The “X” moniker has become used to identify hardware that’s a little experimental, a little niche, and usually a little overpriced. In that regard the Surface Pro X owns its name but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. For schools, the SPX might be the most important hardware release of the last few years.
When I saw the Surface Pro X annoucement, I have to admit that I was more than sceptical. Windows 10 running on an ARM processor? Can’t run X86 apps? It costs how much?! That’s not going to work.
I was reminded of the first time I used a Chromebook, almost eight years ago. Nothing about the Chromebook made sense. The processor was slower than the one in my smartphone, the RAM was almost non-existent, storage was a minimal, the screen looked like it was covered in Vaseline, and the worst crime of all: it couldn’t run Windows 7!
The Chromebook shouldn’t have worked, but the eventual low cost, the ease of management and distribution, and the lightweight Chrome OS, made it perfect for schools struggling with cashflow. It wasn’t the device alone which made the difference, it was everything else around it which created such a compelling experience for students and teachers.
That very first Chromebook was a bad device but five years later I had deployed more Chromebooks to students than any other device in my career.
I get that same vibe from the Surface Pro X. This version of the device isn’t right, it’s too expensive, there’s hardware (nano SIM?) that schools don’t currently need, but the design and the concept behind it represents the future of computing in schools. This type of device isn’t ready for the mainstream yet, but everything that makes it promises a bright future for whatever comes of the Surface Pro X.
Let’s talk about the price first, because this is going to be the real hurdle for most people. The starting price — without keyboard or pen — is £999. Once you add the peripherals, which for most people are essential, you’re talking closer to £1300 and you can go all the way up to £2000+ if you want to boost the spec as well. For hundreds less, you can buy a higher specification Surface Pro with keyboard and pen.
This version of the Surface Pro X is expensive, and at this stage I wouldn’t recommend buying it for anything outside of experimentation. It’s what comes next which is really going to define why the SPX is so important in the development of school mobile technology.
The Surface Pro X is a stunning piece of hardware. The body is ultra-slim, the screen is larger with smaller bezels, and there’s even a removable SSD. The whole device is so elegantly thin and light with almost every failing of the Surface Pro line improved upon. You can clearly follow the designer’s thought process from the Surface Pro 7 to the X.
Don’t tell Microsoft, but I’m reminded of Apple hardware design at its peak, unafraid to take necessary risks even if it causes some confusion for the consumer. The Surface Pro X is so similar in design to the iPad Pro, that I’m not even angry. This speaks to a creeping design consensus. It’s a big screen with a tiny bezel, where else can you go?
In my opinion, the Surface Pro X is the first true Windows tablet. It’s sleek enough to sit flush on a table, and the increased screensize makes all the difference replicating an A4 page when writing. You could call the Surface Pro 7 a tablet, but it really isn’t, it’s pretty chunky, has a hard edge which cuts into your hand when using the Microsoft Pen, and it’s not the lightest mobile device ever. I realise that if we jumped back give years, these opinions would be ridiculous, but in 2020 this is true. The Surface Pro X on the other hand is a thing of beauty.
There are two USB-C ports and a volume button on the left side of the machine, with the power button and Surface Connect port in the right. Unfortunately there is no headphone socket or microSD card slot, which is disappointing.
For IT administrators, Microsoft has added a removable SSD tucked away under the kickstand, which makes recovering data and repairing faulty devices even easier.
The Surface Pro X has a 13″ ultra-slim screen, which makes it almost an inch larger than the Surface Pro 7. That doesn’t sound like much, but in use that extra space coupled with the thin body makes all the difference to the writing experience.
The Pro 7 works well as a tablet but it’s never felt quite as natural to use flat on desk or to hold and browse documents. The Pro 7 feels like a laptop stuffed into a laptop form factor. In contrast the Pro X feels like a real tablet. This is the first Windows tablet that I’ve used that really captures the feeling of holding a sheet of paper or a notebook, that has previously been reserved for iPad owners.
Keyboard and Microsoft Pen
Let’s discuss the Slim Pen. The Slim Pen and the way the Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard holds it is genius. A huge problem with the original Surface design, particularly for students, is that the Microsoft Pen, which is not cheap, is very easy to lose. The magnet designed to hold it on to the body of the Surface has never been strong enough to hold the Pen and I can’t tell you how many I’ve lost.
The Surface Pro X solves this problem entirely by creating a neat pocket between the keyboard and the screen for the Pen to sit safely in. If you’re not using the Pen you completely forget it’s there, and yet it’s still completely secure, you can never lose it. Add to this that wireless charging is built into the Pen’s little nest, and you have a stylus which can never be lost and never runs out of charge.
It’s all very clever, which is a good thing, but there is a problem. The pen holder isn’t part of the standard Surface Pro X keyboard, it’s only built in to the Signature Keyboard and Slim Pen Bundle, which costs an additional £260. Similarly, the Surface Slim Pen itself is extremely expensive at £130, however, it does come with a neat wireless charging dock, which is very handy.
Performance & Specification
I don’t usually like to talk specs, user experience trumps all, but in this case I think it’s worth addressing as what’s under the hood really defines the Surface Pro X.
- Screen: 13in LCD 2880×1920 (267 PPI)
- Processor: Microsoft SQ1 (ARM)
- RAM: 8 or 16GB
- Storage: 128, 256 and 512GB
- Graphics: Adreno 685
- Operating system: Windows 10 Home
- Camera: 10MP rear, 5MP front-facing, Windows Hello
- Connectivity: Wifi ac, Bluetooth 5, 2x USB-C, Surface Connect, LTE, nano sim, esim
- Dimensions: 287 x 208 x 7.3mm
- Weight: 774g
The SPX runs a custom ARM processor. x86 and Intel, which power every other Microsoft’s Surface, are out, and instead we have a processor which is most commonly used in smartphones. That’s not entirely fair, for reason’s I’ll come on to later, but the important thing to note is that this Surface doesn’t run standard x86 software. It won’t even run the standard build of Windows 10 or Microsoft Office.
I was really concerned about this but I genuinely haven’t noticed the difference. Every app in the Windows 10 Store I’ve tested works on the SPX, every “old” Windows app I’ve installed has worked, and Microsoft has provided a version of Windows and Office which is identical to the Intel build. Until Adobe and other developers release ARM versions of they software, you’re not going to be running Adobe Premiere on your Surface Pro X, but then you’d be crazy to anyway!
This processor swap has a lot of benefits though, which outweighs the limited software availability. The ARM chip is extremely efficient, which means the Pro X doesn’t need a built in fan. If you’ve used a Surface for any period of time, you’ll understand the frustration when the fan kicks in and drowns out the noise of the students around you. Use of the ARM chip also means that the Pro X can be extremely thin, and it’s this which allows for a lot of the benefits of this tablet.
Likewise, with a more efficient processor comes improved battery life. In my testing the SPX outperforms all other Surfaces, even including the battery packed Surface Book 2.
On paper, ARM chips are on a similar performance level with many traditional laptop x86 processors. But how the Surface Pro X performs is entirely dependent on the program you happen to be using.
The Pro X’s ARM processor sips battery. I’ve comfortably got 10 hours of general use out of my Pro X, and this is a huge improvement on other Surface models.
A great additional to the Surface Pro X is the ability to charge by USB C as well as through the usual dock connector. This makes charging much easier, and it’s great to see this brought across from the Surface Go. Long-term this standard form of charging should make powering devices in school much easier and less costly.
I’ll start out by saying that the Surface Pro X is the best computer I’ve ever used. I don’t mean that it runs Adobe Premiere brilliantly, or that the processor is the most powerful. What I mean is that the experience of using the Pro X on a day to day basis is a delight.
The SPX is the perfect balance between portability and function. When I’m on the go, it’s portable enough to slip into a bag, but the screen size and hardware provide all of the power I need to do day to day work without feeling compromised. When I get into the office, the SPX scales really well. By connecting to a Surface Dock I can have a full desktop experience with just one connector.
If you stick to common Microsoft Applications and the Windows 10 Store, you won’t notice that the SPX is running on an ARM processor. It’s only when you expand outside of this sandbox that you’ll start to have problems with software that is slow or just doesn’t run. In particular I had an issue with Google Chrome, which for many is a standard application, however, with the recently released Chromium version of Microsoft Edge being released, this problem was mostly resolved.
The Surface Pro X works best when combined with Microsoft’s modern desktop experience. If you’re using Microsoft inTune and Microsoft 365 services to build and manage your machines, the SPX is the perfect fit.
The Surface Pro X, like the iPhone X, is ephemeral. The goal isn’t to create a mass market product, it’s to test a new design language and a set of features which will become foundational for Surface devices moving forward. For this reason we likely won’t see a Surface Pro X 2, instead the features which define it (the slim pen, the pen storage, the thin larger screen, the ARM processor) will drip down into the other Surface models, the ones that teachers and students will actually own.