back to article Microsoft's Surface Pro 9 requires a tedious balancing act

In one of the documents uncovered during Microsoft's defense of its acquisition of Activision is a slide in which the software giant expresses its desire for "Surface devices to inspire the ecosystem and set the premium bar for quality and innovation." The Surface Pro 9 won't achieve either goal, I promise. The machine's main …

  1. Catkin Silver badge

    Laboured Ergonomics

    Unless I'm missing something, the ergonomics look pretty similar to past Surfaces. I agree that they don't work particularly well as *lap*tops but it seems like a good compromise to get the true tablet ergos when the keyboard is detached. Having started using them after prior experience with X series Thinkpad tablets, they're much more pleasant to hold and ink on, even if the keyboard either needs to be awkwardly folded or go in a bag during standing tablet use.

    1. katrinab Silver badge
      Gimp

      Re: Laboured Ergonomics

      I think the iPad with the Logitech Keyboard case works a bit better as a laptop replacement. You still get the flap at the back to hold it up, but the base is a flat surface, and it has reasonably decent keys. Software is a bit limited, but there is the Remote Desktop app to run Windows Software from another machine, but you should still get a proper laptop if that is your main intended use-case for it.

      At work, I mostly use it to sign documents with the Apple Pencil, and as a second screen to run Teams while using my laptop for actual proper work.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Laboured Ergonomics

        Not sure how the author missed that the Surface Pro != Surface Book, it's been a decade. The author wants a Book... not a Pro.

        I have 4 Pro's, a 13.5 Book and a 15in book. All 6 are running the Surface kernel with KDE. Touch and rotation is a little wonky when diverging from Gnome (I'm using xinput for corrections) but all in all they are the best Linux tablets/2-in-1's on the.marker.

        The real draw back about the Book is that there is no USB ports so you have to use an adapter or hub. The real drawback about the Pro is the smaller screen. With the 15in Book, in CodeBlocks I get about 80 lines and 120 columns. With a Pro, I get about 50 lines and 80 columns.

        While it should be obvious, you can't use a Pro as a laptop unless you get one of the 3rd party stands. To be honest, the Book works fine but for me it kind of wobbles a bit when used on my lap. The OEM keyboard is horrible for both.

        FWIW, I don't use anything as a "laptop" because I use all monitors in portrait orientation (I seldomly edit video).

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Laboured Ergonomics

          "Not sure how the author missed that the Surface Pro != Surface Book, it's been a decade. The author wants a Book... not a Pro."

          True. But to be fair to the author, he does make the point that the entire series of articles is about trying out different kit in different situations. In this case, using a Pro as a replacement for a laptop is likely not a great experience, even if it is useful is other situations.

    2. Sampler

      Re: Laboured Ergonomics

      Agreed, I think by v9 it's a bit odd to spend half the review complaining about the form factor.

      Can't think I've had cause to use my on my actual lap but have found it fairly simple to use in tablet mode when sat on the couch and not enjoying the missus taste in tv and not too heavy (but then I use 600mm lenses on a full frame camera for recreation, so my basis for heavy might differ to some). I haven't really noticed the heat issues either, but then I'm not really taxing it when carrying around, mostly a bit of chrome or office.

      Fair point in the review on connectors, I guess I can kinda see the point from MSs pov of keeping the surface connector for the surface hubs they sell (and market higher than the thunderbolt or usb-c hubs you could now choose instead) but from a user pov, it's not really needed and I do like the options having two thunderbolt 4's has but would've appreciated more connections (but that seems de rigueur on most laptops these days, to do away with ports) - personally a full size SD Card slot would be great (as a CFExpress A is unlikely as most sensible companies (ie, not Sony) use B - or even a framework style slot to fit a port of your choice, problematic as the form factor would make that, but seeing as I'm already in to ideal dreams that'll never eventuate, why not dream big). Or even having one of those USB-C / Thunderbolt4 connections being on the other side for choice of set-ups.

      As a small, light, portable windows machine, I find it great. I have an actual desktop for real work, and this does great when out and about.

      Yes it's expensive, some of that can be mitigated by not paying their ridiculous tax on SSD's, for less than the price delta between the 256gb and 512gb models I got a 2tb ssd to replace the 256gb one so now have a model with twice the capacity of the top of the line they ship for less than the middle option, but, end of the day, it is good at what it aims to be. Fucked if you need to fix anything though, as only the SSD has an access hatch and presumably also is the only thing to not come soldered to the motherboard underneath a glued on case.

  2. GlenP Silver badge

    We're largely moving away from the Surface tablets unless an eligible user really wants one. For several years they've been issued to users who are frequent fliers or C-Suite level but the policy has changed for a few reasons.

    Unless you are going to use it as a tablet regularly a laptop is more convenient for most purposes.

    The overall cost of a surface for any given spec is significantly higher than the equivalent laptop.

    A good 13" laptop isn't much bigger, or heavier, than a Surface tablet plus keyboard.

    Laptop connectivity is generally better - you don't need to carry around a video/network/USB adapter.

    We're constantly struggling to source Surface's reliably - MS themselves cancelled an order without even bothering to tell us, another previously reliable supplier sent the wrong keyboard and took 3 months to refund the cost, etc.

    Laptop keyboards are far better.

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "We're largely moving away from the Surface tablets unless an eligible user really wants one."

      Tablets are mainly a 'consumption' device. While you can 'produce' on a tablet, it's far easier on a laptop and often much easier yet to do those tasks on a desktop. I have all three and use them pretty much for best fit. The tablet is used to remote control my camera and drone exclusively. The laptop is often my daily driver for fetching email, commentarding and looking for very strange things on eBay. When I'm editing photos, videos or designing circuit boards, I'm on one of my desktops and getting a nice tan from multiple large monitors. If I need to type more than a couple of paragraphs, that's when I'd rather be using my top spec keyboard that's a joy to type on rather than poking a glass screen or what gets called a keyboard on a laptop these days.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Laptop keyboards are far better.

      I've just acquired a 3rd (or 4th) hand lenovo laptop, about 5 gens down the current one, and - as expected - the keyboard so praised by the (then) reviewers of this model is just shit. I already lost hope re. decent keyboard, let alone GOOD one. I've got a feeling that it's the same as with many other advancements in our society and technology: a shitty (read: improved profit margin) solution becomes the norm, people have no choice but to accept it, and the 'norm' constantly gets worse and worse, because them profit margins need constant 'improvement'). I don't know if people started typing less and fingering (the screens) more, therefore keyboards became shittier, or did it start with keyboards becoming shitter so people started typing less, net result, a laptop, that was supposed to make me more mobile and able to work on the move, is pretty much useless, and I'm now considering a cheap but chearful win tablet + light but decent mini-keyboard. And a stand. Progress, eh?

      1. tiggity Silver badge

        Re: Laptop keyboards are far better.

        I have laptop raised on a stand on my desk (so screen at a sensible height instead of having to look down at the screen) and attach a separate decent keyboard & mouse - this is my standard approach if I am going to be working on a laptop for any period of time - i.e. never use the laptop keyboard or trackpad if sitting at a desk, only grudgingly use them if "out & about" & small amount of typing needed.

  3. Bebu Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Perhaps the keyboards is a bit last century :)

    Been fiddling with an el Cheapo Lenovo P11 using the pen and Gboard handwriting recognition interface.

    I am quite impressed how well this pretty generic tech combo works. Even with my prescription standard handwriting it works surprisingly well.

    I have composed a couple of A4+ sized emails taking perhaps 15% longer than on a desktop (Android 11/Bluemail v Linux/Evolution.)

    Something like this with an A4 sized e-Paper display and ML enhanced handwriting recognition was what was envisaging as "just around the corner" 40 years ago. At that time I was more interested in being able to enter math and logic notations.

    Of course we have always been fobbed of by the likes of these MS thigh cutters and Apple's thigh cookers (remember ;)

    I was fascinated at the time by the GO PenPoint OS but never got my hands on any of the hardware or software only some of the developer documentation which I particularly remember as being extremely well written cf MS and other's efforts.

  4. WolfFan

    I used to have a Surface Pro

    I found it to be an overpriced iPad pretending to be a convertible laptop. I couldn’t stand the keyboard. The fact that it ran Win 10 was good in some ways, terrible in others; notably, it had problems connecting to certain secure networks. As I needed it specifically to carry around and connect to various networks, this was a major problem. The fact that it cost more than an iPad but gave more trouble was the final straw. Fortunately it wasn’t actually mine, it was a work machine, and I traded it in for a Lenovo laptop. The Lenovo is also Win 10, but doesn’t have the connectivity issues. And has a much better keyboard. And a bigger display.

    I am quite unlikely to try a Surface again. The company is dumping the Surface units, replacing them with Lenovos and iPad Pros.

    1. Chris J

      Re: I used to have a Surface Pro

      Marvell chipset. Loads of issues. Later versions use Intel which is more stable.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: I used to have a Surface Pro

      I used one when volunteering for a while. It was acceptable as a laptop, but I found some of the same unpleasant aspects as the author when trying to use it off a desk. The kickstand meant it required more footprint to stand and wasn't comfortable on a lap. Meanwhile, I didn't find it that useful as a tablet, though in its defense I don't like or have tablets anyway, so I'm not the target market for that part. Either way, while it could work fine as a laptop, I saw nothing in its favor while it was doing that job, so I prefer other laptops.

      I did find it to have great Linux support, though. That was something in its favor, and I've heard from others, especially those who do like tablets, that subsequent versions are also good with it. I don't know if that applies to all of them, but it's at least a few.

  5. thondwe

    Surface Pro keyboard - horrible thing!

    Much prefer my Surface Book form factor - Laptop on Laptop - flip screen on keyboard so it sits nice with my Monitor on the desk. Sadly it's been superceeded by the much more expensive (I think) Surface Studio.

    Also like my kids X360's as an option.

  6. Binraider Silver badge

    Unrepairable / unmaintainable e-waste.

    But then I can say the same for an awful lot of hardware.

    1. Catkin Silver badge

      I believe that, for the last three generations (at least), they've improved from 'just above Apple' (on the basis of not engaging in component serialisation) to 'just a bit more above Apple' (on the basis of accessible, socketed storage). The Surface Books are 'quite a bit above Apple' because you can remove the keyboard without reaching for the heat gun, drilling any rivets or replacing the entire lower chassis.

      Admittedly, Apple sets a very low bar.

  7. Chris J

    Why would anyone buy a device with a form factor they don't like or a keyboard they can't stand? Both very personal choices. I've used Surface Pros for years and for me they've been a good compromise between laptop and tablet. I also had the same form factor X1 at work which was also very effective albeit heavier. For travel especially, the flexibility works well. In my experience, it is much easier to use a Surface on a train or plane, than it is to use a clamshell laptop. Perhaps my legs have more natural padding, but I don't find it uncomfortable to use on my lap occasionally. Only real issue with that is the cat likes to knock it over; I don't think we can blame Microsoft for that. Biggest complaint is serviceability. My current Surface Pro 7 has slowed to a crawl. I suspect a faulty SSD but this is the generation before they made them replaceable.

    1. Johnb89

      Why would anyone buy....

      Because either:

      1. They didn't think anyone would make something useless/horrible/untested... 'how bad can it be?'

      2. Corporate IT got a deal, so in fact the user isn't the buyer

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why would anyone buy....

        3. They are using it in order to write a review and are highlighting the things you should spend time on before buying (all in the anecdotal style of the series).

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Facepalm

      As it says in a sidebar to TFA:

      PCs and alternative devices have increasingly diversified into myriad and marvellous forms, so I've decided that I'll use a new one whenever I can – from the mainstream to the weird – and share the experience. Buy at your own risk: these aren't recommendations or formal reviews. They’re a letter from behind the keyboard of a computer we've visited for a week or so. This article is the latest in the Desktop Tourism series.

      ie, it was a review unit, they didn't buy it.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Been there, done that with a Dell

    Same exact problems: contact points, design, too hot. As long as I used the provided (and oversized) Dell docking station (USB-C) for power, monitor, ethernet, wired mouse, it was decent, but could have used more memory. Starting Office apps were slow, as were some internet connections. Okay for a hotel room desk, but so is a regular laptop.

    Granted, this was actually provided by the "customer" (hence anon) using their special flavor of Windows, requiring my special credentials smartcard + PIN for system and online app access Every Single Day. It was work that I couldn't do from my normal work laptop. I was glad to turn that thing in, and the next time a customer rep suggested getting me back inside their network I said "normal laptop or no deal". Turns out the current project didn't need internal access that bad after all.

  9. Nik 2

    Rubbish review

    I like my Surface Pro, but I understand why others wouldn't. A decision to buy the latest one would be based on the spec uplift from the previous version and the price point(s)

    It would be useful to have a review from someone who had used one before - it's hardly a new form-factor

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Rubbish review

      OTOH it is good to have a review from someone who is comparing the experience to other styles of device.

      Reviews of "the next model of something I've already got" will say "it is as comfortable to use as the last one" at best.

      Comparing basic specs between models: you hardly need a review for that, just look them up and and see if they've improved the bit you found to be limiting.

  10. Tex4life

    Surface Pro - reliable and solid device since 2014

    I've been using the Surface Pro since version 3, its a great device, rock solid and never have had issue with it. I travel 3 to 4 times per months and have never had issue using this devlce as a laptop. I love the form factor size and the ability to replace the keyboard whenever its needed. I've now had every version 3 to 8, didn't get the 9 since the cellular support is only in the ARM model which that is complete garbage. Overall they are great devices, we issue the Pro and Surface Laptop to all management and above in my company and have never had complaints.

    1. JustHonour

      Re: Surface Pro - reliable and solid device since 2014

      Still using my Surface Pro 2. Never had any issues although the keyboard is a bit tatty. I only half started to consider upgrading this year - or perhaps I'll wait another year. Longest serving laptop I've ever owned (10 years!?).

  11. rkmlarsen

    This article, and the complaints therein, are over a decade late. Pretty much all the usability issues were identified and documented in the months following the launch of the 1st gen Surface in late 2012.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You mean Simon accidentally reviewed a 1st gen unit? Must have been bloody impressive, getting a ten-core CPU in a Surface over a decade ago!

  12. cnewtonne

    I work from coffee shops a lot and on more than one occasion I saw the user of the a SPro attempting to reposition the device only to push the kickstand off of the table edge. Within seconds, you now have a broken screen and most likely a non-functional one. This wouldn't happen with a laptop.

    I have owned and used Surface pro devices since generation three. People stop by and ask me about this 'different' looking computer and they want to know if I recommend it. My answer has always been: Generally, NO. Unless you are forced to use Windows for some reason or another, do not do it. For example, if you rely on MS Office, there is no other way of getting the full feature set other than Windows.

    For a mobile worker, the battery life on the SP8, for example, is just horrible. For my usage, 4.5 hrs.

    Truly, my recent experience using a Macbook Air M2 has changed my opinion on Windows/Intel computers. The instantaneous app response, the whole day battery life, the phone integration, the availability of the app store, the app quality, and the availability of my data on all devices is magical. No other company or software maker has come close to any of this.

    1. Zazu56

      This

      I've been a Windows user and occasionally a programmer for many a year. Now happily retired and no longer having to use Windows, I have recently bought a MacBook Air M2 and it is a revelation. As you point out seamless data sharing between iPhone and iPad, even starting to enjoy Apple Numbers.

  13. spold Silver badge

    Pick the right tool for the job

    It's not that different from my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga. I rarely use the detachable keyboard except when travelling and seated at a desk. For "in-travel" I use the screen keyboard or find a level surface (ha). For my in-my-office use I have a separate mechanical keyboard mouse etc. (and it drives 3 hi res monitors besides itself). I expect the dynamics of this thing are the same. Yes, trying to use that with the flappy thing on your lap just isn't going to work - wrong thing for the use case - get a top-end ultra light robust laptop instead.

  14. rajivdx

    I guess the Author is missing the point of the Surface Pro

    Looks like what the author really needs is a bog standard laptop. The surface pro has a very specific use case:

    1. It is a tablet that you can carry around and use like an iPad when on the move. If you have a table to use it on then flip out the kickstand, place it on the table and work away. If not, fold the keyboard away and use it as a tablet.

    2. It is a workstation, when at your desk, dock it and use it in all its glory as a full blown workstation with your huge monitor and comfortable keyboard. It is a no compromises machine - no running only tablet apps and 1 or 2 apps at a time.

    I also found that it is an extremely sturdy machine. My son has smashed every chromebook and laptop I got him in school. When I went to look for a Macbook Air for him at high school - the one on display at the shop had a warning posted on it not to touch the screen or it will break. I was sure if I got the Macbook Air he will break the screen within 1 week of having it, so I got him a surface Pro since.

    In the last 5 years he has had 2 Surface Pro's and both survived the abuse. I hear them fall off his table with a thud regularly - and when that happens the keyboard just comes off and the charge cable detaches saving the joint which would otherwise break on a regular laptop. The tablet itself is built like a brick and can take immense abuse and the screen does not crack from just being dropped (Got a bumper case of course). He is on his second surface pro after the first one's battery gave way after 5 years of abuse.

    So, get a surface pro if you are on the move and need a sturdy no compromises machine (If you are just browsing the web and Youtube - get an iPad). I also use Thinkpads which are extremely sturdy and have a nice keyboard, but can't be used as tablets (Yoga != Thinkpad).

    1. david1024

      Re: I guess the Author is missing the point of the Surface Pro

      I have been using these for many years as 2nd computing devices and as ultra portables (on vacation or surfing on the couch). With a reasonable dock, I have even used them as displays to debug embedded systems too (I am on my 3rd but the others still work fine). I do miss the heavy desktop docks I could throw them in though.

      I really don't have much use for a machine to transcode video while I'm on a plane... just not something that comes up. Now, doing a power point, reviewing technical documents... Nothing better. iPads are toys for the kids these things work for a living.

    2. Happy Lemming

      Re: I guess the Author is missing the point of the Surface Pro

      Perhaps it's a good idea to inform newcomers that the Surface Pro is a tablet, not a laptop, although in a pinch it can sort of mimic a laptop. I use mine almost exclusively in tablet mode, often in portrait orientation. The type-cover keyboard works for me since I don't write epics while traveling.

  15. Ivan001

    Flashy but trashy

    End of last year it was time to retire my 4 years old XPS13 from work, so I requested a Surface pro 9.

    I deeply regret it. I bought it thinking I would use the pen a lot, but I hardly ever do. Taking notes with the pen is counter productive and I don't have time for drawing. Pen input is not as good as a Wacom tablet for instance.

    The computer is indeed akward to use on one's lap (as mentioned in the text), or handheld (too big and heavy). On a desk it's OK, but not great.

    Mine decided one day not to boot anymore. According to reddit sources I found, something about booting from RAM after the first boot or something similar can make the computer unbootable and there is no fix except opening it up and disconnecting the battery to clear the RAM. Mine was replaced as it is still under warranty, but seems to be a common problem.

    I regret purchasing this computer and deeply miss my XPS 13...

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