From the new Apple M1 powered Macs to the Microsoft Surface Pro X I’ve been using, ARM-based computers are the new craze in mobile computing. The Surface Pro X was Microsoft’s second big consumer push to get into the ARM platform and it really nails the essentials. Microsoft provides a fast and stable Windows on ARM experience, which is impressive despite the underpowered hardware on Microsoft’s latest SQ2-based machine. At the same time, some important features are missing while we wait for proper 64-bit emulation to arrive. That makes the price harder to swallow, but I’ve still really liked using the Surface Pro X.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The design of the Surface Pro X is similar to an x86 Surface Pro. It has a 13-inch 2880×1920 touchscreen display with much smaller bezels than previous Surface devices. It gets very bright, so I’m able to use it in the sunlight with no issue. The body is magnesium with the classic Surface Pro kickstand on the back. My unit comes in a platinum silver color which I really like.
The Surface Pro X has a Windows Hello IR facial recognition camera in the top bezel, next to the webcam. This is the main form of biometrics, so when you want to unlock the Surface Pro X, all you have to do is look at it. It’s almost as seamless as Face ID on the iPad Pro and iPhone. I do wish there was an option to get a keyboard case with a fingerprint scanner—face unlock isn’t very useful when you’re wearing a mask. Microsoft already offers a fingerprint scanner on the keyboard for the Intel-based Surface Pros, so it’s frustrating that’s not an option here.
We’re testing the newly updated Surface Pro X model with the Microsoft SQ2 SoC. That’s basically the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 without the 5G modem. Instead, it has an LTE modem and Microsoft branding. My unit also has 16GBs of RAM and 256GB of storage. Thankfully, the NVMe SSD is user-removable and replaceable with third-party SSDs.
In terms of ports and charging, this is a pretty 2020 machine. There are two USB-C ports and the Surface Connect port used for charging the machine. It has a 65W charger in the box, but Microsoft doesn’t give a max charging speed of the device. I found the two USB-C ports to be more than enough for what I do, but one or two more would have been nice. A full-sized USB port or USB-A to USB-C adapter in the box would have been greatly appreciated, but Microsoft decided not to include either.
Microsoft provides surprisingly capable cameras on the Surface Pro X. The front camera is 5MP with 1080p 30fps video while the rear camera is 10MP and supports up to 4K 30fps video. These are very good for video calls or quick pictures of documents, but not much else. The “dual far-field studio mics” do sound really good but the 2W stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos leave a lot to be desired.
There are no extras in the box—it’s just the tablet, charger, and the usual manuals. There is no keyboard in the box, which is normal for Microsoft’s Surface Pro machines, but it’s still silly and infuriating. If you want a keyboard and trackpad, you’ll need to buy one separately or use the included touch screen and on-screen keyboard. I would say it’s not even worth considering this computer unless you get the keyboard.
Keyboard and trackpad
The attachable Microsoft Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen on the Surface Pro X is a classic Surface Pro keyboard. It’s removable and connects magnetically to the bottom of the tablet. It also works as a cover to protect the screen while shut.
The keys are good considering the slim form factor. I actually prefer this keyboard over the keyboard of the Surface Book 3, Surface Laptop 3, or even the butterfly MacBook Pro (since replaced by the Magic Keyboard). It’s just more comfortable and feels better to type on. I will say, however, the sound of the keyboard isn’t great compared to the competition. It’s missing the clicky sound that most other laptops have. Some people may like this, but I prefer a little more sound.
Microsoft sent me the Keyboard + Slim Pen bundle with my review unit, which means this keyboard also has a magnetic slot to hold and charge the Surface Slim Pen. It’s a very responsive stylus, and the compact form factor makes it more comfortable to hold than the regular Surface Pen. It’s included in the Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen bundle, but normally retails for $145 while the Slim Pen + Keyboard bundle is a whopping $270. Most of the time the pen will be hidden unless you disconnect the magnets at the bottom bezel and flatten the keyboard. Normally, it stays at about a 5-degree angle which I find comfortable for typing.
The trackpad is a delight to use thanks to the strong tactility of the click and excellent responsiveness. That makes gestures easy to use on the Surface Pro X, but I’m convinced that big trackpads are where it’s at after using the Huawei MateBook X Pro and MacBook Pro. Now, I understand that it isn’t possible to get a trackpad that big because of the size of the keyboard and tablet, but Microsoft could have pushed the envelope a bit more.
Performance and software
The Surface Pro X runs Windows 10 for ARM. which has all the same features as the Windows 10 you know and (maybe) love. In my usage, the ARM version of Windows has felt a little faster and smoother than the x86 version, even though the Surface Pro X has less raw horsepower.
Microsoft has strived to make Windows a good companion for Android phones with the Your Phone client. The app, which has gotten a series of updates recently, will sync your texts, calls, photos, and notifications. On Samsung and Microsoft phones, it will even sync your clipboard and let you access Android apps from your computer. In an upcoming Windows update, there will be support to have three Android apps open through your phone on your Windows machine.
As an Android guy, having access to all my Android apps and data inside Windows is a killer feature. Plus, the Your Phone app has been working much better for me lately. I’m not sure if it’s Microsoft’s recent app updates or something with the ARM version of Windows, but I don’t have any major complaints. It connects reliably, gets timely notifications, and setup is pretty simple.
Because the Microsoft SQ2 chip from Qualcomm is based on ARM instead of x86, programs need to be built specifically to run on the ARM architecture. This means some x86 programs just won’t work. Microsoft didn’t want to launch a computer that can’t run most programs, so they do offer emulation of x86 32-bit programs to run on the ARM chip. So, basic things like Google Chrome, Slack, and even more complex games like Portal 2 will run, but not at the full performance of the chip. These programs are actually quite buggy and noticeably slower than ARM-compiled programs. Emulation also drains the battery much faster than it otherwise would, so the 15 hour Microsoft battery life guesstimate turns into 6 or 7 hours. Luckily, the fast charging tops up the battery pretty quickly—Microsoft doesn’t give a figure to the wattage, but it has a 65W charger in the box. Microsoft has added 64-bit emulation to Windows 10 on ARM Insider builds, but according to my loan agreement for the device, I can’t install it on the machine to test.
The performance of the SQ2 chip in the Surface Pro X is about what is to be expected from a Qualcomm chip in 2020—it’s the fastest ARM chip available for Windows OEMs to use. The newly released Apple M1 chip easily outperforms the SQ2, but the Surface Pro X doesn’t feel slow. In Geekbench 5, which is running natively on ARM, it got a 784 single-core and 3100 multi-core. In terms of gaming performance, the Adreno 690 is pretty damn good. I was able to get a smooth 60fps at high settings in Portal 2. Sure, this is an older game but it’s still running in emulation. I wasn’t really able to test many other games because most modern games are 64-bit.
The Surface Pro X is fast and stable enough most of the time, but power users like myself will run into enough issues that you’ll miss x86 machines. For example, Photoshop on ARM beta, is generally laggy, and advanced features like context-aware patching are unavailable. The Surface works much better for general use—while I have Google Chrome, Microsoft Word, Spotify, Edge, Slack, and Discord open with no noticeable lag and CPU usage averaging 60%. Most of these apps are running on emulation, too.
Should you buy it?
Surface Pro X (2020)
Maybe. This is one of the most enjoyable Windows computing experiences I’ve had in many years in spite of the ARM limitations. It has all the features of Windows you know and love with the hardware benefits of ARM. Microsoft’s Surface hardware is also very well-designed with excellent cooling. I’m honestly impressed by what Microsoft did.
As a student, this has been my go-to machine in recent weeks, thanks largely to the stellar battery life. Since we’re in the age of Zoom, LTE means I can take classes from anywhere without worrying about plugging in, and the Active Pen support makes taking notes a breeze. The webcam performance is also fantastic. It’s by far my favorite device, overtaking the 2020 iPad Pro and Surface Laptop 3. I’ve also been pleased with the Android integration via the updated Your Phone app. I can manage my photos, mirror notifications, and even run Android apps on Windows.
I would recommend this computer for anyone who doesn’t always have access to power outlets and spends a lot of time in chat apps, document editing, and the browser. It’s not going to be able to handle the heavy-duty photo and video editing or development that some people would want. It’s a great machine for people who use Stadia, Luna, or GeForce Now but not a serious PC gamer.
The pricing is a problem, though. The Surface Pro X (SQ1) and a Signature Keyboard starts at $1140. If you want the SQ 2 model with a Signature Keyboard and Slim Pen, which is necessary, in my opinion, you’re going to be looking at spending a minimum of $1770. That’s incredibly steep for what it is. As much as I love this tablet, it is not worth the price. This isn’t going to be the determining factor for most Surface buyers—Microsoft products historically have never been a good value, but they still have fans.
Buy it if…
- You need a small and light computer with good battery life.
- You want a computer that understands your phone.
Don’t buy it if…
- You want to play (non-cloud) games on your Windows PC.
- The ARM limitations will get on your nerves.