Microsoft Surface Pro is a Laptop With an Identity Crisis

Microsoft Surface Pro is a Laptop With an Identity Crisis

Microsoft Surface Pro 2024

The 11th-gen Surface Pro has some pretty solid performance, but it’s not beating other laptops with its high price tag.

The Surface Pro for 2024 costs too much, considering you’re heavily incentivized to buy a $US450 keyboard and stylus combo. The performance is solid but can’t compensate for app compatibility problems and pointless AI features. The dawn of the “AI PC” has yet to leave its mark. Starting at $1,899.99 + $599.99 for Surface Flex Keyboard and Slim Pen bundle (Reviewed at $3298)


Bright OLED display
Solid performance that can outmatch Apple M3
Prism emulation layer makes up for ARM limitations


Battery life is sub-par
AI software is largely pointless
Surface Pro design could use an update

After several weeks with the Copilot+-ified version of the Microsoft Surface Pro in hand, I’m at a loss for words other than annoyed. My 11th-generation Surface Pro consistently set my blood to a lukewarm temperature throughout my use. On occasion, this laptop made my blood hot enough to boil over.

It’s one of the few times a product has me ranting to some nonplussed friends who probably didn’t want to hear about “AI PCs” over evening drinks. I didn’t buy into the Copilot+ PC hype, yet I was still largely disappointed with my experience despite the promises about performance and AI capabilities. The Surface Pro’s new chip—in my case, the Snapdragon X Elite—is good enough for most tasks, though its versatility is overstated. The prophesized AI capabilities are currently pointless.

There’s plenty to like. I enjoyed typing on it with the keyboard on my lap and the screen on my desk. The bright OLED screen makes it easy to last long in the chair. It’s fast enough for any task I could throw at it (at least compatible).

But the biggest issue is its price. The Surface Pro starts at $1,899, but that’s stretching the truth. With the newly redesigned Flex Keyboard sold separately, you’ll at least have to pay around $2,000 for the all-new PC with minimum specs and the Snapdragon X Plus chip. My review unit costs $2,699 for a system with 16 GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD, and the more powerful Snapdragon X Elite chip. That’s a lot for any PC, but does the convertible versatility make up for it? Considering its varying limitations—no, it doesn’t.

The Surface Pro looks like a tablet. It has the same power and volume controls as a tablet, but it’s not a tablet. Microsoft calls it a “flexible laptop,” or—in other words—it’s a convertible that doesn’t function well without the keyboard.

Windows 11 has no tablet mode, though the display will still reorient itself if you hang it lengthwise. Microsoft hasn’t sold a keyboard in the box of past years’ Surface Pros as well, but the lack of one feels considerable in 2024. That’s a high price for some decent specs and the separate $599 Surface Pro Flex Keyboard and Slim Pen bundle. It’s an excellent keyboard, to be sure. It’s not worth the cost of a solid Chromebook just by itself.

All Copilot+ PCs are billed as productivity-only devices. They’re not meant for gaming. Fair enough, but you’ll also have to remember the ARM-based chips are still new for the Windows ecosystem. Microsoft tried this before in 2019, but there were so few supporting apps that the company has dialed back its ARM ambitions until now. In 2024, you’ll find that a fair few of your regularly used apps work natively with the new chips, and some don’t run well on the new Prism x64-x86 emulation layer. Eventually, you’ll find that one app you regularly use, like Blender, doesn’t have an ARM version. Occasionally, apps like Apple Music don’t support Windows on ARM.

So it’s not horrible, but it’s far from perfect. Worst of all, I continuously ran into battery issues where I would get far less than a day’s work before needing to plug it in. I communicated with Microsoft about the problem, and we’re still working to see if there are any issues with my PC or how I’ve been using it. I experienced poor battery life even during routine browsing and typing. I’m so used to all-day batteries for productivity that it feels especially egregious on such an expensive device.

I wouldn’t be so harsh if the Surface Pro and Copilot+ were merely an average Windows experience. In its current iteration, it’s worse than what you can get on other PCs. ARM is still up and coming, and maybe it truly is the architecture of the future, but for now, it’s inherently limiting. And yet, even if I consider what this “flexible laptop” would be without the ARM chip, I still think it’s an overpriced piece of hardware that doesn’t know what it is.

Microsoft Surface Pro Design and Usability

Why Can’t Microsoft Abandon the Surface Connect Port?

Photo: Artem Golub / Gizmodo

The review unit sent to me by Microsoft is a fine-looking laptop. The blue color is as comforting as an empty sky on a clear day. The machine feels solid, if a bit weighty, for what you get at just under 2 pounds. With the new haptic touchpad, the keyboard offers a solid and surprisingly clicky typing experience. The material used is comfortable for my palms, and I didn’t have more than the occasional issue with palm rejection.

And yet, I can’t help feeling Microsoft has an antiquated sense of what users want. The Surface Connect port remains. The supplied cable slots in easily enough but takes up much more room than practically any other proprietary port on the market. Sure, you can charge with Thunderbolt 4 USB, but why not exchange that port for something useful, like an SD card slot?

As with any older Surface Pro, it’s an awkward laptop that doesn’t feel comfortable on your lap. Sticking the screen on the table and using the keyboard separately if you want to get cozy is better. The Flex Keyboard comes off easily enough, but if you lay the keyboard aside, there are very few reasons to use a Windows 11 PC as a pseudo tablet. The S Pen helps a bit, making scrolling easier with nice, haptic feedback built in. I tried using the stylus in Paint to try out the AI Cocreator mode, but the cursor lacked precision and speed.

Microsoft could have modified its design to make it better and easier to use. The Slim Pen doesn’t have the versatility of the Apple Pencil Pro, let alone unique features like Barrel Roll. The keyboard and trackpad do the job well enough, but everything else is basically unchanged from previous generations. Now, it costs more than ever, and new specs or promised AI features don’t necessarily justify the price increase.

Microsoft Surface Pro Performance

Strong CPU Capabilities, but Not All That Was Promised

Photo: Artem Golub / Gizmodo

The Surface Pro promises you’ll see some of the best performance for the size of its PCs. That ratio is, of course, what’s promised by Apple’s Mac products with its M-series chips. I benchmarked the new PC directly against the M3 MacBook Air. Not to spoil anything, it’s not as dramatic as what was promised.

The Surface Pro is better than a base M3 on Apple’s latest Macs, but it’s not 58% more powerful, as Microsoft promised. In some of the most common PC benchmarks, like Geekbench 6, I saw 15% better scores in multi-core settings, but it did lose out under single-core settings. The same can be said for Cinebench 2024’s CPU benchmarks. The Surface Pro was also beating the XPS 14’s Intel Core Ultra 7 155H—the chip that originally promised the advent of “AI PCs”—in all our CPU benchmarks by a pretty wide degree, and it held up relatively well even against machines with more powerful Intel chips. It won’t beat out a high-powered gaming laptop CPU, but for small-scale portable computers, it’s a solid CPU with some staying power compared to Apple’s latest.

But that’s not the whole story. We usually perform a test using the video encoding software Handbrake, where we time how long it takes to transcode a copy of the 4K movie Tears of Steel to 1080p. This was using the ARM64 version of Handbrake, not the Prism emulation, and yet it took the Surface Pro a bit longer than MacBook Air 13 with M3.

The Snapdragon X Elite isn’t meant to be a graphics chip, and it shows. I can compare the ARM-based chips with 3D Mark’s Wild Life Extreme. The Snapdragon X Elite scored 6160, while the base M3 chip on the MacBook Air scored 7561.

Does any of this matter if all you want is a zippy, small productivity PC? Not necessarily, no. I was happy with the speed of Microsoft’s latest convertible. The bigger question is whether any of this power justifies the price increases from previous generations of Surface Pros or even your regular laptop PC. That will depend on how well it supports current software.

Microsoft Surface Pro Software and Compatibility

The AI Features are Dull and Pointless

Photo: Artem Golub / Gizmodo

The whole rigmarole of figuring out if your app is working on ARM should be hands-off for the average user. Microsoft promises customers won’t know when their favorite app or program runs on the Prism emulator. That’s true for the most part unless you depend on PC performance for the app to run well.

So the next question is, how much support will you get from the range of apps that work fine on x64/x86? Browsers from Chrome to Firefox and even Opera or Brave will work fine. The Windows version of Arc, however, won’t. It won’t install from the executable, let alone work on the Prism emulator.

All your Microsoft 365 apps are rejiggered for ARM, and Slack works just as well as regular Windows for annoying you with message popups. I downloaded Photoshop and found that it worked completely fine, though the cloud fully handles the app’s art generator capabilities. I have a feeling these PCs might not have enough NPU to handle Photoshop’s AI model.

So it’s mostly good news, right? Well, it’s a good experience until you look for that one app that isn’t on ARM and Copilot+, and there’s a chance they may never come. Try searching for Apple Music for Windows or on the Windows Store, and you will not find it. Apple’s music app does not support Windows on Arm; as we know, the company doesn’t plan to.

Most apps that do run on Prism work perfectly fine. I use DisplayCal for brightness tests, and the legacy program ran on the ARM processor without any noticeable hiccups. However, you’ll still find apps hampered by that lack of support. We usually run a Blender benchmark test for our PCs and Macs, but Blender doesn’t have a native ARM64 version. The program took about 5 minutes to render a scene through Prism emulation, whereas other modern PCs take three or less on average. As good as it is for most applications, Prism is a nonstarter for programs that require extra juice.

This also means that Microsoft has tried to position the ARM Copilot+ PCs as far away from gaming as possible. And yet, Microsoft, in all its wisdom, preloads the Xbox app on Windows 11. Do you pay for Xbox Game Pass on PC? Microsoft restricts you from downloading your titles on the native Xbox app. Instead, it’s relegated to cloud gaming only. Remember how Microsoft owns Minecraft? Well, the game won’t even download from the Microsoft Store. Hitting the “Install” button leaves you with a blue spinning wheel of death.

That being said, nothing is stopping you from downloading your game clients and trying it anyway. I played games like Baldur’s Gate III on my Surface Pro, and I found you could get relatively stable framerates but only on the lowest settings. The folks at Forbes did a pretty good rundown of which games did or didn’t work on ARM. It’s far more fiddly and annoying to game on Copilot+ than any modern PC, even those without any discrete GPU.

What you get from the Surface Pro is up to you, but don’t expect anything life-changing from the much-hyped AI. Recall isn’t available on any of the new Copilot+ PCs at launch. This is, overall, a good thing. The glaring security flaws in the software made it clear there needed more effort to make sure users’ data was safe. Plus, it’s being made completely optional.

The rest of the new AI features exclusive to Copilot+ are largely pointless. You can go into Photos, click on an image, and then use the new AI restyle to fool around with some images, but beyond making the backgrounds of your photos murkier or sticking a horrendous facsimile of a walrus into the foreground of your image, it’s not doing much. Image Creator in the Photos app and Cocreator in Microsoft Paint are dull, pointless toys that might give you an hour of distraction at most.

There are also some new Live Captions features that automatically translate audio and video in near real-time. The translated text appears as a big transparent window. I tried to watch some Spanish-language videos, and I found the translations relatively slow and inaccurate if the speaker talks quickly or urgently.

This AI image generation is happening on-device. You can tell by how the NPU gets maxed out during generation. Compare those AI images to the same prompt done on Windows Copilot, which is the cloud-centric model based on OpenAI’s DALL-E, and there’s no comparison. These PCs may boast the best NPU capabilities of any consumer-grade chip, but their outing on Copilot+ doesn’t seem to hold a candle to what you can get on the cloud.

In addition, some new apps leverage the NPU, like CapCut, Davinci Resolve, and the WhatsApp public beta for Windows Studio Effects. I haven’t used all of these, but let’s be honest: The background blur effect on video calls wasn’t that taxing on our GPUs to begin with. The NPU is nice for taking the onus off the CPU and GPU, but it won’t sell most people on a PC.

Microsoft Surface Pro Display and Webcam

Nice, Bright OLED and Solid Webcam

Photo: Artem Golub / Gizmodo

A big benefit of the Surface Pro is the display. It’s bright and colorful, which is the best way a 13-inch screen can be. You can’t do much better if you want a small, relatively lightweight laptop to watch YouTube or Netflix on.

I registered a peak full-screen brightness of 495 nits, which is pretty damn good for an OLED screen. It’s about the same full-screen brightness on the iPad Pro 2024 with its tandem-OLED display. Some others who have used the Surface Pro noted issues with text legibility and graininess with whites on the OLED screen, but I didn’t experience any hint of that over several weeks of use.

There’s also a surprising benefit to the Surface Pro with its webcam. It’s not something I put much stock in for a PC nowadays (do my coworkers need to see the bags under my eyes in hi-def?). Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the picture coming through, even under the murky fluorescent lights of our office.

Microsoft Surface Pro Battery Life

It’s Not an ‘All-Day Battery’

Photo: Artem Golub / Gizmodo

Microsoft promised 14 hours of battery life, which the company meant included 14 hours of video playback and 10 hours of web usage. Either way, it’s supposed to be an “all-day battery” with a 53 Whr capacity.

Basic video playback tests indicate this convertible can do 14 hours of endless YouTube video, but I find those tests less useful than the anecdotal usage tests. As far as those went, the Surface Pro didn’t survive a mere few hours before dipping into the red. While doing the most basic tasks, not even at peak brightness, with Windows set to Best Power Efficiency Mode, I regularly watched the power leak from the system with the efficiency of a hole in a boat.

I could start a morning at 77%, and by hour two, I had lost more than 50% of my battery. Even on battery-saving mode with the screen brightness turned down, I was still running on fumes before my typical morning’s work was finished. Every day was the same, and as I tried different settings, I saw the Surface Pro as a beleaguered racehorse, one being pressured to run fast and beat competitors despite knowing it simply couldn’t match up.

I brought my concerns to Microsoft but did not hear back in time for our review. We’re keeping this one open-ended in case we learn more.

Good Performance Can’t Overcome the Many Shortcomings

Photo: Artem Golub / Gizmodo

It doesn’t seem viable at $599 for a keyboard and pen. You could use a different keyboard with the Surface Pro, but without the magnetic attachment points, they wouldn’t protect your screen during transport. It seems like Microsoft is taking a page from Apple’s playbook, or at least it’s learning all the wrong lessons from its biggest tech competitor. At least with the iPad Pro 2024, it will still work as a tablet if you don’t pay $599 for the Magic Keyboard.

Is it powerful enough for everyday use? Yes, you’ll have to excuse the performance on other apps that don’t immediately have an ARM64 version. Even then, the Surface Pro doesn’t know what it is. It’s stuck in limbo between a tablet, a PC, and a newfangled AI device. When considering spending $3,000 for a relatively small bump in performance, you’re better off finding a laptop with a far more comfortable design at a far better price point.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.