Surface Pro X and Microsoft's touchscreen reckoning

The Surface Pro X is Microsoft's best-ever tablet hardware. But touch app stagnation hampers it from making a stronger run at the iPad Pro today and threatens to limit the potential of the Surface Neo next year.

Microsoft's new Surface devices are loaded with 'impressive engineering' The seven-year-old Surface line welcomes a slew of new and updated devices -- including a few surprises. Ed Bott walks us through the highlights. Read more: https://zd.net/2nK4rFf

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Unable to develop a touch-driven ecosystem to rival the iPad's and reacting to the market's shift away from pure slates, Microsoft consigned the Surface Pro -- and Windows that runs on it -- to mostly doing the same kinds of tasks PCs always had. Whereas Windows 8 had left Windows' desktop interface frozen in its Windows 7 form, developer audiences erupted in applause as Microsoft announced improvements in the Windows 10 desktop UI and terminal app. The Surface Pro was a tablet, but it was commonly used that way for only a handful of tasks and vertical apps.

Also: The very best tablets to buy in 2019

It seemed as if Microsoft had given up. But the Surface Pro X shows that Microsoft has not given up. Its lightness, long battery life, and sleek industrial design make it one of the strongest competitors to the 12.9" iPad Pro since Apple released the version that it said it always wanted to make. And, just as with the iPad Pro, some professional apps are experiencing some lateral growing pains adjusting to an ARM-driven world. If traditional Surface applications are driving your purchase decision, then it is harder to make the case for the Surface Pro X versus the road more traveled.

Microsoft has the opposite problem Apple does. Because the iPad doesn't allow you to do many things the way you would on a Mac or PC, Apple has spent the last few years struggling to define whether or how well the iPad might substitute for a laptop for many users, even as the iPad's core components have certainly improved to a level where they should be able to. With the Surface, on the other hand, there's rarely a question as to whether it can meet most people's laptop needs. Microsoft could clearly continue on its path and that would be fine for products like the Surface Pro and, of course, the Surface Laptop. But that doesn't fulfill its hardware group's agenda to evolve PC usage. 

I recently ran into an example of these limitations where I had to access four videos showing different parts of a musical piece while accessing the sheet music for the same music. This seemed like a perfect task for the Surface Pro X as it would allow easy access to the videos in windows while also allowing for a quick pickup of the device as a slate for the sheet music. The open-source media player VLC is even available as a native ARM64 client! However, the app's user interface is poorly optimized for touch. One must burrow deep into its settings to activate touch-driven gesture controls and even these are really optimized more for a mouse.

Also: Apple finally admits iPad Pro won't replace your PC

As for alternative apps, Microsoft's own media player proposition is split between the legacy Windows Media Player and the more streaming entertainment-oriented Xbox Video Player. I was able to find a more touch-friendly third-party media player in the Windows store but it is a work in progress. To the Surface's credit, the task-switching was still less cumbersome than it would be on an iPad, but it wasn't the kind of seamless flow to which the Surface aspires. And it's frustrating because, as Microsoft has shown since the dawn of the Universal Windows Platform, the company clearly knows how to make apps that can transition well between desktop and tablet modes.

The Surface Pro X is Microsoft's best tablet hardware to date. But the other shoe -- third-party touch-friendly apps -- is long overdue to drop. Once, Universal Windows Platform seemed like the answer but, while Microsoft rightly acknowledged that such a monolithic shift was too tall an order, the more tactical win of bigger controls got lost in the shuffle.

The next opportunity for things to fall into place looks like Windows 10X which, at least initially and counterintuitively, will not run on the Surface Pro X. But the challenge transcends processors. Microsoft is striving to preserve as much user interface consistency as possible between the Windows-based Surface Neo and the Android-based Surface Duo. Much of this will focus on how the two devices handle their novel dual screens, but more basic behaviors that must be considered to preserve that consistency as well. More Windows apps must learn how to walk on a single touchscreen before they are asked to run between two of them.

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