Surface Pro X review: hands-on with Microsoft's first true iPad Pro rival

Artwork created by Hazel Mead for our review of Adobe Fresco, which will be launched for Windows for the first time on the Surface platform.
  • Price When Reviewed: From £999, Slim Pen £129.99, Slim Pen + Signature Keyboard £259.99

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We spent some hands-on time with Microsoft’s new Surface Pro tablet/laptop hybrids to discover its potential for designers and artists.

While Adobe has been creating Photoshop for the iPad, Microsoft has been busy building an ‘iPad' that runs Windows so you can use the version of Photoshop you already have. Or Illustrator. Or InDesign, XD and probably hundreds of other creative applications that haven’t made it across to Apple’s tablet.

If this sounds a lot like the Surface Pro that Microsoft’s been producing – and we’ve been reviewing – since 2015, it’s not. The Surface Pro X is a little like the Surface Pro – of which there was a new release that we also saw at a Microsoft event in London this week, the Surface Pro 7. It’s a tablet that runs Windows 10 and turns into laptop when you attach a keyboard that’s near identical to the Surface Pro and pull out the kickstand, but in many ways it’s nearer to the iPad Pro than the Surface.

The Surface Pro X is thinner and lighter than the Pro 7, and has a high-end consumer/pro styling that’s distinctly different from the older design’s more corporate feel. It has a slightly larger screen with a thinner bezel (13-inch vs the 7’s 12.3-inch) with a slightly higher resolution (2,880 x 1,920 vs 2,736 x 1,824). Asleep and without the keyboard, you’d probably mistake it for the current 12.9-inch iPad Pro – unless you spot the Surface Pro X’s additional USB-C port.

There’s also a new Slim Pen that you only get with the Pro X. It will likely divide opinions – though some users liking it and others hating it is perhaps an improvement on the older Surface Pen, which has a biro-like feel and lack the balance of any of Apple’s Pencils or Wacom’s Pens.

The Slim Pen feels like has more weight to it, but has an oddly flattened shape that feels more like a dip pen than a traditional digital stylus. From the time I spent with it, I'm guessing it'll feel natural to some people but uncomfortable to others. Make sure you try it before you consider buying one of these tablets.

The reason for its shape is so that it fits nearly into a ditch at the top of the Signature keyboard, where it charges and stays secure when you’ve got the keyboard closed. As someone who has to keep their Apple Pencil in a separate pocket as it was always falling off and disappears into my bag when travelling, this is a very useful feature – so I’d only have to pull one thing out of my bag when I’d want to get the tablet out.

The specs for the Slim Pen are the same as the Surface Pen - 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and tilt recognition, though not rotation as with Wacom pens.

The real difference between the Surface X and the Surface Pro though is buried deep inside. The main Surface Pro line uses an Intel Core processor – 10th-gen chips in the new Surface Pro 7. The Surface Pro X, however, uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon, the kind of chip you’d expect to find in a mobile phone like my Huawei P30 Pro.

This gives you much longer batter life than the Surface Pro 7 – Microsoft describes it as ‘all day’ – but with reduced performance and the potential for glitches as most major creative applications have been tuned for Intel’s chips.

As you can see, I was able to run Photoshop, and drawing and painting was effortless, even with complex oil brushes. It chugged much more than you’d expect a good laptop to when I attempted to increase a five-layer image by 500% – but this isn’t designed to be a powerhouse (and it was a pre-production model).

We’ve reached out to Adobe to see if it has plans to support this model and will update this story when the company responds. One tool that we do expect to run well on this device is Adobe’s new Fresco digital painting app, which was first released for the iPad but which was announced to be supporting the Surface at the launch of these products on October 2.

We’ll be testing the Surface Pro X with a wide array of apps when we receive a review unit, but we wouldn’t recommend relying on it to run your core apps unless their developers offer full support for the architecture.

Pricing begins at £999/US$999 for a model with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, going up to £1,819/$1,799 for a Surface Pro X with 16GB RAM and 256GB storage. The Slim Pen costs £129.99/$144.99, or you can get it with the Signature Keyboard for £259.99/$269.99 (you can also buy a non-pen-charging keyboard for £129.99/$139.99, but why would you?).

Microsoft fully admits that the Surface Pro X is for "early adopters", but it might just be the first Windows tablet to really rival the iPad Pro. But we'll reserve judgement until we have a unit to test ourselves.

Hands-on with the Surface Pro 7

Sitting next to the Surface Pro X, the Surface Pro 7 looks a little dull – though it’s still a unique design that’s found favour with a lot of designers and artists, if not the gushing affection of iPad users.

YoSurface Pro 7 shown with the Instagram of paper artist Paperboyo, who is working with Microsoft on promoting the new Surface range.

What’s new here is a USB-C port (finally) and 10th generation 'Ice Lake' chips. These will apparently boost performance and extend battery life, though not as long as the life the Surface Pro X's Snapdragon chip gives you.

While the Surface Pro X has one colour option, black, the Surface Pro 7 is available in black or platinum. There are also many more keyboard colour options than with the X.

Pricing begins at £749/$749 for a Surface Pro 7 with an Intel Core i3 chip, 4GB RAM and 128GB. There are a lot more configuration options than with the Surface Pro X, up to a Core i7/16GB/1TB model for £2,249/$2,299. The Surface Pen costs £99.99/$99.99, and the Signature keyboard £149.99/$159.99.

Again, we're expecting review units from Microsoft soon and will publish a full review after we receive them.

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