Microsoft made a bold statement when it initially released the Surface Pro X back in November 2019. Although the company had been offering some flavor of Windows on low-power, Arm-based processors for many years, if you consider the Surface RT, Windows Phone or even Windows Mobile, the Surface Pro X marked the first occasion Microsoft itself had released a premium, Surface-branded device featuring an Arm-based processor. (No, I don’t consider the Surface or Surface 2 with Windows RT “premium”).
The Surface Pro X is powered by a custom Microsoft SQ1 SoC (system on a chip), developed in partnership with Qualcomm. The SQ1 is essentially a tweaked Snapdragon 8cx tuned for Microsoft’s desired frequencies and power envelope. It is an 8-core processor with integrated AI engine that operates at frequencies up to 3GHz. The SQ1 also has an integrated GPU that offers up to 2 Teraflops of compute performance. There are versions of the Surface Pro X with 8 or 16GB of RAM (with various amount of storage) and LTE wireless connectivity is an option as well.
All told, looking at its specifications and marketing materials, the 1.7lb Surface Pro X appears to be a highly-capable, ultra-portable PC, with a beautiful touch display, attractive design language, and the ability to run on battery power for up to 13 hours with typical usage. Microsoft says this of the device, “Built for web-first experiences, Surface Pro X is ultra-thin and always connected, combining blazing-fast LTE with 2-in-1 versatility and edge-to-edge, ultra-slim 13” touchscreen.”
So, What’s The Catch?
This all sounds well and good – everyone in search of a mobile PC desires a slim, lightweight, system that’s always connected and offers excellent battery life. However, because the Surface Pro X is powered by an Arm-based processor, it cannot natively run x86 applications – e.g. those developed for traditional Intel / AMD processors. The Windows 10 OS itself, along with all of the utilities, tools, and basic applications that are included with the OS, do run natively on the Arm-processor though. And there are a number of native applications available via the Windows Store, including the Chromium-based version of Microsoft’s Edge browser or Office 365. Running non-native x86 applications, however, necessitates the use of emulation, which can introduce incompatibilities and performance issues. And that’s only for 32-bit x86 applications; at this point in time, Windows on Arm and the Surface Pro X are incapable of running 64-bit x86 applications. Microsoft has suggested that 64-bit emulation was in the works, but there’s no official word when (or if) it will be made available. Microsoft would prefer developers compile their code for native Arm64 operation, but recent leaks and rumors suggest 64-bit x86 emulation is coming down the pipeline at some point.
That may sound like Windows RT all over again, but let me assure you, things are very different this time around. When you first power up the Surface Pro X and start tooling around the system, it is Windows 10. Without checking Device Manager or System Information, you’d never know the machine wasn’t running an x86 processor at first blush. Start trying to install your applications though, and problems can arise.
Now that the Surface Pro X has been around for a few months and Microsoft has had a chance to work out some of the kinks, I thought I’d take the system for a spin and see if it would be possible to replace my traditional notebook with the Surface Pro X.
My Use Case
Before we get to the nitty-gritty, I should explain my typical use case for mobile devices. I get the vast majority of my work done on a powerful desktop system. I have been a PC enthusiast for ages and have built every desktop PC I’ve used for over 20 years. I went from a Commodore 64, to an XT-class HP Vectra, to building my own systems. I’m also a gamer, wannabe photographer and benchmark junkie, so a powerful PC is a must. I do also travel quite a bit (or at least I used to), and require a notebook that can handle multi-tasking well. Typically, while on the road, it’s not uncommon for me to be working in Word, Photoshop, Outlook and an on-line Content Management System, while also browsing the web to verify details and chatting with colleagues. My preferred form factor is a 13” clamshell – the Dell XPS 13 is my machine of choice at the moment.
On my desktop system, I keep a folder updated with my most commonly used “must have” applications. It currently consists of installers for Adobe’s CS6 Master Collection (I refuse to move to Adobe’s current subscription model, while CS6 still handles what I need), a few basic system maintenance and compression utilities, browsers, chat applications, and specialized image and video editors. A handful of these I don’t typically use on my notebook. When travelling, I rarely have to edit videos on my own and will shoot JPG (rather than RAW) to simplify the image editing process. So, of the list of applications I keep at the ready, these are the ones I usually have installed on my laptop, to mimic my desktop setup…
- Adobe CS6 Master Collection (of which, I use Photoshop 99% of the time)
- Better File Rename 6 (batch file re-namer)
- CCleaner (for basic system maintenance)
- EditPadLite (a great simple text and code editor)
- FileZilla (FTP client)
- Light Image Resizer (batch images resizer)
- PeaZip (file compression/decompression)
- Trillian (multi-IM client)
- WinRAR (file compression/decompression)
Right out of the gate, I knew a bunch of these weren’t going to work because I use the 64-bit installer versions of these apps – FileZilla, PeaZip, and WinRAR. So, I grabbed the 32-bit installers for those apps prior to giving the Surface Pro X a shot. The Adobe Master Collection includes both 32 and 64-bit versions of some apps and I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to behave, but I thought I would give it a shot. I should also note that Microsoft Office was pre-installed on the machine.
My Surface Pro X Experiment
Before making the switch over to the Surface Pro X, I did some prep work. The system was fully updated via Windows Update, to ensure the latest patches, drivers, compatibility updates, etc. were applied. I also installed the Arm-native version of the Chromium-based Edge browser. There is no native version of Google’s Chrome available for Windows on Arm (though Firefox is available) and – somewhat surprisingly – I’ve found Edge to behave quite well, so it would be my everyday browser on the Surface Pro X. If I ran into a compatibility issue of some sort with Edge, I’d try Firefox.
To get the process rolling, I copied my installers over to a USB flash drive, attached it to the Surface Pro X and got to installing my applications. Everything installed without a hitch. I wasn’t expecting a smooth transition initially, but the Surface Pro X behaved like any other system while setting it up.
When it came to using my applications, however, there were some issues. The simpler 32-bit x86 applications all worked properly, but there would be occasional lag or delays doing things (like navigating menus) that would normally be instantaneous on my notebook. This wasn’t a huge deal, because the applications like Better File Rename, FileZilla, or EditPad, are not particular taxing. Of course, I’d prefer they behaved identically to my desktop or XPS 13, but waiting a moment or two here and there did not affect their usability.
Photoshop was a different story though. I had an issue with it not launching properly, or taking so long to launch and open, that I’d end up trying to open it multiple times. It too was occasionally laggier than expected, to the point where I’d end up clicking on incorrect menu items, buttons, and such. Since, I don’t do anything particularly complex with Photoshop when travelling, I decided to give the native – and cut down – free version of Photoshop Express a try and it was perfectly serviceable. I also tried the free GIMP image editor, which worked also without a hitch.
I used the machine for a few weeks and was pleasantly surprised how well my little experiment went. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to reliably use a Windows on Arm device knowing its limitations, but that did not turn out to be the case. I had to make some minor concessions and adapt accordingly, but it indeed would be possible for me to switch to the Surface Pro X as my main device when on the road.
Surface Pro X Pros And Cons
Although my experience was technically a success, there are additional things to consider. While I found performance acceptable and the machine usable, the Surface Pro X’s performance is nowhere near what a traditional x86 notebook can offer. For example, in the browser-based Speedometer 2.0 benchmark , the Surface Pro X scores 61.4. In the exact same test, my Dell XPS 13 with a Core i7-8550U scores 96.2. The Basemark Web 3.0 benchmark tells a similar story. In that test, the Surface Pro X scores 462.03 to the XPS 13’s 664.07. And before you say the comparison to a Core i7 is unfair, my exact XPS 13 configuration is available on Amazon for $1149, which is nearly the same price as an 8GB Surface Pro X, if you factor in the price of the touch cover.
On the flip side, the Surface Pro X is dead silent (because it has no fans) and battery life is pretty great. Microsoft claims 13 hours of typical use, but you can go far longer if you’re not in front of the machine with the screen lit-up constantly. A full day of work should not be a problem for the vast majority of you. And if your use case doesn’t involve taxing applications and the machine gets to go to sleep from time to time, two work days is a distinct possibility.
Unrelated to the platform, Microsoft also made some regrettable choices in terms of IO connectivity. Although two USB-C ports is a serviceable setup, it would have been nice to see the inclusion of a card reader / microSDXC slot and perhaps a full-sized USB-A port, so dongles wouldn’t be necessary to use legacy USB drives, devices, etc. For my tastes, a traditional clamshell is more comfortable for use on the road as well, especially in terms of “lapability”. The kickstand and detachable cover / keyboard are just too floppy for me.
Regardless, if you understand what the Surface Pro X is all about and the prospect of a silent, thin, light convertible PC with solid battery life is intriguing, it’s worth checking out. You may be surprised by what it can do.