Microsoft Surface Pro 9 initial review: Is now the time to go with 5G? - MrLiambi's blog


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Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 initial review: Is now the time to go with 5G?

Through many ups and downs, the Microsoft Surface has survived as something of a pioneering tablet-cum-laptop. The product line is 10 years old, with Microsoft looking to support mobile productivity long before mobile productivity was actually practical.

The launch of the Surface Pro 9 is significant, however, with the alignment of the expected Intel-powered Surface Pro 9 and the ARM-powered Surface Pro 9 with 5G. That's right, the progeny of the Surface Pro X no longer sits alongside, it's been brought under the same umbrealla.

So does the Surface Pro 9 have anything to offer in the modern world?

Surface Pro 9 vs Surface Pro 9 with 5G

Let's start by comparing the two different versions of the Surface. We'll ignore the display and the overall design, because that's the same, as is the keyboard and pen. The only real design difference between the two is that the Pro 9 packing in Intel is vented around the upper half, while the 5G version lacks those vent holes.

So it's the core hardware that's different: the regular version offering 12-gen Intel Core hardware, with the option of i5-1235U or i7-1255U, while the 5G model is powered by the Microsoft SQ3 processor, developed with Qualcomm.

There are minor differences in the configurations you can spec, with Intel offering 8-32GB LPDDR5 RAM, while the ARM model is 8 or 16GB and it's LPDDR4x. Similarly, Intel gets more storage options up to 1TB, while the 5G model only gets to 512GB.

These minor points probably don't matter, it's the addition of 5G compatibility that will really make a difference, supporting nano SIM or eSIM, while also running with reduced heat (hence the lack of vents) and with greater efficiency.

According to Microsoft's figures, the Surface Pro 9 is good for 15.5 hours of use, while the Surface Pro 9 with 5G will see you through an impressive 19 hours.

Naturally, within this core hardware there's a difference in the onboard graphical power (Intel Iris Xe vs Adreno 8CX Gen 3), although Microsoft assures us that in real terms there's little actual difference.

However, there are additional skills offered by the 5G model, which harks back to some of Qualcomm's forte in mobile platforms: there's an NPU (neural processing unit), now common on smartphones, but here able to provide some additional lifting power to the Surface Pro 9 with 5G.

This leads to the advent of some new features (again, exactly what you'd expect from Qualcomm), boosting the front camera to allow native auto-framing, auto-background blur, eye tracking and more precise beam forming on the mic.

Finally, there's only support for Thunderbolt through USB 4.0 on the Intel model, the 5G model only offering USB 3.2.

Design, build and display

  • 287 x 209 x 9.3mm, 879g
  • Aluminium body - choice of colours
  • 13in, 2880 x 1920 pixels, 267ppi
  • Gorilla Glass 5

There isn't a huge difference in design between the Surface Pro 9 and the previous version. This is still a slightly plump tablet with kickstand at the rear, underneath which is the access port to the SSD, and the SIM tray on the 5G version.

The slightly large top and bottom bezels remain on the display, although the magnetic keyboard arrangement means that the bottom bezel is likely often obscured from view when using the keyboard. The top bezel houses the front camera.

The volume and power button are on the top of the device (looking at it in landscape), while the USB-C connections reside on the left-hand side. These are the only physical connections and as we've mentioned, only the regular Pro 9 gets Thunderbolt, the 5G version doesn't.

You'll also notice that there are more antenna breaks around the body of the 5G model and it only comes in the Platinum colour - whereas the Wi-Fi Pro 9 comes in Sapphire (blue), Forest (green) and Graphite as well, so there are more options there, and very welcome they are. Gone are the days of just sticking to black or silver.

There's a 13-inch display with a nice high resolution, just about the same pixel density as the iPad Pro, it offers 10-point touch support and supports the Surface Slim Pen 2, which nearly sits in a recess at the top of the Surface Pro Signature Keyboard.

This has typically been a great display and it looked great in the time with spent with it, but we can't fully evaluate its performance until we spend more time with the Surface 9 models.

The display is covered with Gorilla Glass 5 to keep scratches at bay and we like the solid bodywork on the Surface. It hasn't really changed from the Surface Pro 8, but it's still a great design whether you're using it as a tablet or docked to the keyboard.

Software and performance

  • Pro 9: 12-gen Intel Core i5-1235U or i7-1255U, 8-32GB RAM, 128GB-1TB storage
  • Pro 9 5G: Microsoft SQ3 with NPU, 8/16GB RAM, 128-512GB storage
  • Windows 12
  • 5G model gets some extras

The hardware powering the Wi-Fi or the 5G version is fundamentally different - it's not just a case of one having a 5G antenna added. That means you're looking at two very different devices. They look the same, the software experience is the same, but they are definitely not the same.

The Surface Pro 9 is the more conventional and gets options for the latest generation of Intel hardware, with both i5 and i7 options. The model you pick - as well as the RAM you go for - will depend on what you plan to do with it. For those doing light browsing, the lower spec models will suffice, for those with a higher multitasking load or looking for more intensive applications, then you'll have the option to move up to the i7. In this sense, the Surface Pro 9 is an evolution of previous Surface Pro devices.

The Surface Pro 9 with 5G isn't Intel powered, it's ARM powered. The architecture of the hardware is different, with the Microsoft SQ3 hardware coming from Qualcomm. You'll have heard of Windows on ARM and you might be aware that Surface offered a Windows RT device right at its inception with Surface RT.

We've seen it more recently in Surface Pro X, which used SQ1 hardware - but we've come a long way in recent years - with no small amount of help from the success of Apple Silicon pushing the message that what was traditionally seen as mobile hardware was powerful enough to be used for more demanding computing tasks. That's something that Qualcomm is pursuing too.

With a nano SIM slot - or supporting eSIM - the 5G connection is only part of the equation, meaning that the Surface Pro 9 with 5G won't be dependent on Wi-Fi networks or hotspotting when you're on the move, it can be independent. Ultimately, if you're a road warrior, that gives you a lot of freedom - although obviously has ongoing costs for that connection.

But you'll also notice that there are fewer configuration options, so you can't spec up the RAM or storage to the same levels - and there's also no support for Thunderbolt, which might mean those with more specific requirements might want the Core i7 model rather than the 5G.

The other big issue here is battery life. The transition from Intel to ARM hardware has been fuelled by the promise of longer battery life, and with 19 hours of use promised by the Surface Pro 9 with 5G, that's no joke. It's a big deal for those working in a mobile situation - and something we'll be sure to test.

Even so, the 15.5 hours promised by the Intel-based Pro 9 is no slouch, so if both deliver, you're looking at really compelling performance from these highly portable devices.

The software, of course, is pretty much the same. Both run Windows 12, but the 5G model gets some additional tricks that will support your video calling. This is the sort of thing that Qualcomm has been good at for some time and that NPU - neural processing unit - that can handle tasks like AI in a lower power state is ideal for this sort of stuff.

Specifically, there's better microphone performance, but also better camera performance, allowing native background blurring, auto-framing and cleverest of all, a feature that can adjust your eyes so you appear to be looking at the camera, rather than staring down into the screen looking at the person you're talking to.  

Keyboard, Pen and accessories

The Surface has for a long time offered a wide range of accessories, including a great keyboard with enough movement to the keys to let you get up to typing speed when you're away from the office, as well as the Surface Pen for screen interaction.

The Surface Slim Pen 2 comes included with pre-orders, allowing more interaction beyond just your finger, but also including haptics to make it feel more natural when you're using it.

There's then a range of keyboards, which will cost you extra, from the Surface Pro Keyboard (which was the Surface Pro X keyboard) to the Pro Signature Keyboard, which is the one that includes the little recess to house the pen. It's a little more expensive, but it's a better solution - and if you're feeling really flush, there's a Liberty version to celebrate 10 years of Microsoft Surface.

The keyboard is the same as it has been for some years, offering just about enough key travel to get up to speed when typing and enough space to actually get work done - along with the trackpad for navigation.

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