Microsoft’s recent Surface launches have been well-regarded by reviewers. While some devices are more niche than others, both the Surface Studio and the Surface Laptop have won accolades for being well-built hardware with strong attention to detail and very solid features. It’s therefore surprising to see relatively weak reviews for Microsoft’s new Surface Pro, which came out from under embargo this morning.
Part of the problem is Microsoft’s own messaging. Unlike previous Surface Pro devices, which were unambiguously marketed as tablets you could attach an optional keyboard to, Microsoft’s take on the Surface Pro is that… it’s a laptop. No, really. Hit the landing page, and this is what you see:
“This really is the laptop,” Surface team leader Panos Panay said in an interview with The Verge. “This is how people want to use it; it’s how they are using it.” So instead of seeing the Surface Pro as a tablet, it’s a keyboard-less laptop (unless you pony up $130 to $160 for the keyboard).
The Microsoft pen, which was formerly included in all but the cheapest Surface Pro 4’s, is now a separate purchase. The price has also gone up, from $60 to $100. This makes the new Surface Pro effectively $100 more expensive than previous older models, and The Verge notes that the “full Surface experience” will run you $1,528 if you buy a Surface Pro and $1,299 for the same specs in the Surface Laptop. How much you care about a detachable keyboard will dictate which machine is a better fit, but the anemic $799 option with 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and Core m3 processor isn’t remotely attractive at that price point.
Most of the Surface Pro’s design is a carryover from the Surface Pro 4, with one USB 3.0 port, one mini DisplayPort, one microSD card slot, a headphone jack, and the proprietary Surface power connector. No USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, support for external GPUs, or other cutting-edge features are present. When it debuted, Surface seemed to be a cutting-edge platform for demonstrating what the PC ecosystem could achieve, but MS isn’t really pushing the envelope here.
CNBC’s evaluation was blunt: “None of the upgrades justifies the price you’ll pay for a fully packed Surface Pro.” The cheapest machine is over $1,000 with a keyboard and pen, while the top-end system is $2,100 — again, for just the tablet. Laptop was more effusive in its praise, claiming “if you want the best detachable out there, the Surface Pro is still the one to get.” TechCrunch echoed the thoughts of most other reviewers, writing that “I’m sure there are still people out there for whom the Pro still makes sense. But I’m certainly not one. Nor are most of the people I’ve spoken to about the space over the last week. For those who really do find themselves switching back and forth between form factors and don’t mind the compromises that entails, by all means, this is a solid choice.” Our sister site PCMag was more optimistic about the product, awarding it Editors’ Choice, but was still disappointed by the lack of updated ports and lack of USB-C and/or Thunderbolt 3.
The problem isn’t that the Surface Pro is a bad machine; it’s that you’re fundamentally looking at something like a Surface Pro 4.5. Battery life is up and a few SKUs don’t have fans that carried them last time around. But there’s not much here that’s going to change your opinion. The display is still gorgeous, the pen is still of some niche use, and it’s still nearly impossible to type with a Surface Pro in your lap due to the floppy nature of the Type Cover. Every previous Surface update has felt as if it moved the bar upwards in at least some small ways. The Surface Pro, according to multiple reviews, simply doesn’t feel like much of a step forward.
Ultimately, that’s the conclusion most reviewers have come to. If you have an older first or second-generation Surface Pro or haven’t owned one at all, the Surface Pro can make a great option, provided you understand some of the tradeoffs inherent to the system. But if you’re still rocking a Surface Pro 4 (or maybe even 3), the battery life gains are going to be your only major reason to upgrade, assuming you aren’t an artist in need of Surface Pen.