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Screengrab of the Surface Pro X. (Photo: Microsoft)
Screengrab of the Surface Pro X. (Photo: Microsoft)

Microsoft Surface Pro X review: Windows is almost ready for ARM

  • The real qualm here is that while Microsoft does have a solution to Windows 10’s problems with ARM, it’s not a foolproof solution yet

NEW DELHI: As someone who writes for a living, I’ll be happy to let go of the fancier features of a laptop for continuous connectivity and long battery life. I want to leave the charger at home, even when I’m not sure that 10 hours is all I’ll spend away from it. That’s the promise ARM-based laptops brought with them.

Before the Surface Pro X though, that battery life came at a heavy price. Older Windows PCs on ARM chips felt slower than laptops I used to use when I was back in college. In tech years, that’s prehistoric.

It’s not enough even for someone like me, whose usage mostly revolves around a million tabs on Chrome, word processing software and now, thanks to the pandemic, about a thousand video calls a week.

But though the Surface Pro X is a huge leap forward, it’s just not enough to be the solution just yet.

The big accomplishment here is that the Surface Pro X doesn’t make you want to throw it against the wall. Neither does it feel like a cheap laptop with very little RAM and an older processor. If anything, the Surface Pro X isn’t just modern in its looks, but also in how it performs.

To spare you a lot of jargon, running Windows on ARM is sort of like switching chassis for a car with a different car’s chassis. You can make it run almost as well as the original, but it will be wobbly at times. ARM chips assume software will be built for a certain processor architecture, but legacy Windows software hasn't been made for that. Microsoft tried to fix this by adding an emulation layer to Windows, which is akin to hammering the new chassis to fit the other car. It just doesn’t work for all software.

The bottomline is this, the Surface Pro X and devices that follow its example in future, will be almost ready to replace laptops, but won’t quite get there. Who will this really matter to? Well, power users come to mind. Companies like Adobe aren’t fully ready to embrace these processors, and the work they’ve already done is better suited to Apple’s iPads than Windows on ARM.

The result is these little lags when I’m selecting all the typed text on a long Google Docs document, or updating my notes on Evernote. It doesn’t hamper how fast I work enough to really complain about them, but I can see why it will matter to a heavier user than myself.

The real qualm here is that while Microsoft does have a solution to Windows 10’s problems with ARM, it’s not a foolproof solution yet. They’re getting there though, and that’s heartening.

Having said that, the problems with the Surface Pro X don’t end there. $1000 price tags are more acceptable in the US than they are in India. At this point, the Surface Pro X is a device that works. But Indians don’t pay Rs. 98,999 for devices that just work, nor should we be expected to.

The value proposition is worse if you consider the fact that the Pro X is only a laptop replacement with Microsoft’s TypeCover keyboard case. That’s an additional Rs. 13,699 and the new “Slim Pen" stylus will add Rs. 14,299 more.

The complete Surface Pro X is too expensive for a journalist like me, who is the ideal user for it right now. Assuming you have that kind of money and are bent on an always connected device with SIM support, the new iPad Pro with its Magic Keyboard costs about the same. In fact, if you pair the Magic Keyboard with last year’s iPad Pro, you will actually save some money.

There’s another problem here. While Windows 10 on ARM promises over 20 hour battery lives, Microsoft’s claimed battery life for the Pro X is much lesser. And in my experience, I could never get past the 10-hour mark. That’s good for an ultrabook, not good for an always connected mobile device.

If you can give up the always connected part, the Dell XPS 13 is a viable alternative. In fact, even Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 7 is in the lakh rupees range. If I can’t leave my charger home, I’m not settling for the wobbles.

On the other hand, the Surface Pro X covers the thin and light part easily. It weighs under a kilogram without the charger and is extremely loud. The display is great too, though not quite as bright as the new iPad Pro’s Liquid Retina display, and the Slim Pen is as good as any other stylus Microsoft has made so far. It also has two USB Type-C ports, which I really hope Apple adopts too.

In sum, the Surface Pro X is a big leap for Windows 10 on ARM. It would have been a viable solution for many who want a PC-like mobile device, if it wasn’t for the price. Perhaps enterprises would want to hand it to their CEOs as a productivity tool. It also benefits from Microsoft’s enterprise features.

But most importantly, we know Windows 10 can work on ARM now. Microsoft better refine things as fast as possible.

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