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Surface Pro (2017): Small refinements to a familiar design

Written by Ed Bott on

​Surface Pro (2017)

$309 at Amazon
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

If the brand-new Surface Pro looks familiar, it's not your imagination.

Microsoft clearly feels it has nailed the form factor for its flagship hybrid PC. In the most recent iteration of its Surface Pro, Microsoft has made only the most subtle changes to the device's unique form factor, which is otherwise nearly identical to the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Pro 3.

The other substantive change, of course, is the model name, which drops the number in favor of a proper name that's clearly designed for some staying power.

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I've had a mere five days of hands-on experience with the new Surface Pro (2017 edition), so consider this a first look. The tl;dr: If you're a fan of the Surface Pro design, this is a subtle but significant upgrade, one that's well worth considering.

If, on the other hand, you're in the market for a conventional clamshell laptop, you now have other options in the Surface family. As a result, the new Surface Pro no longer has to live up to its predecessors' tagline, "the tablet that can replace your laptop."

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Instead, Microsoft calls this iteration "the most versatile laptop." If you're rarely going to use it in tablet mode or in studio mode, propped up on the kickstand so you can draw or sketch with a pen, you should be looking at the Surface Laptop or the more powerful Surface Book instead.

I noticed two small but significant design changes as soon as I unboxed the Surface Pro (2017). The edges are slightly rounded and nowhere near as sharp as those in the Surface Pro 4. In addition, the air vents that run along the sides and top of the tablet are more subtle.

One additional change I noted is a beefier power supply, offering 15V and 2.58A of output, which is 25 percent greater than the previous Surface Pro charger.

The configuration I tested uses a Core i7-7660U CPU, clocked at 2.5 GHz. That dual-core Kaby Lake (7th Generation) Intel processor offers a noticeable speed bump over earlier models, especially for someone considering an upgrade from the 2014-vintage Surface Pro 3, which included a 4th Generation Intel CPU.

With 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB PCIe SSD, the configuration I tested isn't cheap. It lists for $2,199, and upgrading the storage to 1 TB bumps the price by an additional $500, to $2,699. An 8GB i7 model with 256 GB of storage costs $1,599.

If you don't need the raw processing power of the i7, the Core i5 and Core m3 configurations might be a better choice. For starters, they're significantly less expensive, starting at $799 for the Core m3 variation with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of solid-state storage. The i5 configurations are $999 (4 GB RAM, 128 GB storage) and $1,299 (8 GB, 256 GB).

The more intriguing advantage of the i5 and m3 models is that they're fanless. That's a benefit of some nifty engineering work by the Surface design team coupled with the cooler running of the Kaby Lake CPUs. In several days of intensive use, I was rarely able to get the i7 fan to kick in, and even when it did the noise was barely noticeable. But if you're sensitive to such things, the fanless design might be enough to cinch the deal.

Of course, those prices I just quoted don't include a Type Cover or the new Surface Pen. Those two peripherals have also been redesigned for the new Surface Pro.

The new Signature Type Cover uses the same Alcantara material as the keyboard in the Surface Laptop. At $160, it's available in three colors, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Platinum. Microsoft says it's been redesigned from its predecessor, offering slightly greater key travel. I found it almost impossible to distinguish the feel from an earlier model Type Cover.

Because the dimensions and the connector are unchanged, a Surface Pro 4 Type Cover will work just fine with the new Surface Pro.

The story is slightly more complicated with the new Surface Pen. It too has a higher price tag than its predecessor. For $100, you get a device that no longer has a clip on the side. (It also comes in four colors, adding black to the mix along with the three matching Type Cover colors.)

Used with the new Surface Pro, the new pen offers more pressure sensitivity than the older Surface Pen (4,096 levels instead of 1,024) and also offers tilt support for shading.

Those features, along with reduced lag, might be a big deal for an artist. But for non-artists who use the pen for note taking and basic sketching, those new features might be overkill. The good news is that the older Pen works just fine with the new Surface Pro, and the new Pen will work with older Surface Pro models, although it won't offer tilt support without a firmware update that could arrive later.

Meet the army of Surface Pro clones and lookalikes

The distinctive Surface Pro kickstand is also slightly refined for this new model. Instead of stopping at 150 degrees, it now goes to 165 degrees. That allows an artist to detach the Type Cover and position the device so it's tilted at an angle of 15 degrees; in this mode it operates like a miniature version of the much larger Surface Studio.

Of course, that quirky hinge means that "lappability" will continue to be an issue for those who want to work on the great American novel (or even a quick blog post) while sitting on the couch. It's also an issue in flight, where the kickstand can easily slip off the back of an airline tray table.

I used the new Surface Pro with the Surface Dock for several days, and it performed perfectly. Plugging in the blade-shaped Surface Connector offered instant access to power, as well as an external monitor and multiple USB devices.

With the Dock, I could easily use the Surface Pro as a desktop PC. The one unanticipated side effect is its effect on the Windows Hello facial recognition feature.

When using the Surface Pro as a laptop or tablet, Windows Hello works instantly and effortlessly. With the tablet connected to a dock alongside a larger monitor, you have to turn your head to use the facial recognition features. That becomes a challenge if you're also expected to respond to a Windows Hello dialog box on the screen.

One feature notably missing from the new Surface Pro is support for USB Type-C connectors. Microsoft has chosen to stick with its proprietary Surface Connect blade, with a single USB 3 port and mini-DisplayPort output on the side. A Microsoft spokesperson did confirm for me that Microsoft plans to ship a dongle that will add USB Type-C support later this year.

In my brief test period, I wasn't able to measure battery life comprehensively. Microsoft claims that the new Surface Pro can play video for 13.5 hours continuously, a 50 percent jump over the previous model, mostly thanks to improvements in the Kaby Lake CPU family. I did note that I had significantly more battery left at the end of a day of intermittent usage than I did with the Surface Pro 4.

For anyone who owns the Surface Pro 3, the extra performance and battery life should be an easy-to-justify upgrade. Likewise, if you've been in wait-and-see mode on the Surface Pro 4, you can now get that device at a discount.

For current Surface Pro 4 owners, this upgrade isn't a slam dunk, especially if your current device is only a year old. The new Pen features might be a boon for artists, but for basic productivity work, there's no harm in waiting.


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