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Review Roundup: ARM-Powered Surface Pro X Nails Form Factor But Offers Weak Performance

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Microsoft’s Surface Pro family has been due for a redesign and the Surface Pro X delivers one. Unfortunately, the Pro X lags behind other tablets already on the market, held back by its use of an ARM chip as a primary SoC, the Qualcomm-powered SQ1. That’s the general conclusion from three reviews: CNET, Endgadget, and The Verge.

High Marks for Beauty

Everyone loves the physical design of this hybrid machine. CNET calls the redesign “spot on.” The Verge waxes poetic, writing: “It is a beautiful, well-made hybrid tablet device that looks better than any other computer I’ve tried in at least the past year.” Engadget says “The Surface Pro X is a beautiful piece of hardware and the best Snapdragon-powered PC around.” Keep that last comment in mind regarding the long-term viability of ARM in Windows as we walk through the review.

It’s fanless and while there’s no headphone jack, Bluetooth audio reportedly works well. Connectivity is limited to two USB-C ports, a microSD port, and a Surface Connect port. There’s no Thunderbolt 3 (not surprising in an ARM device), but either USB-C port can be used for charging. The basic Surface keyboard is $139, while the new Surface “Signature Keyboard” costs $270. If you buy the Signature Keyboard you get the new Surface Slim Pen in the box, otherwise it’s a $144 add-on.

The look, feel, and design of the Surface Pro X are clearly quite popular. It’s the other aspects of the system that fail to impress reviewers.

Weak Performance, Poor Compatibility

The Surface Pro X’s performance and software limitations make it clear that any dream of ARM replacing x86 in Windows PCs is still a long way off. Compatibility is limited to 32-bit apps and most games and benchmarks won’t run on the system. Engadget reports encountering a significant number of bugs and crashes. The core of Windows runs just fine on the Surface Pro X, but performance doesn’t match Intel systems at the same price point according to the Verge. The site writes:

“More intense apps like Photoshop do technically run on this computer, but they’re so slow they may as well not. Microsoft says that Adobe is committed to creating 64-bit ARM versions of its Creative Cloud apps, but there’s no timeline for when that’ll happen.”

Most games you’d find on Steam or the Epic Game Store are incompatible. 64-bit x86 apps will not run in emulation and apparently even the Windows Store has a habit of recommending apps for the Surface Pro X that aren’t actually compatible for it. The Verge also notes that their reporters bought apps to test, only to discover that despite being advertised as compatible, the apps don’t actually run.

That’s something of a problem, seeing as we’re talking about a product with limited app compatibility in the first place. The price starts to bite Surface Pro X here, because this is a system that starts at $999. The keyboard + stylus combo is a further $270 on top of that. Intel-powered Surface systems start at $749 and offer much higher performance and no app compatibility issues, writes CNET. There are virtually no published benchmark results because it’s so hard to find benchmarks in the first place. Best-case performance in web browsing seems to be “Perfectly acceptable, though not as fast as Intel.”

Battery Life

Battery life claims are all over the map. CNET claims 8 hr, 50 minutes, the Verge says 5-6 hours of active use, which they figure is 9-10 hours by MS metrics. Engadget came the closest to hitting Microsoft’s claimed battery life of 13 hours, with a measured runtime of 11 hours, 45 minutes. That’s a fairly significant gap between the tested systems, but nobody is seeing the massive 20-hour battery runtimes that were originally promised for Windows systems on ARM. Hopefully benchmark compatibility will improve in the future and we’ll be able to describe system performance in more detail.

Ultimately, the Surface Pro X appears to be a beautiful system no reviewer is happy with. Everyone praises the design, keyboard, and LTE modem. Battery life is acceptable, if perhaps a little low compared to what people hoped for. But the performance, bugs, and app compatibility issues are all problems. CNET writes that the system is ideal “only for a small segment of the tablet-toting population.” The Verge writes: “This is a CEO’s computer, not an engineer’s computer, and certainly not a computer for the rest of us.” The most positive review is from Engadget, who writes: “If you’re in the sliver of the population that needs access to a small handful of Windows apps, then maybe the Pro X is sufficient. But bear in mind you’ll be paying a hefty premium for Windows, an LTE connection and gorgeous hardware.”

Now Read:

  • The New Surface Pro X Debuts Microsoft’s SQ1 ARM-Based Processor
  • Apple Could Switch to ARM, But Replacing Xeon Is No Simple Endeavor
  • ARM Announces New Cortex-A77 CPU Architecture

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