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Microsoft Surface Pro 9 review: Impressive but is it worth the price of an M2 MacBook Air?

With the Surface Pro 9, the Arm-based variant is no longer an afterthought. But most users will still find greater use for the Intel-based model, especially when working from an office.
Written by June Wan, Technology Editor on
Pros
  • Sleek, modern design no matter which variant you buy
  • 12th Gen Intel processors speed through daily tasks
  • Swappable SSD is lovely
  • 5G support on Arm model
Cons
  • Easily a $1,400 PC
  • Accessories sold separately
  • Possible confusion when shopping between configurations
  • Limited ports

Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled a series of Surface hardware in light of the product line's 10-year anniversary. If you've been following the development of the Surface since its ambitious Windows RT beginnings, then you know full well how far the company's two-in-one PC has come. 

The new Surface Pro 9 is the culmination of Microsoft's biggest hits and lessons learned, offering its Windows-on-Arm and Intel-based platforms within the same hardware design. Sure, that comes at the loss of the Surface Pro X branding, but customers -- more than ever -- are presented with a leveled playing field, no matter which of the two architectures they desire.

That said, I've been testing the 12th Gen Intel model (i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB), and, while I absolutely love the hardware-software combo as much as I did with the Surface Pro 8, I can't help but think that Microsoft is pulling its punches when it had the chance for a 2022 knockout. 

Also: The best Surface PC

Specifications

Processor12th Gen Intel Core i5/i7 or Microsoft SQ3 (based on Qualcomm)
Display13-inch PixelSense Flow Display (3:2, 120Hz, 2,880 x 1,920)
RAM8GB, 16GB, 32GB (on Intel model)
Storage128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB (on Intel model)
Rear cameras10MP autofocus camera with up to 4K video
Front camera1080p full HD video
BatteryUp to 15.5 hours of typical usage (or 19 hours on the 5G model)
Connectivity2x USB-C (4.0 on Intel model, 3.2 on 5G), Surface Connect and Keyboard ports, nano SIM on 5G model
Operating systemWindows 11
ColorsPlatinum, Sapphire, Forest, Graphite

If it ain't broke...

This year, no matter which configuration you buy, you'll be greeted with a familiar 3:2, 13-inch PixelSense Flow Display that's gilded with aluminum and brushed metal -- much like the Surface Pro 8. There are some very subtle differences like the volume rocker and power button being moved to the top of the Surface, and how the ventilation channels are now better situated, but generally speaking, if you liked the Surface Pro 8 design, you'll love the Pro 9.  

My review unit arrived in a new Sapphire colorway that shimmers between sky blue and silver tones and, as is often the case with Microsoft's Surface colors, can best be described as clean. The bluish hues play nicely with the darker bezels and look even better when paired with Microsoft's still-optional Signature Keyboard cover

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 Blue

Sapphire (shown above) and Forest are the new colors on the Surface Pro 9.

June Wan/ZDNET

That keyboard, along with the Surface Slim Pen 2, is sold separately but is quintessential to achieving the optimal Surface Pro experience. The Surface line has built quite the reputation with this two-in-one form factor, so my disappointment with Microsoft for not bundling the keyboard at least remains a thing. Not to mention, with the Pro 9 starting at $999 for the Intel Core i5, 128GB model, you can expect to pay upwards of $1,200 for the whole ensemble -- and that's not accounting for the higher configurations.

Also: Best 2-in-1 laptops you can buy

To Microsoft's credit, the Signature Keyboard and Slim Pen 2 are some of the best OEM accessories that I've tested. I love how responsive and tactile the low-travel keys are, how the keypad -- while not as large as competing ultraportables -- is just as clicky on the bottom left corner as it is on the upper right, and how everything just snaps into place without needing to jump through further connectivity hoops.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 Keyboard Cover

The Surface Slim Pen 2 charges wirelessly when docked in the Signature Keyboard.

June Wan/ZDNET

As for the PixelSense Flow Display, I've been very impressed with the color accuracy, so much so that I've felt comfortable enough to edit RAW images (such as the product shots in this review) on the device. It also has the same 120Hz refresh rate panel as the Surface Pro 8, so animations across-the-board are smooth to the touch and eyes. Note that the Surface Pro 9 defaults to 60Hz, so you'll have to dig into the display settings to either set 120Hz or Dynamic Refresh Rate (DDR) -- a Windows 11 perk that juggles between lower and higher refresh rates depending on your tasks. 

Also: Best 4K monitors to upgrade your PC or Mac setup

From what I've seen, though, DDR can be overly aggressive, especially when I'm pushing the Surface Pro 9, and it debates between dialing down the frames to accommodate visuals or for the sake of maintaining performance levels. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 Touchscreen Display

The 13-inch display makes for a handy, on-the-go Photoshop workstation.

June Wan/ZDNET

Lastly, you'll find the standard array of ports and openings along the exterior of the Surface Pro 9, including two USB-C (4.0 Thunderbolt on the Intel version, 3.2 on the 5G version), Surface Connect for charging or a Surface Dock, a nano SIM card slot on the 5G version, and a removable socket for the SSD. 

My main call out here is the difference in USB-C technology. If you're planning to use the Surface Pro 9 to power an office workstation, then the Intel version, with Thunderbolt 4 support, easily makes the most sense.

Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 8 for Business

Performance: Intel or Arm? 

That's really the story with this year's Surface Pro, though; your use cases and needs ultimately determine whether you're #TeamIntel or #TeamArm. Those in the former camp may want a do-it-all PC that can extend to a 4K monitor or crank out the highest graphics via an external GPU -- at home or at an office. The SQ3-enabled Arm variant takes to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 chip to deliver 5G connectivity and enhanced battery life -- ideal if you're a digital nomad. 

Also: Surface Pro: Arm or Intel? The answer's not so simple

For testing, I put the Intel Surface Pro 9 through my standard workflow of online content management, with seven to eight tabs opened for research and fact-checking, and the occasional 1080p video-streaming in the background. As expected, the Core i7 processor with 16GB RAM handled all of that with grace and speed. But, again, it's one of the
highest-specced configurations. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 Typing

I've been using the Surface Pro 9 to type out my iPad (2022) review and this one, too. 

June Wan/ZDNET

I also used the Surface Pro 9 for photo editing on Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, both of which operated with little to no hiccups, even when touching up 6,000 x 3,376 stills. I typically find this part of my work routine the most troublesome for other ultraportables that I've tested, so the Surface Pro's performance left me satisfied.

The Surface Pro has always been an exceptional work machine, so I naturally shifted my testing to its front-facing camera. You know, the thing that every manufacturer has to nail down in this day and age. While I've found myself more and more reliant on external webcams for high-quality video capture, I'm happy to report that the Surface Pro is joining the 16-inch MacBook Pro as a laptop that doesn't need anything more. Not only does the Pro 9's 1080p camera keep me in sharp focus, but it does so without overexposing my backdrop and giving me an unnatural blush.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 Camera

The Surface display is tilted upward but captures my physical camera, as if it's pointing straight at it.

June Wan/ZDNET

The icing on the cake is how the Surface Pro 9's camera is angled slightly downward, preventing that "nose-deep" effect that typically happens when your laptop display is titled upward. It's a minor shift that makes a world of difference -- and less awkward video calls.

With the Arm-based model, the Surface Pro 9 gets a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) that gives the device a little more pizazz to the camera experience, including auto-framing, enhanced background blur, and what Microsoft calls, "Voice Focus." The company showed a sample of Voice Focus during Microsoft Ignite and I have to agree that the background noise-canceling was very effective. Obviously, take the company's own demonstration with a grain of salt. 

Also: The best webcams for work and play

Battery life

Again, Microsoft only sent me the 12th Gen Intel variant to review so I can only speak to its endurance numbers, though I fully expect the SQ3 model, with its more efficient operation, to be even more promising. From my near-week of use, I averaged six hours of battery life per charge on the Surface Pro 9. Keep in mind that that's with 120Hz permanently on -- I'll admit, I'm one of those, "Once you go 120Hz, you can't go back" users -- and brightness set to about 65%. In my opinion, that's a solid B-tier as far as endurance numbers go.

Bottom line

By now you may be wondering, "Is there anything wrong with the Surface Pro 9?" And to that, I say, "No, and yes." My quibble with the newest flagship two-in-one is that, at a time when competitors like Lenovo and Asus are redefining the PC experience, Microsoft -- the Windows maker -- is hardly trying to reinvent the wheel, building for comfort instead. 

That's not to say that the Surface Pro 9 is a bad product; it'll most definitely earn a spot in our year-end rankings. I'm just finding it harder and harder to justify the tablet-laptop hybrid, especially when you factor in the cost of the $279 keyboard and Slim Pen 2 bundle, and the fact that most users eyeing this particular model will probably opt for, at least, 256GB of storage. That puts the Surface Pro 9 firmly in the $1,400 territory, where Apple's M1 and M2-powered laptops dominate.

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