The Surface Pro X Should Scare Apple

There’s finally competition for Apple in a space where for a long time there weren’t any good alternatives

Photos courtesy of the author

TThough I’ve gone to great lengths to make my workflow fit onto my iPad Pro, I still find myself picking up my laptop whenever I need to work on more complicated, code-related tasks. And that’s why Microsoft’s new Surface Pro X should worry the competition: While taking the device on a test run over the past two weeks, I finally felt like I no longer needed to carry two devices, something the Surface Pro X managed to accomplish that the iPad Pro never has.

The Pro X promises true all-day battery life and offers LTE like a lightweight tablet, which remains rare in laptops. It is light and easy to carry yet can still handle serious work applications.

The device is slicker than its Surface predecessors. It’s encased in anodized black aluminum, with rounded edges and dramatically slimmer screen bezels. There’s no USB-A port or even a headphone jack—just two USB-C ports and the magnetic Surface charging port. The real stroke of genius is the new Signature keyboard, which hides a new flat Surface pen inside the device, rather than having it hang awkwardly on the edge, where it can easily fall off in your backpack. I love taking handwritten notes, and having the pen hidden away in the keyboard makes it easier to keep track of and thus use more often.

While working from home during the past couple weeks due to Covid-19, I’ve been using the Pro X pen to quickly sketch ideas with colleagues using Microsoft Whiteboard, a great connected-ink app that’s accessed by clicking the eraser button on the pen.

A more important but hidden departure from past Surface devices is the Pro X’s Microsoft-designed processor. Called the SQ1, it is based on ARM technology — the same technology that powers your phone and tablets like the iPad — rather than the Intel processors that still power most laptops.

ARM processors, in general, are far better at providing long battery life than Intel’s processors have been and provide a more modern instant-on experience, like the one you’re accustomed to with your phone. The reason most laptops haven’t switched to ARM processors is that developers have already built their apps to be compatible with Intel’s processors.

While a number of apps work natively on ARM at this point, many do not. Microsoft plugs that gap with the ability to run some apps built for Intel processors using emulation, a technology that mimics the way an app would work on a supported system.

All of that makes figuring out whether the Surface Pro X will work well for you a little complicated. You’ll need to figure out which apps will and won’t run on the device and, more importantly, which apps will run natively on ARM. For the most part, the apps you see on the Windows Store will run well on the Pro X. Downloading apps from the internet is a little more confusing, since it’s unclear whether they’ll actually work until you try to launch them.

While emulation means you can run apps like the full version of Photoshop, they do run slower than they would on a traditional machine. If you live in them all day long, you won’t get the best battery versus running native apps. But if you just need to jump in to quickly edit a photo once in a while, emulation might work well enough.

I was surprised to learn that, for the most part, none of the issues with compatibility actually mattered for me in the real world, because Microsoft has a killer app up its sleeve: the new Microsoft Edge, based on the same browser technology as Chrome.

The new Edge runs natively on the Surface Pro X, which means it’s super snappy and battery friendly. It also means you have access to an unrestricted browser that can do actual work, unlike Safari on the iPad, which is a watered-down version of the desktop browser engine.

At work, I live in browser-based tools like Figma, Slack, Google Meet, Superhuman, and Google Docs, and they all work well on the Pro X. Edge allows you to turn these into “apps” that run outside of the browser, providing a more native feel and a dedicated place to launch them from.

What surprised me even more is that I was able to get my entire coding setup working on the Pro X, a feat that’s nearly impossible on an iPad. Microsoft’s new Windows Subsystem for Linux environment works without limitations on the Pro X, allowing developers to access a full Linux terminal, which makes it a great coding device for web developers.

The only confounding snag here is that while Microsoft owns the most popular development tool, Visual Studio Code, it has yet to make an ARM-native version available (though the open source community provides its own that works well).

To top this all off, the Surface Pro X can be plugged right into your big 4K USB-C display to extend the desktop, as you’d expect. To boot, my external mouse and keyboard just work. While I can do the same with my iPad, it just clones the display onto the big screen, rather than extending it, making it useless for long runs at a desk.

That all of this works is mind-boggling for an ultralight device. Ultimately, I decided to switch to using the Surface Pro X as my primary computer, hopping from my desk to meetings to the streetcar and so on without skipping a beat.

The battery goes on seemingly forever. During a typical workday, I used the Pro X from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. without charging it, leaving a solid 20% in the tank despite spending hours on video calls and coding in between. It always feels fast and responsive, it never bogged down, and it doesn’t have any fans to loudly spin up when it’s working hard.

While the lack of native ARM apps is a concern, I’m optimistic that more will arrive in force if Microsoft sticks with it. The company is adding support to its own development tools that allow existing developers to easily recompile their apps for ARM in 2020. Notably, Electron, the framework powering popular apps like Slack, also just got support for ARM-based devices, making support as easy as checking a few boxes.

If you’re a person who’s willing to work around the quirks involved with a jump into the future, the Pro X is the best hybrid tablet available on the market, and it’s only going to get better. But you should be aware of those limitations going in: It’s not for everyone, and at $1,800, those restrictions might be frustrating if, say, you rely on an extensive app like Adobe Photoshop.

In the meantime, Microsoft has done a good job of getting the baseline right: If you live in the cloud, the Surface Pro X is already an exciting device.

The Surface Pro X gets me excited about the future, and the tablet market, for the first time in years. There’s finally competition for Apple in a space where for a long time there weren’t any good alternatives.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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