The latest generation ultraportable faces newer and tougher competition
The Microsoft Surface Pro tablet is now iconic, with a design that hasn’t changed much since the very first model came out. It was meant to show off all the touch-friendly features of Windows, and kick off a whole new generation of ultraportable, compact PCs. The Surface line of hardware is unapologetically premium; meant to act as “halo” devices for Windows itself. By controlling the hardware as well as software, Microsoft can try to approach the level of integration that makes Apple’s Macs stand out. Interestingly, few other companies seem to think there’s much demand for Windows-based tablets with detachable keyboards.
The latest generation of the Surface Pro 2-in-1 tablet came to India a few months ago, although it was launched in the USA in October 2019. Prices for the Surface Pro 7 ? 75,990 here start at Rs. 72,999 – and that’s not including the keyboard attachment or stylus. Despite the delayed availability in India, has Microsoft delivered a strong enough update to tempt buyers, and just how does such a device compare to a standard laptop? Read on to find out.
Microsoft Surface Pro 7 design and usability
Nothing major about the design of the Surface Pro has changed since the very first model, although there have been calls for Microsoft to change things up to keep pace with general trends. The tablet itself is about as thick as today’s smartphones, at 8.5mm, and weighs between 775g and 790g depending on the hardware you choose. The Type Cover, which is a fairly essential accessory, will add another 5mm and 310g.
The screen measures 12.3 inches diagonally, with a 3:2 aspect ratio that works well for a device that can be held in portrait or landscape orientation. The borders around the screen are pretty chunky by today’s standards but there’s space for a 5-megapixel front-facing camera as well as infrared sensor for Windows Hello face recognition. The border space at the bottom of the screen has magnets so the type cover can be folded and inclined a little to make typing more comfortable. The tablet will also recognise when the cover is flipped shut and go to sleep, but there aren’t magnets to hold the two together when closed.
The body is made of a magnesium alloy, and you can buy this generation in the popular Platinum or Matte Black. The most iconic thing about the Surface Pro’s design has always been its kickstand. It lies flush with the back of the body when folded, and stays stiff enough for you to jab the screen with a stylus or rest your hand on it when drawing. It can open far enough for the Surface Pro to lie nearly flat on its back, which is a comfortable position for drawing or writing with a stylus.
You’re really meant to use this 2-in-1 either as a tablet in your hands or with the Type Cove on a table – using it on your lap while sitting or reclining isn’t really practical. Setting up the kickstand is also an extra step compared to working with a laptop, and you need more room because of the extra footprint required. That said, the Surface Pro 7 is still extremely portable and convenient.
With the Surface Pro 7 in its default landscape orientation, you’ll find the power and physical volume buttons on the upper left, with a 3.5mm headphones socket just around the corner. This is a little inconvenient, as the wire will dangle from the upper corner if you have earphones plugged in. On the right, you’ll find one USB Type-A and one Type-C port, and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connector slot. A microSD card slot is tucked away behind the kickstand, and is easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there.
This is the first Surface Pro model with a Type-C port, which has been a popular demand. You can use it to charge the device and drive an external display, which is handy since it replaces previous models’ Mini-DisplayPort video outputs. Microsoft hasn’t gone with the faster Thunderbolt 3 standard, which it says was a deliberate choice because of data security. The charger that ships with the device still uses the Surface Connect slot but has a USB port on it to let you plug other things in to charge, such as a phone.
The Type Cover is sold separately, in various colours, priced upwards of Rs. 12,299 each. There are regular plastic versions and the more expensive Signature versions with Alcantara fabric, which you might or might not like the texture of. The keyboard keys are well-laid out and the white backlighting with three levels is a pleasant surprise. You can lay the cover flat or prop it up at an angle, but doing so means it will flex and bend quite a bit when you’re typing. The keys themselves are comfortable, with a surprisingly good action by tablet accessory standards. The trackpad also works well, but it’s plasticky and is very loud when pressed.
Microsoft Surface Pro 7 specifications and price
The seventh incarnation of the Surface Pro has suitably modern components, starting with Intel’s 10th Gen Core processors. These are the versions based on the 10nm ‘Ice Lake’ architecture, featuring integrated Gen11 graphics and AI acceleration.
The base variant is somewhat disappointing – for Rs. 72,999 you get only a Core i3-1005G1 CPU with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. At the top of the range, you can get a Core i7-1065G7 CPU with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, which will cost Rs. 1,41,999. Microsoft does not offer variants with a 512GB or 1TB SSD in India, though these are available abroad. It’s also worth noting that the RAM is soldered down and not upgradable.
The 12.3-inch 3:2 screen has an uncommon resolution of 2736×1824 and of course it supports multi-touch as well as the Surface Pen and other styluses. The battery capacity isn’t specified, but battery life is rated at 10.5 hours of “typical usage”. One thing that’s missing is an option for integrated cellular data, which could have been much appreciated considering the portability on offer.
Being a tablet, you get an ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. Other specifications worth noting are the 5-megapixel front-facing and 8-megapixel rear-mounted cameras, dual mics, stereo speakers, Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5. Retail versions of the Surface Pro 7 ship with Windows 10 Home.
Microsoft Surface Pro 7 performance
I’m reviewing the top-end version of the Surface Pro 7, and performance is just as good as I had hoped for considering the price. The UI was fluid and responsive, with no hiccups during my review period. I was able to have multiple programs open, stream video, and work between dozens of browser tabs without any trouble. The tablet woke from sleep pretty much instantly when opening the cover or tapping the power button.
The only thing that requires a slight pause is rotating the UI from portrait to landscape or vice versa, which is something Microsoft could work on. Speaking of which, Windows 10 has plenty of touch-friendly gestures and stylus accommodations, but it’s pretty much up to you to figure them out. The UI is set to 200 percent scaling by default which is good for touch input, but I preferred it at 150 – 175 percent.
Everyday usability turned out to be very pleasant. The screen is a little smaller than most people used to mainstream laptops would prefer, and it’s very reflective, but colours are vibrant and motion is smooth enough to enjoy videos. The speakers benefit from their placement at ear height, firing forwards. They’re very loud and produce a surprisingly open sound, though it does lack bass and can get scratchy at high volumes.
I ran several real-world and synthetic tests on the Surface Pro 7, starting with an SSD speed test. CrystalDiskMark reported NVMe-class sequential read and write speeds of 2333.6Mbps and 1567.2Mbps respectively, with even random reads and writes coming in at 1006.1Mbps and 406.1Mbps respectively. Compressing a 3.24GB folder of assorted files took 4 minutes, 58 seconds, while transcoding a 1.3GB AVI file to H.265 took 3 minutes, 11 seconds.
PCMark 10 managed to score 3,476 points in its standard run and 2,705 points in its Extended run. Cinebench R20 put up scores of 1,100 and 311 in its multi-core and single-core tests respectively. POV-Ray ran its default ray tracing benchmark in 4 minutes, 28 seconds.
Intel’s current naming scheme is a little confusing, but the ‘G7′ at the end of ‘Core i7-1065G7′ indicates that this CPU features the company’s Iris Plus integrated graphics subsystem, which is the highest tier within the segment. The Surface Pro 7 therefore has enough graphics power for productivity, light creative work and simple games. You’ll even be able to play somewhat older games, but you shouldn’t expect great quality.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider took a long time to load and was only able to put up an average of 10fps at 1280×720 using the Lowest graphics setting, making it unplayable. 3DMark managed 564 in the Time Spy test and 491 in Fire Strike Ultra. The back of the tablet did get quite hot when running heavy tests, but this shouldn’t affect usage — the keyboard, being an entirely separate unit, didn’t get warm at all.
Battery life was quite good, and I managed to cross 8 hours of usage with a fair bit of video streaming and multitasking thrown in. You should be able to get through a long flight or at least a full day at the office on a single charge – and Type-C charging makes it easy to top the Surface Pro 7 up on the go. The heavy Battery Eater Pro test ran for a respectable 2 hours, 55 minutes.
The Surface Pro line has now been around for a long time, and there aren’t any real tablet-style 2-in-1 competitors in the premium space. That’s partially because the laptop space itself has evolved, and ultraportable models are getting lighter as well as more powerful with each generation. Dell, Acer, HP, Lenovo, and others all sell sub-1.3kg laptops with decent enough keyboards, connectivity, and battery life at around the same prices. The convenience and portability of the Surface Pro 7 might not make up for all its compromises as much as it they used to.
Although the Surface Pro 7 did well enough overall, it fared a little worse in most of my tests than the HP Spectre x360 13 aw0205tu, which I recently reviewed. This is interesting considering that the two are based on exactly the same CPU and each have 16GB of RAM. HP’s offering is a little heavier, but features LTE and a more laptop-like 2-in-1 design that favours productivity. Plus, its price is actually competitive once you factor in the cost of a Type Cover and Surface Pen.
You’d choose the Surface Pro 7 over a laptop or an iPad if you really need something as light as possible, and want all the convenience of a tablet that you can sketch and draw on plus still have the ability to run Windows and all its software. I didn’t receive a Surface Pen to test with the Surface Pro 7, but my experience with previous models has been good.
Microsoft itself knows that the Surface Pro line is getting a little stale, which is why it launched the Surface Pro X alongside. This lighter, slicker model is based on an Arm CPU, not a traditional Intel/ x86 one, which means there might be some incompatibilities and adjustments in the near term, but it is a sign of things to come. The Surface Pro 7 thus serves a shrinking niche. It’s still a great portable computer, but it isn’t for everyone.