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Microsoft Surface Pro X hands-on review: X marks the spot

Microsoft has finally pulled the trigger on its long-rumoured ARM-based laptop, partnering with Qualcomm to launch a Surface device based on its Snapdragon processors. The result of that partnership is the Surface Pro X, a new business-focused 2-in-1 that Microsoft claims will offer amazing performance and battery life in an ultra-thin shell.

With custom silicon, a new Surface Pen and a handful of clever feature updates, is this the start of a brave new world for Surface and ARM PCs?

Surface Pro X hands-on review: Design

The design of the Pro X is immediately familiar; it's essentially just a more rounded (and thinner) version of the well-established Surface Pro design. It's attractive enough, although a little dull-looking compared to the regular Surface Pro. The round edges look much more generic than the distinctive angles and lines of the Pro's frame, and while matte black is a safe, professional colour, making it the only option is a shame when the rest of the range is so vibrant.

It's also amazingly petite, weighing just 774g (sans keyboard) and measuring 7.3mm thick. That's very portable indeed (if not quite as portable as the Acer Swift 7) but it may also have its downsides. A chassis that thin leaves little room for cooling, for example, so overheating under load is a potential concern.

The super-thin bezels are an interesting choice, too. Microsoft has boasted that it's crammed a 13in display into a 12in form factor, but in doing so, it's dramatically reduced the size of the screen bezels. The generally-accepted wisdom with any touch-centric device is that thicker bezels are an acceptable (or even desirable) trade-off in exchange for not accidentally pressing stuff with your thumb whenever you hold it like a tablet, but it's hard to deny that it does look good.

Using it in tablet mode, it didn't feel like we could get quite as comfortable a grip without obscuring the screen as on previous devices, but that's not necessarily a deal-breaker. We generally find ourselves using Surface devices in laptop mode 90% of the time anyway.

Surface Pro X hands-on review: Display

If you do want to use it as a tablet, however, you won't be disappointed. As previously mentioned, it's a 13in panel and unsurprisingly, it's sporting the Surface range's standard 3:2 aspect ratio, along with a highly commendable resolution of 2880 x 1920 - higher than the Surface Laptop 3, along with most other ultraportables on the market. It's crisp, sharp, bright and, on first glance, it appears to live up to the exceedingly high standard set by previous Surface devices.

It's unlikely that the Pro X will find much appeal among artists, designers and other creative professionals compared to the mainline Surface Pro range - it's primarily being thought of as a business device, by the sounds of things - but it's encouraging to know that the screen, at least, will support this.

Surface Pro X hands-on review: TypeCover keyboard and Surface Slim Pen

To coincide with the launch of the Pro X, Microsoft has dreamed up a new TypeCover keyboard. It's almost identical to the old one, with a single glaring exception - it now has a space hollowed out of it to house the all-new, slimmed down Surface Pen. The new pen is nestled just at the top of the keyboard, in the strip that magnetically connects to the front of the screen in order to tilt the keyboard slightly.

It's a great idea; we've been crying out for a better, more efficient way to take the Surface Pen with us while we're out and about, and this is a solid option. The pen also charges whenever it magnetically clips into the slot, and it will be fully backwards-compatible with previous surfaces, complete with the digital eraser on the other end of the pen.

The pen itself is slightly shorter and flatter than the previous Surface Pen and offers the same functionality, but it must be said that it simply doesn't feel as comfortable or natural in the hand as the older round models. It's fine for quick sketches, but we're not sure we'd like to use it for extended periods.

Fortunately, the same can't be said for the actual keyboard. With the same 1.3mm travel depth as the Surface Pro 7 TypeCover, the Surface Pro X Signature TypeCover offers the same crisp, satisfying experience, and the Alcantara fabric covering is as unique and attractive as ever. The trackpad also remains absolutely outstanding. Our one bugbear is that it's still sold separately, although the Pro X is compatible with older TypeCover versions if you don't feel like shelling out.

Surface Pro X hands-on review: Specs and hardware

It's all well and good talking about the accessories, but everyone knows that it's what's inside that counts - and nowhere is this more accurate than with the Pro X. This is the first Surface device to be built using Qualcomm Snapdragon hardware, but Microsoft has done more than simply sticking a Snapdragon 855 in it and calling it a day.

Instead, it's co-engineered an entirely new hardware platform specifically for the Pro X, which it's calling the 'Microsoft SQ1' chipset. Microsoft has focused on power-efficiency with the SQ1 chipset, and it reportedly delivers 3x more performance per watt of power than the Surface Pro 6. That's very impressive indeed and Microsoft is claiming a 13-hour battery life as a result - although we'll have to wait until we can test it before we weigh in on how likely it is to hit that, as this is entirely new silicon. It also shares the same fast-charging features as the rest of the new Surface devices, offering 80% battery after less than an hour's charging.

Elsewhere, there's an Adreno 685 iGPU and either 8GB or 16GB of RAM. The most impressive feature, however, is a proper NVMe SSD, and a removable one at that. It ranges in capacity from 128GB up to 512GB, but if it fails or you need some extra juice, it's actually capable of being swapped out. You'll almost certainly need specialised tools to do so, of course, but it's a big boon for IT departments nevertheless.

It's hard to get a handle on the Pro X's performance without spending some sustained quality time with it, but it's a fairly safe bet that this will be a machine that's more on par with the average Chromebook than the average MacBook in terms of performance. It'll cope fine with web browsing, Office 365 and the like, but expecting it to do much computational heavy lifting is probably somewhat ambitious.

Surface Pro X hands-on review: Software

That may well be a moot point, however. The Surface Pro X runs full-fat Windows 10 (as opposed to a forked version or stripped-down variant like the short-lived Windows 10 S) but because it's technically running on ARM hardware, it won't natively support the full range of desktop software.

Without getting bogged down in the minutiae, ARM-based machines can only natively run 32-bit applications - a software architecture that was largely superseded by 64-bit architectures some years ago. What this means in practise is that business that want to deploy 64-bit apps on Pro X will have to re-factor them before they'll run. Whether software vendors are willing to do this remains to be seen.

Surface Pro X hands-on review: Ports and features

As with all of Microsoft's latest Surface products, the Pro X is sporting a USB-C port - two of them, in fact, making up for the fact that the slimmer chassis means no full-size USB-A port. Sadly, this is just USB-C 3.2 Gen2 rather than Thunderbolt 3, but they will provide power, data and display, including up to two external 4K displays running at 60Hz. How much of a toll this takes on performance remains to be seen, however - the Surface Go's mobile-focused processor struggled with maintaining performance while outputting to an external screen, and we'd worry about facing similar problems here.

The other notable selling-point for the Pro X - and arguably its whole raison-d'etre - is its LTE Advanced connectivity support, for 'always on' connectivity. It's somewhat surprising that Microsoft hasn't attempted to climb aboard the 5G bandwagon with this device, but we can see why it might want to err on the side of caution, given that an ARM-based laptop is already a sizeable gamble in and of itself.

The LTE connectivity is a nice touch, but it's worth remembering that this will require a separate data contract, so many individuals or smaller businesses may be better-off sticking with WiFi unless they've got a lot of spare cash floating around on a month-to-month basis.

Naturally, it supports facial recognition via Windows Hello, as well as twin far-field Studio Mics for enhanced video calling and collaboration. The chipset also features a built-in AI engine, which can perform tasks such as automatically editing your eyes when you're on a video call to make it look like you're looking at the camera rather than your screen - a feature that also appears in Apple's FaceTime app as of iOS 13.

Surface Pro X hands-on review: Early verdict

The Surface Pro X is a really interesting device, and proof that Microsoft isn't messing around when it comes to expanding its line of first-party hardware. Aside from looking like the kind of aesthetically and mechanically polished 2-in-1 that we've come to expect from Microsoft, it's also one of the first real outings for ARM-based Windows laptops. This means it's got a lot of proving to do, but it also makes it somewhat difficult to predict how it will perform under pressure.

If Microsoft can deliver on its battery claims while balancing that with robust enough performance, it could be a great little device for mobile or agile workers. The Surface Pro X is available for pre-order today and launches in early November for a starting price of $999. It's safe to say we'll be keeping a very close eye on it when it does.

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