Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) review

Microsoft still sells the 5th-gen Surface Pro. Has the Pro 6 replaced it?

Microsoft's Surface Pro is the best 2-in-1 you can buy.
Microsoft's Surface Pro is the best 2-in-1 you can buy.
Microsoft's Surface Pro is the best 2-in-1 you can buy.

Highs

  • Excellent notebook performance in a tablet format
  • Significantly improved battery life
  • Outstanding build quality
  • Type Cover offers a quieter experience
  • Surface Pen is more precise and faster

Lows

  • Lacks USB-C
  • Signature Type Cover and Surface Pen are costly add-ons

The 2017 Surface Pro was in some ways an incremental update to the Surface Pro 4 and didn’t bring the pizzazz of other innovations like the Surface Book 2 and Surface Studio. At the time of its release, we were okay with Microsoft slightly improving on the best product in its class — and the hardware in our review unit was solid. It came with a Core i7-7660U CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB solid state drive, which brought the price tag to $2,200.

In 2018, a new configuration was added that included an option for LTE, and Microsoft followed up on the Surface Pro with the smaller and less expensive Surface Go that’s aimed squarely at Apple’s iPad tablet. Lastly, the company updated the line to the Surface Pro 6, adding a black color scheme to go with 8th-generation Intel Core CPUs.

However, the cheaper, fifth-generation Surface Pro is still sold by Microsoft. Is it still worth buying?

World-class engineering

The Surface Pro enjoys the same outstanding attention to detail as every other modern Surface machine, and Microsoft’s ability to produce extremely well-built machines is as apparent as always. Simply put, the Surface Pro is solid as a rock, and it exudes a certain futuristic quality.

It’s also well-designed, with a look and feel that, while minimally changed from the Surface Pro 4, is still an improvement. The corners are more rounded, and the exhaust vents along the edges are less pronounced.

There aren’t many moving parts in the Surface Pro itself. The power and volume buttons along the top are easy to find by feel, and have a crisp action, while the kickstand is smooth and reliably holds the tablet at your chosen angle. It now opens up to 165 degrees, an increase from the Surface Pro 4, which opened 150 degrees. Fully flexed, the kickstand can turn Surface Pro into a nearly-flat slate.

Connectivity is the one design attribute that’s behind the times. Microsoft is late to the party when it comes to adopting the increasingly ubiquitous USB-C connection. It only recently added its first USB-C port to the Surface Book 2, and so the Surface Pro comes equipped with a single USB-A 3.0 connection and a mini-DisplayPort.

There’s also a microSD card reader located under the kickstand, and the same Surface Connect port that Microsoft has been using since the Surface Pro 3. That port provides power to the machine or can connect to the optional Surface Dock. You can buy a Surface Connect to USB-C adapter for $80 if you really need the newest connection type.

A slightly improved typing experience

The Surface Pro is no longer marketed as “the tablet that can replace your notebook.” Microsoft is simply calling it a laptop, which makes it unfortunate that the $160 Signature Type Cover keyboard (received with our review unit) isn’t included. It’s essential. In fact, we can’t imagine why you’d buy a Surface Pro without it. You can save some money with the standard Type Cover, but it’s still $130, and isn’t covered in Alcantara fabric.

Fortunately, this vital accessory shares the high-quality aspects of the Surface Pro, and adds a splash of color as well. Our review unit came with the Cobalt Blue version, but Burgundy, Platinum, and Black versions are also available. The Alcantara feels great and remains a unique feature not found on competing 2-in-1s.

The Signature Type Cover’s key travel is more than sufficient at 1.5mm, with just the right amount of pressure required to register key presses. The action is crisp with just a hint of bottoming out, and it’s quite a bit quieter than the previous Type Cover that shipped alongside the Surface Pro 4. It’s backlit with three levels of brightness, and suffers from minimal light bleed.

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

If you decide to flip into tablet mode for a moment and fold back the Type Cover, the keyboard will turn off when the cover is tucked back. It can even switch Windows 10 into tablet mode, if desired. It attaches to the tablet with strong magnets and connects via a physical port, meaning there’s zero lag when typing. That’s a nice improvement over the Bluetooth keyboard covers used by the Samsung Galaxy Book and original Apple iPad.

The touchpad is a little small, but it works well. It’s a Microsoft Precision touchpad that supports all the Windows 10 gestures you would expect, and it offers up a smooth surface with just enough resistance to provide feedback for accurate mouse control.

The pen is great, but it’ll cost you

Unlike the Surface Pro 4, the new Surface Pro doesn’t include the Surface Pen — an unfortunate decision on Microsoft’s part. The company made up for the decision to make the pen optional by significantly improving its specifications, while pricing the new version at $100. Pressure sensitivity has been quadrupled from 1,024 levels to 4,096, a new tilt feature has been added, and latency has been reduced dramatically to 21ms on the Surface Pro (thanks to the new Surface Pen design and a hardware accelerator).

Microsoft no longer refers to the Surface Pro as a tablet, and that makes sense given its laptop-like components.

The improvements are noticeable, with no discernible delay between when the pen tip is placed on the screen to when Windows 10 Ink starts to flow. And the pen keeps up better with fast motions, never falling behind, as sometimes happens with the Surface Pro 4. The combination makes the Surface Pro one of the best inking experiences on the market, and a great tool for digital drawing and handwriting.

The Surface Dial works out of the box, as does Windows Hello

Of course, the Surface Pro also offers a capacitive touchscreen with 10-point multitouch capabilities. It’s as responsive as ever, offering yet another way to interact with the very touch-friendly Windows 10. And the Surface Pro supports the innovative Surface Dial input accessory directly on the screen.

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Finally, Windows 10 Hello support is provided by an infrared camera that’s mounted next to the HD webcam. It offers password-less login via facial recognition, and we found it to be very fast in our testing.

The usual Surface display quality — which is excellent

The Surface Pro (2017) offers essentially the same display as the Surface Pro 4, meaning it’s a 12.3-inch PixelSense display with 2,736 × 1,824 resolution (267 PPI) panel in a 3:2 aspect ratio. More and more machines are adopting the 3:2 format, as it offers a display that’s a little taller, for fitting more of a document or web page on the screen at once. The aspect ratio does cause some letter-boxing when watching video, however.

Microsoft uses excellent displays in its Surface line, and the Surface Pro is no exception. According to our colorimeter, our Surface Pro review unit’s display offered up some serious contrast that’s bested in our comparison group only by Microsoft’s own Surface Book 2. That promises excellent blacks for a non-OLED display. Color gamut support was average, as was accuracy, making the tablet great for productivity but not the best for image editing pros.

In addition, the display was incredibly bright at 427 nits, promising to help overcome the display’s general glossiness in bright environments. The only real area of weakness was its gamma, which at 2.6 (the ideal is 2.2), likely means some scenes will be brighter than they should.

While the numbers are great, there’s a potential issue with color accuracy — an “Enhanced” color profile found in Display Settings. When enabled, this color mode adjusts the screen to look bolder and more vibrant, but the colors are actually less accurate than in sRGB mode. Everyday users may like the Enhanced profile better, but anyone doing color-critical work should make sure sRGB mode is on.

In use, the Surface Pro’s display is as excellent as it sounds, and getting better all the time as Microsoft improves Windows 10’s support for high resolutions. Text and images are razor sharp, colors are excellent, blacks are deep, and the display is generally a joy to use.

The Surface Pro sports two front-firing speakers on each side of the display. There are small cutouts in the glass to let the sound through, and the design provides impressive sound for a tablet. Music is great, with surprising range, and there’s even a hint of bass. The speakers also get surprisingly loud, and can fill a decent sized room without distorting.

Laptop-like performance

Our review Surface Pro was equipped with a fast dual-core Intel i7-7660U CPU and 16GB of RAM. The Core i7-7660U is no longer at the cutting edge, as two iterations of Intel’s 8th-gen Core processors are now available, and the Surface Pro has now officially fallen well behind the pack — and that includes the Surface Pro 6.

Its GeekBench 4 single-core and multi-core results were solid for the time, but they’re no longer competitive with more modern 2-in-1s. We tested the Surface Pro with an older version of Handbrake and it performed well compared to other 7th-generation Core CPUs, encoding a 420MB video to H.265 in just 822 seconds. That’s significantly faster than each of our comparison systems, and in fact is the fastest result we’ve seen from a dual-core notebook processor.

We have to note, though, that competitors like the Lenovo Yoga 920 and HP Spectre x360 13 were already updated to 8th-gen, quad-core processors. They do outperform the Surface Pro in multi-core tests when so equipped, and that takes away the edge Microsoft enjoyed when the Surface Pro was first released.

Perhaps most impressive is that the Surface Pro managed to keep heat under control even while working so hard. Though the back of the tablet got a bit warm during the Handbrake test, the machine managed to maintain nearly full speed throughout with only minimal CPU throttling. And fan noise was significantly reduced from the Surface Pro 4, never rising to more than a loud whisper that wasn’t nearly as obtrusive in our quiet test environment.

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Microsoft touted the improved thermals in the new Surface Pro during its introduction, and it’s obvious that the company made some real gains this time around. Note that the Core m3 and i5 models are fanless, and will run completely silently, although we can’t attest to how well they’ll maintain speed before needing to throttle things down.

Storage speeds are good, but not great

Our review Surface Pro came equipped with a Samsung PM971 solid-state disk (SSD). It performed well, keeping up with most — but not all — competitive systems.

As you can see from the Surface Pro’s CrystalDiskMark results, the machine’s SSD was fast and only fell behind the Lenovo Yoga 730 13, which was equipped with Samsung’s faster PM961 M.2 SSD. While the PM971 used in the Surface Pro is rated for read speeds up to 1,500 megabytes per second, our review units barely broke 1,000 MB/s. Write performance was a bit more competitive, at 971 MB/s.

Overall, storage performance was excellent and booting, opening apps, and saving data was fast and efficient.

It’s still not a gaming machine (of course)

Microsoft added the option of somewhat faster integrated graphics to the Surface Pro, alongside the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 GPU that was included in our review unit. That choice promises improved performance in typical productivity work, it but doesn’t turn the Surface Pro into a highly-portable gaming machine.

3DMark demonstrates that the Surface Pro with Intel’s Iris Plus graphics performs better than machines with Intel’s more pedestrian integrated graphics. Nevertheless, these aren’t impressive scores if you’re looking to run modern games at 1080p or above.

We ran Civilization VI at 1080p and medium settings just to double check the Surface Pro’s performance, and it scored around 16 frames per second (FPS). Even the Nvidia GeForce 940MX used in the HP Spectre x360 15, which is itself a low-end discrete chip, managed to score 34 FPS in Civilization VI at the same settings. Clearly, the Surface Pro isn’t fast enough to provide a legitimate gaming experience, and more demanding modern games are likely to perform even worse.

The Surface Pro is therefore equipped with graphics that will churn through its intended productivity applications, and will help speed up tasks like video encoding and image editing. If you’re looking for a gaming system, you’ll need to step up to a bigger machine.

Enhanced portability via improved battery life

Microsoft is using a 45 watt-hour battery in the Surface Pro, which is an increase from the 38 watt-hour battery that was packed into the Surface Pro 4. The Surface Pro also uses more efficient seventh-generation Intel Core processors. Taken together, the new model should offer improved battery life over its predecessor.

The Surface Pro did beat out the Surface Pro 4 on our older Peacekeeper test. But it fell behind more modern competitors like the HP Spectre x360 13 and the Surface Book 2 on our newer, more aggressive Basemark web benchmark.

These results held firm on our web browsing test as well, where the Surface Pro managed just over five and a half hours. That’s well behind the nine to 10 hours of 8th-gen Intel Core-equipped 2-in-1s like the Spectre x360 and Surface Book 2.

On our video looping test, the Surface Book managed a strong 10 hours, again behind some competitors but still strong for a detachable tablet. We’ll note that on all of these tests, the more affordable Surface Go was the least long-lasting in our comparison group. The Surface Pro 6 worked some magic in our testing and dramatically improved battery life over its predecessor.

Of course, the Surface Pro is eminently portable at 0.33 inches thick and 1.73 pounds as our review unit was configured. Even with the Signature Type Cover attached, the machine is easy to carry around and slip into a bag. It might not be quite as thin and light as the iPad Pro, but it’s also a much more powerful machine that can run real PC applications.

Our Take

The Surface Pro is technically an incremental update over its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4. That’s not a bad thing, as the Surface Pro 4 was already our favorite detachable tablet. Microsoft simply took what was great about the previous model and made it better, with improved performance, a better thermal design, longer battery life, and an enhanced — albeit somewhat more costly — typing and inking experience.

But the Surface Pro is getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s a fine detachable tablet, and maybe still the best available, but newer convertible 2-in-1s are leaving it behind. That includes the Surface Pro 6, which has taken what was best about the 2017 Surface Pro and made it better.

Is there a better alternative?

The Surface Pro 6 is, naturally, a better choice. It sports the same solid build quality, offers a new black color, is faster, and enjoys better battery life. It also starts at $900 for the Core i5, as there’s no longer a low-end Core m3 version. You can probably find a Surface Pro for less money if you shop around, but you’re better off spending the extra money on the newest model.

Other manufacturers offer detachable tablet Windows 10 2-in-1s, similar in form factor to the Surface Pro. HP has its second-generation Spectre x2, starting at $950, which injects some serious competition into the segment, while Acer has the Switch 7, which is a spendier 2-in-1 that packs a discrete GPU inside.

In addition, there are some 2-in-1s that lack a detachable keyboard have upgraded to Intel 8th-gen Core and easily beat the Surface Pro in multi-core tests as a result. If you don’t mind a larger system, you’ll get more performance value from 2-in-1s like the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga C930, though they often cost more as well.

How long will it last?

The Surface Pro offers a fast (albeit aging) CPU, solid RAM and SSD options, and full support for all of Microsoft’s most innovative Windows 10 technologies. It’s still a relevant configuration and will last for a couple more years. Its connectivity is very old-school, however, and if you anticipate needing full USB-C support going forward, then you’re going to find the Surface Pro a bit limited.

Should you buy it?

Only if you can pick up a unit at a low price. The Surface Pro has been superseded by the Surface Pro 6, but it’s still an excellent detachable tablet in its own right. If you can get it for a lower price, it’s worth it for its excellent design, build quality, and components.

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