Microsoft Surface Pro X Review: Is The Future ARM-Based?

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is thin, great looking, and it costs an arm and leg. It also runs on ARM chips. But not like Windows RT – this is different, apparently…

If you were going to drop $1000/£1000 on a tablet (OK, hybrid) device that didn’t run on X86 chip architecture most, I think, would be looking at the iPad Pro. It has a rich ecosystem, the best in its class, a powerful ARM chipset, it works with a stylus (Apple Pencil), and it now has trackpad and mouse support, thanks to iOS 14.

Or, for the same money (maybe even a little more), you could get Microsoft’s Surface Pro X – a sort of hybrid, tablet/laptop device that runs on ARM chips and cannot run legacy X86 software.

Why would anyone do this? Surely, you’d be better off with the Surface Pro 7, a device that runs Intel chips and works just like a standard laptop (but can also do all the same tablet stuff that the Surface Pro X can do).

This is the question I’ve been asking myself as I tested out both the Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Pro X. And I still don’t really have an answer because, as always: it all really hinges on what you want to do with the device. If you want to run things like Photoshop and video editing software, the Surface Pro X is not a good option. Not yet, anyway…

In order to give you a better idea of how this machine fits in with the hundreds of other devices vying for your attention, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the unknown elements of the Surface Pro X in more detail.

And we might as well start with the bad…

Microsoft Surface Pro X Review – “The Bad” Stuff

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No X86 Applications or Software

If you want to run any applications or software that is designed for use on X86 chips (Intel and/or AMD ones), the Surface X Pro will struggle. Microsoft has developed an X86 emulator of sorts which you can use to run things like Photoshop, for instance, but performance is laughable when compared to even a moderately specced X86 laptop. For this reason, if you’re using the Surface X Pro, you’ll want to limit your work-load/activities to cloud-based software and “official” apps from the Windows Store.

For many, myself included, this is the real deal-breaker for the Surface X Pro concept. Yes, it looks fantastic, and, yes, it performs great when it’s running in its designated envelope, but step outside of this narrow corridor and you’ll be left hanging. And that, for many, will be a little too off-putting given the price of this machine.

So what is the Surface X Pro for then? I like to think of it as a Chromebook, only the Surface X Pro is a lot more useful because it runs all of Microsoft’s core applications, Windows 10 (on ARM), and, providing you’re not reliant on X86 applications and software, it can work great in your day-to-day life. In fact, I think I am the kind of user that the Surface X Pro is being aimed at.

I work from home, all of my “core” applications (like 90% of them) run on the cloud, and I seldom use things like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Instead, I spend my time running web apps like Slack and using Chrome to access WordPress and edit and upload content. For me, the Surface X Pro kinda works. It’s only when you start getting a little more serious with respect to software that things start to fall apart…

But this isn’t the point of the Surface X Pro; it’s not designed for gaming or running intensive apps like Final Cut Pro or Photoshop. Instead, it’s designed for on-the-move work (this is why it comes with 4G). It’s meant to be used as a mobile work station that you can take anywhere, use easily, and get stuff done – things like creating documents, browsing the web, interacting with people via Teams, and all that lovely stuff.

It is not a desktop-grade PC, and nor does it pretend to be. This machine is basically the iPad Pro for Windows users. At least, I think that’s what Microsoft is going for here. It’s not a straight-up tablet, but it can be, and it’s not a straight-up laptop, although it can be. Rather, it is a hybrid device that sits somewhere between a tablet (like the iPad Pro) and a desktop PC. It’s built to be used when you’re away from your main computer, and in this context, it works brilliantly.

Surface Pro X Ports 

When it comes to ports, the Surface Pro X is more MacBook than a traditional Windows 10 laptop. You basically have two USB Type-C Gen 2 ports which can be used for both charting and outputting the display to an external monitor. There is no USB Type-A and there is no Thunderbolt 3, either. This a pretty spartan setup for a Windows machine but you can get around its limitations with a dongle or two.

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One thing I was gutted about, however, is that the Surface Pro X does not have a headphone jack. Why? I have no idea. It seems silly not to include a 3.5mm headphone jack on a device that can also be used as a tablet. There’s more than enough room for one too. This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, as I switched to wireless headphones years ago, but it is definitely worth noting as plenty of people want headphone jacks on their laptops and tablets.

It’s More Expensive Than Intel-Powered Surface Pro 7…

The Surface X Pro starts from £999.99 and gets more expensive from there once you start adding in more storage and memory. The Surface X Pro tops out at £1819 with 16GB of memory and 512GB of storage. My review model was the mid-tier 8GB RAM/256GB model which retails for £1269.

Add in Office 365 and that’ll bump things up by £59.99.

Surface Pro X Specs:

  • CPU: 3.0GHz Microsoft SQ1 (based on Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx; octa-core)
  • Graphics: Qualcomm Adreno 680 GPU
  • RAM: 16GB LPDDR4x (2,133MHz)
  • Screen: 13-inch 2,880 x 1,920 (267 ppi) PixelSense display (3:2; 450 nits)
  • Storage: 256GB SSD
  • Ports: 2 x USB-C 3.1; Surface Connect port; nano SIM slot
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac); Bluetooth 5.0; Snapdragon X24 LTE modem
  • Cameras: 5.0MP webcam (1080p video; Windows Hello); 10.0MP rear camera (1080p/4K video; autofocus)
  • Weight: 1.7 pounds ( 774g)
  • Size: 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.28 inches (287x 208 x 7.3 mm; W x D x H)

And then you have the fact that Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 retails for considerably less (prices start at £799). The Surface Pro 7 also runs Intel chips, so you can basically run anything on it natively – including enterprise applications and things like Photoshop. And it’s £200 cheaper…

How much is the new iPad Pro? You can pick up the base model iPad Pro for £769 or the larger iPad Pro for £869. That gets you 128GB or 256GB of storage, respectively. Add in things like a keyboard and trackpad and the Apple Pencil and, once again, you’re well over £1000. This means both the Surface X Pro and iPad Pro cost around the same to buy.

Yes, both are expensive. But I wouldn’t say they’re overly expensive – this is how much tech costs these days, for better or worse. And given a choice between the two, I would almost certainly take a Surface X Pro over the iPad Pro. And the reason is simple: Windows 10 (even on ARM) is much better for working than iOS 14, Apple’s latest software update.

You have Microsoft’s full suite of applications. You have better file management. You have all the trappings of Windows 10, basically, and this makes it a far more suitable work machine whichever way you slice it. Apple’s iPad can now be used as a laptop, it supports keyboards and a mouse, but it still doesn’t “feel” like a laptop when you’re using it; it still feels like a tablet with a few new tricks.

The UX of Windows 10 lends itself better to working, whereas iOS 14, despite some impressive changes, still feels very much like a phone operating system. Apple ONLY just added trackpad and mouse support (and even now, it’s not ideal, whereas the Surface X Pro works just like a laptop). For work, you’re going to get A LOT more done with the Surface X Pro than the iPad Pro.

The only real question you need to ask yourself here is whether you’d be better off with the Intel-powered (and cheaper) Surface Pro 7? Having used both machines side by side for a few weeks, I think I’d be leaning more towards the Surface Pro 7 purely from a utility perspective because it does everything the Surface X Pro does just with the limitations of Windows 10 on ARM. However, I do find myself gravitating towards the Surface Pro X more and more. And the reason is how it performs (more on this in a bit though)…

The Surface Pro X Keyboard is Too Expensive

If you’re going to use the Surface X Pro like a proper laptop, you will need to buy the Surface X Pro Signature Keyboard (it comes with a stylus too) and that, sadly, will cost you an additional £259.99 on top of the £1000+ you just spent on the machine itself. All in, and without Office 365 subscription, you’re looking at £1259.99 for a Surface X Pro with a keyboard. And you will need a keyboard too.

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Is the keyboard good? Yes, it’s fine – but it is NOT £259.99 good. It’s no way near that good. For that price, I’d expect some of the best typing experiences of my life. That didn’t happen. Instead, the typing experience is average at best. Had Microsoft priced this around £99.99, I’d be singing its praises from the rooftops but it didn’t. Instead, it took an accessory that is essential to the functionality of this product and jacked the price up to a truly ungodly level in order to make some bank.

Poor form, Microsoft.

The Good Stuff – Why I Like The Surface Pro X 

We’ve gone over the kinda-bad and generally bad stuff, so now it’s time to look at some of the really cool things about the Surface X Pro. The stuff that makes it stand out from the crowd and the things that I enjoyed most about using it over the past several weeks.

The Design is Great

The Surface X Pro is super-slim and it has really small bezels, so when you place it next to the Surface Pro 7 it does look a lot more sophisticated. It’s also slimmer and light too. The Surface X Pro’s exact dimensions are as follows: 287 mm x 208 mm x 7.3 mm, and it weighs in at just 774g, making it both lighter and slimmer than the Surface Pro 7.

If you’ve ever used a Surface machine before, you’ll know about the kickstand on the back. It’s brilliant, allowing you to quickly change the angle of the display, making the transition from desk to knee really easy. The industrial design on display here is really top-draw stuff, too. Microsoft really knows what it’s doing when it comes to creating gorgeous, professional-looking machines

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The Surface X Pro is only available in black, ditto the keyboard too, and that’s fine because it looks really good in black. It is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, so make sure you clean your hands before unboxing it or else you’ll cover the back of the device in ugly fingerprint smudges as I did. In the hand and on the desk, the Surface X Pro looks every bit a premium laptop. It’s portable, yet functional. Understated, yet engaging.

You have a few buttons for power on/off and volume control, a front-facing camera that can be used as a biometric to access the computer, and it is thin, lightweight, and it does not have any internal cooling fans (again, thanks to its ARM-based chipset). The full package, with keyboard and mouse, is a beautiful thing to behold; it’s as classy as anything Apple has made and it performs like a monster in the right context.

I’ve always liked Microsoft’s Surface line of laptops and I think the Surface Pro X is the machine that Microsoft has always wanted to make. It’s the most portable Surface you can buy and it feels extremely solid in the hand. As a laptop, it’s also brilliant, thanks to the keyboard and stylus combination which makes it ideal for all kinds of users, although those that will benefit most are current Windows users that want something more portable for on the move work and productivity.

Awesome Display

The Surface Pro X’s display is a 13in PixelSense touchscreen panel with a 2880 x1920 resolution. Brightness comes in at 450 nits – impressively bright. The aspect ratio is 3:2 and it has super-thin bezels compared to the Surface Pro 7. The color is spot-on and everything from text to video looks positively sumptuous on it. In this context, I have zero complaints.

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The touchscreen is responsive and simple to use. The stylus works great with the display as well; there’s zero lag and you can use the pen to interact with menus and take notes. The complete package is very impressive, especially when compared to the Surface Pro 7, which feels kind of blocky and chunky in comparison with its fat bezels and less colorful panel.

Performance & Microsoft SQ1 Processor

A lot of reviewers have been making a lot of noise about Microsoft’s decision to use its own, custom SQ1 processor inside the Surface Pro X. Developed with Qualcomm, the SQ1 processor is an ARM-based SoC that features a 3.0GHz Microsoft SQ1 CPU that is based on Qualcomm’s octa-core 8cx platform. You have an Adreno 680 GPU alongside it, as well as an on-chip 4G modem for handling LTE data.

This isn’t an X86 chip and, yes, this does create some problems. However, Windows 10 runs like a freakin’ dream on this processor. The performance is great, apps load instantly, and the core operations feel more stable than ever. I was dubious ahead of the concept prior to testing, but after more than several weeks of usage, I can honestly say I am super impressed by what Microsoft has done here.

The SQ1 processor, when used inside its designated operating window, appears to be faster than the Intel chip used inside the Surface Pro 7. Remember: I’ve been using both of these machines side-by-side, and the Surface Pro X does feel quicker and snappier than the Surface Pro 7. It also feels more stable. I don’t get WiFi drop-outs on the Surface Pro X, whereas on the Surface Pro 7 it happens daily.

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Benchmarks tell a slightly different story; the Surface Pro X is about the same as the Surface Pro 7, but I always prefer to go on actual user-experience and in this case the Surface Pro X feels quicker to me, more responsive, and generally snappier at running web-based apps and Microsoft’s core suite of productivity tools like Office and Teams.

You can also do things like output to a 4K display with the Surface Pro X and graphical performance on the SQ1 processor is 2X that of Intel’s eighth-generation Core processor from 2017/18. To put that into context, the Surface Pro X has about 3X performance per watt than Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6. And if that wasn’t enough to wet your whistle, it is way more power efficient because it uses ARM-based silicon, so much so that is doesn’t even require a cooling fan.

Overall, general performance is excellent. If you’re using this machine correctly, you will not experience any issues. Web-based stuff loads in an instant and applications designed to run on Microsoft’s SQ1 platform are handled with ease.

X86 applications are a problem, yes, but Microsoft has designed this machine for people that don’t rely heavily on X86 applications – it’s not a gaming machine or a traditional work machine; it’s a lightweight device that is designed for the “modern worker” which I’m going to assume means someone that predominantly works in the cloud and online.

The Surface Pro X Can Run on 4G via LTE SIM-Slot

Public WiFi not only sucks, but is actually kind of risky to use. In order to work on the move, you need a reliable internet connection, so to solve this Microsoft has added a SIM-card slot on the Surface Pro X, so you can run 4G on it when you’re on the move.

You can pick up a range of very cheap SIM-only deals that will net you unlimited data. Three offers one for just £11 a month (although this is a limited time deal). If you get this, you can run your Surface Pro X laptop pretty much anywhere and never even have to think about using a public WiFi network or tethering to your phone.

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It’s not a major deal-breaker, or so I thought, but once I started using it regularly I don’t think I could go back to NOT having 4G on my laptop; it’s just so useful, especially if you do a lot of travel. The Surface Pro X really comes into its own in airports, hotels, and coffee shops.

Also, it’s worth noting that you DO NOT have to use this feature; it’s totally optional. But even though an extra SIM is another monthly cost on top of your existing mobile bill, I think it is 100% worth it – especially if you can get a good deal like Three’s Unlimited Plan (currently only £11 a month).

Alternatively, you can sign up for an eSIM via Microsoft’s store and use that instead. Either way, you’re covered for on-the-go LTE connectivity. Oh, and the LTE modem is a word-modem, so it’ll work anywhere in the world.

The Unknown Stuff – Things To Keep In Mind…

This is a long review, I know. But we’re near the end now. The last part of the review is composed of things I’m not sure about, things I think Microsoft needs to work on, execute better, or change in order to make this type of device viable.

Apps & Software

The elephant in the room here is obviously the X86 problem. Microsoft’s SQ1 processor will not run any legacy apps built for Intel or AMD chips. You can emulate them but that is not something you’ll want to do; performance is lumpy and it makes you feel sad, especially if you’re using intensive applications like those from Adobe’s creative suite.

The big question here, however, is this: how much longer will this be a problem? Apple’s iPad Pro runs on ARM, it has millions of users, and Adobe has even said that it is working on ARM-compatible versions of its applications, so this issue – at least with respect to Adobe – could become a none issue very soon.

As ARM-powered machines like the Surface Pro X and iPad Pro become more popular, with more and more people using them for work, developers will simply have to create ARM versions of their apps. And while this may be a slow process, once it happens, machines like the iPad Pro and Surface Pro X will become infinitely more attractive.

ARM machines aren’t going anywhere. They’re more power efficient, cheaper to make and allow for thinner designs. On top of this, firms like Apple and Microsoft can create their own custom chips designed specifically to optimize every element of their respective platforms. This is why ARM MacBooks will happen. It is also why Microsoft is now investing in ARM-powered laptops like the Surface Pro X.

Bottom line? X86 compatibility is a problem right now, and this makes the Surface Pro X unsuitable for some users, but this issue – given time and market pressures – will inevitably fade away. By 2021, who knows, we could be seeing all major X86 applications and software running on ARM? Given the success of Apple’s iPad, this is no longer a question of if but when…

Probably Too Expensive For Most

The biggest issue with the Surface Pro X, meaning the one that will put most people off buying one, is the price. Coming in north of £1200 for the full kit, the Surface Pro X is a very expensive piece of kit – it’s a good £200/£300 more expensive than the Surface Pro 7. And for a machine that doesn’t properly run X86 apps, that might be too big an ask for many potential users.

However, you have to put that price into context. The iPad Pro is nearly as expensive, for instance, and I’d argue the Surface Pro X is a far more useful machine from a working and productivity perspective – Windows 10 is always going to beat iOS when it comes to functionality, productivity, and “boring” things like file management and productivity tools.

For this reason, I think the price of the Surface Pro X, while expensive, is pretty much in-line with current market rates. The only area where I think Microsoft has gone slightly overboard with the pricing is with the Surface Pro X’s keyboard; it’s just way too expensive for what it is. Had Microsoft retailed it for $99.99 or even $150, this would have saved the company a lot of issues with complaints about the device being too expensive because $999 for the machine itself is pretty bang on.

Should You Buy The Surface Pro X?

Given all of the above, is the Surface Pro X worth it? After spending four weeks testing this device, using it as my daily driver for work and play, I can tell you that it is a very impressive piece of technology. It has come everywhere with me and it hasn’t missed a beat during my month of testing. It’s fast, slim and lightweight, and packed full of utility.

It doesn’t run X86 applications or software, but I seldom use these anyway, so for me, this is a non-issue. If you use A LOT of X86 applications or software, this machine obviously isn’t for you – not yet, anyway. It’s also not a gaming machine either. But, again, I don’t game, so this is another non-issue for me.

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If you work predominantly in the cloud or on the web, the Surface Pro X is a near-perfect machine. It looks gorgeous, it’s massively powerful, and it comes with the ability to run LTE on it. Add in Windows 10 functionality and a gorgeous 13in display and you’re looking at one hell of a setup, even with its X86 issues.

For me, the ideal user of the Surface Pro X is someone that has a desktop PC but wants something portable for on the go working. They don’t need X86 applications like Photoshop and do most of their work on the web or via the cloud. If you’re somebody like this, the Surface Pro X is not only a solid option but also one I’d highly recommend.

For everybody else, and I think this is the majority of people right now, you’ll be better off with something that runs Intel or AMD for the moment. Just don’t make the mistake of writing off ARM laptops just yet because these devices are here to stay and, one day in the not too distant future, they will become the norm – both for Apple and Windows.

Best Price | Microsoft Store | $999.99/£999.99

Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin is a leading UK technology journalist with a focus on consumer tech trends and data security. Renowned for his insightful analysis, Richard has contributed to Sky News, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2, and CNBC, making complex tech issues accessible to a broad audience.

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