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Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) review: Still a Pro, despite an unadventurous update

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The Good The Surface Pro gets better performance and battery life from its CPU update, and most models are now fanless. The excellent kickstand is even more flexible.

The Bad Minimal redesign leaves out USB-C and Thunderbolt options. The Surface Pen stylus is no longer included by default, and new keyboard covers are more expensive than ever. Still not great for lap use.

The Bottom Line Microsoft's flagship Surface Pro gets an extremely conservative update, but better battery life keeps it the gold standard of Windows hybrid PCs -- for now.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 9

It's like trying to pick a suspect out of a police lineup of identical twins. Take 2015's Surface Pro 4 and the long-awaited new version just called Surface Pro, and stick them side by side on a table. Now, go and grab the new one. Like me, you might pick up one Surface, spin it around in your hands a few times, open its kickstand, tap or swipe on its screen a bit -- all before you realize you're holding the older model.

Even in person, you're going to have to depend on a few subtle clues to tell these apart. The new Surface Pro is a hair lighter, its fanless design minimizes a thin vent around the outer edge and its optional keyboard cover is available with Alcantara fabric, similar to the covering found on the new Surface Laptop ($599 at Amazon). But at a quick glance, these are two peas in a pod.

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If you picked the Surface Pro on the left as the newest one, you'd be right. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft is hardly alone in its "evolutionary not revolutionary" approach to hardware this year. Apple's brand new MacBooks and iMacs have even more subtle changes, upgrading a handful of internal components while keeping their exterior bodies exactly the same.

But ultimately, there's another adage at work here: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Surface Pro's basic aesthetic and ergonomic ideas have remained virtually unchanged since the Surface Pro 4 ($610 at Amazon), now a year and half old, and only slightly changed since the Surface Pro 3, which is where this product line finally hit its stride. This is still the gold standard of Windows tablets, and it still feels modern and practical, despite only incremental changes.

Taking on the TCO

Evolution is, by definition, a slow process. But anyone looking for a bigger, more dramatic change, or a reason to upgrade from an older Surface Pro, may feel a bit disappointed in this unadventurous update. The screen bezel could be thinner. The ports could be updated to include USB-C. The odd disconnect of forcing you to buy the tablet and its must-have keyboard cover separately could have been addressed by including it in the box (it's still $129 for a basic keyboard cover, or $169 for the fancier color versions covered with Alcantara fabric). 

In fact, the new Surface Pro moves in the opposite direction, taking the Surface Pen stylus out of the default loadout, and now selling it separately (the new Pen is $99, while most previous Surface Pros came bundled with the older model Pen, which is still available for around $60).

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Sarah Tew/CNET

When you look at a Surface Pro, which starts at $799 (£799 or AU$1,199) for a Core m3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, you have to think about what IT types call the TCO, or total cost of ownership. Even the base model Surface Pro, when you add the Pen and a basic black keyboard cover, comes out to $1,027, which frankly is a lot for a Core m3 laptop (although, to be fair, less than Apple charges for its Core m3 MacBook). The upgraded model tested here has a new Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a big 512GB SSD, which comes out to $2,199 (£2,149 or AU$3,299), and that's still without the keyboard or Pen. 

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)

Price as reviewed $2,199 (£2,149 or AU$3,299) 
Display size/resolution 12-inch, 2,736x1,824 touch display
PC CPU 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7600U
PC Memory 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz
Graphics 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640
Storage 512GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)


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A closer look at the fabric-clad keyboard cover. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Newer on the inside

But if you can get over the hurdle of buying all the required bits for the total Surface experience, this is still the tablet-style hybrid to beat for Windows users. It takes everything we liked about the Surface Pro 4, which was a lot, and makes a handful of subtle but important improvements.

What exactly is new about the Surface Pro? Highlights include:

  • A slightly lighter body, with rounder edges, at 8.5mm thick and 1.69 pounds (767 grams).
  • A move to newer seventh-generation "Kaby Lake" Intel Core processors, including Core m3, and Core i5 and Core i7 U-series options.
  • A fanless design for the Core m3 and Core i5 versions (the Core i7 model still needs fans).
  • A kickstand that takes the system to a slightly lower angle, down to 165 degrees, compared to the previous 150 degrees.
  • The Surface Pen goes from 1,024 levels of pressure to 4,096.
  • The webcam now supports Windows Hello facial recognition login.

Not changing is the selection of ports on the edges of the system. It still has a USB 3.0 port and Mini DisplayPort, and appears to be making no move toward the newer, smaller USB-C ports now common on computers from Apple, HP, Dell and others. The oddball long, narrow power connector remains the same, too. It's awkward to use, but at least it has a magnetic connection that pops out if you trip over the cable. Sadly, Apple can no longer say that about its new MacBooks.

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The kickstand on the 2017 Surface Pro (left) folds down further than previous models. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Drawing a sketch with the Pen remains a solid experience. I'm not enough of an expert artist to tell the difference between 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity and 4,000, but I could tell that the Pen now supports different drawing angles, giving me a thicker line for shading when angled to the side, as one would with a real pencil.

Having recently tried the Apple Pencil on the brand new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I'd say they are closely matched for responsiveness, with the actual nib on the end of the stylus being the biggest difference. The Apple Pencil has a smaller, sharper point with more drag (which gives it an exceptionally realistic feel), while the Surface Pen nib feels softer.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Intel's latest CPUs offer better performance and better battery life, which are both very important for a device pitched as offering a combination of portability and productivity. It's the longer battery life that impressed me most, jumping to eight hours and 15 minutes in the 2017 Surface Pro, versus only about five hours in the 2015 model.

The many sides of Surface

We've got a solid set of upgrades to an excellent product, but a lot has happened in the roughly 19 months since the Surface Pro 4. Apple has continued to push its iPad Pro and 12-inch MacBook lines as smaller-screen alternatives to midsize laptops; hybrids like the Samsung Galaxy Book and the Lenovo Miix 510 have made inroads into the hybrid game; and Microsoft itself has muddied the waters with its new Surface Laptop, a traditional high-end clamshell PC.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It's that Surface Laptop, also covered with Alcantara fabric, that highlights one of the bigger pain points I've seen reported about the Surface Pro. For a device Microsoft insists can replace your laptop, the Surface Pro is still not very lap-friendly. Its kickstand is great for an office desk or coffee table, but doesn't actually line up with human knees. 

As that keyboard-first customer, I'm enamored with the Surface Laptop. For a more portable, tablet-first design, the Surface Pro remains the best-case scenario, but I'm also getting pretty itchy for something newer, a more in-depth redesign worthy of being called a Surface Pro 5

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Microsoft Surface Pro
107057
Microsoft Surface Book
97880
Microsoft Surface Laptop
66367
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
57736
Lenovo ThinkPad X1
48890

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance


Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Microsoft Surface Pro
8578
Microsoft Surface Book
7377
Microsoft Surface Laptop
7193
Samsung Galaxy Book
6864
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
6775
Lenovo ThinkPad X1
6239

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance



Streaming video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Book
709
Samsung Galaxy Book
624
Microsoft Surface Laptop
621
Microsoft Surface Pro
505
Lenovo ThinkPad X1
398
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
298

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)



System Configurations

Microsoft Surface Pro Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640; 512GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Laptop Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Book Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965 / 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520; 1TB SSD
Samsung Galaxy Book Microsoft Windows 10 Home(64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 4GB DDR SDRAM; 128MB Intel HD Graphics 620; 128GB SSD
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-7Y57; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD

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