Surface Pro X vs. Pro 7 review comparison: ARM performance and battery life

“I just wish the Surface Pro 7 looked like a Surface Pro X with an Intel chip inside.” That’s what I wrote about the Surface Pro 7 last month after reviewing Microsoft’s latest 2-in-1. I’ve now been using the Surface Pro X, an ARM-based version with an updated design, for the last week, and my wish for a Surface Pro X with an Intel chip inside couldn’t ring truer.

At times, performance has been erratic, battery life underwhelming, and using the keyboard obnoxious. I fell in love with the Surface Pro form factor over the past 12 months, but using the Pro X for the past week felt like a step backward in many ways. The machine is beautifully designed, but I’m writing this review on the Surface Pro X with a Pro 7 sitting in my bag just in case. That sums up the Pro X for me. I don’t trust it enough yet since the performance and app compatibility just aren’t where they need to be. Microsoft has gotten closer than any other OEM with a viable Windows on ARM laptop, but more work needs to be done.

I expect a lot of people are wondering how exactly it compares to the Surface Pro 7, so I have spent a week pitting them against each other. I didn’t bother with benchmarks or anything like that, as most are designed for x86 processors, and it’s not a fair comparison when the Surface Pro X only runs 32-bit x86 apps in an emulation layer. I can weigh the benefits of the hardware and software on both and my experience of using these machines side by side.

If you’re looking for a really simple choice between the two, here it is: regular Windows users who don’t want to worry about app compatibility and performance should pick the Surface Pro 7. If you need something more than an iPad and you’re a light PC user, then the Surface Pro X should be sufficient for most tasks.

Let’s start with the hardware design. Microsoft has done a great job with the Surface Pro X — mostly. The 13-inch touchscreen is a nice upgrade over the 12.3-inch one found on the Surface Pro 7, and it makes a difference in making things feel less cramped. Microsoft has essentially squeezed a bigger display into the familiar form factor of the Surface Pro 7, all while making the device slimmer and sleeker. The display bezels are much smaller on the sides, but they are still present at the top and bottom to fit the Windows Hello camera in place.

The Pro X I’ve been reviewing has a thumb-sized crack in the glass on the right-hand side bezel. I haven’t dropped the device or mistreated it, so I can only assume this occurred during shipping, but there are no signs of any other damage around that area of the display, and it hasn’t messed with the screen at all. The device is black and the bezels are black, so I only noticed the crack when I was using the Pro X in tablet mode.

If you put the Pro 7 and Pro X side by side, the display is the most obvious change, and the Pro X makes the Pro 7 look old. I sometimes feel like the Surface Pro 7 display is a little cramped to use, but I never really felt like that using the Pro X. Microsoft has kept the same hardware design for the Surface Pro 7 display and most of the exterior hardware, which is a more edgy / squared-off look and feel. It doesn’t always feel that great to use as a tablet as a result.

The Surface Pro X also feels great to hold compared to the Pro 7. Rounded edges help here, as does the slimmer form factor. It really feels much more like a tablet than the Pro 7, and I love these subtle changes. The kickstands on each device feel identical, with the same friction to allow you to adjust it to different angles.

Port selection is really where the basic hardware starts to differ. Microsoft has placed two USB-C ports on the Surface Pro X, and I actually prefer having the single USB-A and USB-C ports that the Surface Pro 7 offers. I can’t count the number of times someone has handed me a USB-A thumbstick, but the number of times I’ve seen a USB-C thumbstick in the wild is precisely zero.

The Surface Pro 7 also benefits from a microSD slot, but the Pro X offers a removable SSD and a SIM card slot for LTE. I favor the Pro X’s built-in LTE over having expandable microSD storage, but I prefer having a headphone jack on the Surface Pro 7. Bluetooth headphones are great, but having to re-pair them is still an irritating experience, and I would have liked to have had the option for regular headphones on the Pro X.

What I don’t like on the Surface Pro X is the keyboard — at least not the new style that includes a slot for the stylus. While the key placement, travel, and trackpad are identical to the Pro 7, the way it attaches to the display is not. Microsoft has built a stylus slot for the new Surface Slim Pen into the section where the keyboard attaches to the Pro X. It’s a much better way to store a stylus, but it comes with some serious compromises. The whole keyboard feels a lot more wobbly than what I’m used to on the Pro 7. This is really noticeable on your lap where the keyboard can go lopsided and cut off portions of the task bar. This is a major issue for me, especially when the date disappears, I can’t see what apps are open, or I can’t quickly scan for notification badges on my apps.

Whether you’ll experience this problem really depends on how you sit and use the Surface Pro X. I’ve been using it everywhere from a flat surface, my couch, in bed, on a train, and lots of other places where it’s awkward to use a laptop. I hope that the regular keyboard Microsoft offers for the Pro X without the pen storage fares better, but I haven’t been able to test this yet. It’s definitely something to consider if you’re trying to decide between the Pro X and Pro 7.

The Surface Slim Pen is far better than the previous Surface Pen. It’s flat like a carpenter pencil, and it feels a lot lighter in your hand. I don’t draw often, but I’d definitely take this over the regular Surface Pen. Thankfully, you can buy one separately, and it works with the Surface Pro 7 so you don’t have to opt for the Pro X just for the slimmer stylus. The only benefit the Pro X offers here is the keyboard storage that automatically charges the Slim Pen. You’ll need to connect it via USB-C if you plan to use it with the Pro 7.

Hardware differences aside, the next thing to consider between a Pro 7 and the Pro X is the processor that’s inside. Microsoft has opted for a custom Qualcomm SQ1 ARM processor inside the Pro X and Intel’s 10th Gen processors inside the Pro 7. While Windows 10 is the same on both, with no funky S Mode or RT variant, the way it runs is different than what you might expect. Dieter Bohn covered some of the app compatibility issues in his review of the Pro X, and I wanted to compare them to what you’d experience on the Pro 7.

On the Pro X, I found that most of my apps worked, but there were some big exceptions. Dropbox refused to install, forcing me over to a Windows Store version that doesn’t integrate into the File Explorer like I’m used to. Clatter, a messaging app, installed but kept crashing every time I added a service. It then magically started working after a couple of days. (This has never happened on an Intel machine.) Tweeten, a great Twitter app for Windows, refused to install, and Lightroom simply isn’t available.

All of these apps work fine on the Pro 7, and I’ve never had to figure out which ones do or don’t run on that device. Most apps on the Pro X, on the other hand, are using Microsoft’s x86 emulation layer, which means only 32-bit apps are supported, or developers have to recompile them into native 64-bit ARM apps. It’s highly unlikely that most app developers will bother to do this anytime soon, so you’re left playing a guessing game on app compatibility.

The worst part is that even if an app installs, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a great experience. Photoshop installs and opens just fine on the Surface Pro X, but the usability of it is terrible. I can sit and watch it render the entire new document dialog box what feels like frame by frame. Like anyone who uses Photoshop, I use files that have multiple layers and regularly switch between PSDs on the fly. Using Ctrl + Tab with a few PSD files open felt laggy on the Pro X, and I’d regularly have to wait a second or so for it to respond to actions. I don’t think I’d be able to quickly create the latest mega meme or edit an animated GIF easily. Photoshop isn’t perfect on the Pro 7 either, but it’s nowhere near as laggy as what I’ve experienced on the Pro X, and I can easily use it to modify files with multiple layers.

Elsewhere, I’ve felt like the Pro X performance has been a little erratic. Occasionally, I’d resume from standby and switch between apps, and things would take a solid minute to settle and not feel laggy. Discord isn’t exactly the most highly optimized app for Windows, but it struggles at times on the Pro X. I’ve never experienced erratic performance on the Pro 7 like this. Likewise, Spotify can be painful to use initially until it settles down and stops pegging the CPU on the Pro X.

This settling down process feels like a constant experience on the Surface Pro X. I’d often have to wait for the Pro X to catch its breath, and then it would feel just like I was working on a Pro 7 for a few minutes until it got bogged down again. A lot of this is clearly because of the app emulation, and I’d hope that native ARM64 apps would perform much better. Unfortunately, most of the apps I use on a daily basis haven’t been recompiled for ARM and probably never will be, so I can’t see this experience improving in the near future.

There’s a ray of hope here, though: if third-party app developers decide to compile for ARM64, things will definitely get better. I managed to obtain an unreleased ARM64 version of Microsoft’s Edge Chromium browser, and the performance improvements were immediately obvious. Everything from tab management to browsing feels snappier than the emulated 32-bit versions of Chrome and the Edge Chromium beta. It really felt comparable to the browsing performance on the Surface Pro 7, which is a big difference to running Chrome right now on the Pro X. This is a good indication that native apps will run well, but that will require app developers to invest time and money into bringing their apps to ARM.

Docking to an official Surface Dock was also troublesome with the Pro X. Windows 10 doesn’t always gracefully handle a switch in state from laptop to a secondary monitor, but the Pro X would take far longer than a Pro 7 for apps to resize and be usable. The Pro X also kept forgetting my multiple monitor preferences, and it would turn on its display even though I’d set it to explicitly display all content only on my monitor.

I found that I’d experience less lag and fewer issues when I used the Surface Pro X for hours at a time. Short bursts of work and then straight into standby seemed to generate the laggy and slow experiences. This is also reflected in the battery life I’ve experienced on the Surface Pro X. On average, it was between six and seven hours if you go in and out of standby a lot. One day, I was glued to the Pro X working for a full day without even going into standby, and it managed to go for nearly eight and a half hours. I’ve noticed that battery life takes a hit initially when you’re spinning up all your apps in the morning, but then it drains at a more reasonable rate as the day goes on.

I haven’t experienced these types of issues on the Surface Pro 7. Battery life is naturally dependent on what tasks and apps you’re running, but it’s pretty consistent on the Pro 7 at around six hours with a lot of mixed usage. I was expecting battery life of at least 10 hours on the Pro X, so I’m disappointed it’s barely any better than the Pro 7.

Much like the Pro 7, the Pro X has a quick resume feature, which means it just goes into standby when you close the cover or hit the power button. I stopped working one night at 11:15PM with 63 percent and resumed again at 11:15AM the next day to 59 percent. That’s a little less than the drain I’ve seen on the Pro 7, but the differences aren’t significant. It’s great to have a quick resume on both. You also get a quick charge feature on both the Pro X and Pro 7, and it takes around an hour to get to 80 percent on both devices.

As it stands, it feels like the Surface Pro X was released too early. Not just because third-party apps aren’t ready, but because even Microsoft’s own apps — like Edge Chromium and Office — haven’t been fully ported over to ARM64.

Microsoft obviously had a design in mind for the future of the Surface Pro, and it couldn’t achieve that with Intel just yet. Microsoft’s calculated risk now relies on third-party apps, but it also means the Pro X just showcases a hardware design that we desperately want an Intel chip to fit into. It also doesn’t deliver on the battery life promises ARM is supposed to achieve. The keyboard, app compatibility, and performance are noticeably worse than the Surface Pro 7, too. Those are things I just take for granted on the Pro 7, and it’s weird to have to worry about any of them again.

Given the $999 starting price of the Surface Pro X, it’s a direct competitor to the Surface Pro 7. I think you get far more for your money with the Pro 7 right now and the reliability you’d expect from this type of computer. I have a Surface Pro 7 in my bag while I write this Surface Pro X review, simply because if I need to do some demanding work, like Photoshop, I know the Pro X will slow me down.

As someone who uses Windows on a daily basis, I rely on it to be productive and get my work done quickly. The Surface Pro X is great to look at, but once you really start pushing it, the experience starts to fall apart. This hardware design might be the future for the Surface Pro line, but if it’s a “pro” machine, then it has to do more than deliver the basics — and the Pro X often can’t do that.

At the end of the day, I just wish that the Surface Pro X had an Intel chip inside.

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