New Surface range: our thoughts

Credit Microsoft

Last week Microsoft announced a whole host of new devices, from updated versions of its existing product lines (Surface Laptop 3, Surface Pro 7) to brand new devices like the Surface Pro X. Dual screen devices are expected much further down the line, in 2021, a long time after the Surface lineup which will start appearing in stores from this month.

With these new products, Microsoft has included some much-needed features, not least standard USB-C on all of these devices; as well as the usual upgraded specs. A lot of positive news for sure, but we do think it’s worth having a closer look at the different Surface devices, which have been a bit hit and miss since their initial launch in 2013.

Surface Laptop 3

Credit Microsoft

This is Microsoft’s reply to Apple’s Macbook, and as replies goes it’s not bad. Much like the Surface Laptop 2, the third iteration is a thin and light ultrabook device coming in both 13.5 and 15-inch screens, with of course the latest in small form factor CPUs.

The twist? For the first time, in the 15-inch version, you will be able to slot in an AMD Ryzen chip – as opposed to the usual Intel i5/i7 (which is standard in the 13.5 inch). The Ryzen 5/7 is touted to be a more powerful chip than its Intel counterpart, and includes powerful Radeon Vega 9 or 11 graphics depending on whether you opt for the Ryzen 5 or 7 model.

We don’t have the exact figures yet, but the goal for the Surface Laptop 3 seems to be to compete with the Macbook pro; providing a device that whilst light and thin has some decent graphical performance to go with it. We haven’t seen any gaming benchmarks yet, but we look forward to seeing the kind of performance this new Surface gets – could we have the first gaming capable Surface laptop?

The day-to-day performance of both the Ryzen and Ice Lake processors aren’t a massive upgrade from the Surface laptop 2, but improved power consumption (running at around 15W) could increase battery life and decrease the general heat and noise of the device.

Not a whole lot else has changed, which all in all is a good thing. The Surface Laptop 2 was a great device, and the 3 maintains the great quality touchscreen, keyboard and design that made it a worthwhile contender in the ultrabook space, and the addition of a USB-C (FINALLY) may persuade a bunch of people that were holding back until the Surface Line hauled itself into 2019. The only other IO the device has is a single USB-A and memory card reader which is pretty stingy even for a minimalist device, and we would like to have seen maybe another USB-C on there.

The Surface Laptop 3 starts at £999 for the 13.5 inch with a core i5 and 128gb of SSD memory, and £1199 for the 15 inch with a Ryzen 5 and 128gb SSD.

Surface Pro 7

Credit Microsoft

Another year, another Surface Pro. What’s changed? Not a lot really. The updated Ice Lake processor is standard across the line, with no AMD variants like in the Surface laptop. Finally (FINALLY) the tablet-cum-laptop has discovered USB-C. It’s almost criminally late when even budget tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab A, which is 25% of the Surface’s price, has had this for one generation already. It’s still not a Thunderbolt 3 however, and with only an extra USB A and Micro SDX reader, the general port selection isn’t fantastic. Otherwise? Pretty much the same weight, same screen and the usual peripherals in the form of type cover, pen and mouse.

We have to say, the Surface Pro lineup has always been a bit of a mystery to us. With a 12.3 inch screen running Windows, we have never felt like the device makes a great tablet, not only due to its size but because the Windows tablet mode is less intuitive than its Apple and Android counterparts.

The most likely use case? Well in fairness it is an exceptionally light and thin laptop with great specs, coming in at around 1kg with the type cover attached – 500g less than the Surface laptop 3. That’s all great, but its unique stand makes using the device on your lap a pretty difficult feat, meaning you actually need a table to use this properly. Indeed, by the time you have bought the type cover, you will be paying the same for equivalent specs to the laptop.

So who buys this product then? The tablet market is shrinking. Apple’s Ipad Air and basic models are most popular with casual users, whilst creators and artists like the Ipad Pro and its fantastic power and pen support. The Android fans gravitate towards the Galaxy Tab range which with their very good OLED screens make watching media on the go a real treat.

And then there is the Surface Pro 7, which is not quite a great laptop, and not quite a great tablet – if only it had chosen its side better?

The Surface Pro 7 starts at £799, without keyboard or pen, for an Intel Core i3 and 4gb of RAM, and will be available on October 22nd.

Surface Pro X

Credit Microsoft

The Surface Pro X is a 2-in-1, built with very similar principles to the Surface Pro lineup in general; however there are a couple of small yet significant differences.

For one the device is a little thinner, whilst being about the same size, cramming in a 13-inch screen as opposed to the Pro 7’s 12.3-inch, and boasting a very slightly higher pixel count (288 vs 267 on the Pro 7). It uses a slightly different type cover, and a slimmer pen which, as a nice addition, fits into the type cover in a snug little groove which will also charge it wirelessly.

These are all nice little changes, but maybe not in themselves a game changer. What really makes a difference is that the Pro X is based on an ARM architecture, commonly found in mobile devices like phones and tablets, rather than an ultrabook grade CPU. ARM processors are generally lower power consumption, and for less powerful devices; and yet Microsoft has worked with Qualcomm to produce the Microsoft-only SQ1, tweaked for better graphics performance with its Adreno 685 GPU.

This all sounds great, and it could be, but with the majority of Windows-based programmes running on the x86 architecture, we can’t be sure how well traditional Windows software will run on this device (games, we mean games). Even though the Pro X may push out better on-paper performance than even some Intel laptop chips, until the device is released we won’t get a real idea of gaming performance.

What can be said though is: with Microsoft advertising 2 or 3 hours more battery life, a bigger screen and a generally sleeker, more modern profile, we can’t help but wonder – why was this not the Pro 7?

It’s a bit odd to us; while there will be some users that want Windows laptop-grade power in a tablet, we can’t help but think that the Pro X is a far superior portable media device with great laptop usability on paper. It feels like Microsoft were scared to bring their Surface Pro line too much forward in one leap, and so played it safe with the core line, whilst testing the waters with the ARM based system.

Either way, until the Pro X is available for testing (will it run Fortnite?) we are going to keep scratching our heads.

The Surface Pro X starts at £999, without keyboard or pen, and will be available the 5th of November.

In summary: out with the old, in with the slightly-less-old

What we are seeing are subtle updates and improvements rather than out-and-out innovation from Microsoft, with the ARM-based Pro X being the creative highlight, if not a bit of a gamble. We can’t help but think that the USB-C is treated a little too much like a new feature rather than a clear and obvious inclusion in 2019; and honestly without it, there is very little in the way of new features that would make someone go out of their way to buy the newest device in the Surface lineup.

Still, if nothing else, due to these new entries, the Surface laptop 2 and Pro 6 tablet will likely get some nice deals on Black Friday. For anyone wanting a still very good premium ultrabook or 2-in-1 for seriously discounted prices, keep an eye on the web in November!

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