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Microsoft Surface Pro 8 review: the best of both worlds

I’ve been waiting for the Surface Pro 8.

Microsoft has been selling Surface Pro models with basically the same design since at least 2015. In 2019, it somewhat rectified that by releasing two flagship models. There was the Surface Pro 7 — a powerful, practical machine with a four-year-old design — and the Surface Pro X — a modern-looking, thin device with a slow ARM chip that wasn’t compatible with all kinds of popular apps.

Neither of these devices was really what I’d consider an ideal machine — they both had serious drawbacks. “I wish this looked like the Surface Pro X,” lamented Tom Warren in his otherwise positive review of the Surface Pro 7. Across the internet, reviewers begged Microsoft to find a way to put the Pro 7’s chips in the Pro X’s chassis.

And now, two years later, that’s exactly what Microsoft did. The $1,099.99-and-up Surface Pro 8 is the best of both worlds — it takes the best parts of the Pro 7 and the best parts of the Pro X, and puts them in one really excellent device.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Pro 8 is its screen. The device has a 2880 x 1920 13-inch touch display, which is almost an inch bigger than that of the Pro 7. The side bezels are visibly smaller than the Pro 7’s. The top one is still chunky — which makes sense, since you need something to hold if you’re using this as a tablet — but the keyboard deck covers the bottom one when the Pro 8 is in laptop mode.

The other new thing about this display is that it has a 120Hz refresh rate, which is unusual to see outside of the gaming sphere. The extra frames make a huge difference in day-to-day use — the cursor is nicer to look at as you drag it around the screen, there’s less lag when you’re writing with the stylus, and scrolling is just so much smoother. It makes for a better Windows experience, regardless of the app you’re using. But I do wish this device supported Dynamic Refresh Rate, which is supposed to be part of Windows 11 — that feature automatically swaps a device between 120Hz and 60Hz depending on the app you’re using, in order to save battery. Microsoft hasn’t told us if or when that’s coming yet, so for the moment you’re stuck ducking into Advanced Display Settings if you want to bump the refresh rate up or down. (I just left mine on 120Hz and took the battery life hit.)

What does get automatically adjusted is the color profile. With the Adaptive Color feature, the Pro 8 automatically adjusts the look of your screen based on the environment around you. This feature was subtle enough that I didn’t really notice it in action while I was working — but you do see the difference when you toggle it on and off, which you can do in brightness settings. It definitely made the screen easier on my eyes, especially at night.

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Elsewhere, the Pro 8 also has a 10-megapixel rear camera (which the Pro X had but not the Pro 7). This can capture 4K video (as well as 1080p) video. Like both of its predecessors, the Pro 8 also has a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, which can capture video in 1080p for Zoom calls and the like. I rarely get to say this about webcams, but the Pro 8 actually delivers a good picture. Colors were vibrant, and my lines were clear, even in less-than-ideal lighting. The camera also supports Windows Hello facial recognition, which is handy. The camera app occasionally got stuck when I was trying to switch from front to rear, forcing me to reboot the program, but that’s my only nitpick here.

Speaking of Zoom calls, the Pro 8 makes a great tele-conferencing device. There are two far-field studio microphones, which never had trouble picking up my voice. And the audio also sounds good, with clear percussion and audible bass. That’s impressive considering how small the device is — it’s 1.96 pounds and just 0.37 inches thick, which is somewhat big for a tablet but quite portable as laptops go.

The keyboard cover (which costs an extra $179 — it’s not included in the prices you’ll see on Microsoft’s website) is now made of a carbon fiber core. It’s much sturdier than previous Surface Pro keyboards I’ve used in the past; it wasn’t wobbling or sliding around even when I was typing on my lap or a couch. You don’t get quite the travel that you’d expect from a full laptop, but most detachable keyboards are cramped and flat — this is definitely the best one I’ve ever used.

The keyboard deck includes a handy garage for Microsoft’s Surface Slim Pen 2 (also not included in the price). This stylus comes with a built-in haptic motor which is meant to make you feel like you’re actually writing on physical paper while you draw or take notes. While I did feel the extra vibrations while I wrote with the Slim Pen 2, I wouldn’t say the effect necessarily mimics writing on paper — there are styluses like Lenovo’s Active Pen that do that better. But it’s a nice stylus overall.

The other thing to note is that only a small group of apps currently seem to support this haptic feedback. I’m glad this feature exists, but I look forward to seeing Microsoft expand it.

For all the physical similarities the Pro 8 shares with the Pro X, it couldn’t be more different on the inside. The base consumer-facing Pro 8 models have Intel Core i5 chips — mine has the Core i7-1185G7, which is one of the most powerful chips that Intel makes for thin and light laptops. It powers the top models of the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo Yoga 9i — it’s the real deal.

This test unit, which also has 16GB of RAM and Iris Xe integrated graphics, was fast. It booted up quickly and ran whatever I needed it to. I was regularly running video calls on top of 15 or 16 Chrome tabs, a couple different apps, and even some streaming — loads that have given all kinds of premium ultraportable laptops trouble in my testing — without any slowdown or significant heat. That’s about the bare minimum for this processor, of course — it’s a chip meant for powerful portable devices, so it would be concerning if things were freezing left and right. But it’s a stark contrast to the Pro X, where many apps were slow, and others weren’t compatible with the ARM processor at all.

The Pro 8 also uses an active cooling system, which is a fancy way of saying it has a fan (as well as a vapor chamber, three heat pipes, and three graphite heat spreaders). This is likely why it’s a bit thicker and heavier than its predecessors. The fan did a decent job here — the chassis was sometimes toasty, but never uncomfortably hot, and I could run heavy loads for long periods of time without issue.

Microsoft claimed that the Surface Pro 8 would get 16 hours of continuous battery life. I didn’t get that much to a charge, but I did average eight and a half hours of consistent use with my (fairly Chrome-intensive) workload at 60Hz, with Battery Saver on and the screen at medium brightness. Using the screen at 120Hz, I generally saw closer to seven hours from the same tasks (which is worse but still not a disastrous result).

Charging is also decently speedy. I got the device up to 60 percent in 50 minutes with light Chrome use (it’ll charge faster in standby). That was with the Surface Connect charger that ships with the device. You can also charge the Pro 8 over USB-C, but that won’t be quite as fast, and the two Thunderbolt ports are in a slightly more awkward position. It’s (understandably, given the thin chassis) a somewhat limited port selection, but you can connect external GPUs or up to two 4K displays.

In the past few years, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who weren’t sure whether to buy the Pro 7 or the Pro X. They needed the Pro 7’s processor for their workload, but they much preferred the way the Pro X looked.

And it was hard for me to recommend either device to those people, or to the general public. They both came with serious compromises. But the Pro 8 doesn’t. It combines a modern design with modern specs. It’s the computer those people have been waiting for. It’s the first Surface Pro I can really see myself buying as a primary driver.

Of course, the flip side of all this is that the Surface Pro isn’t cheap, even for what it offers. Models start at $1,099 — but that’s going to be $1,279 with the keyboard cover, and $1,379 with the Slim Pen 2. I also don’t expect too many people to buy that base model, which only has 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM — my test model, which has a faster processor, twice the RAM, and 256GB storage, nets $1,879 with the keyboard and stylus, is going to be more reasonable for many workloads. You can get any number of regular clamshell laptops with its specs for a few hundred dollars less, including the MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS 13.

That doesn’t make the Surface Pro 8 a bad device. It just makes it a somewhat specific device. It’s really targeting enthusiasts for the Surface Pro form factor — people who need the most performance in the thinnest and lightest chassis possible. In the past, those people haven’t quite had a device that met all of their needs. For the past two years, you’ve had to compromise on performance to get a Windows tablet that looked this cool. This year, you no longer have to sacrifice that performance. You just have to sacrifice some extra cash.

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