Surface Pro 8 is exactly what fans wanted, with a larger display, Thunderbolt 4 compatibility, and superior smartpen capabilities. Folks, this is the Surface Pro of your dreams.
Or, at least it appears to be. I’ve only been using Surface Pro 8 since last Thursday, so this represents my initial impressions only and this article is not the more detailed review I’ll write after at least three weeks of daily use. But here’s what I’ve learned so far.
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As you may know, Surface Pro isn’t just Microsoft’s longest-lived computer, it is by far its most successful and most influential. Despite this, Surface Pro has only seen two major designs: the original, which debuted in 2012, and that which debuted with Surface Pro 3 in 2015. And now we have a third design, though it technically appeared first with Surface Pro X in 2019, which fell short because of its lackluster Snapdragon innards and Windows 10 on ARM performance and compatibility issues. With Surface Pro 8, this design finally goes mainstream with the Intel components we’ve always wanted.
Compared to previous (Intel-based) Surface Pro models, there are some major changes, the most obvious being the display. Where Surface Pro 3 and newer utilized a smallish 12.3-inch display panel surrounded by big bezels, Surface Pro 8 introduces a larger and more laptop-like 13-inch display panel surrounded by much smaller bezels, especially on the left and right sides. That this was done in a form factor that isn’t much bigger than that of its predecessor—Surface Pro 8 measures 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.37 inches, compared to 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches for Surface Pro 7—isn’t surprising, given that this is a common upgrade tactic these days. But it’s still very much appreciated.
Microsoft brands its displays as PixelSense, which I always took to mean that they have a high-density pixel count when compared to most portable PC displays. But with Surface Pro 8, this display got a branding upgrade too, it’s now called PixelSense Flow in a nod to Microsoft’s focus on keeping its users “in the flow” as they work distraction-free. And while some of the display’s characteristics are familiar—the 3:2 aspect ratio, which is perfect for a tablet, and its 267 PPI pixel density—there are some nice upgrades too: The resolution is a bit higher, at 2880 x 1920, thanks to the bigger panel size, and this display can switch between a fast 120 Hz refresh rate and the more common 60 Hz.
And that’s interesting. I’ve experienced 90 and 120 Hz displays on smartphones, and most feature an automated dynamic refresh rate feature that speeds up the display when you need it and slows it down when you don’t. Microsoft tells me that this feature is coming to Windows 11 and Surface Pro 8 someday, but it’s not there now. So you must manually switch between 60 Hz (and the default) and 120 Hz in Settings—good luck finding that, by the way—and figure out whether the faster display is worth the resulting reduced battery life. I will report back on my findings.
There’s another display improvement, and this one cuts to the core of what matters to many Surface Pro fans: Thanks to a new GPU Ink Acceleration feature, Surface Pro 8 can work better and more naturally with a smartpen than is the case with any of its predecessors, assuming that that smartpen is an (also new) Surface Slim Pen 2, which includes some necessary components, including haptics, to make it all come together. I’ll look at the Slim Pen 2 a bit more later, but long story short, this combination represents a new apex of smartpen/device integration.
And it’s not just the display that’s new with Surface Pro 8. The very material from which it’s made is also new, and, here, unfortunately, I’m not a fan. To date, all Surface Pro products have been made of magnesium, which is lighter and more durable than aluminum. But Microsoft has switched to aluminum for this release, as it did previously for Surface Laptop too. Naturally, I asked Microsoft why.
What I was told is interesting but unconvincing: Aluminum is more sustainable and more easily recycled, they said, and because aluminum is more easily anodized—painted, basically—Microsoft can produce Surface Pro in multiple colors, as it does with Surface Laptop. And, OK, sure. But my response to that is threefold: Magnesium is easily recycled, too, as it turns out; magnesium is key to the identity of this product line and something fans expect; and It’s not like Surface Pro 8 is available in a family of fun colors. The only choices are Platinum (gray) and Graphite (black).
The review unit comes in that latter color, and I was immediately struck by how much it looks like the black Surface Laptop 2 I previously review. And how much I really wish that it was in natural magnesium instead.
After getting past the display and form factor, the next notable Surface Pro 8 feature is its ports selection. I’ve been harping on Microsoft to adopt Thunderbolt for years, and, boy, did they take their time. But it’s here, finally, with Surface Pro 8: now, instead of one USB-C port and one USB-A port, we get two USB-C ports with USB 4.0/Thunderbolt 4 capabilities in addition to the USB 3-based Surface Connect port and the Type Cover port, neither of which was updated for this release.
That’s great, of course, but I wish the Thunderbolt ports were separated so that there was one on both sides of the PC. And that the ports weren’t so high up on the machine. Yes, I’m never happy.
Internally, we see all the expected updates, with quad-core 11th-generation Intel Core i5-1135G7 or Core i7-1185G7 processor choices, 8 to 32 GB of RAM, and 512 GB or 1 TB of removable SSD storage. This is an Intel Evo PC, and it comes with integrated Iris Xe graphics and a dedicated GPU, which makes sense for this class of PC. And while the fanless option on lower-end configurations from the past is gone, there’s an upside: the Surface Pro 8’s CPUs can’t be throttled as they were in the past. I’ll keep an eye on fan noise and heat and report back for the final review.
Connectivity gets a nice upgrade this year, too, with modern Wi-Fi 6 capabilities, optional 4G/LTE, and Bluetooth 5.1. When asked why 5G wasn’t an option, Microsoft told me that its corporate customers want 4G/LTE, not 5G. (This is the excuse they gave in the past about Thunderbolt, so take that as you will.)
Power, as before, is delivered via a 65-watt Surface Connect power supply, and it includes that same dead USB-A port that doesn’t connect back to the PC but can at least be used to charge a smartphone or other device. Maybe next year, they can make that port as sophisticated as the rest of this configuration.
And because virtually no Surface Pro 8 users will purchase this PC without a Type Cover, it’s worth mentioning that Microsoft has updated that crucial peripheral as well. Here, we’re getting the Signature Type Cover that first debuted with Surface Pro X two years ago, and like the PC itself, it comes with some improvements. Key among them is the integrated charging well for Surface Slim Pen 2, a carpenter’s pencil-type smartpen that comes with some improvements of its own.
Note, however, that Surface Pro 8 and the new Type Covers features a new connector, so they’re not compatible with previous Surface Pros or Type Covers (aside from Surface Pro X).
Surface Slim Pen 2, as noted, is identical to its predecessor, but it comes with a sharper point and an integrated haptics chipset that works in tandem with unique hardware in Surface Pro 8 and the updated pen functionality in Windows 11 to provide the best-yet smartpen experience. According to Microsoft, these things all work together to make the act of writing on the display as much as possible like the experience of writing with a real pen on paper. That, too, is something I need to test, but what I’ve discovered already is that there’s a fourth variable: you need compatible applications, too. More on that soon.
Add all this up and what you get is the biggest leap forward for this product since Surface Pro 3, and despite appearances to the contrary, there’s no real price hike. Yes, Surface Pro 7 started at $750, but that was for a lowball Core i3 configuration that Microsoft dropped this time around. So the base price is now $1100, compared to $1200 for Surface Pro 7 at its launch, a $100 price cut. But that’s before you add a Signature Type Cover and Surface Slim Pen 2 set for $280. (If you don’t need the pen, a Signature Type Cover will set you back $180.)
It seems like it’s worth that price, assuming that the quality and reliability pan out. And Microsoft does routinely have sales, so if you can afford to wait, do so. Either way, this looks like the first Surface Pro to truly elevate to the “tablet that can replace your laptop” tagline. It looks incredible.
<p>Paul, thanks for the write-up. How are you finding the battery life so far? And is the charge to near/full capacity as good as Microsoft is promoting? Cheers.</p>