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Who should buy a Surface Pro 8?

Microsoft Surface Pro 8Microsoft’s updated Surface Pro 8 is for people who need Windows packaged in the slimmest, lightest device. Make that well-heeled people, it’s not cheap.

That’s the short version. Now for a longer version.

This isn’t going to read like a standard product view. Instead, we’re going to look at who might benefit from buying a Surface Pro 8 and who would do better looking elsewhere. First, the basics

Great display

From the moment you fire up the Surface Pro 8 you’ll notice the display.

It’s nearly an inch larger than the display on the Surface Pro 7 with tiny 5mm bezels at the side. The top bezel is larger at 10mm, but it hides the front facing camera. You don’t see the bottom bezel when you are hooked up to the Signature keyboard.

Microsoft has increased the refresh rate to 120Mhz. That’s something you don’t often see on everyday devices.

Experience

In practice this makes for a better experience. It feels and looks better. The cursor and screen scrolling are smoother. None of this sounds like much and after a while you won’t notice it, but you’ll miss it the moment you start using a device with a slower refresh rate.

There’s an adaptive colour feature that adjusts the screen depending on what’s around you. Again, the effect is subtle, you notice it most when day turns to night or night turns to day.

All of this adds up to a quality experience. When it comes to the visual side of things, the Surface Pro 8 feels better than any other Windows computer.

Typing

Sadly you cannot say the same for the keyboard. As with other Surface Pro models, the keyboard is an optional extra. It’s not that optional. Almost no-one buys a Surface Pro without the NZ$479 Signature Keyboard.

That’s a lot of money for a keyboard by any standard. Thanks to a core made from carbon fibre it is sturdier than early Surface Pro keyboards. Yet it still flexes as you type. It stays in place, but you don’t get the solid feel of a laptop keyboard.

Nor do you get much key travel. On the plus side it is laid out with plenty of room. As a touch typist I didn’t run into problems.

Performance

We’ll look more at relative performance in a moment. There’s a base model Surface Pro 8 that uses the Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of Ram. That’ll cost you NZ$1850. Storage is a mere 128GB, which is barely enough to get by with.

The review model has an i7 with 16GB of Ram, 256GB of storage and Iris Xe integrated graphics. It sells in New Zealand for $2770.

In both cases that’s before you add almost $500 for the not-really-optional Signature keyboard.

Fast by Windows standards

This is a fast machine by 2021 Windows standards. You can run many apps at the same time without seeing any performance drop. I loaded it with a dozen simultaneous tasks without it getting warm.

Microsoft claims you can get 16 hours use on a single charge. I found the Surface Pro 8 fell well short of that. Eight hours is closer to my experience and that’s with dialling down the screen brightness.

Audience

The obvious audience for the Surface Pro 8 is existing Surface users looking for an upgrade.

Beyond that, this will appeal to the rusted-on Windows user. Someone who has spent years working with Microsoft’s OS, and has optimised their practices to the point where switching to, say, MacOS or Linux would be hard.

Surface Pro 8 costs a lot more than conventional Windows laptops offering the same performance. You can buy laptops with similar chip and memory specifications from companies like HP, Lenovo or Dell for $1000 less.

Or you can spend the same money and buy a more powerful device.

That makes it an expensive way of getting a mobile Windows computer. Yet Surface is more than that. It converts to a tablet and delivers a more complete Windows 11 experience. I’d argue it is a better experience than most 2-in-1s.

Comparisons with MacBook Air

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 does not scrub up well in a direct comparison with a MacBook Air, the 2020 model with the M1 processor.

By the time you’ve added the Signature Keyboard to the Surface Pro 8, you’re looking at spending more than NZ$3000 for a computer with 256GB of storage.

A MacBook Air with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1750.

It doesn’t have a touch screen and you can’t remove the keyboard. Yet Apple’s computer is much faster. If you like benchmarks, then you’ll see the MacBook Air is about 40 percent faster than the Surface Pro.

When it comes to battery life, the MacBook Air will carry on working for at least three more hours than the Surface Pro. My testing shows you should expect to run for even longer. You get more computer for less money.

The key difference is the operating system. Now that most apps are delivered from the cloud and the key non-cloud apps come in MacOS and Windows versions, there’s less to worry about in this department.

It comes down to whether you like MacOS or Windows and whether you can be as productive if you switch.

In a sense, the Surface Pro 8 makes a strong case for buying an Apple laptop.

Comparisons with iPad Pro

The Surface Pro 8 is far more laptop-like than the iPad Pro. I might hook a keyboard to the iPad Pro for 30 percent of my time with the device. With the Surface Pro it’s never not connected.

Even so, you can view both as tablets and compare them that way.

Adding the Smart Keyboard Folio, which is the closest model to Microsoft’s keyboard to an iPad Pro with 256GB of storage comes to a total of NZ$2380. That’s $650 less than the price of a similar configuration Surface Pro 8.

Like the M1 MacBook Air, the M1 iPad Pro is much faster than the Surface Pro. Meanwhile the iPad Pro’s battery life is on a par with the Surface Pro 8. The iPad Pro is around 100g lighter than the Surface Pro, in practice you’d barely notice this.

On a straightforward comparison, the iPad Pro offers more computer for less money.

Slim Pen 2 Stylus

You can buy pens, or Pencils and Stylus to give them their brand names, for both the Surface Pro 8 and the iPad Pro.

Apple’s Pencil integrates neatly with the iPad Pro. It has magnets which let it stick to the side of the iPad when not in use. It will charge while in this position.

Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2 Stylus tucks into a holder on the Signature Keyboard. In its own way this is as neat as Apple’s magnetic approach. This includes a wireless charger.

There’s also a separate charging holster. I struggled to see the point of this. It makes life more complicated than is necessary.

Surface Pro 8 verdict

There will be people reading this who don’t think price is a barrier. Yet by any standards the Surface Pro 8 is expensive.

By the time you add a non-optional keyboard, the lowest practical option will cost NZ$2500. A MacBook Pro costs less. There are plenty of decent Windows alternatives that will leave change in your pocket.

None of this is to detract from the Surface Pro 8. It has a wonderful screen and there’s the flexibility to remove the keyboard and enjoy a movie on a tablet. It’s about as good as the Windows laptop experience can be.

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