There are two Surface Pro 9s. The Intel model is the boring but safer buy.
Yep, this is the Surface Pro to buy this year.
For those who don’t obsessively keep track of Microsoft’s internal component choices (first of all, shame on you), the new Surface Pro 9 has two distinct models, which make for two very different devices. There’s a model powered by Qualcomm’s Arm-based SQ3 chip, which I reviewed last month. I’ve since gotten my hands on the other option, the model powered by a plain old Intel Core i7. And I will spoil the surprise for you right now: the Intel model is faster. Much faster.
That doesn’t mean there’s no case to be made for the Qualcomm Pro 9, which has 5G, a smart webcam, and a few fancy features that you won’t find on the Core i7 model. On the other hand, the Core i7 model works. It works quite well in a way I can’t say for the Arm device. That’s more than enough for me to recommend the Intel Pro 9 as the best Surface Pro for most people. Sometimes (often, in fact, and more often than technology critics tend to acknowledge), the boring option is the right option.
Before we get into that performance, there are a few other notable differences between the two Surface Pro 9 models you can buy. First one: color options. If you want the SQ3, you’re restricted to the boring platinum (aka “silver”) color. If you go for the Intel Core i7 model, you can also choose graphite (black), forest (green), or sapphire (blue). We got a sapphire model, and I’m a fan. It’s not only the detachable keyboard that’s blue. The tablet, including the built-in kickstand on the back, is also blue. Blue all the way down. It looks nice.
It’s kind of a light blue.
It’s a nice pen with a smooth stroke.
Stable device, as long as you don’t try to use it on your lap.
You can get this keyboard with the 5G model but only the Intel config has a blue kickstand.
Second notable difference: price. Technically, the cheapest Core i7 model of the Pro 9 is priced identically to an equivalently specced SQ3. However, there are also Core i5 Pro 9 models available (though they’re also Platinum-only). These go as low as $999, and the most comparable SQ3 model is $200 more than the base Core i5 SKU.
It’s all a bit confusing. The way I see it is that Microsoft sees the SQ3 and its associated benefits as equivalent in value to the power of the Core i7 and is pricing as such. For price-sensitive shoppers, the Intel version offers more options. (Remember also that the keyboard and pen aren’t included, and they add another $279 to the quoted price of a given unit. My test configuration with 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage is $1,599, but it’s going to cost you $1,879 unless you really just want the tablet, which, unless you already have a keyboard from a prior Surface Pro, you don’t.)
And the Intel Pro 9 supports Dolby Vision IQ, which the Qualcomm configuration doesn’t have. This is supposed to better optimize certain video content for different lighting. I can’t say I noticed a difference on my review unit, but it may be working subtly. I’ve asked Microsoft for more details about how this feature works on the Surface.
The tall 3:2 display is a staple of the Surface line.
Elsewhere, pretty much every part of the outsides of these devices is the same. You get the same detachable keyboard (quite sturdy to type on, touchpad is a bit small) and the same 2880 x 1920 120Hz display (quite smooth, no complaints). The dimensions are the same; the Intel version is 0.01 pounds lighter, which isn’t a difference you’ll notice.
The primary thing missing from the Intel Pro 9, which the Qualcomm model has, is the NPU chip. This chip allows the Qualcomm model to have a number of fancy camera features that the Intel model doesn’t have, including a portrait blur, automatic eye contact, and an auto-frame function similar to Apple’s Center Stage. The Intel Pro’s camera is still perfectly fine, delivering an accurate and detailed picture, but it doesn’t have quite the same video conferencing experience. (That said, these features didn’t always fully work for me on the SQ3 model, either. Check out that review for more on my experiences with them.)
The NPU gives the Arm device some microphone features as well, including one that filters out background noise while you’re on video calls. The unit doesn’t have this, though (again) its microphones do seem to work fine. Speaking of video conferencing, both Pro 9 units have surprisingly capable speakers, with audible bass and strong percussion, but only the Intel model supports Dolby Atmos. Audio is not as strong as it is on the Surface Laptop 5, but it’s not too, too far off.
Oh, and the Qualcomm model has 5G — which appears, from my testing, to be low-bandwidth 5G that gets closer to LTE speeds, at least in The Verge’s Manhattan office. There’s none of that on the Intel model. Also, 5G wrecks the battery life, which we’ll discuss more later on.
But unless you’re in the niche group of users who care about camera features or 5G above all else (and I recognize that such a group does exist), the difference between these two devices of greatest consequence to you is bound to be performance. The Intel Pro 9 I’ve been testing has the Core i7-1255U, the same chip that powers the Surface Laptop 5. It has 10 cores (two performance, eight efficiency).
This chip, as the core count indicates, is designed to prioritize efficiency over raw performance. I found, however, that it’s plenty fast for productivity work. All of my work, including Google Docs, photo editing, drawing, document markup, entertainment, research in Chrome, and Zoom calling was completely fine. During my testing process, even while on video calls, I never felt any significant heat or heard the fan (which the Intel Pro 9 does have). It helps, of course, that the keyboard and touchpad are detachable and would probably remain cool even if the tablet were blazing hot.
This is all in stark contrast to the SQ3 device. While the Windows on Arm experience has certainly improved since the days of the glitch-ridden Surface Pro X, I still had a frustrating time working on apps that were running through Microsoft’s emulation layer (which included Chrome and Slack). Apps took a while to open, videos stuttered, pen strokes lagged, and typing was delayed. I’m typing this paragraph on the SQ3 unit, and I’ve already had to fix several typos that I’ve missed because of the lag. You can check out our SQ3 review for the full rundown of my experience, but the difference between SQ3 and Intel in software like Slack, Chrome, and other programs that don’t run natively on Arm is night and day.
The charger goes on this side.
The primary tradeoff one makes when selecting the more powerful Intel processor, of course, is battery life. The Intel model’s lifespan wasn’t bad, especially for this generation of Intel chips. I consistently saw over seven and a half hours of continuous use with the screen at 60Hz and medium brightness, averaging seven hours and 35 minutes. From the SQ3 model, I was able to eke out close to five hours longer from the same workload. That was with 5G off, however — while using 5G, I got less than seven hours, and 5G is supposed to be a major draw of the SQ3 model. (The Intel model also charged faster with the included 65W Surface Connector, reaching 60 percent in just over 51 minutes. You can also charge via USB-C.)
The slightly larger bezels on the top and bottom of the device make for a better tablet-holding experience.
If the Arm-based Surface Pro is a jewel-studded high-heeled shoe, the Intel model is a sneaker. The latter has innovative features that seem like they’re from The Future. The battery life is a chart-topper. 5G is neat. There’s a lot to make the people around you “ooh” and “aah.” The Intel model is, to throw around a phrase other reviewers love to critically use, and that I really hate, an “incremental upgrade.” It’s not the machine anyone was particularly excited about. It’s also the one you should buy.
There is a case to be made for the Qualcomm model. For Microsoft enthusiasts who don’t have to use emulated apps (or for others who don’t mind swapping their workload around), the SQ3 may potentially offer a package that’s difficult to find elsewhere. The legitimately cool conferencing features, the uniquely portable form factor, the standout battery life, and the cellular support could make an excellent travel companion for a working professional. But the caveats there are fairly large — especially when an Intel model exists that’s much less limited in the apps it can run.
To compare the Surface Pro’s price to those of competing laptops is to venture into somewhat dangerous territory. A Surface Pro is a Surface Pro, and those who are shopping for it may not care at all that other non-Surface Pro devices cost less money. While the detachable form factor is becoming more common across the laptop space, there are still few convertible models as tried and true as the Surface — and fewer still with an accessory ecosystem as excellent as the one Microsoft provides.
The other big advantage the Intel line has is that it can be purchased for a cheaper price than the SQ3. You don’t have to buy the Core i7 model to get a good experience. We’d expect the Core i5 / 8GB model, available for $999 ($1,278 with the keyboard), to be adequate for general work use cases as well.
Still, I would be remiss not to disclose, for any who might not be aware, that the Surface Pro — Intel- or Qualcomm-powered — is an expensive device. This test model, alongside the sapphire keyboard and pen, would come out to $1,879.98. If the Microsoft hardware and branding are largely what draw you to the Pro (and those are legitimate things to be after, to be sure), the Surface Laptop will provide this same processor, same RAM, a similar blue color, and twice the storage for $200 less than both our test model and the base model. If what you really want is the tablet form factor with a detachable keyboard and pen, a similarly specced 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard included still comes out to over $100 cheaper than my test unit.
The Intel Surface Pro, while a good device, is still only the best option for your money if you’re sure that what you want is, well, a Surface Pro.