At first glance, Microsoft's Surface Pro 8 looks like a worthy but incremental upgrade from its predecessor. The exterior form factor, including its signature kickstand, is essentially unchanged, and the spec bump from a 10th Generation Intel Core CPU to an 11th Gen part doesn't seem like much to write home about.
But after studying the specs of this new device more closely, I'm seriously impressed. So much so, in fact, that I just pre-ordered a new Surface Pro 8 to replace my Surface Pro 7. And for anyone with an older Surface Pro device, the upgrade should be even more compelling.
In all, I found six improvements in the new Surface Pro that fixed nearly every annoyance I have with last year's model. Collectively, those improvements add up to an irresistible case for an upgrade.
A bigger display
The top premium laptops from leading OEMs today, including Dell's XPS 13 and HP's HP Elite Dragonfly Max, are outfitted with 13-inch screens. By comparison, the 12.3-inch display on the Surface Pro 7 seems just a wee bit cramped.
Not so with the 13-inch display in the new Surface Pro 8. It has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as its predecessor, and the same pixel density (267 ppi). But Microsoft shrunk the bezels on the Surface Pro 8 to accommodate the larger display without making the chassis larger. That gives the entire package a more modern look while maintaining compatibility with existing add-ins, like my Kensington Surface Dock. (Update: Kensington says it SD7000 dock will not be compatible with the Surface Pro 8; it plans to offer a refresh of that model in 2022.)
An increase of 0.7 inches in diagonal screen size might not seem like much, but it results in significantly more workspace, as a bit of math confirms. The Surface Pro 7, like every earlier model from the Windows 10 era going back to the Surface Pro 4, offers a resolution of 2736 x 1824, for a total of 4,990,464 pixels. The Surface Pro 8 has a resolution of 2880 x 1920, or 5,529,600 pixels. The net result is 10.8% more screen area, which is nothing to sneeze at.
As a bonus, the new display includes the option to double the refresh rate to 120 Hz, which is good news for designers who want fast response from the new pen.
Better battery life
The Surface Pro 8 weighs roughly 100 g more than the Surface Pro 7 (that's about 3.5 oz for Americans who are baffled by the metric system). We'll have to wait for the inevitable third-party teardowns to confirm where that extra weight is coming from, but I'm betting some of it is courtesy of the higher-capacity battery, which offers a capacity of 51.5 watt-hours (Wh), or nearly 20% more than the 43.2 Wh in the Surface Pro 7.
The actual increase in battery life that Microsoft claims for the Surface Pro 8 is even more substantial: 16 hours, versus 10.5 hours for last year's model. (Real world results will be significantly less than those optimistic projections, of course, but based on my experience with the Surface Pro 7 a 50+% increase would mean I could use the new machine for at least 8 hours.)
And if you're wondering about the technical reasons for the extra battery life, I recommend this excellent explainer from my colleague Mary Branscombe in TechRepublic: "EcoQoS gives Windows 11 apps better battery life." The tl;dr: Credit goes to the interaction between Windows 11 and the EcoQoS CPU tuning in these Intel 11th Gen systems.
A new, firmer keyboard
The Type Cover has always been the love-it-or-hate-it component of the Surface Pro experience. Over time, Microsoft has made the experience better, but there's still a bit of a hollow sound when you strike the keys, and its tendency to wobble makes it hard for some people to use on anything but a solid surface. (There's even a technical term for this effect: lappability.)
The new Signature Keyboard is reportedly made with a new base of carbon fiber, which should translate into less bouncing and more of a conventional laptop feel. As a bonus, the new keyboard also has a larger glass trackpad. I'm looking forward to putting it to the test.
Thunderbolt 4 and an extra USB Type-C port
This might be the most important change of all. The Surface Pro 7 included a single USB Type-C port alongside a single Type-A port. That port worked with USB-C Power Delivery (PD) chargers and allowed connections to external monitors. The Surface Pro 8 replaces that legacy USB port with a second USB Type-C port, with both supporting Thunderbolt 4.
That long-awaited capability unlocks an entire ecosystem worth of hardware options, with full-featured Thunderbolt docks, high-speed external storage devices, and external GPUs at the top of the list.
A slimmer pen with haptic feedback and wireless charging
I'm not an artist, so the haptic feedback support in the new Slim Pen 2 is likely to be more of a curiosity than a real productivity enhancer. But I do enough schematic diagrams and rough sketches to make the capability interesting.
Otherwise, my use of the Surface Pen is mostly limited to signing PDF documents so I can skip the print-and-scan step, along with marking up page proofs occasionally. But the new pen is still welcome if only because it now has a built-in pen holder on the Signature Keyboard instead of attaching magnetically to the side of the tablet, where it easily gets separated.
The new holder also supports wireless charging, which means I no longer have to keep a spare hard-to-find AAAA battery handy.
Replaceable solid-state storage
If you have a Surface Pro X or one of the Surface Pro 7+ models sold through Microsoft's commercial channel, you might already be familiar with this feature. But it's brand new to the mainstream Surface Pro user base, and very welcome.
On the Surface Pro 8, the system drive resides on an NVMe SSD that uses the M.2 2230 format. That device is accessible with the right tools, which most DIY types already own. Microsoft offers up stern warnings about this capability, warning that it's "intended for use by qualified IT technicians in an enterprise organization only." And it's true that a trained technician can use this tool to safely decommission a device so that there's no risk of its data files falling into the wrong hands.
But you can also use this feature to avoid paying Microsoft's steep upgrade prices. In fact, it's the only way to get some hardware configurations; the Surface Pro 8 with an i5 CPU and 16 GB of RAM, for example, comes with only one storage option, a 256 GB SSD.
The upgrade isn't difficult, as this iFixit tutorial explains. (Those instructions are for the Surface Pro X, but the steps are identical for Surface Pro models with this design.)
Of course, all of this is based on my reading of the spec sheets, along with a careful review of some videos. The good news is that Microsoft offers a 60-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee, which means this is a risk-free evaluation for me.
I'll let you know how it goes.