When Apple unveiled the iPad in 2010, Steve Jobs presented the tablet as a third device that we could carry along with a computer and smartphone.
Years later, Microsoft responded with a radically different approach: It designed its Windows operating system to work on personal computers and tablets at the same time so that we could have both devices in one product.
Microsoft’s vision of a two-in-one tablet PC has now crystallized with the $1,000 Surface Pro X, which arrives in stores this week.
The 13-inch tablet attaches to a keyboard to convert into a laptop. It is Microsoft’s latest Surface to include a so-called ARM processor, a type of power-efficient chip used in many mobile devices, enabling apps to open more quickly and the battery to last longer. It also includes cellular connectivity to work with data plans offered by carriers like Verizon and AT&T.
The result is Microsoft’s first tablet PC with the thinness, quietness, elongated battery life, snappy speeds and wireless capabilities of a smartphone or tablet. That’s unlike past Surface products that felt more like PCs with touch screens. So it’s progress.
Yet after testing the Surface Pro X for several days, it did not feel fully baked — especially as a tablet.
There are many aspects of Windows that still feel uncomfortable to use with touch controls. Some important apps that people rely on for work have also not yet been programmed to work for this ARM-based computer, which could stifle productivity.
I found this out by locking my laptop in my office desk drawer and relying on the Surface Pro X as my main computing device for several days while also testing Apple’s iPad Pro, the product’s main rival.
In the end, I probably wouldn’t replace my laptop with either device, for different reasons. Here’s why.
Surface Pro’s pros and cons
The Surface Pro X is an elegant, well-designed product with highs and lows.
Let’s start with the positives. For one, battery life is excellent: Microsoft promises 13 hours of battery life, and I used the Surface Pro X for two days before needing to plug it in.
The keyboard, which doubles as a protective cover for the screen, felt sturdy and nice to type on. It was not as tactile as a normal laptop keyboard, but close enough.
The keyboard easily attached to the screen with strong magnets, and above the keys was a nifty cradle to hold and recharge the device’s digital pen. Below the keys was a roomy trackpad for controlling the mouse. To me, the keyboard was the most important feature when it came to getting work done on a PC, and this was where the Surface Pro X excelled.
My gushing stopped as soon as the keyboard came off.
In tablet mode, the Surface Pro X was awkward to use. It felt heavy to hold in one hand — the bulk comes, in part, from a metal flap on the back of the device, which can be unfolded to make the screen stand upright.
The software was the biggest problem. When you use the device as a tablet, Windows doesn’t properly adapt to become a touchable operating system. Important elements, like the search icon or “X” button to close windows, remained tiny and difficult to tap with a fingertip. Web browser tabs appeared to be jammed into the top of the screen.
At heart, while Windows was designed to be a two-in-one experience, it is still a PC operating system with some flawed tablet features. Microsoft said that it had heard feedback from people on the Windows interface and that it was continuing to improve its software for tablet use.
Another downside is that some important apps were not compatible with this ARM-based computer. Dropbox, the online storage service that I rely on every day for work, doesn’t fully function on the Surface Pro X. Adobe was still working to make some of its creativity apps, like Photoshop, work with this special version of Windows.
The device does work well, however, with Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based versions of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.
How will you know which of your apps will work with the Surface Pro X? There’s no simple method short of doing a web search on app compatibility with this product.
Microsoft said it offered a tool to help people choose a Surface device based on their lifestyle and the type of work they do. For example, the tool steers creative users who rely on Adobe apps toward the Surface Book 2 and the Surface Pro 7, which can run a broader set of apps because of their PC chip architecture.
How Surface Pro compares with iPad Pro
The closest competitor to the Surface Pro X is the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the premium version of Apple’s tablet that works with optional styluses and keyboards. To make comparisons, I tested an iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil.
As a tablet, the iPad Pro was superior to the Surface Pro X’s tablet mode in every way. The iPad Pro’s body was more comfortable to hold. The software system was designed to work with your fingertips: App icons were nice and large, and swipe gestures acted as shortcuts to close apps and return to the home screen. The Apple Pencil magnetized to the side of the iPad, which replenished the pen’s power.
But Apple’s Smart Keyboard, which attached to the tablet with magnets, felt inferior to the Surface Pro X’s keyboard. It was light and thin, which made typing on the keys feel flimsy. Fortunately, there were plenty of third-party iPad Pro keyboards that were bulkier but felt more like normal keyboards.
One other note: I have owned an older iPad Pro for several years, but it has never come close to replacing my laptop. Other than my neuroses about keyboards, the deal-breaker was the multitasking interface. I just can’t get the hang of juggling several apps on an iPad when doing work; I’d rather toggle between multiple windows on a computer using a mouse and keyboard.
The bottom line
Over all, the Surface Pro X is a neat product. In the coming years, we can expect more PCs to adopt mobile computing processors and the strengths of our smartphones and tablets.
The Surface Pro will appeal mostly to those who want to live on the bleeding edge of tech. But for everyone else, there’s no rush to buy. The device will be more mature once Microsoft improves Windows to be better suited for tablet use. It will also be a safer purchase after more staple apps are guaranteed to work with the device.
At $1,000, the Surface Pro X is expensive. The keyboard and stylus, which are must-buys to get the most out of this tablet, drive the price up to $1,270. For that much money, you could get a great laptop and a separate tablet. For most people, that’s probably still the way to go.
At home with the Surface Pro and iPad Pro, I ultimately found myself wanting to reach for the iPad Pro more often to check email, browse the web and watch videos. When it came to work tasks, I yearned for a normal computer.
That was abundantly clear when I faced a tight deadline for writing this review of the Surface Pro. Instead of using the Surface to type this out, I returned to the office to write on a PC.