Microsoft's Surface Pro X Goes Full Batman

Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo

From the moment I opened up the Surface Pro X, I got the sense that Microsoft had entered a new chapter for its homegrown hardware. Gone are the huge bezels and hard edges found on the company’s previous detachables, and in their place you something that’s sleek and sophisticated, unlike anything Microsoft has made before. And when you combine its stealth black-on-black colour scheme with nifty tricks like its hidden stylus storage, I was hit with a realisation: The Surface Pro X is Batman.

OK, I know that might seem like a bit of a stretch, after all, there’s a lot of different Batmans (Batmen?) to choose from. Are we talking Adam West’s Batman from the 60s, Ben Affleck’s Batman from the DC Universe, or even Kevin Conroy’s Batman from the animated series? For the Surface Pro X, we’re really looking at something closer to Christian Bale’s Batman from The Dark Knight trilogy, specifically the Batman of The Dark Knight Rises. It looks great, has lots of style, and feels like it’s trying to do way too much and not entirely succeeding.

Surface Pro X

WHAT IS IT?

A slimmer Surface with an ARM-based processor

PRICE

Starts at $1,699

LIKE

Outstanding design, slim Surface Pen and its hidden storage, dual USB-C ports, great display with slim bezels, speedy Windows Hello IR login

DON'T LIKE

Lots of software incompatibility, no headphone jack, just OK performance, Surface Connect port needs to go

Starting with its design, the Surface Pro X has a look and feel worthy of Gotham’s caped crusader. It’s 13-inch 2,880 by 1,920 PixelSense Display is an absolute treat. Not only does its 3:2 aspect ratio give more you vertical screen real estate—which is super helpful when you’re trying to be productive—the colours it pumps out are rich and vibrant. in fact, when I measured its screen with a light metre, its 476 nits of brightness was even higher than the 450 nits Microsoft claims in the Pro X’s official specs.

On top of that, the Pro X’s screen supports touch and stylus input, while also sporting a hidden magnetic charging slot that means the Pro X’s new Slim Surface Pen will always be at the ready, just like a trusty Batarang. Microsoft even installed some clever synergy between the two devices, so that when you pick up the Pro X’s stylus, you get a little popup with shortcuts to Whiteboard and the Windows Snipping tool, so you can jump into action at a moment’s notice. Kapow!

Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo

And despite being deliciously thin (it measures just 0.28-inches at its thinnest point) and weighing a touch less than a kilo with everything attached, the Surface Pro X feels remarkably sturdy. Behind the kickstand, there’s even a cover hiding a slot for a SIM card so you can add cellular connectivity, along with easy access to the system’s SSD. I can’t give enough credit to how nice the Pro X’s build is, and in the future, I hope every new Surface takes cues from its design.

However, like nipples on a Batsuit, the Pro X exterior isn’t perfect. While I really appreciate that Microsoft has finally embraced USB-C for its 2019 Surfaces, I’m not a fan of removing the headphone jack on something that’s supposed to be a laptop replacement. I also feel like Microsoft’s Surface Connect Port is a waste of space. Ostensibly, the Surface Connect Port’s job is to help recharge the system and help with docking, but USB-C ports do the same thing and are compatible with a much wider range of devices. And if the Pro X had three USB-C ports instead of just two and a Surface Connect Port, I’d like the whole package even more.

The Slim Surface Pen even has a little light so you know it’s charging. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

The Pro X also comes with a pair of decent cameras (5-MP in front and 10-MP in back), along with Batman-level infrared facial recognition cameras that let you log into the system in the blink of an eye. It’s really that fast. And like precious Surface convertibles, the Pro X’s kickstand has nearly an infinite adjustment range to help you get work done in cramped conditions.

Unfortunately, where things start to get weird like Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane is when you get to the Pro X’s performance. That’s because instead of using an x86 processor from Intel or AMD, Microsoft partnered with Qualcomm to create a custom ARM-based processor called the SQ1. By switching to an ARM processor, Microsoft was hoping to bring over the best qualities of modern-day smartphone chips—which is where the SQ1 is derived from—like instant wake times, always-on internet connections, and increased energy efficiency. And to that end, the Surface Pro X is largely successful.

From sleep, the Pro X turns on with great haste and never makes you wait to access the web. And in our video rundown test, the Pro X lasted 11 hours and 28 minutes, just 30 minutes shy of Microsoft’s claimed 12 hours of runtime. That’s significantly longer than what you get from typical Windows laptops like the Dell XPS 13 (9:26) and HP Envy 13 (7:02). But the caveat to all this is that you have to use Microsoft’s Edge browser, which has been optimised to run on ARM processors.

When I switched to Chrome, the Pro X’s advantage in battery life disappeared, because at the same display brightness and with the same YouTube video streaming over Wi-Fi, the Pro X only lasted 7 hours and 43 minutes. And it’s this discrepancy that highlights the Pro X’s biggest hurdle: its software compatibility.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo

Since the original Surface RT back in 2012, Microsoft has made major strides when it comes to supporting ARM-based systems running Windows. Almost every app in the Windows Store has native support for ARM, while Windows 10 has way better emulation for handling legacy apps intended for x86-based systems. But emulation is still emulation, which means apps that don’t have ARM64 support take a noticeable performance hit, so that while you can still install and run them, using those apps doesn’t feel quite as snappy or responsive as you’d like.

For instance, when I ran the WebXPRT 2015 browser benchmark in Edge, I got a score of 372. But when I ran the test again in Chrome, numbers fell by nearly 40 per cent to 226. Another good example of less than ideal performance is Photoshop in Adobe Creative Suite, which right now, doesn’t have ARM64 support. If you want to edit a photo, no problem, the Pro X can handle that just fine. But compared side-by-side against a similarly priced laptop, you can see when the Pro X is forced to render parts of the image in chunks or how trying to crop a photo feels a bit more sluggish.

Like previous Surfaces, the Pro X’s stylus and keyboard are (not-so) optional accessories. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

Now, you could work around this by switching to Adobe Photoshop Elements, which is available in the Microsoft Store and has better support for ARM-based system. But that would mean spending another $120 or so to get an app you already own with less features, but speedier performance. That’s not exactly a great value proposition. (Note: Adobe is working on adding ARM64 support to Creative Suite, but there isn’t a concrete timetable for when it will be available).

And if you look outside mainstream creative apps like Photoshop, things become even more troubling. Most of the apps we use as benchmarks like Blender and Cinebench wouldn’t run, or in some cases, couldn’t even be installed. Same goes for nearly every game I tried to play, including relatively low resource games like League of Legends, Civ 6, Into the Breach, and Terraria. That means when you’re done working, it’s difficult to wind down if you want to do more than watch movies or TV shows.

To Microsoft’s credit, there is a warning in fine print on the SQ1's page saying “App availability and compatibility may vary. At this time, Surface Pro X will not install 64-bit applications that have not been ported to ARM64, some games and CAD software, and some third-party drivers or anti-virus software. New 64-bit apps are coming to ARM 64 all the time.” So it’s not like this behaviour comes completely out of the blue, but regardless, the Windows on ARM app ecosystem still has some catching up to do.

Quite unfortunate. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

I also have to mention that during just under a week of testing, I ran into two errors severe enough to cause a blue screen of death, and a number of additional freezes and hang ups. This stood out to me because despite Window’s troubled past, getting hit with a BSOD in Windows 10 is a pretty rare occurrence, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve run into one in the last few years.

If you’re looking for a real all-rounder, Microsoft says the Surface Pro 7 will be a better fit, and I agree. The Surface Pro X’s real target audience is business users who want something that’s portable, responsive, and has great longevity. And if you’re you’re someone that primarily uses cloud-based apps like Office 365, G Suite, Salesforce, and more, the Surface Pro X could be a great choice. You can even get a version of Slack with ARM64 support from the Microsoft Store. In a lot of ways, this makes the Surface Pro X like owning a really high-end Chromebook with better compatibility for desktop-class software (but without support for Android apps).

Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo

More importantly, Microsoft says support for ARM-based systems like the Surface Pro X is a long term investment. That message cannot be understated, because with how far ARM-based processors have come since 2012, Microsoft can’t afford to limit Windows to x86. The Surface Pro X is proof that Microsoft work on ARM is serious business.

But for right now, the Surface Pro X is closer to The Dark Knight Rises than Christopher Nolan’s other Batman movies. It’s got the looks and the style of a polished, big-budget affair. Unfortunately, like the plot of the movie, Microsoft’s SQ1 processor is caught trying to do a bit too much. If you look close, there are glimpses of a masterpiece, and if you isolate these situations, the Surface Pro X can be a hero. Yet the biggest difference between the Pro X and The Dark Knight Rises, is that Microsoft’s this is just the beginning and not the end of a promising story.

README

  • Despite a lot of work in increasing software compatibility, there are still a lot of apps that don’t work on ARM-based systems.

  • The Surface Pro X’s battery life is actually pretty good, but only as long as you stick to using apps with ARM64 support.

  • The Surface Pro X’s design is fantastic and should be the basis of all detachable Surfaces going forward.

  • I don’t like the trend of not putting headphone jacks on laptops, and Microsoft should really ditch the Surface Connect port for a third USB-C port.

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