Something weird has happened over the past year: I’ve kind of fallen in love with the Surface Pro. After debating its “lapability,” its lack of USB-C ports, and its staid design, I’ve used the Surface Pro 6 on and off as a regular laptop for nearly 12 months now. I’ve been trying to think of why I’ve picked the Surface Pro over the many other laptops I’ve also been testing, and it comes down to a unique mix of hardware. It’s small and light enough to slip into a variety of bags when I travel, and I can transform it into different modes so I can work on trains, planes, and everywhere else. These are all things Surface Pro owners have known for years, it just took me a little longer to discover them myself.
So when I picked up the Surface Pro 7 last week for this review, it felt very familiar. I called the Surface Pro 6 a familiar bet last year, and this time around the Pro 7 is an equally familiar bet. You could now place four year’s worth of Surface Pro devices next to each other, and they’d all look identical. This is yet another minor refresh for the Surface Pro line, and the design I really want on this hardware (slimmer display bezels, rounded edges, and built-in LTE) is coming next month with the Qualcomm-powered Surface Pro X.
Thankfully, Microsoft has finally added USB-C this time around and the performance and general usability has improved as you’d expect with the latest generation processors and hardware. I just wish the Surface Pro 7 looked like a Surface Pro X with an Intel chip inside.
The new Surface Pro 7 starts at $749 this year, which is $150 less than last year’s base model. Microsoft dropped the Intel Core i3 model last year, and bumped the RAM up to a reasonable 8GB. Sadly, this year we’re back to the Core i3 base model with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. I’ve been testing a Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage ($1,199), and it’s hard to recommend a Core i3 model with just 4GB of RAM. For most people, the $899 Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage should be sufficient, providing you’re mostly using cloud storage options. You’ll need to step up to the $1,199 model I’ve been testing for a black variant — the base versions are only available in silver.
Like always with the Surface Pro, the keyboard isn’t bundled so you’ll also need to spend at least $129.99 on a Surface Type Cover. Without it you’re just getting a tablet, and it’s definitely not the primary way you’ll use the Surface Pro 7. Microsoft also sells covers with Alcantara fabric for $159.99, and there are a few new color options this year. I’ve been testing the Poppy Red Type Cover, which looks like a fall mix of red and orange. Combined with the Type Cover, the realistic entry price is $878.99 for the Core i3 model. You can also purchase an optional Surface Pen for $99.99. All told, the rig I’ve been testing tallies up to two pennies shy of $1,360.
Much like the Surface Pro 6, the hardware remains very similar on the outside. The big new addition on the Surface Pro 7 is USB-C. It’s been a long time coming, but sadly it doesn’t include Thunderbolt 3 so it’s limited to USB 3.1 speeds (10Gbps). I’m disappointed Microsoft still hasn’t made the switch to Thunderbolt 3, as the dream of using this as a single machine and hooking it up to an external GPU and monitor just isn’t here yet. The USB-C port does let you hook up an external monitor directly, or you can plug into one of the USB-C docks that have flooded the market to get more ports. Naturally, you can also use this to charge the Surface Pro 7 with the same USB-C charger you use on your Android phone, or to attach accessories. Microsoft still includes its regular Surface Connect magnetic charging port, too so all older chargers and accessories will work just fine.
With most of the hardware unchanged from the outside, it’s really the internals of the Surface Pro 7 that have changed once again this year. Microsoft has placed Intel’s 10th Gen processors inside the Pro 7, and you can pick between a Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 variant. I’ve been using the Surface Pro 6 with an 8th Gen Core i7 over the past year, and I’ve been impressed with its performance. It’s equally impressive here, and the Surface Pro 7 remains silent even during times when I pushed it with some video editing.
I’ve also noticed that instant on seems to finally be working with the Surface Pro 7. I’ve heard promises of being able to stop working and instantly resume hours later in the past but I’ve found that most Surface Pro models simply go into a deep hibernation after just a few hours of not being used. Even the quick resume on the Surface Pro 6 wasn’t always snappy as you’d have to wait for the Windows Hello camera to wake up occasionally. The Surface Pro 7 feels different and far more responsive. Every time I’ve left it for a few hours, it instantly wakes and Windows Hello logs me in before I’ve even got the kickstand fully in position.
On the Surface Pro 6 you have to tap the power button to get it to wake up, but on the Pro 7 it just resumes instantly when you fold open the keyboard. This is a great usability improvement, but it also means Microsoft has tweaked the way this device goes into hibernation. On last year’s Surface Pro 6 it would hold in a standby state for six hours, allowing you to instantly resume. With the Surface Pro 7, it will hold in standby for a massive 72 hours.
The most obvious tradeoff for this constant quick resume feature is battery life. I left the Surface Pro 7 with 86 percent battery life at 11AM one day, and resumed using it nine hours later at 8PM to find it had 80 percent battery left. That’s less than one percent per hour, and definitely worth the small drain tradeoff for instant wake. The Surface Pro 7 also has a quick charge feature, allowing you to get to 80 percent battery life in an hour. I found it takes roughly an hour and 40 minutes to get to full charge from nothing at all.
Speaking of battery life, I haven’t seen any major improvements this generation. On average I’d get around 7 to 8 hours of battery life using a mix of apps like Chrome, Word, Discord, Twitter, Spotify, and more. If I watched more web video, or graphically intensive apps / web pages then this could drop to around 6 hours.
That’s practically the same as my experience with last year’s Surface Pro 6. I’ve been using that device regularly, and it’s mostly enough to cover you for a day of work but you’ll always need the charger with you just in case. I’m hoping the Surface Pro X will offer the ability to not have to carry around a charger as much, and here’s hoping that Microsoft improves the main Pro hardware next time around.
I wrote last year that the Surface Pro deserves a bigger refresh, and it still does. I still love this hardware, and being able to squeeze into a tight train seat and work using full desktop apps is still a big selling point for me. But the Surface Pro X has left me feeling more excited, and it makes the Surface Pro 7 feel even more dated. I want to see a Surface Pro 8 with slimmer bezels, a rounded chassis, built-in LTE, and removable SSDs, all with the power and legacy app compatibility that Intel’s processors provide.
The Surface Pro 7 is still best in class, and it’s undoubtedly the 2-in-1 to beat, but there’s more that Microsoft could do here. I do wonder if Microsoft has been waiting on Intel to get its act together on 10nm and beyond, and perhaps opted for the Surface Pro X design with Qualcomm instead. Either way, the usability of the Surface Pro 7 has certainly improved with quick resume and USB-C this year, but things like the clever Surface Slim Pen that slots into the Type Cover on the Surface Pro X just aren’t here. It’s all too familiar.
The Surface Pro X looks like it’s now attempting to set the stage in terms of raw hardware for competitors to catch up to, and we’ll now need to see if the Pro X can even come close to matching the performance of the Surface Pro 7. That’s highly unlikely, which will leave the Surface Pro 7 needing to catch up to the design of the Surface Pro X next year.
For now, the Surface Pro 7 still offers everything you’d expect from a Surface Pro, but in a hardware package that’s in need of a little attention. I love the versatility of the Surface Pro 7 hardware, but the Surface Pro X represents the future of this 2-in-1. I just wish the future was here now.
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