Friday, March 19, 2021

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 review

Microsoft should have wowed us when it unveiled the Microsoft Surface Pro 7. It should have at least been the perfect time to shore up the issues of its predecessor, the Microsoft Surface Pro 6. However, Microsoft just gave us an incremental update to the line instead of making the leaps in tech most people hoped for. There were critical improvements that could have been made but weren’t.

It’s true that the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 did get some updated internals for a little more power. But, you do trade in some battery life for that power. And, considering what Microsoft is asking for the device, it’s not enough of an improvement to justify the price. The Surface Pro X was also an underwhelming entry and we hoped the Surface Pro 7 would make up for that release.

There were a few obvious areas Microsoft could have easily improved upon. It could have included slimmer bezels on the screen. Or, it could’ve done a better job implementing USB-C on the Surface Pro 7.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 looks more like the product before that big generational leap in the product line and that makes it hard to wholeheartedly recommend it. Hopefully, Microsoft is holding onto its bigger innovations for more exciting products in the future, whether that be something like the somewhat delayed Surface Neo or the Pro 7’s eventual successor, the Surface Pro 8.

Spec sheet

Here is the Surface Pro 7 configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 1.1GHz Intel Core i5-1035G4 (quad-core, 6MB cache, up to 3.7GHz boost)
Graphics: Intel Iris Plus Graphics
RAM: 8GB DDR4x
Screen: 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 PixelSense display (Contrast ratio: 1,500:1, 100% sRGB color, 10-point multi-touch, 3:2 aspect ratio)
Storage: 256GB SSD
Ports: 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB-C 3.1, microSDXC card reader (UHS-I), headphone/mic jack
Connectivity: 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 (2 x 2 MIMO), Bluetooth 5
Cameras: 8MP rear-facing, auto-focus camera (1080p HD); 5MP front-facing, 1080p HD camera
Weight: 1.7 pounds (771g)
Size: 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches (292 x 201 x 8.5mm; W x D x H)

Price and availability

The new Surface Pro 7 released on October 22. Starting at $749 / £799 / AU$1,249 as with previous versions, it comes without the Type Cover ($129, £149, AU$249) and Surface Pen ($99, £99, AU$139) included. That means, this price is par for the course.

That base configuration gets you an Intel Core i3 processor (CPU) 4GB of memory (RAM) and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), with the latter points upgradeable to as much as 16GB and 1TB capacity, respectively. Here’s how those upgrades break down:

  • Intel Core i3 (4GB, 128GB) – $749/£799/AU$1,249
  • Intel Core i5 (8GB, 128GB) – $899/£899/AU$1,499
  • Intel Core i5 (8GB, 256GB) – $1,199/£1,169/AU$1,999
  • Intel Core i5 (16GB, 128GB) – $1,399/£1,399/AU$2,349
  • Intel Core i7 (16GB, 256GB) – $1,499/£1,449/AU$2,449
  • Intel Core i7 (16GB, 512GB) – $1,899/£1,849/AU$3,149
  • Intel Core i7 (16GB, 1TB) – $2,299/£2,249/AU$3,749

This pricing, again, is inherited from previous versions, but it's still not a great deal when you're spending upwards of 1,000 bucks or quid to get the full experience with the accessories that are still sold separately.

The Surface Pro 7 that we’re reviewing here will cost you $1,199 in the US. Again, that’s without the Surface Pen and Type Cover that Microsoft has included in our review sample. To get the full Surface Pro experience at this configuration, you’ll be spending around $1,460 in the US.

That said, a similarly configured 12.9-inch iPad Pro – with 256GB of storage, the Smart Keyboard Folio and second generation Apple Pencil – will cost around $1,480 in the US. Apple is just as guilty for selling accessories separately that are arguably central to the experience.

So, it doesn’t look like Microsoft is way out on left field with its pricing, and you’re getting a full mobile PC with Microsoft’s tablet option, but it’s nevertheless egregious.

Image 1 of 10

The display bezels are awfully thick for a tablet in 2019.

The display bezels are awfully thick for a tablet in 2019. (Image credit: Future)
Image 2 of 10

The Surface Pen is still not included in the box.

The Surface Pen is still not included in the box. (Image credit: Future)
Image 3 of 10

Not much has changed about the Surface Pro 7 design from last year’s model.

Not much has changed about the Surface Pro 7 design from last year’s model. (Image credit: Future)
Image 4 of 10

The Type Cover keyboard now has deeper-feeling travel as well as a bouncier feel as our fingers leave the keys.

The Type Cover keyboard now has deeper-feeling travel as well as a bouncier feel as our fingers leave the keys. (Image credit: Future)
Image 5 of 10

The touchscreen is just as sharp, vibrant and responsive to touch as the previous generation.

The touchscreen is just as sharp, vibrant and responsive to touch as the previous generation. (Image credit: Future)
Image 6 of 10

The device still measures 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches (292 x 201 x 8.5mm).

The device still measures 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches (292 x 201 x 8.5mm). (Image credit: Future)
Image 7 of 10

The tablet also still comes in the same matte black and silver aluminum finishes.

The tablet also still comes in the same matte black and silver aluminum finishes. (Image credit: Future)
Image 8 of 10

This is essentially the same Surface Pro you’ve known for years.

This is essentially the same Surface Pro you’ve known for years. (Image credit: Future)
Image 9 of 10

We appreciate the Alcantara fabric that makes a return with this Type Cover.

We appreciate the Alcantara fabric that makes a return with this Type Cover. (Image credit: Future)
Image 10 of 10

Microsoft has finally included a USB-C port.

Microsoft has finally included a USB-C port. (Image credit: Future)

Design

Microsoft may have finally included a USB-C port, but absolutely nothing else has changed about the Surface Pro 7 design from last year’s model. The device still measures 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches (292 x 201 x 8.5mm) and weighs 1.7 pounds (770g). The tablet also still comes in the same matte black and silver aluminum finishes.

The tablet's touchscreen still comes in at 12.3 inches on the diagonal with a 2,736 x 1,824 resolution (267 pixels per inch) and 3:2 aspect ratio. It's just as sharp, vibrant and responsive to touch as the previous generation, which was already quite impressive. But, again, this specification hasn’t changed in years, and could use an update at least in features, such as HDR and enhanced color gamut coverage. Also, the bezels are awfully thick for a tablet of this price in 2019.

Now having issued practically the same tablet for two years, it’s becoming clear that either Microsoft has reached its limits on the original Surface Pro design, which is unlikely, or the company is simply no longer interested in tweaking the Surface Pro any more – except for tinkering with the Pro X.

Instead, it feels like Microsoft is far more inspired by its upcoming dual-screen devices, which will likely herald the future of the company’s hardware design – depending on how successful they are.

As for the most major Surface Pro 7 design change, we get USB-C at long last, but it’s on the USB 3.1 standard and not Thunderbolt 3. With that, you get the versatility of this new connection without the raw throughput of the Thunderbolt 3 technology.

Apple and countless other competitors at similar price points have widely adopted Thunderbolt 3, which makes its absence in the Surface Pro 7 more glaring. While Apple didn't including it in the iPad Pro, it did with the similarly-priced 13-inch MacBook Pro, for example.

Now, Microsoft has improved the device's studio microphones for stronger accuracy when using Cortana with your voice, but that's such a minor improvement it's hardly worth mentioning.

In Microsoft’s favor, however, the Type Cover keyboard now has deeper-feeling travel as well as a bouncier feel as our fingers leave the keys. This is an upgrade for sure, though will certainly be an adjustment for longtime Surface Pro users – at least for a few minutes. Meanwhile, the Type Cover’s touchpad remains unchanged, and is just as smooth and responsive to the touch as ever.

We also appreciate the Alcantara fabric that makes a return with this Type Cover, which appears and feels to be more tightly woven than before. Hopefully this will make the fabric more stain resistant, as Microsoft claims.

All told, this is essentially the same Surface Pro you’ve known for years, only now it features a more versatile USB-C port in lieu of a DisplayPort connection. Why not drop the original USB-A as well for another USB-C? Who knows. There is a lot that could have been done to improve this product at the same price that simply wasn’t done, so forgive us for being nonplussed by the Surface Pro 7 design and feel.

The Surface Pro 7 is the first of its kind using one of Intel’s new 10-nanometer (nm) processors (CPUs) across all specifications, and the numbers certainly show that.

With that in mind, expect a device that’s much faster at processing both everyday tasks and more commonplace ones, not to mention stronger graphics potential now with Intel Iris Plus graphics over an Intel UHD graphics processor (GPU).

The latter should contribute to stronger media streaming, especially at higher resolutions, as well as a slightly expanded gaming profile.

Benchmarks

Here’s how the Surface Pro 7 performed in our suite of benchmark tests:

PCMark 8 Home: 3,312
Geekbench 4 (Single-Core): 5,904; (Multi-Core): 17,512
Cinebench CPU: 559; Graphics: 61 fps
PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours and 12 minutes
TechRadar Battery Life Test: 6 hours and 2 minutes

The Surface Pro 6 of 2018 employed a 14nm Intel Core CPU, which was fine for the job (and arguably still is), but this new CPU has brought that transistor size down to 10nm, which means more transistors in the same overall CPU die space. Basically, more transistors comes better performance, and it shows in the numbers.

For example, the Surface Pro 7 gets an impressive 25% boost in the Geekbench 4 multi-core test over the Surface Pro 6. Likewise, the Cinebench graphics test sees a 15% increase in performance in Pro 7 versus Pro 6, hitting the almighty 60 frames per second mark.

Could you expect to game on the Surface Pro 7? Sure, as Intel promises smooth 1080p gaming from its latest CPUs, but we would certainly not buy this tablet for that purpose. You might be able to get Fortnite to a playable frame rate at 1080p, but why bother when you could grab a solid gaming laptop for the same price?

In short, this tablet is going to chew through all ordinary computing tasks, and serve as a fine portable multitasker to boot that can handle the odd gaming session over lunch. The additional graphics brunt should also serve digital artists well to boot. It’s all in all a major bump forward in performance that power users will definitely see, but that the average user likely won’t notice.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7

The device still measures 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches (292 x 201 x 8.5mm). (Image credit: Future)

Battery life

However, when it comes to lasting power, we’re not seeing the same levels of battery life exhibited by the previous generation Surface Pro and its 14nm Intel Core CPU. In our tests, the Surface Pro 7 fell more than two hours short of the 8 hours and 45 minutes that the 2018 Pro 6 achieved in our local battery rundown test.

Likewise, the Surface Pro 7 came up more than 45 minutes short of the PCMark 8 battery test, with the Pro 6 clocking in at a straight 4 hours last year.

You would normally expect battery life to increase when moving to a supposedly more efficient processor architecture. However, Core i5 and i7 versions of Intel’s new CPUs made major boosts to graphical performance, which could come at the expense of battery life.

Hardware manufacturers and software makers – of which Microsoft is both – have had half a decade now to optimize their products around Intel’s 14nm silicon. They’ve likely had a fraction of that time to prepare for and adapt to Intel’s shiny new 10nm chips, and this could explain why the Surface Pro 7's battery life is worse than the previous model's.

Oddly enough, if it’s peak battery life you’re after, you may be better off picking up one of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6 models. That is, at least until the company improves the Surface Pro 7 battery life via firmware patches, which is entirely possible,  and we'd argue quite likely.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7

The touchscreen is just as sharp, vibrant and responsive to touch as the previous generation. (Image credit: Future)

Software and features

Like just about every Surface before it, the Surface Pro 7 isn’t necessarily feature-rich or has many key pieces of software to discuss, which has its pros and cons. The major pro here is that there is practically no bloatware on this tablet at all, as it’s issued directly from Microsoft.

Another pro is the Windows Hello facial recognition, which uses the tablet’s infrared camera next to its webcam, and is as speedy and accurate as before. Once again, we can open the tablet from its Type Cover and it’s already logged us into Windows 10. Talk about instant-on performance.

However, there is basically nothing else in the way of distinctive software and features. If it’s on this tablet, you can get it on any other Windows 10 tablet. That includes the Your Phone feature, which allows you to sync up an Android phone with Windows to see and respond to text messages, edit calendar entries or even take calls.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7

This is essentially the same Surface Pro you’ve known for years. (Image credit: Future)

Final verdict

All things considered, the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 is the company’s most powerful Surface tablet to date. However, that boost in power appears to come at a cost to battery life – at least for the time being.

If you’re willing to wait for those battery life improvements to come, and you don’t necessarily need all day staying power, then by all means jump in on the most technologically advanced Surface ever. But, know that those technological gains aren’t exactly massive, and come at the expense of other aspects of performance, specifically battery.

We honestly would have expected a bit more advancements from the seventh Surface Pro tablet. USB-C is nice, but for a device at this price should be Thunderbolt 3, and the display bezels are awfully thick for a tablet in 2019. It appears that Microsoft has saved all of this year’s advancements for its Pro X, which is a shame for anyone looking to pay the same price as last year. In short, the Surface Pro 7 isn’t far enough of a leap over the Pro 6 for us to recommend it to either upgraders or folks just getting into Microsoft’s tablet.

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