well. It’s a Microsoft Precision touchpad that supports all Windows 10 gestures, and it offers up a smooth surface with just enough resistance to provide feedback for accurate mouse control.

The pen is great, but it’ll cost you

Unlike the Surface Pro 4, the new Surface Pro doesn’t include the Surface Pen — an unfortunate decision on Microsoft’s part. The company cited a few reasons for making the pen an option, including the new multi-color scheme, customer feedback that shows that not everyone uses the pen, and the fact that many people who buy the Surface Pro will be upgrading from previous models. The pens – and the Type Covers, for that matter – are compatible across the Surface 3, Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Pro.

Microsoft no longer refers to the Surface Pro as a tablet, and that makes sense given its laptop-like components.

Microsoft made up for the decision to make the pen optional by significantly improving its specifications, while pricing the new version at $100. Pressure sensitivity has been quadrupled, from 1,024 levels to 4,096, a new tilt feature has been added, and latency has been reduced dramatically to 21ms on the Surface Pro, with the help of the new Surface Pen design and a hardware accelerator.

The new Surface Pen features work on the previous models as well, although latency will only be marginally improved. You’ll want to make sure you pick the right color, given that it will be available in the same colors as the Signature Type Cover.

The improvements are noticeable, with no discernible delay between when the pen tip is placed on the screen to when Windows 10 Ink starts to flow. And the pen keeps up better with fast motions, never falling behind, as sometimes happens with the Surface Pro 4. The combination makes the Surface Pro one of the best inking experiences on the market, and a great tool for digital drawing and handwriting.

The Surface Dial works out of the box, as does Windows Hello

Of course, the Surface Pro also offers a capacitive touchscreen with 10-point multitouch capabilities. It’s as responsive as ever, offering yet another way to interact with the very touch-friendly Windows 10. And the Surface Pro supports the innovative Surface Dial input accessory directly on the screen.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Finally, Windows 10 Hello support is provided by an infrared camera that’s mounted next to the HD webcam. It offers password-less login via facial recognition, and we found it to be very fast in our testing.

A very minimal selection of ports

Microsoft is late to the party when it comes to adopting the increasingly ubiquitous USB Type-C connection. The company has its reasons — few accessories use the connection at this point, and customers can get confused when it comes to charging the machine – but we disagree with the decision.

This is the first Surface Pro model we’ve tested with battery life that’ll last an entire workday.

Instead, the Surface Pro comes equipped with a single USB 3.0 Type-A connection and a mini-DisplayPort. There’s also a microSD card reader located under the kickstand, and the same Surface Connect port that Microsoft has been using since the Surface Pro 3. That port provides power to the machine, or can connect to the optional Surface Dock.

Interestingly, Microsoft will be providing a Surface Connect to USB Type-C adapter at some point in the future. We’re not sure what USB Type-C features will be supported by the dongle, so we’re left disappointed with the Surface Pro’s connectivity overall.

The usual Surface display quality — which is to say, it’s excellent

The Surface Pro (2017) offers essentially the same display as the Surface Pro 4, meaning it’s a 12.3-inch PixelSense display with 2,736 × 1,824 resolution (267 PPI) panel in a 3:2 aspect ratio. More and more machines are adopting the 3:2 format, as it offers a display that’s a little taller, for fitting more of a document or web page on the screen at once. The aspect ratio does cause some letterboxing when watching video, however.

Microsoft uses excellent displays in its Surface line, and the Surface Pro is no exception. According to our colorimeter, our Surface Pro review unit’s display offered up some serious contrast at 1180:1, bested only by Microsoft’s own Surface Book. That promises excellent blacks for a non-OLED display. Color gamut support was average at 71-percent AdobeRGB but much stronger at 96-percent sRGB. Colors were also fairly accurate with a Delta-E of 1.88 (1.00 or lower is considered excellent).

In addition, the display was incredibly bright at 427 nits, promising to help overcome the display’s general glossiness in bright environments. The only real area of weakness was its gamma, which at 2.6 (the ideal is 2.2), likely means some scenes will be brighter than they should.

In use, the Surface Pro’s display is as excellent as it sounds, and getting better all the time as Microsoft improves Windows 10’s support for high resolutions. Text and images are razor sharp, colors are excellent, blacks are deep, and the display is generally a joy to use.

Strong speakers that point in the right direction

The Surface Pro sports two front-firing speakers on each side of the display. There are small cutouts in the glass to let the sound through, and the design provides impressive sound for a tablet. Music is great, with surprising range, and there’s even a hint of bass. The speakers also get surprisingly loud, and can fill a decent sized room without distorting.

Laptop-like performance

We can see why Microsoft is moving away from referring to the Surface Pro as a tablet, given that it’s packed with very laptop-like components. Our review model was equipped with a fast dual-core Intel i7-7660U CPU and 16GB of RAM, and it provided some impressive performance for a machine that’s punching in a lightweight class.

In fact, looking at our benchmark tests, the Surface Pro is competitive with larger 360-degree 2-in-1s that one might expect to be faster. Its GeekBench 4 single-core and multi-core results were solid, beating out many of our comparison machines. Only the similarly equipped HP EliteBook x360 G2 scored higher.

More impressively, the Surface Pro churned through our Handbrake test, which encodes a 420MB video to H.265, in just 822 seconds. That’s significantly faster than each of our comparison systems, and in fact is the fastest result we’ve seen from a dual-core notebook processor.

Perhaps most impressive is that the Surface Pro managed to keep heat under control even while working so hard. Though the back of the tablet got a bit warm during the Handbrake test, the machine managed to maintain nearly full speed throughout with only minimal CPU throttling. And fan noise was significantly reduced from the Surface Pro 4, never rising to more than a loud whisper that wasn’t nearly as obtrusive in our quiet test environment.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Microsoft touted the improved thermals in the new Surface Pro during its introduction, and it’s obvious that the company made some real gains this time around. Note that the Core m3 and i5 models are fanless, and will run completely silently, although we can’t attest to how well they’ll maintain speed before needing to throttle things down.

Storage speeds are good but not great

Our review Surface Pro came equipped with a Samsung PM971 solid-state disk (SSD). Though it performed well, it’s not quite as fast as some other recent SSDs.

As you can see from the Surface Pro’s CrystalDiskMark results, the machine’s SSD falls behind the Lenovo Yoga 720 13, which was equipped with Samsung’s faster PM961 M.2 SSD. While the PM971 used in the Surface Pro is rated for read speeds up to 1,500 megabytes per second, our review units barely broke 1,000 MB/s. Write performance was a bit more competitive, at 971 MB/s.

While the Surface Pro’s synthetic benchmark scores were a bit less than our comparison systems, real-world performance was more than fast enough.

It’s still not a gaming machine (of course)

Microsoft added the option of somewhat faster integrated graphics to the Surface Pro, with the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 GPU that was included in our review unit. That choice promises improved performance in typical productivity work, but doesn’t turn the Surface Pro into a highly-portable gaming machine.

3DMark demonstrates that the Surface Pro with Intel’s Iris Plus graphics performs better than our comparison machines with Intel’s more pedestrian integrated graphics. Nevertheless, these aren’t impressive scores if you’re looking to run modern games at 1080p or above.

We ran Civilization VI at 1080p and medium settings just to double check the Surface Pro’s performance, and it scored around 16 frames per second (FPS). Even the Nvidia GeForce 940MX used in the HP Spectre x360 15, which is itself a low-end discrete chip, managed to score 34 FPS in Civilization VI at the same settings. Clearly, the Surface Pro isn’t fast enough to provide a legitimate gaming experience, and more demanding modern games are likely to perform even worse.

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) Compared To

Amazon Fire HD 8 (2017)

Xiaomi Mi Pad 3

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Apple iPad 9.7

Apple iPad Pro 12.7

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3

Samsung TabPro S

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Dell Venue 11 Pro

Microsoft Surface 2

Samsung ATIV Smart PC 700T

Sony Vaio Duo 11

Microsoft Surface Pro

Acer Iconia Tab W700

The Surface Pro is therefore equipped with graphics that will churn through its intended productivity applications, and will help speed up tasks like video encoding and image editing. If you’re looking for a gaming system, you’ll need to step up to a bigger machine.

Enhanced portability via improved battery life

Microsoft is using a 45 watt-hour battery in the Surface Pro, which is an increase from the 38 watt-hour battery that was packed into the Surface Pro 4. The Surface Pro also uses more efficient seventh-generation Intel Core processors. Taken together, the new model should offer improved battery life over its predecessor.

And it did. In our tests, the Surface Pro scored a solid five hours and 21 minutes in our most processor-intensive Peacekeeper test, which isn’t the longest we’ve seen, but is quite solid for a detachable tablet with a fast Core i7-7660U processor. Results in our moderate browsing test, which cycles through a set of live web sites, was a little less competitive at 5 hours and 37 minutes. We’re accustomed to seeing machines last longer. Finally, the Surface Pro scored a surprisingly strong 10 hours and 16 minutes in our video looping test.

Microsoft promised improved battery life over the Surface Pro 4, and our tests bear out their assertions. We reran our battery tests on a Surface Pro 4, given earlier battery life issues that have since been resolved with firmware updates. Even with the latest drivers, the Surface Pro 4 suffers from disappointing battery life, and the Surface Pro is significantly better.

Of course, the Surface Pro is eminently portable, at 0.33 inches thick and 1.73 pounds as our review unit was configured. Even with the Signature Type Cover attached, the machine is easy to carry around and slip into a bag. It might not be quite as thin and light as the iPad Pro, but it’s also a much more powerful machine that can run real PC applications.

Software

The Surface Pro is refreshingly light on bloatware. While it’s stocked with the usual Microsoft Windows 10 apps and a handful of casual games, it’s otherwise unencumbered with junk software. The Surface utility is also a nice app that offers the ability to configure the Surface Pen and get some useful information about your machine.

Warranty information

The Surface Pro comes with a standard one-year hardware warranty, which is commonplace for consumer-level laptops. Microsoft does offer its Complete extended warranty, which extends the warranty to two years, and adds in two incidents of accident protection with a $50 deductible. Microsoft Complete was $150 for the Surface Pro 4, but we haven’t yet confirmed pricing for the Surface Pro.

Our Take

The Surface Pro (2017) is technically an incremental update over its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4. That’s not a bad thing, as the Surface Pro 4 was already our favorite detachable tablet. Microsoft simply took what was great about the previous model and made it better, with improved performance, a better thermal design, longer battery life, and an enhanced — albeit somewhat more costly — typing and inking experience.

The Surface Pro isn’t the least expensive option around, however, starting at $800 for a seventh-generation Intel Core m3, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB. Pricing runs all the way up to $2,700 for a machine with a seventh-generation Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD, and our high-end review unit with a 512GB SSD is priced at $2,200. And then you’ll want to add $160 for the Signature Type Cover and $100 for the Surface Pen.

The bottom line is that the Surface Pro retains Microsoft’s place at the top of the detachable tablet market, and the machine carries a price to match.

Is there a better alternative?

Microsoft still has the Surface Pro 4 available for sale at $649 with a sixth-generation Intel Core m3, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD. That represents a savings over the new Surface Pro, and if your budget is tight the Surface Pro 4 remains a solid option — although you’ll give up some serious performance and battery life improvements in the bargain.

Other manufacturers offer detachable tablet Windows 10 2-in-1s, as well. The Asus Transformer Pro 3 is a near clone of the Surface Pro, but still awaits an update to seventh-generation Intel Core processors.

HP has its second-generation Spectre x2 coming soon, and starting at $1,000, it will inject some serious competition into the segment. Finally, we just reviewed the Samsung’s Galaxy Book 12 and found that it offers a stellar display, but poor battery life.

How long will it last?

The Surface Pro offers a cutting-edge CPU, solid RAM and SSD options, and full support for all of Microsoft’s most innovative Windows 10 technologies. All of that will keep the machine relevant for years to come. Its connectivity is very old-school, however, and if you anticipate needing full USB Type-C support going forward, then you’re going to find the Surface Pro a bit limited.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Surface Pro is simply the best 2-in-1 around. It’s expensive, but worth it for its excellent design, build quality, and components.

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