★★★★★ £2,149 • From www.microsoft.com
The Surface Pro is finally back with a new, cleaner design and choice of up-to-date Kaby Lake processors – but with the most powerful i7 models exceeding £2,000, is this ultra-premium laptop replacement worth your cash?
It will devastate your bank account, but the redesigned Surface Pro is the technical pinnacle of Windows 2-in-1s
IT’S BEEN NEARLY two years since we last saw a Windows 10 2-in-1 from Microsoft. That was the lovely Surface Pro 4 (Shopper 336), which despite spin-offs such as the Surface Book, Surface Laptop and Surface Studio hasn’t had a true replacement until now.
That’s unusual for an industry where new models tend to appear on a yearly basis, sometimes to the week, yet even with this lengthy gap, the latest Surface Pro (the number suffix has been ditched) feels familiar.
There’s the big, 12.3in touchscreen (again with a 2:3 aspect ratio), the angular shape, the magnetic keyboard connector underneath, the magnesium alloy construction, the huge, fully adjustable kickstand… it even has the exact same dimensions, having neither bulked up nor slimmed down, and the heaviest 768g model is a mere 2g lighter than its 2015 equivalent. You’d need to take a pretty close look to notice any physical changes.
They are there, though. The edges, while still sloping inwards, are just a tad rounder and softer, which to our eyes makes the whole thing slightly nicer to look at. The same goes for the strip of air vents: they’ve sunk deeper into the chassis, so are harder to see, thus maintaining a cleaner aesthetic.
The hinge has been upgraded as well. Besides being able to fold out even further, allowing the Surface Pro to lay down almost flat, it’s both tidier than the Surface Pro 4’s hefty mechanism and, as far as we can tell, slightly stronger and more durable. Some users had issues with the previous model’s hinge snapping if pressured too much; we reckon you are, at the very least, running less of a risk of that happening here. What certainly hasn’t changed is your supply of connections. As before, you get a USB3 port, Mini DisplayPort and charger input on the right-hand edge, plus a microSD slot integrated into the rear panel and, cleverly, a USB3 port built into the power brick for charging other devices. It’s a pretty good setup for a tablet – it’s always nice to have one full-size USB port, for connecting a mouse or external drive – though the lack of USB Type-C is a missed opportunity. This might not have been the case back when the Surface Pro 4 launched in 2015, when hardly anyone used Type-C, but times have changed and this reversible connector could have been a very worthwhile addition. Still, this small omission isn’t nearly as much cause for hesitation as the pricing. The absolute cheapest Surface Pro, with a fanless Kaby Lake Intel Core m3 processor and 4GB of RAM, will set you back a cool £799, while the model we were given to review, which packs an Intel Core i7-7660U, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, costs a wallet-wilting £2,149. This isn’t even the top spec, either – that has the same CPU and memory, and adds a 1TB SSD, all for £2,699. This is, quite simply, the most expensive 2-in-1 we’ve ever tested.
It gets scarier, too: none of these includes the cost of a Type Cover keyboard or Surface Pen stylus, both of which are sold separately. These have also been redesigned for the fifth generation, to be fair. The new Type Cover offers 0.2mm deeper key travel, and the Surface Pen has four times the previous version’s sensitivity levels. The concerning part is the former costs £125, and the latter £99. For the rich and/or clumsy, there’s also a Signature edition Type Cover, which is covered in hydrophobic fabric – yours for £150.
CORES TO SETTLE
Mercifully, the actual tablet manages to land on the right end of the luxury-versus-rip-off spectrum. This is largely down to its performance – fitting, as the minor design adjustments mean you’re largely paying for the addition of a 7th-gen Intel chip anyway. In our 4K application benchmarks, this i7-powered Surface Pro managed an exceptional image test score of 102, which is on a par with a decent desktop system. It also did well in the video-encoding test, scoring 61, and came out with 46 in the multitasking benchmark and 60 overall – not bad at all for a dual-core mobile processor.
The i7-powered Surface Pro managed an exceptional image test score of 102 – on a par with a decent desktop system
It would be unfair to compare this to the i5-equipped Surface Pro 4 we tested way back when, but the Surface Pro easily beats the top-end Surface Book (Shopper 339), which scored 42 overall. Other than that, it’s hard to find any 2-in-1s that even come close to it. Dell’s XPS 13 falls far behind with its overall score of 31, and even the recently refreshed XPS 13 laptop (Shopper 351) only managed 50. Both are much cheaper, however.
Nonetheless, credit is due to the i7-7660U, which can Turbo Boost its 2.5GHz cores all the way up to 4GHz with enough thermal headroom; this explains its storming run through the mostly single-threaded image test. With Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640, it’s also fairly capable of gaming: we got a slick 60fps out of Dirt Showdown running at 720p with High settings, and bumping up to 1080p still produced a playable 30fps. The back of the Surface Pro gets rather toasty when juggling heavy multi-threaded tasks, but we’re satisfied with how it runs even if some throttling did occur.
Only the Core i7 Surface Pros come with fans this time. The m3 and i5 editions get by with passive cooling, which means silent running. Microsoft says the fan is quieter than on the Surface Pro 4, and we’re inclined to agree – even when pushed to the limit by our benchmarks, we could barely notice its whirr over the ambient sounds of our office.
An even bigger improvement on the Surface Pro 4 comes in the form of battery life. This is remarkably long-lasting for a Windows 10 tablet, achieving a time of 11h 33m in our video playback test. That’s nearly four hours more than the Surface Pro 4 managed in the same conditions, and even though our test involves things such as reducing the brightness to 170cd/m2 and enabling flight mode, you shouldn’t have any problem getting through a full work day and then some.
That said, it almost feels disappointing to tone down the 2,736x1,824 display, since at full whack it’s utterly gorgeous. Strangely, though, ours arrived with the screen in Enhanced mode, which by our measurements isn’t as pristine as the alternative sRGB mode (you can switch between them freely in Windows’ settings). Not that Enhanced mode is bad: here, the Surface Pro covers 89.1% of the sRGB colour gamut, which is down on the Surface Pro 4, though colour accuracy remains high with a Delta E of 1.93, and brightness and contrast reach excellent highs of 440cd/m2 and 1,312:1 respectively.
Switch to sRGB mode, and it gets even better. Colour coverage jumps to 94.3%, and accuracy reaches photo-editing worthiness with a delta-E of 1.16. Brightness is effectively identical, at 437cd/m2, and contrast only drops slightly, to 1,296:1. We’re not sure what the point of Enhanced mode is, but when sRGB mode looks this good with barely any existent drawbacks, it’s not really an issue. As a control method, we can’t fault the touchscreen for responsiveness either, whether poking at it using fingers or drawing with a Surface Pen.
On that note, we weren’t supplied with one of the new, 5th-gen Pens, but we did get to try out the updated Type Cover. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s also very well made, with back-lit chiclet keys, a soft touch finish and a glass-topped trackpad. Typing is a pleasure: the extra travel doesn’t make a huge difference, but the keys are well spaced for accuracy and the amount of tactile, mechanical feedback is as good as you’ll get on a 2-in-1 keyboard. Even when in a slanted position, rather than flat on the table, strong strokes don’t rattle or bend it either.
The trackpad, too, is excellent. Smooth, well sized and responsive, it handles decisive clicks and multitouch gestures equally well.
One of the lesser-cited benefits of the Surface Pro range over most other 2-in-1s is the choice of Windows 10 Pro as an operating system. This adds a few features aimed specifically at making the Surface Pro a work-ready laptop replacement, such as greatly enhanced remote desktop access and BitLocker drive encryption. A Trusted Platform Module (TPM) crypto-processor in the CPU safely stores your login details and any encryption keys, which could come in very handy when working with sensitive data.
GO WITH THE PRO
As an incremental update to the Surface Pro 4, the new Surface Pro undoubtedly succeeds – it’s faster, lasts longer, and looks better. Its only possible undoing might be that it doesn’t go even further; at the time of writing, you can buy an equivalent-spec Surface Pro 4, plus both a Type Cover and Surface Pen, and still end up paying nearly £400 less than just the tablet component of the 2017 model. The question is whether the improvements are really worth that premium.
Perhaps not to most, but then the Pro line has always been a premium proposition. The Surface Pro is a luxurious, hyper-expensive product you’re more likely to want than truly need – but at least you get what you pay for.