For a while now, I’ve been using the Surface Go as a companion device to my desktop computers at home and work. I’ve been intrigued by the Surface Pro X for a while, and with recent additions to Windows 10 insider builds I thought it was time to give the Pro X a test drive as a potential upgrade to my Go.
The Surface Pro X is one of the most beautiful computers I’ve ever used. It’s thin, light, and the screen is utterly gorgeous, surrounded by thin bezels. It’s an ARM device, which means it’s not running on an Intel or AMD processor, but instead a modified Qualcomm chip (the SQ1), akin to what you’d find in a phone but modified to run windows better. In theory, this means significantly greater battery life compared with ‘normal’ computers, though also potentially less performance. The latter of those is interesting to me, coming from the under-powered Go. The SQ1 can boost to 3Ghz, which is pretty quick, and the Adreno GPU isn’t fundamentally bad, from what I can tell. I have the 8Gb RAM, 128GB SSD version. While there’s no microSD card slot like there is on the Go, the SSD in the Pro X is easily accessible and upgradeable.
The biggest change, and sticking point, is that not everything that would normally be compatible with Windows will run on the Pro X. Until now, the Pro X (and other arm-based windows PCs) have been able to run programs compiled specifically for ARM, as well as running 32-bit x86 programs through an emulation/translation layer. Recently, Microsoft released a development version of Windows 10 that enables 64-bit x64 programs to run in emulation too, helping to close the ‘app-gap’ that has plagued previous attempts to leave x86 behind, including Windows Phone and Windows RT. This seemed like as good a time as any to jump on-board and see how well the Pro X performed.
The biggest reason for trying out the Pro X is that I’ve been working from home for the past 9 months. Whilst I spend the majority of my time at my desktop computer, sometimes I just want to go write in a different room in the house for a change of scenery. The Go’s tiny 10” screen is just a bit too small for comfortably writing for long periods – two pages up on the screen at once is ever so slightly uncomfortably small. In these COVID times, the portability of the Go isn’t the priority. A better writing experience, as well as a nicer portable screen for watching videos, is of more importance right now.
As I opened with above, this is a beautiful machine. I can’t stress that enough. It’s just 7mm or so thick. It’s thinner than my phone!
While all the surface devices I’ve owned have been well built machines, something about the Pro X screams quality like nothing else. The black coating it has just makes the computer feel luxurious. It’s worth noting that at least on the machine I have, there isn’t even a hint of light bleed. Not that there should be, but my Go suffers from sometimes-noticeable light bleed at the bottom of the screen. The kickstand – a feature that has completely spoiled me and prevents my buying any 2-in-1 computers or tablets without it – is incredibly precise and perfectly resistant to motion.
The screen covers nearly all the front of the device, the bezels are tiny, particularly at the sides. And that screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is wonderful for working on. It feels large too, though coming from a Go it’s likely anything would. Using the tablet without the keyboard is a joy, though at 700g it’s a touch on the heavy side. Still, the thing is mostly glass and battery, and while I realise the large iPad Pro is slightly lighter, I’m not sure how something this large could get much lighter.
When adding the keyboard, you add a bit of weight, but the thing really does become laptop sized. For me, trying to use this device in the role of a companion to a desktop, it’s probably a touch on the ‘too large’ size, but I’ll come back to this at the end.
I find the button placement slightly frustrating, compared to the Go, though it might be muscle memory rather than bad design. On the Go, the volume and power buttons are located on the top (if looking at the device in landscape), toward the left. These are nicely placed whether you’re in laptop mode with the keyboard out, or holding it in portrait as a table. But on the Pro X the volume buttons are on the left side, and the power button is on the right side. The buttons feel good, but the placement means that if you have it in portrait mode and rest the device’s end on a table, or your stomach/chest when lying down, then you can end up turning the screen off or altering the volume. It’s not great placement for tablet usage.
My most major quibble though is the same quibble that affects all Surface devices – Microsoft refuses to apply any sort of anti-reflective coating at all, and so these things are like mirrors in the wrong lighting conditions. Right now, in my daylight-lit home-office, it looks great, but I know that in my window-less office at work trying to use a Surface is near impossible under the fluorescent lighting. I’ve had a matte screen protector on my Go for months now, although it reduces touch sensitivity and adds a slight grainy-ness to the image. Sort it out Microsoft! If Apple and Samsung can apply a nice anti-reflective coating to their tablets, why can’t you?
Performance and compatibility
Ok, this is the meat of the review – this is the part that makes or breaks whether the Surface Pro X can work for you or not. Now, my use case is as a companion device, replacing my Surface Go. The Go was not exactly a powerhouse (far, far, from it), and so it’s not like I was spending all my time on the Go running complex Maya or Blender Scenes. But… it is good to have that ability in case I’m travelling or need to quickly view or edit data when out and about.
The basics run fantastically on the Pro X. Windows itself is smooth and runs incredibly quickly – it’s a joy to use on the Pro X. Similarly, Office works in it’s entirety and is as quick or quicker than even my desktop with an i7 (part of that is probably due to SSD speeds). Excel spreadsheets and word documents look great, and the screen size means you can view everything comfortably.
It’s a good note-taking device too – OneNote works fast and smooth, and the pen (either the official pen, or my preferred Rennaisser Raphael 520BT) is more accurate than my Go – slow diagonal lines suffer less of the wavy-artefact common to MPP (Microsoft pen protocol). I can’t decide if it’s slightly too large for a note-taking device, or ideal in size. I think getting this big thing out in a meeting (it’s slightly larger than A4) seems a touch obnoxious, but then with the Go I find my hand slipping off the sides and the writing area a little too cramped. I’m not sure what the sweet spot is here, and I need to use it more, but I do wonder if the ideal size is closer to the go than the Pro/Pro X.
Battery life is meant to be one of the big pluses of using an ARM chip. It’s good – a full charge will just about last a full day. Today I started at 100% at 7am, did a couple of hours writing in word (with x86 Zotero running), then tried to install some x64 programs for this review. Then in the afternoon I streamed an hour long video, then did some more writing and web-browsing in the afternoon, and as of now (7pm) I’m at 52%. It’s also worth noting that I’m on a Windows Insider dev build, so things aren’t as optimized and stable. It’s a massive improvement over any other device I’ve had, though I don’t think it holds a candle to the new M1 Macs.
Native apps available from the Windows store, at least those that I’ve tried, all run great. That includes the inbox apps for Windows (Mail + Calendar, Photos, Calculator, Maps, etc), as well as Feedlab (for RSS feeds), ReddPlanet (reddit client), Xodo (PDF reader), MyTube!, Prime Video, and Twitter, among others.
I also installed native ARM versions of Microsoft Edge, and Visual Studio Code, and these work great. Again, I’d argue performance of these native apps matches my Desktop’s i7 (though that is admittedly 5 years old now).
Adobe recently released a beta of Photoshop for ARM. Some functions don’t work, but the main package is there. Performance is less than stellar. In fact, if I’m being honest, it’s not much better than Photoshop on my Surface Go. That could be because it’s a beta, or it could be because the SQ1 just isn’t that fast.
Ok, so what about 32-bit emulated programs? I started off with Zotero, my reference management software of choice. Zotero isn’t available as an ARM executable, but the version available for download from the website is 32-bit, so will work on any build of Windows 10. It works fine. The first time opening it, it took a little longer than usual, but after that first launch, the program works exactly like it does on any other computer. The plugin works absolutely fine with Word – there were no compatibility issues or anything.
So, Word works great, Zotero works great and interfaces with Word perfectly, and the stunning 3:2 aspect ratio screen means that going full-screen in word with two pages side-by-side looks fantastic. In terms of being a writing productivity machine, the Surface Pro X is an absolute champ.
But what about heavier programs, particularly x64 programs using the new emulation in the Windows Insider dev builds?
Having installed the latest insider build, plus the experimental graphics drivers, and the OpenCL compatibility pack, I then installed Blender, Maya, Krita, and Affinity Photo to give it a go. Annoyingly, Adobe’s x64 apps don’t show up for download in it’s creative Cloud App, presumably because it detects the SQ1 processor then assumes x64 apps are incompatible. There’s probably ways around this, but life’s too short to be working around Adobe products. I was also going to try Matlab, but that requires me checking my work email, which I have no intention of doing until into the New Year.
Blender… Runs. Just. It’s not particularly quick, but could get the job done at a pinch. As far as I can tell, everything works, except Eevee-based Material Preview viewport shading. Weirdly, full ray-traced rendered viewport with Cycles works fine, albeit a bit slowly, so as long as you either want untextured/unlit or cycles rendered, it’s fine. It is slow though – slower than the Surface Go. I’d love to try compiling Blender for ARM to see if performance increases, but I haven’t had time to try that yet.
Maya… Fails to install. Even with no extras (Bifrost, Arnold) selected, the installer fails.
Krita: Krita works great. The version in the Microsoft store is the 64-bit version, and so doesn’t show up at all until you’re on the latest insiders build with x64 compatibility. But it works great, and it’s faster and smoother than on the Surface Go, so this gets a big plus. Even if you’ve not got the latest insider build, there is a 32-bit version available for download from the Krita website, so it’ll run on the Pro X regardless.
Affinity Photo (and Designer): I tried both installation from the Microsoft store, and installation of a beta from the Affinity website. In all cases, and for both Photo and Designer, the program opens fine, but when you try to create a new document, or open another picture, the software crashes without error message. Windows has always been a bit neglected by Affinity – their software is a cheaper alternative to Adobe, but they’ve never really made any effort to make pen and touch work properly or intuitively on Windows (e.g. unless you change tool, touch will just paint as though it’s the pen). Their forums say they can’t make an ARM compatible version of their software until Microsoft finalizes .NET for ARM, though that is due any time soon.
So there are still compatibility issues, though x64 support is still in development (and we’ve only had one build so far), so it’s likely to get much better. I think in a few months, as more developers release native ARM binaries, and Microsoft improve the emulation support, the ‘app gap’ won’t be much of an issue.
The Surface Pro X is a joy to behold and use. But I’m not sure it’s for me. I’m not really sure who it’s for.
It’s not blistering fast; it’s not a replacement for a workstation laptop, and it’s certainly not a replacement for a desktop, if you need power. But for traditional productivity (Office, light editing), and generally using Windows 10, it’s more than fast enough.
The compatibility doesn’t bother me – I very rarely did anything particularly complex on my Surface Go. It’d be nice if Affinity and Blender worked [better] on the Pro X, and I’m fairly confident that both those things will either have native binaries or ‘good enough’ emulation within months.
Where it falls down is size – I’m not sure what niche it’s meant to be in. With the TypeCover attached, the weight increases, and the size when open is just like any other thin laptop. Without the keyboard, it’s a touch too large and heavy to be a pure tablet, and the button placement makes it awkward to use in portrait while resting it on something. And of course if you don’t have the Typecover, you need something else to protect that 13” slab of glass when not in use.
In other words, it’s the size of a laptop, without the power and compatibility. It’s a great tablet, albeit a bit too large to be convenient. In my opinion, Microsoft missed the mark – they should have made a Surface Go X, with the same internals, and the same design as the Pro X, but with a 10.5 or 11” screen and form factor (i.e. the size of the Go). For a smaller device like that, compatibility with complex x64 software would be less of an issue (because it would be less of an expectation), but the thinness, lightness, battery life, and design would make such a device the perfect companion. I hope we see something like that soon, and if we do, I’ll jump on it in a heartbeat… …Much like I’d jump on a Surface Studio monitor, which also seems to make perfect sense yet never see the light of day.
I’ll give the Pro X another week or so, and see if the larger size grows on me, but I think it’ll end up going back, and I’ll probably get a Surface Go 2 instead.
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