Microsoft’s Surface Pro is fine, but it isn’t the AI device to change personal computing

Technology

In this article

With Microsoft’s new Surface Pro Flex Keyboard, you can type and use the trackpad without the accessory being physically connected to the 11th edition of the Surface Pro.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

When Microsoft announced its new line of Windows PCs in May, the company said the computers were “designed for AI” with new chips from Qualcomm that are more energy efficient than previous Intel processors.

Among the first of the devices — called Copilot+ PCs — to hit the market is a Surface Pro convertible tablet. It can handle heftier computing tasks and boasts a longer battery life than laptops with Intel processors. It’s a similar strategy to what Apple embarked on in 2020 when it started shipping custom energy-sipping Arm-based chips into its MacBooks, a move that has proved hugely successful.

But what Microsoft has ultimately released with the Surface Pro amounts to a nice upgrade over its predecessor. To think it’s ushering in a new era of AI computing is a bit farfetched. At least for now.

The Surface line of computers doesn’t drive a big business for Microsoft. The company reported $1.07 billion in device revenue, including from Surface PCs, in the first quarter, a small slice of its total $61.86 billion in revenue.

I’ve been reviewing the Surface Pro for two weeks. Here’s what you need to know about it.

What’s good

The Surface Pro hardware is high end. Microsoft sent me a review unit with Qualcomm’s 12-core Snapdragon X Elite chip, a 512GB solid-state drive, 16GB of RAM and an OLED display. The device starts at $999, but this model costs $1,499.99. Performance is snappy for web browsing — Google shipped an Arm version of Chrome for Windows in March — and productivity software and a few video games, including “Retrowave World” and “Poly Bridge 3,” ran fine.

The display is detailed and bright, with smooth scrolling thanks to a 120Hz refresh rate. The touchscreen is responsive. The iconic kickstand propping up the display is still solid. Under the kickstand, you’ll find a compartment protecting the SSD, making hard drive replacements or upgrades easy.

The Surface Pro delivered over eight hours of battery life in my early testing. Microsoft promises up to 10 hours of web browsing. The Surface Pro 9 with Microsoft’s Arm-based SQ3 chip, released in 2022, was billed as having up to 19 hours of battery life, but reviewers found that app compatibility remained problematic. And unlike previous Arm-powered Surface PCs, such as the Surface Pro X from 2019, this model can run a wide assortment of applications, meaning buyers won’t have to make a big compromise on compatibility.

That’s because Microsoft introduced a new emulator called Prism to help these new computers run programs designed for Intel and AMD chips.

The Surface Pro retains its familiar kickstand design.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

Almost daily, developers show off smart software relying on AI models for a range of purposes. Most of the time, the programs use servers in data centers to run difficult processing chores. But increasingly, developers are delegating some processing to users’ phones and computers. A Copilot+ PC should be well suited for this emerging type of software, thanks to a neural processing unit, or NPU. The architecture leads to longer battery life because the rest of the chip can do other work.

Microsoft includes some of its own artificial intelligence features in Windows 11 that draw on the NPU. If you join video calls, you can open the Settings app on the Surface Pro Copilot+ PC and turn on an option called Eye Contact. It will make you appear to be looking right at your webcam during calls, even when you’re reading text. Apple has a similar simulated eye contact feature for FaceTime calls on the iPad.

In Paint, you can enable a Cocreator mode to produce an image inspired by whatever you draw on the screen and using a description you type in. The computer’s NPU spits out the image, but only after Microsoft sends your text prompt to the cloud to make sure you’re not trying to craft something harmful or offensive.

I found it fun to see how Cocreator would interpret my suggestions, but the results were not very impressive. I was better off pressing the Copilot key on the keyboard, which brings up a window for chatting with Microsoft’s Copilot, and asking it to create images in a text chat. But you only have so many free image-generation credits with Copilot before it starts handling requests more slowly, whereas the Paint feature is consistently speedy.

An AC adapter in the box magnetically latches on to Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port. It will be familiar to those who have bought Surface devices in the past decade. But you can also charge with one of the two USB-C ports, which is convenient.

The Surface Pro can be hooked up to three monitors at 4K resolution, while the MacBook Air with an M3 chip can drive a single external display with up to 6K resolution at a 60Hz refresh rate.

There’s no headphone jack on the $999 tablet. Nor does it come with a keyboard, following tradition. After all, an iPad still doesn’t come with a keyboard.

A standard Surface Pro Keyboard that magnetically snaps onto the bottom of the Surface Pro sells for $139.99, and if you’d also like a model with Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, you’ll pay $279.99.

Microsoft sent me its new Surface Pro Flex Keyboard with a Slim Pen included, a bundle that costs $449.98. It’s more expensive than the regular attachable keyboard because it connects over Bluetooth. Microsoft promises 41 hours of continuous typing with the accessory. It charges while attached to the Surface Pro.

For some users, it might be helpful to pull off the keyboard and use it while keeping the tablet a short distance away. I didn’t find the accessory to be a big upgrade from the good old Surface Pro Keyboard.

The Copilot key to the left of the arrow keys brings up a window for chatting with Microsoft’s multipurpose virtual assistant.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

What’s bad

The biggest AI feature coming to this new Surface Pro and other Copilot+ PCs isn’t available yet.

When Microsoft announced Copilot+ PCs in May, executives spent ample time talking about Recall, which will let you type in a few words to search through your PC activity and see matching results. The company delayed the launch and said Recall would be off by default after security researchers found that hackers might be able to get to users’ private data through screenshots the feature captures.

Meanwhile, some applications, including Google Drive and ExpressVPN, still won’t work on these new computers, at least for the moment. And as Windows on Arm gains early traction, there can be times when a traditional version of an app will be available in Microsoft’s app store, but a native Arm version can be found on the developer’s website. (That’s the case with the media player VLC, for example.) But as a rule, software is less of an issue now for Surface PCs sporting long battery life.

And Microsoft has reduced the powers of the Copilot to control your PC on this device, making it similar to just visiting the chatbot on the web. When the company brought Copilot to Windows 11 last fall, the assistant could open programs, switch to dark mode and disable Bluetooth.

It’s easy to replace the solid-state drive on the new Surface Pro.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

Should you buy it?

The 11th edition of the Surface Pro is worth considering, so long as you can be assured that the apps that you need will work on an Arm-based machine. That’s more likely to be true than it was five years ago.

The battery life is good, I like that it’s easy to upgrade and swap out storage and the screen is excellent. It’s a solid upgrade over earlier models. Microsoft made the right decision to move to Arm-based processors. But, the company has been billing this as an “AI PC,” but, for now, the biggest AI features aren’t here yet.

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