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Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Sleek, but software hasn't caught up yet

A sharp Surface redesign with a clever hidden stylus, but price and compatibility may be red flags.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Pro X falls into a very small, very exclusive category of PC products. It's one of only a handful of new releases every year that prompt colleagues to proactively email me, asking where, when and how to get one. It's easy to see why it's got some serious buzz. The standard Surface Pro 7 is the dictionary definition of a Windows tablet-laptop hybrid, and has been that way for the past several generations, falling into a somewhat too-comfortable middle age. There have been some minor design, component and feature tweaks, but the last few versions have been almost painfully unadventurous, which is really saying something for a category that would have seemed sci-fi-like just a decade ago. 

But Microsoft hasn't let its PC hardware group hit cruise control. The dual-screen Surface Neo and Duo prototypes are already among 2020's most anticipated products, even if that's based on a just a few cursory sneak peeks. And one piece of future tech that's here already is the Surface Pro X, a new take on the tablet-plus-keyboard concept that combines the feel of a PC with the DNA of a smartphone. 

The X factor

You can tell the Pro X is supposed to feel futuristic because it's named X. And not X as in 10, like the iPhone X. This is a real X-Files, X-Men, XCOM-type X: the universal shorthand for the mysterious unknown. 

This is, after all, a tablet of secrets. It fits most of the Surface Pro 7's features into a slimmer, lighter body. It tucks an LTE SIM card into a hidden slot under a magnetic panel. Most importantly, it takes a redesigned stylus and fits it into an innocuous magnetic cutout built right into the tiny fold where the clip-on keyboard meets the magnetic hinge. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

There's more. This is a slimmer, sleeker, more refined take on the Surface Pro idea. The keyboard cover remains excellent, backlit with frankly a more satisfying click to its keys than a MacBook. The high-res 2,880x1,920-pixel screen is surrounded by a slim, modern bezel, and the rear kickstand remains perfectly adjustable, if still not exactly lap-friendly. 

So why then does the Surface Pro X feel like such a missed opportunity? The physical redesign is spot on, but diving deeper into the hardware specs and a confusing price structure, there's a lot that makes me scratch my head. It's underpowered relative to Intel-based tablets, it charges too much for its must-have accessories and software support is hit or miss. 

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Arm twisting 

Most of these issues stem from the fact that this is not a typical Intel-powered Windows PC (or even an AMD-powered one). It's one of a very small subset of PCs that run Windows from an Arm chip, similar to the ones that are found inside most modern smartphones. Microsoft calls this processor the SQ1, and it's a collaboration between Microsoft and Qualcomm, based on the latter's Snapdragon chips. 

The Pro X, along with the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Book S, is arguably the third wave of these Arm-powered PCs, which started with a handful of initial models from HP, Lenovo and Asus. Most of these, like the Asus NovaGo, overpromised and under-delivered, with higher-than-expected prices and lots of performance and software limitations, and lacking the promised 20-hour-plus battery life that was supposed to make up for these shortcomings. It's tough to be a solution in search of a problem, when your device isn't too big on solutions. 

Your typical Chromebook is similarly limited, but buyers have come to accept that in exchange for simplicity, security and, most importantly, prices that hit a sweet spot of around $300-$400. Most of the ARM-powered laptops and two-in-ones to date have been premium-priced systems, making them a tough sell. 

The new math

And it's exactly that math that trips up the Surface Pro X more than anything else. The design, from the excellent screen-to-bezel ratio to the hidden stylus, is great, and makes this my favorite Surface to date in terms of an actual hands-on experience. But, while the Intel-based Surface Pro 7 starts at $749 (£799, AU$1,249), the more limited Pro X starts at $999 (£999, AU$1,699). 

Based purely on the hands-on feel, and the more agreeable size and weight, I'd be willing to front the extra $250 as a kind of luxury tax. After all, that's what you can expect to pay for a new MacBook Air, if you take advantage of the frequent $100-off deals some retailers offer on that hugely popular 13-inch laptop. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

But the biggest historical Achilles' heel of the Surface Pro family muddies the water. That excellent clip-on magnetic keyboard and the newly redesigned stylus don't come included in the box, no matter which configuration you buy. They're sold separately, even though I've never seen a Surface Pro, X or otherwise, in the wild or in a commercial, without them. 

The Surface Pro X keyboard is $139 (£130, AU$220) extra, and the best thing I can say about that is that it's less than the $159 you'll pay for a very, very similar Surface Pro 7 keyboard. The stylus, truly different than the regular Surface Pen, as it's been flattened to tuck into its secret hinge home, is an astonishing $144 (£130, AU$235) extra, as opposed to the standard $99 Surface Pen. That's more than a 25% premium, on top of a starting price that's already more than any previous ARM-powered Windows PC. 

But maybe it's worth the extra investment, as the engineering is so tight overall, making for a device that feels and looks great. It really depends on what you plan to use it for. 

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The Surface Pro 7 (left) next to the Surface Pro X. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Work in progress

Try to install Photoshop CC right now, and you get the following message: "Your computer's 32-bit system cannot run the latest version of Photoshop CC, which requires a 64-bit computer. Please follow the instructions to download the last compatible version." Adobe is well aware of the issue, has already demoed a version of its Fresco painting app for the Surface Pro X and says, "We're working hard to bring other key parts of Creative Cloud to the Surface Pro X as soon as possible." 

Running Windows apps on something other than a Windows PC starts to get confusing quickly. The basic rule of thumb comes from Microsoft's own documentation: "Drivers for hardware, games and apps will only work if they're designed for a Windows 10 Arm-based PC." There's more on the specifics of how the SQ1 chip works here, but the takeaway is, "mainstream software for x86 chips won't run on Arm machines." 

So what's the pitch here, except that Adobe apps are coming at some point and standard things like Office already work? Much like on a Chromebook, any web-based tool I tried worked great, and that's easily 75% of my usual needs: webmail, Netflix, social media and so on. And that's certainly a legitimate argument to make. It's just easier when you're talking about a $300 Chromebook (or even a $650 Chromebook) than a $1,269 tablet-plus-keyboard-plus-stylus combo. 

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Another big benefit is an always-on LTE connection, via a Micro-SIM slot hidden under a magnetic panel behind the kickstand. That's still something of a rarity in laptops and tablets, and even the Surface Pro 7 will have to wait for a LTE-ready version. The downside is that you have to actually pay for the monthly service, as is true of LTE iPads and your phone.   

The other big touted benefit is the supposed extralong battery life of Arm-based laptops. In previous generations, we've found the 20-plus hour claims to be oversold, coming in at about a dozen hours instead. For the Surface Pro X, Microsoft only claims "up to 13 hours of battery life based on typical Surface device usage." In our initial testing, the Pro X ran for 8 hours, 50 minutes while streaming video, which is respectable but not record-breaking. Battery testing and benchmarks are continuing in the CNET Labs, and we'll update with final scores when available. 

There's so much I really like about the bold new Surface Pro direction. The slimmer design; better display and bezel; great stylus implementation; decent battery life; and excellent keyboard experience. But the relatively high price, especially considering the cost of accessories, the software compatibility issues and tough spec comparisons with the mature Surface Pro 7 make this ideal for only a small subset of the tablet-toting population.