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Surface Pro Shines, But AI Falls Short

When Microsoft unveiled its latest line of Windows PCs, the company boasted that these machines were "designed for AI"
July 5, 2024

When Microsoft unveiled its latest Windows PCs in May, it claimed the new line was “designed for AI,” featuring Qualcomm chips that outshine previous Intel processors in energy efficiency. Among the first to hit the market is the Surface Pro convertible tablet, boasting longer battery life and handling more intensive tasks than its Intel-based predecessors. This move mirrors Apple's 2020 shift to custom Arm-based chips in MacBooks, which has been highly successful.

However, while the Surface Pro is a nice upgrade, it doesn't quite herald a new era of AI computing—at least not yet.

Microsoft's Surface line doesn't contribute massively to the company's overall revenue. In the first quarter, device revenue, including Surface PCs, totaled $1.07 billion, a fraction of Microsoft's $61.86 billion in total revenue.

The Surface Pro hardware is impressive. The review unit I tested came with Qualcomm’s 12-core Snapdragon X Elite chip, a 512GB SSD, 16GB of RAM, and an OLED display. Priced at $1,499.99, this model offers snappy performance for web browsing, productivity software, and light gaming. The display is detailed and bright with a 120Hz refresh rate, and the touchscreen is responsive. The iconic kickstand is solid, and the SSD compartment under it makes upgrades easy.

Battery life exceeded eight hours in my tests, with Microsoft promising up to 10 hours of web browsing. Unlike previous Arm-powered Surface PCs, the new model runs a wide range of applications without major compatibility issues, thanks to the new Prism emulator that supports programs designed for Intel and AMD chips.

Developers are increasingly offloading some processing to users' devices, and a Copilot+ PC like the Surface Pro is well-suited for this with its neural processing unit (NPU). This architecture extends battery life by delegating some tasks to the NPU.

Windows 11 on the Surface Pro includes several AI features, such as Eye Contact, which makes you appear to look directly at your webcam during video calls. In Paint, Cocreator mode generates images based on your drawings and descriptions, although the results were not always impressive. The Copilot key on the keyboard offers a more reliable way to create images through text chat, although it has usage limits.

The Surface Pro can be connected to three 4K monitors, while the new MacBook Air with an M3 chip can drive a single 6K display. The lack of a headphone jack and a keyboard, sold separately for $139.99 or bundled with a Slim Pen for $279.99, are minor drawbacks. Microsoft’s new Surface Pro Flex Keyboard, priced at $449.98, connects via Bluetooth and promises 41 hours of continuous typing.

The most anticipated AI feature, Recall, which helps you search through your PC activity, isn't available yet. Security concerns have delayed its launch. Some apps, like Google Drive and ExpressVPN, still don’t work on these new computers. However, software compatibility has significantly improved compared to five years ago.

Microsoft has also limited the Copilot's abilities to control your PC, making it more like a web chatbot. While it can still assist with many tasks, it no longer has the extensive control it initially promised.

The 11th edition of the Surface Pro is worth considering, especially if the apps you need are compatible with an Arm-based machine. The excellent battery life, easy storage upgrades, and high-quality screen make it a solid upgrade. Microsoft's switch to Arm-based processors is a smart move, but the much-touted AI capabilities are still on the horizon. For now, the Surface Pro is a great device with future potential.

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