A dedicated mobile data connection used to be a rare luxury in PCs, restricted to a few high-end machines, usually as an add-on to a business system. Years ago, I assumed it would eventually become a standard feature, allowing anyone to effortlessly connect anywhere. But then free Wi-Fi spread to every cafe, coffee shop and airport gate, and we all started carrying around perfectly usable personal hotspots in our pockets, in the form of our smartphones. So, now in 2018, a dedicated mobile data connection is still a rare luxury, restricted to a few high-end machines, usually as an add-on to a business system.
One exception is Apple's iPad ($244 at Amazon) tablet, which offers a consumer-friendly LTE version, requiring a monthly data subscription. Anecdotally, it seems popular with consumers who want to stream movies easily on the go, without worrying about connecting to W-Fi or a hotspot.
Microsoft has previously offered an LTE version of its Surface Pro tablet, but that configuration was limited specifically to commercial sales, targeted at businesses and IT departments. It wasn't available on Microsoft's consumer online store or in consumer retail stores.
In the first Surface ecosystem update of 2018, that LTE option is now available in the consumer version of the Surface Pro. Two fixed configurations are available, one with a seventh-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage for $1,149, and a second with the same CPU, but 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $1,449. We tested the less expensive of the two, using a Microsoft-provided micro-SIM card from T-Mobile. The higher-end version will be available internationally, for £1,849 or AU$2,199. You'll also have to pay for a monthly data plan from your mobile provider; the price for that can vary widely depending on your plan.
And before you ask, yes, the keyboard cover and stylus are still sold separately, no matter which configuration you choose. The keyboard cover, which clicks on magnetically and adds an excellent island-style keyboard and a small but functional touchpad, starts at $129 (£124 or AU$199), while the Surface Pen is an extra $99 (£99 or AU$139).
In real-world testing, using a Surface Pro with an LTE connection feels just like using a Surface Pro without one. This is the same excellent, if unadventurous, updated Surface Pro hardware from mid-2017, and it has the, although it's certainly easier to check your email from a coffee shop or whip up a last-minute spreadsheet in the lobby of an office building minutes before a key meeting. Phone tethering is certainly good enough for most situations, but it's definitely a nice luxury to have that instant, always-on high-speed connection.
Keep in mind that using an LTE connection is still going to be slower than any decent home or office Wi-Fi. In our testing, using the T-Mobile LTE connection got us 30.74Mbps from Speedtest.net, while surfing via our high-end Fios Wi-Fi connection got us 232Mbps. Typical home Wi-Fi users often have 50Mbps-100Mbps connections.
Battery life was about the same whether we were running the system on Wi-Fi or LTE. Running our streaming video playback battery test over the LTE connection (which would also use a lot of data), the system ran for 8 hours, 40 minutes. Streaming via Wi-Fi, the system ran for 8 hours, 47 minutes.
While always-on LTE connections in laptops are still rare, you can expect more of them later in 2018, when the first laptops and two-in-one systems with. These should , but at the expense of the raw horsepower you get from a mainstream Intel CPU.
Microsoft Surface Pro with LTE Advanced
|Display size/resolution||12.2-inch 2,736 x 1,824 touch display|
|CPU||2.6GHz Intel Core i5-7300U|
|Memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz|
|Graphics||128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.1|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)|
Things we (still) like about the Surface Pro
- Includes a standard USB-A port
- Its keyboard cover is still the gold standard, and available in a variety of colors
- It has the best kickstand of any slate-style 2-in-1
- Fanless design for Core i5 models (Core i7 models have an internal fan)
- Same excellent stylus response from the Surface Pen stylus
Things that still bug us
- The keyboard cover and Surface Pen are still sold separately, adding at least $230 for a full-featured setup.
- No USB-C or Thunderbolt ports
- Still awkward on the lap
- These LTE-enabled versions are expensive and require a monthly data plan to use the LTE antenna
Below are performance charts that include the new LTE version. Note that this Surface Pro with LTE is a Core i5 version, while the model we tested last year was a Core i7 version, so it outperforms this one. Microsoft's Surface Book 2 is the Surface line's current top performer, with hardware that's much closer to a premium PC laptop, including an Nvidia GPU.
|Microsoft Surface Pro with LTE Advanced||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-7300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)||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 Book 2 (15-inch)||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-8650U; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz, 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060; 1TB 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|
|Lenovo Miix 520||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8250U;8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|