Microsoft Surface Pro X Review: The ghost of Surface yet to come

It’s everything you love about the Surface, but with a bold new vision for the future of Windows PCs

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X has been available in Canada for a while. The Redmond, Washington-based company sent over a review unit a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been using it as my daily driver that whole time. Considering the Pro X’s build, the fact it can handle my daily workflow is impressive, to say the least. To grasp why, you must also understand what makes Pro X unique. For the first time since the original — and not great — Surface RT, the Pro X runs on an ARM chipset. It’s a custom-made bit of silicon birthed from a joint project between Microsoft and Qualcomm. Called the SQ1, it’s inclusion in the Surface Pro X is a testament to how far ARM and Windows have come. The problem is Windows computers have almost always used CPUs from Intel or AMD based on the x86 family of instruction architectures. In other words, almost all the software built to work with Windows was designed to be compatible with x86 processors. Unfortunately, x86 has limits in some areas, such as thermals and power efficiency — things that are increasingly important as we shift into an era of thin, light and always-connected devices. These are areas where ARM processors, typically used in mobile devices like smartphones, potentially offer improvements over x86. Ultimately, it makes sense for PC manufacturers to want to transition to using ARM, especially in lower-cost, more portable devices. However, as the Surface RT demonstrated years ago, Windows and Windows applications don’t play nice with ARM.

Frankly, that’s what makes the Pro X so important. The success of the Pro X isn’t about sales numbers or rave reviews — it’s about the future of Windows and the future of Surface. On one side, Google’s Chrome OS is squeezing Microsoft in some markets. Thanks to its simplicity, Chrome OS doesn’t need much hardware to perform well. Chromebooks dominate the lower end of the portable computing market, as well as key areas like education where it’s easy and cost-effective to deploy large volumes of Chrome-powered laptops. On the other side, you’ve got Microsoft’s imminent future. Later this year, the company plans to launch the Surface Duo and Neo, an Android-powered folding smartphone and a new foldable laptop/tablet hybrid running the yet-to-be-released Windows 10X. Although the Neo is supposed to run Intel’s Lakefield chip, Microsoft will likely update the hardware before the official launch. At least the Duo will sport an ARM chip — and potentially both devices if Microsoft changes its mind. Windows and ARM needs to happen, and the Pro X is proof it can.

Beyond the above changes, the Pro X is really just like any other Surface. It’s impressively portable — but a bit of pain to use on your lap — and great for drawing or jotting down notes. It features Microsoft’s Windows Hello facial recognition for quickly unlocking the device, and the webcam is serviceable, but you won’t be taking great photos with it. Further, the Pro X includes 2W stereo Dolby Audio speakers that sound fine. They get plenty loud and are clear, but also are nothing to get excited about. An interesting tidbit is that the Pro X includes an eSIM and support for LTE connectivity, courtesy of the SQ1. That means Pro X users can connect their device to cellular services for working on-the-go. Of course in Canada, support for eSIM isn’t great. From the ‘Mobile Plans’ app on the Pro X, I can purchase eSIM data from GigSky or Ubigi, but the costs are quite high. At the moment, it appears you can’t connect it with actual Canadian carriers since those that support eSIM ask users to scan a QR code with their device to initiate the connection. There doesn’t appear to be an option to do that with the Mobile Plans app on the Pro X — hopefully, that changes in the future.