Review: Microsoft Surface Pro laptop

Another year, another release of the Surface Pro. This time, the most obvious change is the lack of a number on the end of the name – Surface Pro 5? Nobody here by that name.
Take a good look at the new Surface Pro, and it becomes apparent why the whole “generational update” thing has been played-down. At first glance, the new SP is identical to the SP4. 

External differences are subtle. The cooling vent around the top edge is no longer broken by little struts or vanes. The stand folds back further, allowing the tablet to lay almost flat on the desk. There’s an extra sensor beside the camera. And that’s about it. For the real changes, we need to go inside that slim-but-still-angular case.

This review unit is top-of-the-line in all specs except storage. It has the i7-7660U which can hit 4.0GHz, 16GB RAM and 512GB of storage on a NVMe SSD. So that’s a Kaby Lake dual-core CPU, faster SSD, and also more powerful integrated graphics via Intel’s Iris Plus 540.

Normally at this point, we’d note how the new CPU has a smaller fabrication process, and better TDP, and how this means the new Surface Pro runs cooler and quieter and gets better battery life.

But the Kaby Lake CPUs are 14nm just like Skylake, and the i7 has the same TDP of 15W. Indeed, performance increases are all about graphics – but that improvement is substantial. 

The simplest way to put it is to say the new Surface Pro performs about as well as the Surface Book, which has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M… and only when docked to the keyboard.

Of course, get into a heavy Witcher 3 session, and the Surface Pro will ramp up its fan to reduce thermal load.

It will also reduce CPU clock – Microsoft says performance can drop by up to 20% under heavy thermal load. And does that little fan roar? Oh yes, it roars.

But it roars to a lesser degree than we found even with the i5 version of the Surface Pro 4. That little beast is quite outspoken, in that just 15 minutes or so of YouTube or data crunching will make it start hissing away…

The good news for owners of the new i5 Surface Pro, is that a redesign of the thermal system allows the machine to run fanless. Hurrah for progress!

Other changes are even more subtle. The new chips support a wider colour space, and an enhanced colour mode for the otherwise identical display. There’s also that extra sensor next to the camera, which boosts the response speed of Windows Hello.

The new Type Cover keyboard loses the Insert key, but is otherwise difficult to tell apart from the fourth-gen version.

It all adds up to a solid upgrade over the SP4, but as long as Microsoft still offers the older machine, this next-gen flagship might remain a difficult sell.

This is a premium ultraportable with a premium price. As-tested, the 512GB, i7 Surface Pro costs a positively face-melting $3,299. And that’s without Surface Pen or Type Cover. Yes, you get much better graphics and a few display tweaks, but great as these improvements are, do they add up to the $538 premium over the equivalent i7 SP4 ($2761)? This writer humbly submits: aw HELL no.

As with any Surface release, we encountered the usual issues around connecting to an external 4K screen (running at true 4K was… difficult) and other oddities like the left-click function disappearing after the machine was left on overnight.

Updates are coming thick and fast, and to be fair we’ve had far fewer than the traditional number of “crash on sleep” or “crash on screen rotation” bugs that plagued other Surfaces for the first few weeks.

Subjectively, the biggest improvement we’ve found is the way the SP runs quieter for everyday work. Yes, it’s louder when gaming (and it actually plays games, so there’s that too), but for work and even a little Netflix, the fan stays either off or well below audible levels.

Apart from that, the new Surface Pro is the same shape and weight as the SP4. It has the same display (with slightly better graphics) and it performs the same except for graphics. It costs a lot more. Oh, and it supports the Surface Dial.

This means it’s still the best Windows “tablet” you can buy, and if you don’t mind the form factor, the best ultraportable PC.

But the price premium is very steep.

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