Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) First Impressions

Posted on June 15, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 32 Comments

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) First Impressions

It may look the same as its predecessor at first glance, but the deeper I dig, the more impressed I become with the improvements Microsoft has made with the new Surface Pro.

In fact, I’m a bit curious that Microsoft went so low-key with this one. The new Surface Pro is absolutely enough of an improvement to justify a “5” at the end of its name. So I can only conclude that we’re seeing a new—and, yes, very Apple-like—approach to device branding in Redmond.

Which is just fine, frankly. No matter what Microsoft calls it, the new Surface Pro is a refined and elegant update to a popular and category-defining product.

And the design is, as Microsoft claims, iconic. So it makes sense that the company would retain what was already working well. But even within the confines of what appears to be a simple retread of past products, there are important improvements.

The body is less angular and sharp-edged, with more graceful curves, for starters. The result is a softer Surface Pro, in looks and in the hand.

And the unique venting that has always been present on Surface Pro is thinner and less obvious than ever. It almost seems like a design element rather than something functional.

Surface Pro (2017, on top) and Surface Pro 4 (bottom)

But that venting is indeed functional: On the Core m3 and i5 versions of Surface Pro, the processor is passively cooled, with no fan, resulting in a completely silent experience. On the Core i7 versions, like the one I am reviewing, the Surface Pro utilizes a new cooling design, and it is the quietest fan-equipped Surface I’ve ever used. By far.

This is an important and noteworthy change.

Previous Surface Pro (and Book) devices were infamously loud, and I have on many occasions compared them to a hissing snake. That this hissing sound seemed to appear out of nowhere, and be unrelated to anything the computer was or was not doing at the time, only added to the annoyance.

Well, that doesn’t happen with the new Surface Pro. Depending on what you are doing at the time, it is either literally silent or is producing such an innocuous fan hiss at such a low volume level that I basically never really notice it. Honestly, it’s a minor miracle of sorts.

How Microsoft achieves this silent operation is open for debate. There’s that new cooling design, of course. But part of the reason is surely a new default power management setting in which better battery life is somewhat favored over better performance. I suspect that improvements in the “Kaby Lake” processor found in this device does much to overcome whatever performance shortcomings this change might have made with previous generation processors as well.

Moving past the slightly revised design and the wonderful silence it enables, the new Surface Pro does indeed closely resemble its predecessors, with roughly the same size, thickness, and weight. It features the same ports—a Surface Connect port for power and expansion, a Cover port for the Type Cover, a single USB 3.0 port, miniDisplayPort, and a microSD card reader tucked under the kickstand.

There is a headphone jack, awkwardly positioned at the top left, and power and volume buttons.

All of that is the same as before, yes, and there’s no need to pull out the USB-C argument yet again. You get it.

But there are other important changes to the exterior of the device. The kickstand—a major Surface innovation from day one—has been improved yet again. Where Surface Pro 4 could tilt back smoothly to a reasonable 150 degrees—enough to meet virtually any touch typist’s needs—the new Surface Pro goes all the way back to 165 degrees.

That may not sound like much on paper, but in real-world use, it’s a dramatic change. In fact, the new Surface Pro tilts back so far, that Microsoft calls this “Studio mode,” an allusion to the Surface Studio All-In-One PC, which offers a similar capability. As with that device, Studio mode provides an ideal angle for handwriting or drawing with Surface Pen. Which is, of course, the point.

This, too, is a bigger change than is immediately obvious. With previous Surface Pro devices, you would typically detach or fold back the Type Cover in order to switch to a tablet usage mode in which you could write on the screen more naturally. With the new Surface Pro, you can of course still do this. But the full Studio mode means you don’t have to. You can just adjust the screen angle as needed and start drawing or writing. (Type Cover, as always, is optional.)

The PixelSense display that you’re tilting during all this usage gymnastics is likewise improved over the unit that shipped in Surface Pro 4. It offers the same resolution (2736 x 1824) with the same pixel density (267 ppi), aspect ratio (3:2), and 10 point multi-touch capabilities as its predecessor, and it does so in the same 12.3-inch form factor. But this display is also compatible with Surface Dial—you can put it right on the display, as you can with Surface Studio, and engage on-screen menus in compatible apps—and it’s brighter and more color accurate than the previous-generation design.

This improved display also provides more vivid colors, Microsoft says, thanks to a new and semi-unique display setting. Basically, you can switch the display on the fly, from Action Center, between the normal sRGB display and a more vivid Enhanced mode, where colors really pop. It’s not quite HDR, as we see on some 4K/UHD TVs and high-end desktop PC monitors. But it’s pretty close. And I find the look to be stunning. You can really see the difference when you place the new Surface Pro side-by-side with Surface Pro 4 and view the same photos, for example. And it’s smart: Skin tone isn’t blown out, as can be the case with HDR.

The Color Profile quick action tile is used to switch between sRGB and Enhanced color modes

(Surface Studio has a more advanced version of this Enhanced color mode thanks to its wide gamut capabilities. So the Surface Pro feature seems to be a nice step in that direction.)

Thanks to a bit of visual trickery, the front-facing cameras—there are two, a normal one and an infra-red camera for Windows Hello—and microphone are less visible than before, and they disappear into the inky blackness of the bezel, creating a more seamless look. It’s a little thing, yes, but a nice touch.

Inside the new Surface Pro, Microsoft has crammed in more modern componentry and more battery in addition to that new cooling system I mentioned previously. That includes those “Kaby Lake” processors, which provide better performance and battery efficiency than their predecessors, not to mention better reliability. As dramatically, the new Surface Pro includes much faster SSD storage than before. And much better battery life, at a rated 13.5 hours.

If you read my PC reviews, you know I take this claim very seriously, and that I will test it for myself via HD video rundown tests and real world usage. But the new Surface Pro’s performance advantages merit testing as well, so I’ll be reporting back on all of these things in my final review.

Another key area of testing is the keyboard cover, which for this generation is available in both Type Cover and Signature Type Cover forms, the latter of which features Microsoft’s much-hyped Alcantara covering.

And on that note, I’m not sure what to think about Alcantara. On the Signature Type Cover, the soft Alcantara material appears to be on the bottom, meaning you will never see or feel it when typing (as you do with Surface Laptop). Instead, you will do so when you carry the device around. Worse—and this is admittedly weird—it smells. Like, really bad. Like petroleum, maybe. Or one of those giant magic markers that is supposed to smell like fruit but really just smells like chemicals. It’s not pleasant. And it is very strong.

If you can get past the smell, the Signature Type Cover doesn’t appear to have changed much compared to previous-generation Type Covers. The layout of the keys on the new Signature Type Covers is almost the same as previous versions. The Ins (“insert”) key has been removed, however, which is smart, and there’s now a new screen brightness key instead. Backlighting works as before, and it provides an excellent typing experience.

The glass precision touchpad works well too.

The Signature Type Covers are available in three Surface Laptop-like colors—Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Platinum—for $160 each, or you can save $30 and get the standard (non-Signature) black Type Cover. I’d be OK with the standard version, frankly.

A Type Cover is obviously a necessity with Surface Pro. But for many, no Surface Pro is complete without a Surface Pen too. Microsoft agrees, but it also knows that only 30 percent of Surface Pro customers actually use that peripheral. So it’s no longer included with the device.

This is understandable. But it also means that many new Surface Pro buyers will miss out on one of the more impressive improvements that this system provides. And that is a new, third generation Surface Pen design that provides dramatically better performance and pressure sensitivity, new capabilities like tilt, and a more natural writing experience than ever before.

I’ll be writing about the new Surface Pen separately, and comparing it to Apple Pencil. But there are two things you should know up-front. First, the new Surface Pen works fine with virtually any Surface device, but it will deliver the best performance with the new Surface Pro because of its unique “Pixelsense Accelerator” chip. And second, the new Surface Pen is much more expensive than before, at $99.99. If you need such a thing, it’s probably worth it.

Actually, here’s a third useful Surface Pen tidbit, and this is something Microsoft is not openly promoting for some reason: Like its predecessors, the new Surface Pro utilizes magnets on its left edge so that you can attach the Pen for travel. But these magnets are much more powerful on this new device, and they hold Surface Pen in place much more effectively. It’s no Surface Loop—what is?—but this setup isn’t as precarious as it used to be.

Speaking of precarious, the new Surface Pro is no more lappable than previous Pro devices. This makes sense given that it utilizes the same basic design. But with Microsoft’s new insistence on describing this device, against all logic, as a laptop, I find it odd how poorly it works in this way. It’s the first non-lappable laptop, I guess.

(Your ability to use Surface Pro, or any other device, on your lap is tied to the length of your upper legs. I’m tall at a bit over 6 feet, but my upper legs are apparently not all that long. So Surface Pro is a no-go for me unless I have a table or other surface to place it on. Or I’m using it like a tablet.)

The Surface Pro I’m using is incredibly expensive at $2200 before Type Cover and Pen. But this is a high-end model with a Core i7 processor, Iris Plus Graphics, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of SSD storage. You can get an entry level model—with a Core m3 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of SSD storage—for $799. But I think the sweet spot is in the middle: For $1299, you can get a Core i5 processor (silent, with no fans), 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of SSD storage. That’s the one I’d buy, I think. And it’s the one I wish I was reviewing.

But when you factor in $130 to $160 for a Type Cover and $100 for a Surface Pen, the price creeps up even further, of course. This is a premium device, for sure. And you will pay the price, literally.

After I’ve completed my testing, I’ll chime in again with my final review. But I have other topics related to the new Surface Pen to discuss as well. So I’ll be writing more about this intriguing new device ahead of that review.

More soon.

 

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Comments (32)

32 responses to “Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) First Impressions”

  1. ChristopherCollins

    Got a Surface Laptop article coming? That is what I REALLY want your thoughts on. It has my interest.

  2. tbtalbot

    They are shipping today.... Checking for deliveries.

  3. jchampeau

    What's it like using a Surface Pro without the keyboard attached to read Kindle content via the Kindle app?

  4. Minok

    Alcantara is a well established surface treatment in sports and race cars. As a steering wheel cover material, and as headliners and dash/panel covers. So that the Surface Pro with Alcantara smells is likely a result of how the units are manufactured and the materials handled/stored/applied. Its not something inherant to Alcantara, but in how the Surface Pro is manufactured and shipped. How if one can damp-sponge wash down one's Surface to clean up the Alcantara from the accumulation of skin oils and cheeto dust that is bound to accumulate, thats great. But if the Surface Pro with Alcantara isn't IP61 sealed, thats going to be a problem long term.

  5. Narg

    I just wish they offered a key cover without that small bend at the top. They keyboard bounces too much for my tastes when tilted up. And since when did laptop keyboard tilt up anyway, they almost all don't do this. Flat is perfectly fine with me. Plus where's the finger print reader in the new keyboard? Microsoft just can't seem to keep up the work to be a premium device IMHO. I'll keep my eye on the EVE computer.

  6. PeteP

    The pen is still only available in silver. Sure wish they'd start shipping the other colors, such as the Cobalt Blue one in Paul's photo.

  7. Ames

    Paul, when does LTE come out?

  8. chrisrut

    OK, I'm an old fart: somebody please explain to me why it's "smart" to remove the poor old "Insert" key? :-)

    I don't get it. But I do use "it" rather frequently... Is insert vs. over-typing in text no longer in style?

    • straker135

      In reply to chrisrut: Hi Chris I am possibly in the old fart category at 57, at least in computing terms. My first PC had 4MB RAM, 33MHz Processor and 40MB HDD, and I have never used the 'Insert' Key deliberately in almost 30 years of computing. This is purely personal experience of course. An actual transcriptionist or professional writer is likely to be the best to answer your query but I have never seen, or heard of, any of the staff that I know at my organization use INS.


  9. jgraebner

    I'm sorry to see that Microsoft seems to have discontinued the Type Cover with a fingerprint reader. I use mine all the time and am tempted to try and grab a spare on the secondary market, just in case I ever have to replace it. I'm sure it is due to the Windows Hello camera (and I do use that on my SP4), but Windows Hello is still generally not supported in a lot of applications (like Lastpass) which support the fingerprint reader. Frankly, I've also found that even for login, the fingerprint reader is often faster than facial recognition.


  10. cseafous

    I am really glad to see such a positive review. Especially since I've pre-ordered the sweet spot model. I imagine, coming from a Surface 2, I will be blown away by the difference in performance.


    Thanks for the insight!

  11. RobertJasiek

    One major aspect is still missing: a very outdoor-friendly, low reflectance. Matte would do it or Microsoft should buy Gorilla Glass and finish development of the non-mirroring glare glass presented in 2013.

    Reasonably priced, long-term battery replacement (service) is also missing.

    Otherwise, it is only details: two USB 3.0 ports (or Thunderbolt) would be better than one. Really round edges instead of only marginally rounded edges would more easily welcome hours of handholding.

    The battery tests I want to see are: m3 compared to i5 when surfing over WLAN at 50 or 100% brightness.

    Every other improvement achieved is good.

    That said, what I really want is a Surface Tablet designed like an iPad chassis and display ratio, and with matte display and battery life as of Toshiba Portege X20W. If, as Microsoft admits, Surface Pro is laptop first, there still is room (a huge market gap indeed) for a Surface Tablet / Ereader. (No, not foldable. Nobody wants breaking devices.)

  12. Brian560

    Along with a review of the i7 model, a review of the m3 would be most useful for both the Surface Pro and the new Surface laptop. It would be no surprise that the top of the line fully loaded model is a delight to use, but what about the entry models? Is the m3 enough to drive them without continuously crashing?

  13. DocPaul

    I have to clean the dust out of my laptops' heat syncs every 2 years or so--whenever I start to notice the fan is active more often than it ought to be. I've always been hesitant to buy anything that didn't provide easy access to it's heat sync. Because of this, the new fanless i5 is the first Surface I've seriously considered buying. I'm curious though, can any long time Surface owners comment on dust build-up within the cooling system?

    • Tae Cooke

      In reply to DocPaul:

      My original Surface Pro is still going strong. It gets used daily during the academic year. Battery life is terrible, but it was terrible to begin with and hasn't gotten too much more terrible over the service life. Probably high time to upgrade and this new model looks great, but I can't stomach the price with the old one still working well.

    • Maelstrom

      In reply to DocPaul:

      I haven't noticed any difference with my Surface Pro 3 since I got it in September 2014. The fact that the exhaust ports are very small does help I presume.

  14. Chris Blair

    Yes, an article comparing the performance, read throttling, of the Surface Pro i5 and i7 models would be interesting. And regarding the smell, I've read on other sites that it is due to a polyurethane coating, and will go away after a few days. Hopefully.

  15. Polycrastinator

    I'll be very interested to know - if you have time to test this - whether enabling enhanced color mode affects battery life or not. I presume so, otherwise why would you allow the user to toggle it off at all?

  16. gmtom1

    Would love to see a comparison or your thoughts on the new Surface Pro vs. the HP Spectre x2/Elite x2 g2 devices that HP announced (almost simutaneously) with the Surface.

  17. dstrauss

    Very good article, but I still don't think the Surface Pro 2017 doesn't offer enough to justify an upgrade from a Surface Pro 4 at this point. Perhaps next year, with USB C/Thunderbolt 3 port replacing the mini Displayport, and more battery life, that will make the cut. Other testers around the Web have reported bump in battery life from 6 hours on the SP4 (my general battery life as well in "real life") to 7.5 on the SP(2017) - a far cry from the 1.5x battery life claims.

  18. StevenLayton

    Great review Paul. Love the fact the photos you've taken of the device are outside. Not sure if this was just to show off your freshly mowed lawn! ;-)

  19. Angusmatheson

    At work I went from the MacBook Air to the 2016 MacBook Pro. The new pro is mich more angular than the air, and it feels much worse in the hand when carried - which I do all day long which I'm sure isn't normal. Going more smooth and rounded is a good move on the 2017 surface pro. With these new portable devices how the feel in hand really matters. It funny how just just a few years ago laptops were basically portable desktops - weighing 5lbs, 3-4 hours of battery - so you couldn't go far with them and had to use them basically plugged in. So the feel of carrying them around was pointless. Oh how things have changed.

    • Chris Blair

      In reply to Angusmatheson: Yes, use case matters. I have a Surface Pro 3 and rarely use it while holding it in the air. Instead I use it either on my lap, which I have no problem doing, or on my chest (when on the couch watching a video), or on a table or desk. As a result I don't care so much about weight or hand-holding ergonomics, but totally understand that you would and should in your use case. One other comment about "holding," I find that the Surface Pro kickstand acts as a useful handle of sorts in the rare cases when I do want to hold it in one hand.

  20. Edward Grego

    Did you have to re-attach the keyboard because it has become unresponsive? I have bought every single Surface Pro up to SP-3, and refuse to buy another until MS can figure out how to fix this issue that has been prevalent on every Surface product made.

    I know this is one issue, but IMHO it's emblematic of the deep issues at MS, they simply don't pay attention to the details.

    These devices, since the CU are very unstable and buggy, prior to the CU the were very stable and not at all buggy,(for the most part) and I simply tired of putting up with this. MS has been saying for sooooooo long that the reason Windows can't be as stable as Mac is because Apple makes it's own hardware and software, so do you MS, fix what you currently have and stop F'ing it up!

    Sorry for the rant, but will typing this out, my Surface Book decided it wasn't going to recognize its own keyboard and had to restart, really pisses me off.

    • Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to Edward Grego:

      I had this issue with every Surface I've ever owned. I also had the problem with the microSD card disappearing on resume. Had to eject it and reinsert it. There's a long thread about it on the support pages that people still comment on (I get email alerts), and it dates back to original Surface.

      • Edward Grego

        In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

        Exactly right Dar, my question is, how do these problems still exist? Say what you want about Apple, I own an IMac 2011, iPads and iPhones, NONE have these persistent issues that are never commented on or solved by Apple. After what MS has done to the Band, unresolved issues with Surface, half baked OS releases and the Windows Phone abandonment, the ONLY reason I'm still using MS products is Apples resistance to touch and pen support on their desktop devices. I don't think I'm the only one, I think that if Apple does a 180 on these issues, MS would have the fastest user abandonment in history.

    • Chris Blair

      In reply to Edward Grego: I have had a Surface Pro 3 for a couple of years and yes on occasion the track pad (mouse) is not recognized until I remove and re-attach the keyboard. I've rarely if ever experienced a non-responsive keyboard, however. In any case, overall, I "love" my Surface Pro 3. It's my favorite tech device of all the ones that I've owned (desktop PCs, Thinkpads, Blackberries, iPhones, Windows phones, and Android tablets). I use it as a laptop for word-processing etc. and as a tablet for drawing and note-taking. But I find it kind of funny that we often end up either "loving" or "hating" a device ... as it is in the end just a device not a person :)


      • Edward Grego

        In reply to Chris Blair:

        Don't get me wrong, up to the CU update, it had become a outstanding device with the exception of having to occasionally re-attach the keyboard. Since the CU, it happens ALL the time, rarely wakes properly, still don't understand the unlocking process and other bugs that shouldn't be there. MS made a mess of my SP3, but I'm sure a few of these bugs can be mitigated or completely fixed if I were to wipe it. But there is no baked in way to restore my SP to the way it was, and just the fact that I need to wipe it pisses my off.


  21. cheetahdriver

    My company bought a number of SP3s, and everyone loved them, still do. Due to Paul's warnings we waited to pick up one SP4, and waited another 6months to deploy it. It never has, IMHO worked right, and has been relegated to a backup desktop unit. We will buy no SP5s, sorry Microsoft.

  22. FERNANDEZC4

    Got my Surface Pro 4 i7 512 16GB - which I believe was the same one that you are testing Paul. I am absolutely loving the device so far after two days. In the past I have had a Surface RT, Surface Pro 2, Pro 3, Pro 4 and now PRO and this hands down feels the best and has performed the best. I am still running some tests, but I have not gotten a good solid read on true normal/heavy usage is on the battery life. I am hoping to have a good read on it this week. The battery life is already more than my Surface Pro 4 but I am still testing out to see if I can get into the 7-10 hour range of normal (Edge, OneNote, Outlook) usage. That is what really grabbed my attention, and also this device has been perfectly silent the whole time. Love that!

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