The Surface Pro pioneered the idea of the detachable 2-in-1, in which the base unit is a tablet you can use with an optional pen, but a TypePad cover turns the unit into a laptop.
A few years back, I thought such machines might gain a corporate niche with vertical tablet applications, but mostly those applications are now run on larger-than-ever smartphones. Along the way, the Surface Pro 3 moved up to a 12.3-inch display, which is smaller but higher-resolution than even smallest enterprise laptops. Instead the big attraction has been the extremely lightweight devices.
With the Surface Pro 7, Microsoft hasn’t really changed the basic concept. It looks almost identical to the Surface Pro 3 from six years ago, but upgraded components make it work just a bit better. It measures 0.33 by 11.5 by 7.9 inches (HWD) and has a 12.3-inch, 2,736-by-1,824-pixel display. This is a great-looking small display, and the 3:2 ratio gives you more vertical space than the now-typical 16:9 ratio. The resolution is best appreciated when using the optional Surface Pen. But the bezels around the screen are much larger than you see on current small laptops, and as a result, the screen design now looks a bit outdated.
The base unit weighs just 1.7 pounds, while the Surface Pro Type Keyboard (which you’ll almost certainly want) adds 0.68 pounds, so the combined weigh is 2.4 pounds. The lightest other enterprise laptop I’ve tested this year is the HP Elite Dragonfly, which has a 13.3-inch display and weighs 2.5 pounds, but is more expensive. A typical enterprise laptop with a 14-inch displays weighs around 3 pounds. The Surface Pro is still extremely light and easy to carry.
This year, the Surface Pro 7 has moved up to Intel’s 10nm Ice Lake processors, which have better integrated graphics than the Comet Lake processors common on most enterprise laptops. The unit I reviewed had an Intel Core i5-1034G4 processor, which has a base speed of 1.1GHz and a maximum turbo of 3.7GHz, along with Iris Plus Graphics, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. In my tests, it was notably faster at graphics-based applications than most of the Comet Lake-based systems I saw, but a bit slower at more CPU-intensive applications. No one would consider this a gaming machine, but it does a quite capable job on things like photo editing.
For higher-end applications, the Surface Pro 7 took 86 minutes to run a complex MatLab simulation, compared with 72 minutes for the HP Elite Dragonfly (and 52 minutes for the EliteBook 1040 G7.) A big Excel model took 53 minutes on the Surface Pro 7, compared with 48 minutes on the 1040, which seemed quite reasonable. It’s no mobile workstation, but most users will be quite pleased with the performance.
One issue with the Ice Lake processors is they do not support Intel’s vPro features for additional management and security, including remote configuration. Microsoft notes that its own tools, such as Microsoft Endpoint Manager and SCOM, do support the Surface family.
Of course, one of the unique features of the Surface Pro line is the ability to use it as a tablet, without the keyboard. It’s relatively lightweight, with a precise pen. Windows never did get the kind of tablet-centric applications you see on the iPhone, but the Surface Pro 7 works great with Windows applications that support the pen, and it’s fine for things like web browsing.
For conferencing, it includes a 5-megapixel front-facing camera that supports 1080p video; in my tests, this looked better than any of the enterprise laptops I’ve tested recently, a big benefit. It also includes dual far-field microphones and two speakers, and the audio quality was decent, if not unexceptional. It also has an 8-megapixel rear-facing cam that can take 1080p video; for typical office work, it’s probably superfluous, but I can see where you might use it in tablet mode.
On other features, it has a relatively small collection of ports. The left side of the machine just has an audio jack, while the right side has a single USB-A and a single USB-C (replacing the DisplayPort option on previous machines), along with a proprietary magnetic connection that is used for charging and docks. It’s great to see USB-C, which can now be used for things like attaching storage or extending the display, though it does not support USB-C charging. There is a microSD slot on the back, behind the hinge that support the screen at various angles. It supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5, but there’s no cellular modem option.
The Surface Type Keyboard easily attaches magnetically to the base unit. It has improved over the years, and it’s now surprisingly good on a flat surface. (While you can certainly use the Surface Pro with the keyboard on your lap, I don’t find it very comfortable in that position.) You can get a variety of keyboard colors and fabrics, and an option includes a fingerprint sensor, but I haven’t tried that. The touchpad works but is smaller than on most competitive models. In general, the keyboard is surprisingly good.
The Surface Pro 7 starts at $750 for a unit with a Core i3-1005G1, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD; and Microsoft offers units with up to a Core i7-1065G7, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. The unit I tested, with a Core i5-1034G4 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, has a list price of $1,400; although in all cases, online prices are now lower. In addition, you’ll want a Type keyboard, which starts at $130, and you may want the optional $100 Surface Pen. Still, even with that, the pricing is quite attractive.
Overall, the Surface Pro 7 is a nice upgrade from previous years. It’s not a mainstream enterprise laptop—and Microsoft sells a more traditional Surface Laptop—but it’s an interesting alternative for those who really value a lightweight device or who want the tablet option.