What a difference a year makes.
I loved the Surface Pro X design when I competed against the Surface Pro 7 last year, but in practice this ARM device wasn’t quite finished. I couldn’t install a bunch of apps that I use every day, and even Microsoft’s own Chromium Edge browser wasn’t available. I had to rely on an emulated version of Chrome that was performing badly and just give up on getting some of my favorite apps to work. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Microsoft is back this year with an updated Surface Pro X for $ 1,499, and not much has changed on the hardware side. The 2020 model includes an updated Microsoft SQ2 processor that promises improved performance and battery life. The real story, however, is how much has changed for Windows support for ARM apps in the past year.
I can now run most of the apps I need on this new Surface Pro X, and most of them run a lot better than they did a year ago. I concluded my review of the original Pro X with a desire to have an Intel chip inside. This year I’m not so sure needs one more Intel chip.
The basic Surface Pro X hardware hasn’t changed for this latest model. Microsoft still uses the same 13-inch PixelSense touchscreen display with great viewing angles, a 3: 2 aspect ratio, and scaled down frames. There are two USB-C ports, a surface port, and nothing else. There’s no microSD slot, but you can open a door on the back that gives access to the nanoSIM slot and removable SSD. There is also no headphone jack yet.
However, Microsoft is offering a new color option this year. It’s the classic “platinum” silver that’s available on most other Surface devices, and there are a number of colored type covers to go with it. Like last year, the Signature Keyboard comes with the Slim Surface Pen for $ 269.99, or you can buy one without a pen for $ 139.99.
Microsoft’s signature keyboard is available separately.
I wasn’t a huge fan of this new keyboard last year as it felt a lot shakier than the usual Surface Pro keyboards. The latest signature keyboard feels slightly improved here, and I no longer notice it clipping parts of the taskbar that badly.
In the Surface Pro X, Microsoft uses its SQ2 chip, a variant of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G, without 5G support. It’s disappointing not to see 5G here, even if the networks are not fully expanded to take advantage of the improved speed and coverage. You can still use it with LTE networks.
Even though this hardware design was from a year ago, I still love it. It really is the best interface design I’ve ever seen from Microsoft. While this is a refinement of the Surface Pro line, everything from the rounded edges to the cropped bezels just looks and feels great, too. I hope Microsoft can someday push an Intel chip into this case.
Software, apps and battery life
While the hardware is mostly the same, the software has definitely seen some improvements this year. It’s clear that a year of software updates and app compatibility made a huge difference. Surface Pro X’s initial performance was a bit erratic as apps felt laggy and the system was slow to return from standby at times. I haven’t experienced any of these issues with this latest model.
In fact, this new Surface Pro X shoots smoothly through the Windows Hello face recognition screen and straight to the Windows desktop. Microsoft says it hasn’t made any specific changes to Windows Hello, but everything feels a lot smoother to me.
Spotify brought the Surface Pro X to its knees last year, but I’ve found that it is now a 64-bit ARM app and will launch without breaking the rest of the system. It still takes a while longer than expected to render album art, but it has improved a lot from what I experienced on the original Surface Pro X. Discord feels a little better this time around too, and I see fewer performance issues during calls. I can also install apps like Clatter, ShareX or Tweet without any errors or problems.
But not all app compatibility issues are completely gone. If you’re used to integrating Dropbox with File Explorer, you’ll have to settle for a simple Windows Store app instead. Apps that are integrated into the Windows shell are still not supported.
Adobe also promised a year ago to bring all of the Creative Cloud apps to the Surface Pro X, but we’re still waiting for a release date. The wait for these mobile and cloud-optimized apps on Surface Pro X will likely be a long one.
While the wait for Adobe continues, you can expect the company’s Creative Suite desktop apps to be running on this latest Surface Pro X. Unfortunately not. I was able to run Photoshop on the Surface Pro X last year, but now you can’t install any Creative Suite apps at all. The Adobe installer now reports errors that it is not available for this device. That means I can’t even install the 2018 version of Photoshop that I was able to use last year. And no, neither version of Lightroom will work. It’s extremely disappointing for a device ideal for quick editing of photos or videos on the go.
What really changed the Surface Pro X for me is Microsoft’s Chromium Edge browser. This has had the biggest impact on this new Surface Pro X as it’s the app I use the most on a laptop. Chrome was painfully slow on the original Surface Pro X because it ran as a 32-bit app in emulation mode.
The native version of Edge runs as smoothly as if it were running on a regular Intel laptop. It’s hard to tell the difference in my daily work. I spend most of my time in a browser working and even watching YouTube videos, using Twitch, and reading content online.
The big promise of ARM laptops was battery life. Some have claimed 23 hours of battery life, and even Microsoft says this new Surface Pro X should run for 15 hours. The reality is still a long way off as many apps are still emulated and affect battery life.
Edge really shows the potential of the Surface Pro X, however. This tablet and laptop hybrid feels best when apps like Edge are optimized for it, and these types of apps also add to battery life. I got at least 8 hours of battery life with this updated model with a mix of desktop apps and heavy use of the Edge browser. Understandably, if you use a lot of emulated apps, this will affect the battery life longer. We saw this when we ran Chrome on the Pro X last year.
A taste of an ARM-based future
Using this device for the past week has certainly given me new hope for new ARM laptops. Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro X offers a better glimpse into an ARM laptop future that has been promised for years.
It no longer feels like ARM laptops are futuristic or not quite finished. The Surface Pro X seems like most regular Windows laptops right now, and it might not even need support from Adobe and others to really shine. The vast majority of desktop apps have moved to 64-bit, and Microsoft is close to supporting x64 app emulation for Windows on ARM. That should solve most app compatibility issues, but we still need to see fully native 64-bit ARM apps to keep battery life in check.
Since Apple will be releasing its own Macs with ARM chips, the race for ARM laptops could be up a gear. Microsoft is leading and leading with beautiful hardware that the software still needs to catch up. However, the potential for this ARM revolution is much more advanced, and both Microsoft and Qualcomm are pursuing developers to convince them to fully port apps to ARM.
I can’t emphasize enough the potential element with the Surface Pro X. With Microsoft offering a base model with the older SQ1 processor for $ 999.99, it seems we are on the verge of ARM-based Windows laptops becoming much cheaper and more affordable.
The big problem is, you’re paying $ 1,499 for an adorable ARM-based Surface device with this potential. The Surface Pro X might not be an experiment for Microsoft or Qualcomm, but $ 1,499 is a high price to pay for beautiful hardware that still has some software weaknesses.
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