The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 (starts at $749; $1,358.99 as tested) did not reinvent its Windows-tablet predecessors when it launched in 2019, but instead iterated on a time-tested design by delivering better performance and adding a USB Type-C port. Almost a year and a half later, here in 2021, it remains the alpha dog among 2-in-1 detachables. A handful of competitors have come for the crown (full support for its Surface stablemate, the Surface Pro X, never quite materialized), and bending, non-detaching 2-in-1 convertible laptops are worthy alternatives. But the Surface Pro design is still our favorite among pure detachables. (A model with updated components, the Surface Pro 7+, is also now available; more about that in a bit.) The physical design is showing its age somewhat—we anticipate a new-look version next time around—but it still has strong tablet chops. If you’re looking for a less expensive 2-in-1 to use when working in what passes for mobile fashion these days, shuttling from room to room instead of airport to airport, the Pro 7 is the go-to in its category for a reason.
Mostly the Same Surface
After years of tweaks and alterations across the first few models, the Surface Pro’s design has stayed more or less the same over the last four iterations. You could set the Surface Pro 7 alongside the previous versions and, aside from color variations (our Surface Pro 6 model was the first to come in all black), not be able to tell them apart at a glance. The inclusion of the USB-C port ultimately gives this one away, but they’re otherwise near-interchangeable.
Mostly, that’s a good thing. The magnesium-alloy design feels high quality, and it’s a relatively compact and sleek device. It measures 0.33 by 11.5 by 7.9 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.7 pounds—a very portable machine no matter how you slice it. For comparison, the XPS 13 2-in-1 comes in at 0.51 by 11.7 by 8.2 inches and 2.9 pounds, and shows itself as a laptop first. On its own, the Pro 7’s platinum-colored industrial look hasn’t aged badly, even though I did grow fond of the Pro 6’s black paint job. The bezels are still pretty thick, a fact that’s becoming more obvious as virtually every slim laptop opts for razor-thin ones.
The Surface Pro 7 still looks slick, but the problem is becoming the context, and it’s an issue, at least in part, created by Microsoft itself. By 2021’s standards, the design is looking a bit dated, especially the thick screen bezels. This was made more obvious by the emergence of the Surface Pro X, originally revealed alongside the Pro 7. The Pro X boasts the slimmer, rounder edges and thinner bezels that you might expect out of a contemporary top-tier Surface Pro device. When the two are next to each other, the Pro X looks decidedly more modern. It’s a gorgeous system, inducing that feeling of tech envy that has slowly gone missing in the main line.
Of course, it’s not a matter of simply applying that design to the Surface Pro 7, or Microsoft would have done so. The Pro X is an ARM-based device while the Pro 7 uses an Intel chip, and the latter is a more fully featured, traditional Windows PC. The Pro X’s components need less physical space and cooling leeway to operate, allowing the thin design. If you need something closer to a tablet experience, the Pro X is a beautiful option, but it lacks the broad functionality of the usual Windows laptop. You don’t have to worry about which programs you can run or how they will work on a Surface Pro 7. Are they compiled for ARM? Are they 64-bit or 32-bit? None of that.
We hoped that a new-look version of the Surface Pro would arrive within a year or two, but so far, that design remains the latest. A numbered Surface Pro that looks like the Surface Pro X (but uses a mainstream PC processor) is the dream, but we’re still waiting in 2021. Unfortunately, the case for the Pro X has not strengthened by a lot, as programs need to be built for ARM. This was covered in our original Surface Pro X review, so check it out for more details, but know that we’re still in a holding pattern.
So, About That Keyboard…
As for using the Surface Pro as both a laptop and a tablet, the same pros and cons remain given the unchanged design. I won’t assume everyone is as familiar as I am with the Surface line, though, so here’s a rundown.
The built-in rear kickstand, which has been the subject of mimicry since its debut, is executed just like on the previous model. A fully adjustable hinge allows you to recline the screen through 165 degrees of range, including nearly flat, which can be helpful when using the stylus for sketching or note-taking. The original Surface models featured a hinge with a limited number of set adjustment points, so this “free range” system is still very much preferable.
The kickstand is just half the battle in turning the Pro 7 into a laptop. It’s the Surface Type Cover—the detachable keyboard also subject to many copycats over the years—that makes the magic happen. As it always has, the keyboard easily attaches to the bottom of the Surface Pro magnetically, making transformation a breeze.
Also as it always has been, the Type Cover is sold separately. It hardly seems worth it to continue beating this drum, as Microsoft clearly doesn’t plan to include the keyboard with the tablet, but I wish it would. The Surface Pro is already on the pricey side, but adding another expensive peripheral to get to full functionality is a bitter price pill. Microsoft sent us the fancier Signature Type Cover for $159.99, but the standard model is $129.99.
The keyboard is an integral part of the experience—Microsoft rarely shows or advertises the two apart, and it’s the keyboard that completes the 2-in-1 concept. Without it, the Surface Pro is really just a nice, and expensive, tablet. It also is a great keyboard for its kind. Despite its thinness, the Type Cover offers a surprisingly comfortable typing experience, with good key travel. There’s also backlighting, adjustable through several levels of brightness. The keyboard is a little flimsy if you press down too much, especially if you’re not using it on a desk (more on that in a moment), but it’s still more than serviceable, and one of the best among all detachables.
You can also angle the keyboard for a more comfortable typing angle by folding the top of the keyboard up against the screen, where more magnets hold it in place. This innovation was introduced to the Surface line several iterations ago, a small addition that makes a noticeable usability difference. The touchpad is also excellent, and it tracks very smoothly. I genuinely enjoy typing on this keyboard, at least on a solid surface, even if the price seems a bit steep. The combined price is still less than many laptops, though, so there’s only so far you can take this complaint.
Using the keyboard on your lap remains a little troublesome. While it will always be neat that you can transform this device into a laptop clamshell at all, the flexy nature of the keyboard and the width of the Pro 7 make it tiring to use in your lap for long. This “lapability” has long been a big issue for some, enough to make them choose a traditional laptop over the Surface Pro. Since it’s not very wide, and the kickstand is much less stable on your legs than the flat bottom surface of a laptop would be, you have to keep your legs close together and still during use. It makes you quite aware you’re not using a normal laptop, so it’s much better used on a desk or tabletop. There’s still something satisfying about the Surface Pro experience, even if you’d probably choose a laptop keyboard if they were put head to head.
Ports & Configurations: Hurray for C
The ports are another facet that may remind you this isn’t a traditional laptop, as there simply aren’t many of them. As mentioned earlier, one big improvement is the inclusion of USB Type-C. This port is located on the right side, just above the only other port, a standard USB 3.1 Type-A port.
It felt like the USB-C port was “missing” from this device for at least the last two iterations, so it’s nice to see it added. It doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, however, so users looking to transfer a ton of files quickly and often will have to make do with standard USB speeds. This is even more glaring in 2021, as newer PCs have even moved on to Thunderbolt 4. The fact that you get just two ports may be an issue in itself for users who lean heavily on peripherals, but a Bluetooth mouse could free up the port for a drive or other attachments.
Finally, we come to Microsoft’s configuration options. Our $1,358.99 review model features an Intel Core i5-1035G4 processor, 8GB of memory, a 256GB SSD, and the $159.99 Signature Type Cover. Other configurations generally just scale the same components up or down in capacity, other than the CPU. The $749 starting model (without the keyboard) offers an Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of memory, and a 128GB SSD. That scales all the way up to the top model, which includes a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of memory, and a 1TB SSD. Between the two, you can get various combinations of a Core i5 or Core i7 chip, 8GB or 16GB of memory, and 256GB or 512GB of storage. The Pro 7 also comes in black, but only three of the SKUs offer it as an option (including ours). Note that since more than a year has passed since release, sale prices are much more common, making the official list price less relevant. At the time of this update in February 2021, the base model is on sale for $595 on Amazon, a big discount from $749.
You’re no longer stuck with the dated original components, however. A slightly upgraded version of the Surface Pro 7 debuted in 2021. Intended for business and education customers, the Surface Pro 7+ is physically nearly identical to the Surface Pro 7, but it comes with a few upgrades inside. In addition ditching the 10th Generation Intel processors of the Surface Pro 7 for the latest 11th Generation (“Tiger Lake”) processors, the Surface Pro 7+ also comes with a removable boot drive. This allows IT departments easier access during repairs and replacements, and it also lets users with extremely sensitive data store the Surface Pro 7+’s boot drive in a separate location from the device. Although the Surface Pro 7 is intended for large organizations with customized purchase agreements, it’s also available through Microsoft’s online store, so individuals can buy it too.
Testing Ice Lake: A Quicker Surface Pro
For performance testing, I compared the Pro 7 to various Windows tablets and 2-in-1 laptops. There’s a decent amount of variety in this batch of competitors, including the internal components, so you can use the table below as a cheat sheet…
As you can see, a swath of processors is represented, and the Surface Pro 7 is one of two devices using a Core i5 CPU. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet is the other, and it also matches the Surface Pro 7’s 8GB of memory. The Dell Latitude 7200 2-in-1 is the other tablet, but it bumps up its components to a Core i7 and 16GB of memory. Meanwhile, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 and the HP Spectre x360 13 are full-fledged laptops that can convert into tablets, and should deliver more power than the tablet-first machines.
Productivity & Storage Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the PC’s drive subsystem. This score is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
Off the bat, the Core i5 CPUs lag behind their Core i7 counterparts, but not by a wide margin. This is the area where you won’t be bothered by using a Surface Pro 7 over a laptop; it can run everyday home and office tasks without noticeable delay or long load times. Its SSD helps with that, as you can see from the PCMark 8 result that it’s no slower than the rest.
Media Processing and Creation Tests
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It’s a timed test, and lower results are better.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here. The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
These results were something of a mixed bag, but mostly just fine for the Pro 7. Its Handbrake result gives the biggest cause for concern, as it is way behind the others and jumped out at me when I first ran the tests. Multiple runs confirmed the result, though, so now we know that video encoding is not the Pro 7’s strong suit. On the other benchmarks, though, it hung admirably close to the other systems (and ahead of its older Core i5 competitor), even if it did lag behind. I don’t think you need me to tell you this tablet is not a media-creation machine first and foremost, but the fairly capable CPU can handle some in a pinch.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess.
All of these machines use Intel integrated graphics, so none comes recommended for 3D work. You will note, though, that the Iris Plus graphics present in Ice Lake chips (both the Pro 7 and the XPS 13 here) are a cut above the rest. This is even more evident with the Dell XPS 13 and its Core i7 Ice Lake chip than it is for the Pro 7 and its Core i5, but among integrated graphics, Ice Lake is at an advantage. All are well short of discrete GPUs, however, so look elsewhere if you use 3D-accelerated programs for editing, animation, modeling, and other similar tasks, or if proper PC gaming is what you’re after.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the tablet, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in Airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
This is a crucial test for this category, so I’m happy to report that the Pro 7 will last a long time off the charger. For something so portable and theoretically versatile, long battery life is a must if it’s going to be your travel companion. For plane or train rides, long work days away from your desk, or even lounging at home, a nearly 12-hour battery shouldn’t have you reaching for your charger very often. With more varied or demanding tasks and heavier use, you will likely get somewhere from eight to 10 hours, but it passes the battery life test regardless.
As Solid a Surface as Ever
The Surface Pro 7 is another fine refinement of Microsoft’s flagship hardware product, even if the Pro X’s design shows us what could be one day. The design is showing its age in comparison, but it’s not quite outdated just yet, and I think any user would be pleased. The addition of the USB-C port is welcome, and the switch to the Ice Lake class of CPUs adds some pep to this compact tablet’s step. This iteration of the Surface Pro is another case of evolution rather than revolution, and I hope we see an Intel or AMD chip in a device that looks like the Pro X in the future.
While the Pro 7 is another fine entry in the line and tops among mainstream Windows tablets, I wouldn’t tell Surface Pro 6 users to run out and get one. But if you’re working with something older, or this type of device would make your working-at-home experience better, it’s still one of the best 2-in-1s available. There hasn’t been much worthy competition in the time since release, though the coming Lenovo ThinkPad X12 Detachable has our attention. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is better all around as a laptop, if that’s your primary concern, but the Surface Pro sets the bar for 2-in-1s in the Windows-tablet mode.