The Microsoft Surface Pro X: Windows without the x(86)

Article By : Brian Dipert

Here's an in-depth look at the Microsoft Surface Pro X.

As I briefly mentioned a few months back (see “A holiday shopping guide for engineers: 2021 edition“), and in contrast to previous conceptual criticism (see “Windows on Arm: All of Apple’s challenges with none of its charm“), the third time was the charm when it came to attempted purchases of a Microsoft Surface Pro X:

The acquisition attempt documented in that year-ago write-up was my (my wife’s, more accurately) first try, in early November 2020, and was thwarted by (among other things) a missing AC adapter. I subsequently sought to purchase a Surface Pro X from the Certified Refurbished section of eBay’s site a few weeks later for around the same price, just under $1,100 inclusive of sales tax. But the merchant reported that inventory was already depleted when my order came in, canceled it, and promptly refunded my money. And my last (but definitely not least) attempt was last June, again an eBay Certified Refurbished item (ironically from the same merchant), this time for just under $800 with tax. It apparently pays to wait!

All three systems intentionally had identical specifications:

  • The Qualcomm 8cx-based SQ1 SoC, since the successor SQ2’s marginal performance improvements didn’t justify the price increase (IMHO, at least).
  • A baseline 256 GByte SSD versus the drastically more expensive 512 GByte variant, since I knew that if I ran short of room in the future, I could upgrade the storage myself (something I’ve actually already done, via a $150+ 1 TByte Western Digital m.2 2230 drive complete with a 2-year extended warranty off eBay, and a process complicated only by the current dearth of “cloning” software support for Windows-on-Arm).
  • Conversely, 16 GBytes of DRAM versus the 8 GByte baseline, both to stave off future obsolescence (since, as is unfortunately commonly the case nowadays, the memory is soldered to the motherboard…in Apple’s case, it’s even integrated alongside the processor in a common package) and to provide memory headroom for x86 emulation.

To that latter point…my interest in the Surface Pro X (and Windows-on-Arm more generally) has always been on its promised future capabilities versus any underwhelm in its existing status. As I wrote a year ago, the platform’s Win32 emulation support, albeit seemingly robust, was being rendered increasingly irrelevant by application developers’ migrations to Win64 code and APIs. And although Microsoft’s efforts to bolster Win64 capabilities were tangible, they didn’t come robustly or quickly (the other reason why my first purchase of a Surface Pro X didn’t pan out) enough to notably “move the needle.”

That said, everything changed last October via a completely unexpected source: the release of Windows 11. Although I largely panned it for x86-based systems, due to its seemingly prematurely-obsoleting CPU and security requirements, it was conversely an ideal solution for Windows-on-Arm, thereby compelling me to upgrade to it as soon as it was available (and, in related news, compelling Microsoft to mothball further x64 emulation efforts on Windows 10 one month later, in order to focus further development on a single operating system foundation going forward).

No longer did I need to cherry-pick Arm-native or Win32 application variants, or search for inevitably inferior app alternatives if only Win64 versions of my preferred programs were available. Generally speaking, in fact, I’ve been hard-pressed to find Windows apps that won’t successfully install and run on the Surface Pro X, with a couple of exceptions:

  • Online-delivered, subscription-based product suites. Microsoft rolled out an Arm-native Office app suite a while ago, unsurprisingly, but Adobe’s Creative Cloud currently only offers Photoshop, Lightroom, Camera Raw and Acrobat DC as options for the Surface Pro X. I also have a couple of older versions of Adobe’s Creative Suite, but they flat-out refuse to install on Windows-on-Arm; then again, they don’t exactly function reliably on Windows 10 for x86, either, so…

  • Applications that use proprietary APIs, like Dropbox. The S Mode Dropbox app version is admittedly available, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s a significantly inferior alternative to the full-featured service experience. Then again, it took more than a year for Dropbox to release a public-preview Arm-native version of its app for MacOS…but then again, the Rosetta 2-emulated version of the app had already been full-featured albeit slower and more power-hungry…so I have no idea when (or if, for that matter) full Dropbox support for Windows-on-Arm will ever appear. Sigh.

On that last point, to be clear, “native” software is always optimal, of course, from compatibility, performance, and power consumption standpoints. But the few aforementioned exceptions aside, I’m otherwise solidly satisfied with the experience of running Windows 11 and various applications (both native where available and emulated otherwise) on the Surface Pro X. My longstanding desire to be able to (modestly, admittedly) use a computer for an entire day solely running on battery power is finally a reality. The integrated LTE connectivity is similarly invaluable to actualizing my mobile computing aspirations. The touch-capable LCD is high in resolution (2880×1920, 267 PPI, 3:2 aspect ratio), with rich color depth, and is nearly bezel-free. The system is lightweight (1.7 lbs/774 g) and svelte (0.28”/7.3 mm thick). And a stable of subsequently purchased accessories, all acquired gently used or discontinued at significant discounts to the brand-new prices, have neatly completed the picture:

  • And, for when I want to use the Surface Pro X as a conventional laptop, i.e., on my lap, a Brydge SPX+ keyboard:

Was this particular system configuration, at its original $1499 MSRP two-plus years ago and with its initial dearth of (emulated, not to mention native) app support, worth it? Or any of the initial systems, extending downward to the bare-bones 8GB/128GB no-LTE $899 configuration or all the way up to the top-end 16GB/512GB $1,899 setup, for that matter?

 

 

Slick promo videos aside, no. Even today, with a one-generation-newer operating system and significantly enhanced application support, they’re admittedly still a stretch at MSRP. And don’t get me started on the $269 Signature keyboard-plus-Slim Pen 2 kit, or any of the other accessories, for that matter. But at the roughly half-off MSRP that I paid for my like-new system, and with equally bargain-shopper accessories, it’s a much easier proposition to fiscally swallow.

I’ll close with a teaser; this isn’t the only Microsoft-branded system like this that I’ve recently mentioned…and acquired…motivated by future upgrade promises in contrast to current underwhelming reality, and at a notable discount to the original MSRP. A write-up to come will do the “full monty,” of course; for now, all I’ll say is that it’s also touchscreen-supportive and optionally controllable via the Surface Pen. Ideas? Or thoughts on anything I’ve said in this post? Let me know in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

 

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