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Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) First Impressions

Posted June 15, 2017 | Microsoft Surface | Surface Pro (2017) | Windows

It may look the same as its predecessor at first glance, but the deeper I dig, the more impressed I become with the improvements Microsoft has made with the new Surface Pro.

In fact, I’m a bit curious that Microsoft went so low-key with this one. The new Surface Pro is absolutely enough of an improvement to justify a “5” at the end of its name. So I can only conclude that we’re seeing a new—and, yes, very Apple-like—approach to device branding in Redmond.

Which is just fine, frankly. No matter what Microsoft calls it, the new Surface Pro is a refined and elegant update to a popular and category-defining product.

And the design is, as Microsoft claims, iconic. So it makes sense that the company would retain what was already working well. But even within the confines of what appears to be a simple retread of past products, there are important improvements.

The body is less angular and sharp-edged, with more graceful curves, for starters. The result is a softer Surface Pro, in looks and in the hand.

And the unique venting that has always been present on Surface Pro is thinner and less obvious than ever. It almost seems like a design element rather than something functional.

Surface Pro (2017, on top) and Surface Pro 4 (bottom)

But that venting is indeed functional: On the Core m3 and i5 versions of Surface Pro, the processor is passively cooled, with no fan, resulting in a completely silent experience. On the Core i7 versions, like the one I am reviewing, the Surface Pro utilizes a new cooling design, and it is the quietest fan-equipped Surface I’ve ever used. By far.

This is an important and noteworthy change.

Previous Surface Pro (and Book) devices were infamously loud, and I have on many occasions compared them to a hissing snake. That this hissing sound seemed to appear out of nowhere, and be unrelated to anything the computer was or was not doing at the time, only added to the annoyance.

Well, that doesn’t happen with the new Surface Pro. Depending on what you are doing at the time, it is either literally silent or is producing such an innocuous fan hiss at such a low volume level that I basically never really notice it. Honestly, it’s a minor miracle of sorts.

How Microsoft achieves this silent operation is open for debate. There’s that new cooling design, of course. But part of the reason is surely a new default power management setting in which better battery life is somewhat favored over better performance. I suspect that improvements in the “Kaby Lake” processor found in this device does much to overcome whatever performance shortcomings this change might have made with previous generation processors as well.

Moving past the slightly revised design and the wonderful silence it enables, the new Surface Pro does indeed closely resemble its predecessors, with roughly the same size, thickness, and weight. It features the same ports—a Surface Connect port for power and expansion, a Cover port for the Type Cover, a single USB 3.0 port, miniDisplayPort, and a microSD card reader tucked under the kickstand.

There is a headphone jack, awkwardly positioned at the top left, and power and volume buttons.

All of that is the same as before, yes, and there’s no need to pull out the USB-C argument yet again. You get it.

But there are other important changes to the exterior of the device. The kickstand—a major Surface innovation from day one—has been improved yet again. Where Surface Pro 4 could tilt back smoothly to a reasonable 150 degrees—enough to meet virtually any touch typist’s needs—the new Surface Pro goes all the way back to 165 degrees.

That may not sound like much on paper, but in real-world use, it’s a dramatic change. In fact, the new Surface Pro tilts back so far, that Microsoft calls this “Studio mode,” an allusion to the Surface Studio All-In-One PC, which offers a similar capability. As with that device, Studio mode provides an ideal angle for handwriting or drawing with Surface Pen. Which is, of course, the point.

This, too, is a bigger change than is immediately obvious. With previous Surface Pro devices, you would typically detach or fold back the Type Cover in order to switch to a tablet usage mode in which you could write on the screen more naturally. With the new Surface Pro, you can of course still do this. But the full Studio mode means you don’t have to. You can just adjust the screen angle as needed and start drawing or writing. (Type Cover, as always, is optional.)

The PixelSense display that you’re tilting during all this usage gymnastics is likewise improved over the unit that shipped in Surface Pro 4. It offers the same resolution (2736 x 1824) with the same pixel density (267 ppi), aspect ratio (3:2), and 10 point multi-touch capabilities as its predecessor, and it does so in the same 12.3-inch form factor. But this display is also compatible with Surface Dial—you can put it right on the display, as you can with Surface Studio, and engage on-screen menus in compatible apps—and it’s brighter and more color accurate than the previous-generation design.

This improved display also provides more vivid colors, Microsoft says, thanks to a new and semi-unique display setting. Basically, you can switch the display on the fly, from Action Center, between the normal sRGB display and a more vivid Enhanced mode, where colors really pop. It’s not quite HDR, as we see on some 4K/UHD TVs and high-end desktop PC monitors. But it’s pretty close. And I find the look to be stunning. You can really see the difference when you place the new Surface Pro side-by-side with Surface Pro 4 and view the same photos, for example. And it’s smart: Skin tone isn’t blown out, as can be the case with HDR.

The Color Profile quick action tile is used to switch between sRGB and Enhanced color modes

(Surface Studio has a more advanced version of this Enhanced color mode thanks to its wide gamut capabilities. So the Surface Pro feature seems to be a nice step in that direction.)

Thanks to a bit of visual trickery, the front-facing cameras—there are two, a normal one and an infra-red camera for Windows Hello—and microphone are less visible than before, and they disappear into the inky blackness of the bezel, creating a more seamless look. It’s a little thing, yes, but a nice touch.

Inside the new Surface Pro, Microsoft has crammed in more modern componentry and more battery in addition to that new cooling system I mentioned previously. That includes those “Kaby Lake” processors, which provide better performance and battery efficiency than their predecessors, not to mention better reliability. As dramatically, the new Surface Pro includes much faster SSD storage than before. And much better battery life, at a rated 13.5 hours.

If you read my PC reviews, you know I take this claim very seriously, and that I will test it for myself via HD video rundown tests and real world usage. But the new Surface Pro’s performance advantages merit testing as well, so I’ll be reporting back on all of these things in my final review.

Another key area of testing is the keyboard cover, which for this generation is available in both Type Cover and Signature Type Cover forms, the latter of which features Microsoft’s much-hyped Alcantara covering.

And on that note, I’m not sure what to think about Alcantara. On the Signature Type Cover, the soft Alcantara material appears to be on the bottom, meaning you will never see or feel it when typing (as you do with Surface Laptop). Instead, you will do so when you carry the device around. Worse—and this is admittedly weird—it smells. Like, really bad. Like petroleum, maybe. Or one of those giant magic markers that is supposed to smell like fruit but really just smells like chemicals. It’s not pleasant. And it is very strong.

If you can get past the smell, the Signature Type Cover doesn’t appear to have changed much compared to previous-generation Type Covers. The layout of the keys on the new Signature Type Covers is almost the same as previous versions. The Ins (“insert”) key has been removed, however, which is smart, and there’s now a new screen brightness key instead. Backlighting works as before, and it provides an excellent typing experience.

The glass precision touchpad works well too.

The Signature Type Covers are available in three Surface Laptop-like colors—Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Platinum—for $160 each, or you can save $30 and get the standard (non-Signature) black Type Cover. I’d be OK with the standard version, frankly.

A Type Cover is obviously a necessity with Surface Pro. But for many, no Surface Pro is complete without a Surface Pen too. Microsoft agrees, but it also knows that only 30 percent of Surface Pro customers actually use that peripheral. So it’s no longer included with the device.

This is understandable. But it also means that many new Surface Pro buyers will miss out on one of the more impressive improvements that this system provides. And that is a new, third generation Surface Pen design that provides dramatically better performance and pressure sensitivity, new capabilities like tilt, and a more natural writing experience than ever before.

I’ll be writing about the new Surface Pen separately, and comparing it to Apple Pencil. But there are two things you should know up-front. First, the new Surface Pen works fine with virtually any Surface device, but it will deliver the best performance with the new Surface Pro because of its unique “Pixelsense Accelerator” chip. And second, the new Surface Pen is much more expensive than before, at $99.99. If you need such a thing, it’s probably worth it.

Actually, here’s a third useful Surface Pen tidbit, and this is something Microsoft is not openly promoting for some reason: Like its predecessors, the new Surface Pro utilizes magnets on its left edge so that you can attach the Pen for travel. But these magnets are much more powerful on this new device, and they hold Surface Pen in place much more effectively. It’s no Surface Loop—what is?—but this setup isn’t as precarious as it used to be.

Speaking of precarious, the new Surface Pro is no more lappable than previous Pro devices. This makes sense given that it utilizes the same basic design. But with Microsoft’s new insistence on describing this device, against all logic, as a laptop, I find it odd how poorly it works in this way. It’s the first non-lappable laptop, I guess.

(Your ability to use Surface Pro, or any other device, on your lap is tied to the length of your upper legs. I’m tall at a bit over 6 feet, but my upper legs are apparently not all that long. So Surface Pro is a no-go for me unless I have a table or other surface to place it on. Or I’m using it like a tablet.)

The Surface Pro I’m using is incredibly expensive at $2200 before Type Cover and Pen. But this is a high-end model with a Core i7 processor, Iris Plus Graphics, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of SSD storage. You can get an entry level model—with a Core m3 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of SSD storage—for $799. But I think the sweet spot is in the middle: For $1299, you can get a Core i5 processor (silent, with no fans), 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of SSD storage. That’s the one I’d buy, I think. And it’s the one I wish I was reviewing.

But when you factor in $130 to $160 for a Type Cover and $100 for a Surface Pen, the price creeps up even further, of course. This is a premium device, for sure. And you will pay the price, literally.

After I’ve completed my testing, I’ll chime in again with my final review. But I have other topics related to the new Surface Pen to discuss as well. So I’ll be writing more about this intriguing new device ahead of that review.

More soon.


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