Microsoft first released the Surface Pro X in the US and Canada on November 5th, starting with limited quantities. Then it gradually launched in other countries too, to the point that it was launched from a new batch today on January 14th in a few Asian countries. The first batch had few bugs to the drivers, but this has been addressed by Microsoft since the release, so has anything changed by now, and is the Surface Pro X a Windows tablet you should buy in 2020?
What is it?
Microsoft Surface Pro X is Microsoft’s first “Windows on ARM” powered Surface tablet that has a Qualcomm Snapdragon SQ1 processor which means that 4G LTE is included on all Surface Pro X tablets. Options are between 8GB or 16GB LPDDR4X RAM, and 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB SSD storage.
It has a 13-inch screen with built-in kickstand and 2880 x 1920 resolution display, with an overall thickness of 7.3mm for the tablet, and a weight of 774 grams. So everything considered, the Surface Pro X is the Surface tablet that’s the most similar to the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 4G LTE, which is a hard tablet to beat.
They are priced relatively similar too, and the majority of the specs are relatively close too, but an iPad Pro still achieves higher benchmark scores, with a performance that’s over 20% faster.
Who is it for?
A Surface Pro X then is a large tablet that’s still light, for someone who either doesn’t want either the OS or the specs of an iPad Pro, and who thinks the Surface Pro X will solve their needs better than a 12.3-inch Surface Pro 7 without 4G LTE.
Should you get it?
Only if you understand its one Achilles heel and know that you can run all the apps and drivers you need anyway for the use you intend it for.
Because in weighing the pros and cons of the Surface Pro X, the main thing to understand and that will be a drawback to some but not all potential users, is the fact that the Qualcomm ARM chipset means you can’t run all the same apps and drivers that you can run on a Intel chipset because of the different architecture.
Surface Pro X will run 64-bit (ARM64), 32-bit (ARM32), and 32-bit (x86) Windows apps, but not 64-bit (x64) apps or games and apps that use a OpenGL greater than 1.1.
Software developers often offer different versions of their apps, and support for ARM apps is increasing, but you have to research all the apps you intend to use in advance to get an understanding of what to expect, since some of the first buyers were unaware of this, even though Microsoft Store employees seem to be good at explaining it to their customers.
So you may even need to research the compatibility of the drivers for your printer and other accessories you intend to use with the Surface Pro X.
Sometimes it is possible to get around this limitation by using the x86 emulator WOW64, but that’s never a guarantee. And even if it will run, an emulation will slow down that app considerably compared to the native version of it.
So while this is a large factor to consider, potential incompatibility has always been the standard in computing, and it happens among and across all operating systems with enough years in between them.
If you have any floppy disks, CD’s, DVD’s with old Windows software from the 90’s or earlier collecting dust somewhere, you are likely to find that a lot of it would not run on any Windows 10 laptop today either.
What’s confusing to many these days, is that there are now two different chip architectures that affects the same Windows 10 differently during the same time period.
Microsoft updated their app store in early November so that when accessed through a Surface Pro X, only apps that are compatible with the Surface Pro X should show up, unless someone have been fiddling with the settings for you.
Microsoft is pushing for software developers and software companies to build ARM supported versions of their software though. An example of that came already on November 4th, when Adobe announced that it would actually launch the Adobe Fresco for the Surface Pro X first. That’s probably no coincident, since many professional artists have started using iPad Pro for creating illustrations, but Surface Pro tablets have also been very popular among artists because of its app support and fantastic screen, so it’s no wonder that a tablet like the Surface Pro X which can be great for artists, is the first of the Surface tablets to get support for this new drawing app.
Microsoft co-developed the 3.0 GHz SQ1 processor with Qualcomm, and Microsoft have many years of experience with Qualcomm and ARM because Qualcomm chipsets were what powered Windows phones.
Windows 10 tablets with ARM chipsets were first launched at the beginning of 2018, with the last one being the Samsung Galaxy Book2 also for $999, but this the first Surface tablet with an ARM chipset. So Microsoft seems committed to both the development of Windows on ARM as well as mobility in Surface devices.
When the Surface Pro X first launched, the Qualcomm Adreno 685 GPU had several bugs which affected my initial impression of it, as it affected both stability and performance. But the first bug fixes came already on November 5th, with the last one being an update on November 21st, and Microsoft says it haven’t heard of any new bugs since then.
Performance in other respects are mixed if compared to a Surface Pro 7 or any other Intel computer. As an always-on device it can start up quickly, and it will load some apps and execute its first commands very quickly, and sometimes faster on lighter loads than an Intel Core powered laptop. So for typical laptop use it does well.
With up to 16GB of DDR4X RAM and SSD storage, it can access memory and store and access files quickly too, so when it comes to performance after the updates, it’s really the nativity of the apps that determines its performance.
The battery life appears to be the same as before the update. Microsoft advertised a 13 hour battery life at launch, but as always that’s according to the industry standard of video playback at around 150 nits. Still, even with constant productivity task use and rapid browsing, and brightness set to over 200 nits, the Pro X will still deliver a battery life of around 8 hours.
So in conclusion, what holds the tablet back the most is what software it can run. It’s not the tablet specs and execution in other areas, apart from many people finding the entry level price of $999 stiff. For another tablet with a lot of the same feel and purpose, there’s the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 4G LTE of course, but there too you will have to determine if it supports all the apps you want. Otherwise the best best alternative among Windows tablets as of January 2020 would be the Surface Pro 7, though that will have you tethering your phone to the tablet when you need 4G connectivity.
– Jim Miller