Microsoft’s Surface Pro Still Defines the 2-in-1 Category
It’s been five years since Microsoft’s first debuted the Surface tablet. At the time, a slim slate that could also replace your laptop was a crazy idea. But the thinking around that concept—and the PC industry—has changed so much in the intervening years that Microsoft just calls its fifth Surface machine the “ultimate laptop.” No additional qualifiers needed.
In reality, it’s not quite the ultimate laptop, as Microsoft claims. The Surface can use some smoothing. But when it comes to 2-in-1 devices that can switch modes between drawing and typing, between work and play, the 2017 Surface Pro is just about as good as it gets.
Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)
Silent, fanless design. One of the most flexible, well-built 2-in-1s you can buy. New alcantara fabric keyboard is pleasant, if a little trendy. Improved battery life. Beautiful screen. The optional Surface Pen is more sensitive than ever.
Not great if you work on your lap or on a couch. Only a single USB port. The proprietary charger is a bummer. The front camera is aimed too high. Expensive at $1,000+ for mid-tier models. Why isn’t the keyboard included?
Microsoft seems content with the Surface Pro’s design at this point. The entire tablet is nearly identical to the 2015 Surface Pro 4, which looked a lot like the Surface Pro 3. It’s a reasonably thin 12-inch tablet with a nice, adjustable kickstand. The only real change you’ll notice here is the keyboard, which is still sold separately for $160. It’s the same snap-on keyboard as before, with enough key travel to type comfortably and a smooth, wide touchpad. But instead of a rubbery coating, it now it comes covered in alcantara, a leathery microfiber. Fabric is the hot new trend in electronics, and it does class up the keyboard.
One of the biggest changes to the Surface is impossible to see, and you can’t hear it either. The Pro is completely fanless. It was never a loud machine, but now it’s a silent one. The silence is all the more striking when you take a look under the hood. My test unit came with a 7th-generation Intel Core i5, 256GB of storage, 8GB RAM, and Windows 10 Pro. The 12.3-inch 2,736 x 1,824 pixel touchscreen looks stunning, rendering deep blacks and rich colors at a pixel density of 267 pixels per inch—one of the most vivid, beautiful laptop or tablet displays you’ll use. This configuration will run you about $1,460 with a keyboard, and I recommend it for most buyers.
There are sub-$1,000 options, but they only come with 4GB of RAM, which may impact performance. If you’re hurting for ways to burn your cash, you can also deck it out and buy the $2,860 option with a Core i7, 1 terabyte drive, and 16 gigs of RAM, though it’s overkill for most use cases.
Microsoft also has a brand new Surface Pen for an extra $100. It also looks identical to last year, and still magnetically sticks to the side of the tablet in a pleasing way. I rarely used my pen, but I liked to keep it stuck there anyway, just in case. It has 4,096 pressure points now, quadrupiling the sensitivity of the last model, and it delivers an excellent experience when drawing or writing. Many pens have a distracting lag time, but the Surface feels as natural to write on as any screen, including the iPad Pro with Pencil. (I still prefer paper.)
I’ve used Surface Pros as my main PC quite often in the past few years, and my only major complaint with the 2017 Surface Pro is the same I’ve had with the others: It’s not all that great as a laptop. As a tablet, it’s as usable as Windows 10 Pro can get in touchscreen form. Once in a while, I’ll rip off the keyboard or fold it all the way around and read an article in portrait orientation. It’s fun. And while it works great as a laptop when I’m at my desk, it’s less than ideal when I have it on my lap. The kickstand digs into my knees, and the whole assembly wants to slide off my legs if I sit to the side or go cross-legged.
Likewise, the camera ergonomics are weird. The 5-megapixel front camera works great for video calls if you’re holding it like a tablet, but on a desk, the kickstand doesn’t prop the screen up at a high enough angle. In video chats, it makes me look like I need a booster seat. I’ve resorted to placing a book or something about an inch or two thick under the kickstand to give me greater leverage. Similarly, sometimes it takes Windows Hello an extra second to recognize my face because the camera can’t always see my whole head. Proper posture is paramount with a Surface Pro.
The port selection presents a struggle. There is a MicroSD slot, one USB port, and a single Mini DisplayPort. One more USB port would have come in handy, and I wish it had USB-C because then I wouldn’t have to lug the proprietary charger around with me.
None of these problems are deal-breakers, but they’re issues most laptops don’t have. If you choose a Surface Pro, know that you’re making a compromise. Your video calls may be a little awkward, and lapability will suffer. But in return you get a tablet and a very quiet, pleasant Windows PC.
You also get a Surface Pro with much improved battery life. Performance varies, but I’m getting between six and nine hours of work done between charges. A typical day involves browsing, typing, taking Zoom calls, and using a few chat apps.
The 2017 version of the Surface Pro is fun to tote around as a tablet, and it’s a competent Windows PC for most tasks (don’t expect killer gaming performance). If you travel a lot or tend to work on the couch like I do, prep for a little frustration.
Still, I rarely stay mad at the Pro for long. It’s far from perfect, but there just isn’t another device that can do as much.
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