Debugger

The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Is Hard to Fault

Unless you’re comparing it to the Surface Pro X

Photos courtesy of the author

AAfter years of lugging around a 15-inch laptop, I was ready for a change. I started searching for an ultra-light, portable replacement and it didn’t take me long to discover that all roads lead to the Microsoft Surface line of devices.

Microsoft launched two new Surface devices in late 2019. The first, the Surface Pro X, which I recently reviewed, runs on a different type of processor than its predecessors and most other laptops. It’s impressive, but expensive — starting at $1,000 — and is not for everyone, especially since there are some apps that don’t yet work as well with the new type of processor.

The second device, the Surface Pro 7, is the most recent refresh of Microsoft’s half-tablet, half-laptop computer. Starting at $750, it’s a computer that will please just about anyone who is looking for something that’s more adaptable than a laptop.

The Surface Pro 7 is, to be clear, not a major departure from its predecessors. It’s an update to a hardware aesthetic that has been around since 2013 — which is when I last tried out and reviewed one of these devices. Unboxing it almost felt like pulling out that familiar old Surface from back then.

While the hardware design feels decidedly dated compared with the Surface Pro X, it’s a testament to how timeless the detachable keyboard design has truly become. That’s especially apparent given that Apple now offers its own detachable keyboard with a trackpad, years after the Surface did it first.

Sticking with the same design, and iterating on it over the years, is part of what makes the Surface Pro 7 so appealing. I’d previously written off Surface Pro devices for persistent annoyances like their lack of a USB-C port, a slow resume time, and a stand that made it awkward to set the device on your lap. But in this latest version, Microsoft has addressed all of my complaints. It has added the missing port, and a powerful processor that boots up instantly, rather than making you wait.

While tablets with kickstands remain awkward to hold in your lap, I’ve started to feel comfortable with that — and found ways to balance the devices that work well.

The Surface Pro 7 has a bunch of useful features that even modern laptops don’t have, because Microsoft has built on successful functionality over the years. Take, for example, the magnetic charging port that doubles as a connector for the Surface Dock, which allows you to plug in your screen and other devices with a single connector. Or, the Windows Hello camera on the front, which logs you into the device instantly, using similar technology to Apple’s Face ID (which still hasn’t made it to the MacBook Pro).

The most significant updates to the hardware are under the hood: The model I tested, the 13-inch, has a powerful quad-core Intel processor and 16 GB of RAM, more than enough for developing modern web apps, even when using virtualization tools like Docker. (There are also cheaper, less powerful i3 and i7 versions of the Surface Pro, which also received a refresh). More importantly, the 10th generation Intel processor is much better at keeping itself cool, without constantly spinning up the fans, nor getting the device too hot — which tended to plague older models.

Specs aside, what I really love about the Surface Pro 7 is something that hasn’t really changed: It’s incredibly portable, especially when compared with other, larger laptops I’ve been using for years. It’s thin and light enough to throw into a bag like an iPad — which makes it easier when I’m usually cycling to work — but still powerful enough to do complex tasks like web development.

The battery surprised me as well, especially because I’m used to using a much larger 15-inch laptop, which tends to last longer thanks to the sheer space available for a big battery. Even when working on complex tasks, it was able to go six to seven hours without a charge, which is a big improvement from previous models.

It’s unclear why Microsoft didn’t opt for Intel’s new Project Athena technology for generation of the Surface Pro, which could have pushed that battery life even further. With Athena, Intel works with computer manufacturers like Microsoft or Dell to tweak laptops so that they instantly turn on and last all day. While the Surface 7 does boot up instantly, Athena could have helped squeeze a few more precious minutes out of a charge, as it did for the Dell XPS 13, which now lasts up to 19 hours on a single charge.

The “lapability” of the Surface has grown on me a lot as well; for years I had considered the kickstand at the back that holds it up a little awkward to deal with when you’re sitting on a couch.

But after a few days of giving it a shot, the kickstand doesn’t really bother me anymore, it’s just normal. As an added bonus, I’m able to pull off the keyboard and switch to taking notes with the pen, which I’m finding incredibly useful during meeting-filled days.

What bugged me the most, having used the Surface Pro X, is that the design feels dated by comparison. The Pro X is coated with lovely brushed magnesium, the display stretches to the very edges of the device, and the battery lasts all day while having LTE connectivity on board as well. It feels like a glimpse of the future. The Surface Pro 7 doesn’t feel like that.

Left: Surface Pro 7. Right: Surface Pro X.

But the truth is that most people just want something decent to help them get work done, and the Surface Pro 7 does that, with a familiar design aesthetic that will appeal to businesses and people who aren’t ready to make the leap to something entirely new yet. It’s comfortable and familiar.

It’s fairly obvious that sometime in the near future, Microsoft is likely to bring some of the new ideas from the Pro X to the Intel-based Pro 7, but it’s anyone’s guess when that might actually happen. And the Pro 7 is a perfectly good all-around device in the meantime.

There’s little to fault it on. In a world where the Surface Pro X, because its processor is incompatible with some apps, doesn’t just yet fit some people’s workflows, it’s a killer choice for your next computer.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify. https://twitter.com/ow

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