Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) review: Great machine, but less relevant than ever

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) review

There’s one word you will rarely hear from Microsoft when it talks about the new Surface Pro: “tablet”. Yes, if you take off the Type Cover (or just don’t buy it), the Surface Pro looks and feels very much like a tablet. But Microsoft doesn’t want you to think of it like that. It wants you to think of it as a laptop.

That’s possibly down to how people used previous Surface Pros in the real world. When you see one in public, you’ll almost always see it being used with the Type Cover attached, like a regular laptop. Occasionally you’ll see someone bring out the pen to mark up a PDF or sketch something. But most of the time there’s typing going on.

Surface Pro 2017 review: Design and display

And that won’t change anytime soon. In fact, if you’ve seen the Surface Pro 3 or 4, then you’ve seen the 2017 Surface Pro. Design-wise, there’s very little difference between them and you’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences if you put them side-by-side. The “PixelSense” screen is the same size (12.3in across the diagonal), adopts the same practical 3:2 aspect ratio as before and has the same resolution – 2,736 x 1,824.

 It performs just as well, too, reaching 442cd/m2 maximum brightness and delivering a cracking contrast ratio of 1,297:1 for solid, pleasing onscreen imagery. Colour accuracy is superb, with no particular weaknesses and an average Delta E of 1.26, which is superb. Delta E is a measure of the inaccuracy of a display’s representation of various colours is, so the lower the score, the better. It is used to determine how the eye distinguishes between colour difference. ‘Delta’ comes from mathematics, meaning change in a variable or function. The letter E is from the German word Empfindung, which translates roughly to sensation.

By comparison, what is effectively Microsoft’s main rival for its Surface Pro 2017, Apple’s iPad Pro, has a 2,732 x 2,048 resolution on its larger display (80.3 sq inches versus 69.8). This leaves the two tablets with roughly similar pixel densities of 267 PPI and 264 PPI respectively. 

A month after the device went on sale, customers began complaining about bleeding backlights. Reports vary from device to device, depending on the quality of the panel, and Micorsoft is yet to comment on the defect. 

One change that was expected by some, but hasn’t made an appearance, is USB Type-C support. The Surface Pro has the same ports as its predecessor: mini-DisplayPort, USB, and the Surface connector for power. The lack of USB Type-C feels short-sighted, although Panos Panay’s quip that it is currently “for people who like dongles” is right enough.

As with previous versions of Surface Pro, what you get in the box is just a tablet. You’ll need to pay extra to get the Surface Type Cover and, now, the Surface Pen, which previously came in the box with all but the cheapest model. The Type Cover is now an excellent keyboard in its own right, with keys that have a positive click to them and a small but perfectly usable and responsive touchpad.

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The hinge has changed a little, though. It’s now like the hinge on the Surface Studio and can be pushed down to an almost-flat 165 degrees, which is a comfortable angle for drawing. You might think this would make it easier to break as you lean on it more, but I had a decent go at pushing it down hard (sorry Microsoft), and it took the weight happily. I wouldn’t jump on it, or sit on it, but it’s robust.

The Surface Pen has had a good upgrade, too, now supporting tilt in the same way Apple’s Pencil does. This means you get a much more pencil-like experience when doing things such as shading. It’s also had its response time improved – down to 21ms – which should mean most people will never spot any lag.

Pressure sensitivity is now up to 4,096 levels alongside a 12g activation force that means you can press harder on screen. By comparison, the Bamboo Sketch offers 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity. Microsoft claims some particularly smart technology enables this: effectively, the Surface Pen communicates directly with the Surface Pro’s display hardware to draw. As you would expect, this works with Microsoft’s applications, but it’s also available via an API for developers to build in support for their own software.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Surface Pro form factor remain the same as always. The Surface Pro isn’t a device you’ll use on your lap unless you have unusually long thighs. At 5ft 8in and on the stumpy side, trying to put the Surface Pro on my lap at any angle other than almost vertical is impossible.

Surface Pro 2017 performance and battery life

Microsoft pitches the Surface Pro’s performance as above the Surface Laptop and below the Surface Book with Performance Base and, although we’ve yet to benchmark the Performance Base, this sounds correct. The dual-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7660U model we looked at delivered an overall score of 60 in our in-house benchmarks, which puts it in the top echelon of machines around 13in. It’s faster than the Surface Laptop, which achieved a score of 49. The Surface Pro 4, as a comparison, runs on a dual-core 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 (6th Gen) 6300U.

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What this means in practice is that the Surface Pro will be more than good enough for everyone except the most demanding of users. If you are thinking of doing CAD/CAM work on it, you’ll need to go for the top spec, but a Core i5 version will be okay for most users.

And, whichever version you’re using, you’ll be able to use it all day without plugging in power. In our battery benchmark, the Surface Pro lasted 11hrs 33mins, which is one of the best scores we’ve seen for an Intel Kaby Lake Core i7-based machine and a vast improvement over the 5hrs 56mins we got in the same test for the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft has made a real all-day machine here, which is great.

Surface Pro 2017 price

The version we reviewed, with a dual-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7660U, a 512GB SSD and 16GB of RAM (at the time we reviewed it) would have set you back a slightly eye-watering £2,149, and that doesn’t include either the Type Cover (£149) or Surface Pen (£99). As you’ll probably want both, this added £248. Yes, if you want this machine fully loaded, you’re going to pay £2,397, which is a lot of money. You can get a cheaper model – running Intel Core m3, 128GB SSD and 4GB RAM – for a much cheaper £799 but the performance and battery life will be lower as a result. That’s the model I’d recommend most people buy.

For almost exactly £1,000 less than Microsoft’s top-end Surface Pro 2017, you could buy a very similarly specified Dell XPS 13. That’s without a touchscreen, pen support and so on, but if you’re looking for something that will primarily be a laptop, it’s a much better deal.

Thankfully, the Core i5 model is much more reasonable, starting at £979 (£1,227 including the Surface Pen and Type Cover, 128GB storage and 4GB RAM) making it cheaper without having to sacrifice too much on specifications. 

Surface Pro 2017 review conclusions

I’ve used the Surface Pro series since the third generation, and there’s no doubt this Surface Pro is the best one yet. It has good performance and great battery life and, because it’s both a tablet and a laptop, it’s a very versatile machine.

However, I’m less sure you should buy one than I’ve ever been with any prior Surface Pro. Why? Partly, I think it’s because the Surface Laptop now exists and for many of the people who wanted a Microsoft-branded, well-designed machine, the laptop is a better option. If you want the best performance and only occasionally use tablet features, the Surface Book with Performance Base is a better option. If you primarily want a tablet, then the combination of an iPad Pro (running Office) and a cheaper Windows laptop is also a better option.

The market for the Surface Pro feels like it’s shrinking. That doesn’t make the Surface Pro any less of an excellent machine, and Microsoft is to be complimented for pushing the envelope on what’s possible in this form factor but, for most people, it’s probably not the best option anymore.

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