Microsoft Surface Pro 8 First Impressions

Posted on October 5, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 38 Comments

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.

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.

You can remove this panel with a SIM tool to access the SSD and, if available, the nano SIM card slot

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).

Previous generation Type Cover (rear) and new version (front)

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.

More soon.

Tagged with

Join the discussion!

BECOME A THURROTT MEMBER:

Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Register
Comments (38)

38 responses to “Microsoft Surface Pro 8 First Impressions”

  1. echorelay

    Thanks for this first impressions, Paul! Just one minor correction: "...though it technically appeared first with Surface Pro X in 2020" -- the first Gen SPX was actually released in Q4 2019.


    Keep it up!

  2. dougkinzinger

    Good first impressions. One comment on the USB-A plug on the Surface AC adapter though. I've found those to be super handy to charge a cell phone or Bluetooth speaker, basically just a "courtesy" USB port for charging, saving a wall-wart at a hotel, etc.

  3. wpcoe

    "...in addition to the USB 3-based Surface Connect port and the Type Cover port, neither of which was updated for this release." vs "Note, however, that Surface Pro 8 and the new Type Covers features a new connector..." Is the port different than the connector? I'd be delighted to be able to keep using my SP6's keyboard, even if the width might be a mis-match.


    And, "... 8 to 32 GB of RAM, and 512 GB or 1 TB of removable SSD storage." -- don't forget 256 GB.


    And, "...it comes with integrated Iris Xe graphics and a dedicated GPU..." -- what is the dedicated GPU?



    • digiguy

      these are completely different connectors, the keyboard one has changed so you'll need the new keyboard, just like the pro keyboard is not compatible with the pro x and with the surface go (with has yet another connector)

      The connector that has not changed is the charging one, that one you can reuse, although it will be slower

  4. ekim

    While you still can't replace the battery (easily) you can now change the SSD. That's pretty good news.

  5. bluvg

    "PixelSense, which I always took to mean that they have a high-density pixel count when compared to most portable PC displays."


    I think PixelSense came from the company they acquired for the giant capacitive touch displays they later put in the Surface Hub devices.

  6. endorphiniser

    Better battery life, a larger screen, somewhere to put the surface pen, more powerful, USB C/Thunderbolt, and a more responsive inking experience: Microsoft have ticked most items on my wish list for a new Surface Pro. Lighter and thinner were my other major wishes, you can't win them all.

  7. WindowedFox

    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.

  8. bitmasher

    Paul, I would love to hear about your experiences with Thunderbolt 4. Especially use with eGPU devices. Seems like a great opportunity, lightweight graphics on the go and plug it in at home to get a great graphics gaming / creative system.


    I wonder when the eGPU market will offer lower cost, integrated GPU products. Why pay for two sets of fans for example?

  9. lewk

    No USB-A? Damn, I couldn't care less about USB-C. All my drives are USB-A.

  10. Belralph

    Just fyi, the LTE model isn't available until 2022 according to what I read. Like others, plotting to replace my Pro X LTE once it's here.

  11. bluvg

    The device itself isn't a bad value, but the floppy keyboard for $180 and keyboard + pen for $280 is outrageous. ("Apple charges more" isn't an excuse.)

    • jeremiah256

      Saying the keyboards are 'floppy' doesn't give the engineering of the keyboards enough credit. The keyboards hold up well. I'm typing this on a Surface 3 (non-Pro) keyboard that I bought back in 2015 and no issues whatsoever in terms of function, and only minor wear and tear.

      • bluvg

        I worked with a fleet of them and don't disagree, they're sturdy enough, though we saw some separation with the cloth for a couple. The keyboard that came out with the SP4 was a huge improvement over the SP3. But $180 for one? That's crazy. (aka margin)

        • solomonrex

          I think the price raise on the base Surface is a lot easier to accept than the keyboard price increase. It hasn't fundamentally changed for most people.

    • ezzy

      ""Apple charges more" isn't an excuse."


      I still remember, "and you can have this custom monitor stand for just $5000!"


      Apple tried to suppress the audience reaction in later videos when that was announced at it's "event" a couple of years ago.

  12. crunchyfrog

    It's great to see that Microsoft has finally given the Surface Pro line a much needed upgrade, at least in design. For me I would wait to see what kind of issues may arise from these new models and also to see if the fixed some other persistent flaws that have plagued the previous models.

  13. rob_clive

    Paul - I heard that the keyboard is made of a different material and is stiffer - how is the typing experience on it?


    Thanks

  14. jaylesh27

    Was the size of the touchpad on the type cover increased?

  15. usman

    Hope they repeat their Black Friday sales again :)

  16. mclark2112

    I am sure I will be ordering a couple of these for work, maybe replace my Surface Pro X.


    I wonder why no one else does the screen like Apple does with the newer iPads, with the rounded and consistent bezels. It really is a dumb thing, but somehow makes it feel more organic. I was really expecting this on the new Surface, as it just feels so much nicer. I know it must be way more expensive, and really does nothing for usability, but it sure makes the device feel more uniform and complete.


    Am I just being nitpicky?

    • Paul Thurrott

      No, this came up during a press Q&A as well. The Surface Go and Laptop Go both have curved display corners. No idea why the rest of the line doesn't, especially given how it would look great with Windows 11.

  17. RobertJasiek

    Surface Pro is becoming like Apple: the numbers of good and bad aspects both increase. To evaluate battery life, we need to await tests. I much prefer 4:3 to 3:2 in tablets. The good aspects have been mentioned. Here is my list of bad hardware aspects:

    • no more i3 option for a lower base price,
    • no more fanless model,
    • strongly mirroring display,
    • no user-replaceable battery and availability at a reasonable price for a guaranteed very long time,
    • small arrow keys (if I needed the Surface keyboard),
    • greedy price increments,
    • expensive stylus.


    Of these, noise, mirroring and missing serviceability prevent my purchase. Possibly a too short battery life might also prevent it.


  18. digiguy

    I am worried that the additional weight (2 pounds now, almost 900 gr) makes the surface pro 8 quite uncomfortable as a tablet. The past pros (100gr lighter) were already at the limit of what I can hold without wanting to put it down immediately... but the new weight is a negative for tablet use... I know many use the pro just as a laptop, but for me the tablet aspect is one of the reason I can accept the poor lappability as a trade-off....

  19. harmjr

    Paul what about using older Pens on this device will the magnet still work to snap them to the side?

    • Paul Thurrott

      Yes, that still works too.

    • safarilarry

      The old pen works on the SP8 but it does not snap to the side. No magnetic ability on the left side. It will attach to the bottom but that won't work if you have the keyboard. My experience so far is that the old pen doesn't work quite as well on the SP8 as it does on my SP4. The SP8 seems to have a "slicker" surface than the SP4 making it not quite as nice for writing. I use Bluetooth keyboard and mouse on the SP4 and they both work fine on the SP8. The Microsoft dock I use on the SP4 works fine on the SP8. I don't use the Microsoft type cover, I use the SP as a tablet with pen (teaching math) or as a desktop (raised on a stand). So far, loving the SP8 except for the pen issues.

  20. paradyne

    Anodizing is not painting!


    I've just looked into this, Fujitsu have a paper on recycling magnesium alloy laptop cases with and without paint. There are problems with painted ones in particular.


    The use of (already recycled) aluminium is quite significant, as it's as easily recycled again as any common drinks cans (in the same common facilities). The anodizing process should actually give it a tougher surface (more scratch and wear resistant) and the process itself is more environmentally friendly than painting too.

  21. murray judy

    Wow, Paul. Your display shots have some significant aliasing. You might be able to remove it in post, but maybe consider a camera with a higher res sensor.

  22. csteinblock

    So the new type cover is not backwards compatible. Are the older type covers compatible with the new surface? Or do I have to buy the new type cover? Same with the pen, is the old pen compatible with the new surface?

  23. bitmasher

    Hey all. I just received this unit yesterday, and trying to get it going. So far I am sorry to say that is does not play well at all with Google. You can't sync to a Gmail account without doing a registry hack (try to add a gmail account and you will see the issue). And Chrome does not seem to want to sync up bookmarks, etc.

Leave a Reply