Long live the king of Windows tablets
We already reviewed the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet with the company’s custom ARM-based processor, admiring its built-in 5G connectivity and extra-long battery life, but not its lackluster performance and app compatibility issues. The Intel-based Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (starts at $999.99; $1,878.98 as tested with a Core i7 CPU, Signature Keyboard, and Slim Pen 2) is the opposite: It doesn’t include 5G and can’t last as long off the plug, but its superior performance and compatibility make this Surface a better fit for most buyers.
This Intel-based Surface Pro 9 is a technology refresh of the Surface Pro 8—now packing Intel’s 12th Generation Core chips. The only other way it differs from its predecessor is by the unfortunate loss of its headphone jack, but that’s not enough to stop the Surface Pro 9 from taking our Editors’ Choice honors among high-end Windows tablets. Expensive it may be, especially with upgrades and must-have accessories, but no other Windows tablet comes close to challenging Microsoft’s level of polish and engineering.
Build Your Own: Configurations Galore
High-end Windows tablets typically run $750 and up, with the performance and feature to double as (or replace) a traditional laptop. Microsoft’s Surface Pro has always been one of our favorites, though it has become much more expensive in the last two generations. Competition, meanwhile, has grown scarce. Neither the Lenovo ThinkPad X12 Detachable nor the Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable has been updated with Intel’s 12th Gen processors, leaving just the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 tablet to fend off Microsoft’s best.
Intel-based Surface Pro 9 models come with either the Core i5-1235U or the Core i7-1255U CPU, the latter capable of slightly higher clock speeds and equipped with faster-integrated graphics. Either laptop-grade chip pairs with 8GB or 16GB of memory, but you’ll need to step up to the shockingly expensive $2,599.99 Core i7 configuration to get 32GB. Storage options start at a skimpy 128GB. Our Core i7 review unit has 16GB of RAM and a user-upgradable 256GB solid-state drive for $1,599.99, though it was discounted to $1,299.99 at the time of writing. Top-end configurations include a 512GB or 1TB SSD.
The Surface Pro 9 comes in four colors: Platinum, Forest, Graphite, and the Sapphire option our test unit dons. It’s elegant and slick from any angle. The screen is glass and everything else is rock-solid aluminum—it’s impeccably well-made.
At 0.37 by 11.3 by 8.2 inches, the Surface Pro 9 is amazingly compact for the technology packed inside. Cradling its 1.9-pound weight in one arm is no strain. Even the trimmest 2-in-1 convertible laptop can’t compare; for instance, the HP Spectre x360 13.5 is 0.67 by 11.7 by 8.7 inches and 3 pounds. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 tablet nevertheless manages to be slightly slimmer and lighter than the Surface, at 0.29 by 11.5 by 7.9 inches and 1.6 pounds.
The Surface Pro 9’s star attraction is its 13-inch touch screen, which is bright and colorful enough to lend excitement to even mundane office work. Its finely detailed 2,880-by-1,920-pixel resolution works out to a paper-like 3:2 aspect ratio.
Toggled to a 60Hz refresh rate out of the box, you can set the display to refresh at a smoother 120Hz using Windows Settings. (Just beware that doing so will increase power draw and reduce battery life.) The screen’s only real drawback is its highly reflective glass surface, which can become a smudge-fest. It can also create blinding reflections outdoors, so take note of your angle to the sun.
Nothing demonstrates Microsoft’s experience designing tablets more than the Surface Pro 9 kickstand. Two notches at the base of the tablet make it a cinch to open with your fingertips. The hinge is stiff enough that you can touch or draw on the screen without fear of the angle shifting, yet it still allows easy manipulation. The kickstand opens to about 170 degrees, so it can adapt to nearly all drafting and drawing styles.
The Surface’s upgradable storage door is under the kickstand—press the dimple to pop the door free. A postage-stamp-like M.2 2240 (40mm) SSD is within. Drives in this form factor tend to cost more than the M.2 2280 drives commonly used in laptops, but the fact that you can upgrade the storage in this tablet at all is commendable.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 9 cameras also impress. The front-facing webcam has a sharp 1080p resolution and supports Windows Hello for logins via face recognition. The camera exposed my face properly despite an extra-bright background, as you can see in this sample shot with negligible noise.
You’ll also find a 10-megapixel world-facing camera that supports 1080p and 4K video. It, too, tended to correctly expose situations and show little noise.
As for sound, the Surface’s built-in speakers sound full and project well. I didn’t miss my headphones watching Top Gun: Maverick.
Minimal Ports, Buoyed by Plentiful Accessories
Tablets typically don’t have varied port selections, and the Surface Pro 9 doesn’t change that: It has just two Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports along its left edge. As noted, the headphone jack that was on the Surface Pro 8 is gone for little explicable reason. This model isn’t any thinner than last year’s as a result, for instance.
On the tablet’s top edge, you’ll find the power button and the volume rocker, whereas the only feature on its right is the Surface’s dedicated power connector. Either Thunderbolt 4 port can also power the device, which will be the case if you pair the Surface Pro 9 with the optional Surface Dock 2. The included power adapter has a right-angle connector, so the cord doesn’t jut out from the tablet’s side.
The Surface’s keyboard connector is on the bottom, which was last redesigned for the Surface Pro 8 and doesn’t work with the Type Cover accessories made first for older Surface devices.
Still reluctant to bundle it, Microsoft sells an optional—though arguably essential—$139.99 Surface Pro keyboard (formerly the Surface Pro X keyboard) as well as the $179.99 Signature Keyboard seen here. Both include backlighting, but the Signature version ups the luxury with a fuzzy Alcantara covering available in Black, Platinum, Sapphire, Poppy Red, and Forest colors.
Microsoft’s Signature Keyboard has a built-in charging garage for its $129.99 Slim Pen 2, which is arguably less essential. You can save $30 by buying the Signature Keyboard and Slim Pen 2 bundle for $279.99. You can also buy a Signature Keyboard with Fingerprint Reader for $199.99, though Microsoft strangely doesn’t sell any stylus bundles with it. (Note that Microsoft sometimes runs promotions and sales that discount these list prices, as I’ll describe in the next section.)
The Signature Keyboard attaches to the Surface Pro 9 magnetically. Simply place it under its connector on the tablet’s bottom edge, and magnets guide it the rest of the way, precisely snapping in with a satisfying click. Just pull the two apart to detach them. The keyboard folds up against the screen and acts as a screen protector.
The Signature Keyboard has three levels of white backlighting and enough up-and-down key travel for satisfying tactile feedback. It has minimal flex and is commendably stable despite its thinness, though more-forceful typists might find the typing experience on the hollow side since it doesn’t have a solid base. The keyboard also has an easy-to-use glass touchpad, though I wish its physical clicking action were quieter.
I should note the Surface with its keyboard only really works on a solid surface like a table. Using it in your lap is generally a no-go because it’s still not stable enough. You still have just the base of the tablet, the kickstand, and the leading edge of the keyboard cover as contact points unlike a laptop, where you’d rather have the whole base for stability.
Inking on the Surface’s glass screen feels natural using Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2, which has two buttons and an eraser. The squashed shape felt comfortable in my medium-sized hands, more so than the extra-thin pens that detachable tablets sometimes include.
The Surface Pro 9 also works with the regular Surface Pen, though it doesn’t fit in the garage on the Signature Keyboard.
Testing the Surface Pro 9: Laptop-Like Performance in a Tablet
Our Surface Pro 9 has a 10-core Intel Core i7-1255U CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, Windows 11 Home, and a one-year warranty. This Surface has the highest-end processor of its consumer versions; Surface Pro 9 for Business models comes with the vPro-enabled Core i7-1265U. Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3 are standard, but 5G, as I noted, isn’t available—that only comes with the SQ3 processor. Microsoft had this configuration (just the tablet) on sale for $1,299.99 at the time of writing; its normal price is $1,599.99.
High accessory prices are one of our routine complaints with tablet-first devices, which normally applies to the Surface Pro 9, though Microsoft recently ran a promotion that included the Signature Keyboard for free (normally $179.99) and discounted the Slim Pen 2 to $92.99 ($37 off the normal $129.99). That’s a lot easier to swallow than the Signature Keyboard and Slim Pen 2 combo’s normal $279.99. (Dare we say it’s reasonable?) Nail a promotion like that on the accessories, and a discount off the tablet proper, and the pricing becomes a lot more palatable if you’re patient.
As I noted, competition is scarce: The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 includes a keyboard, a stylus, and a larger 512GB SSD for $1,399. A 2-in-1 convertible laptop like Lenovo’s Yoga 7i 14 Gen 7 can run a few hundred less, but rotating convertibles aren’t nearly as effective in serving as tablets as a detachable model.
Our Intel-based Surface Pro 9 faced Microsoft’s own SQ3 Surface Pro 9 in our benchmark tests. The other tablet-first device we included is the aforementioned XPS 13 2-in-1; it uses slightly lower-powered Intel Core processors than the Surface, so the Surface should have proved the better performer. We also included two convertible notebooks, the HP Spectre x360 13.5 and the Lenovo’s Yoga 7i 14 Gen 7, which use the Core i7-1255U and 16GB of RAM—just like our Surface.
Productivity and Content Creation Tests
Our first test is UL’s PCMark 10, which simulates a variety of real-world productivity and office workflows to measure overall system performance—this also includes a storage subtest for the primary drive.
To further test the CPU, we run additional benchmarks using all available cores and threads to rate a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon’s Cinebench R23 uses that company’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Geekbench 5.4 Pro by Primate Labs simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).
Our final productivity test is PugetBench for Photoshop(Opens in a new window) by Puget Systems, which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe’s famous image editor to rate a PC’s performance for content creation and multimedia applications. However, neither this Surface nor the SQ3 version was able to conduct the test, so we’ve omitted it from the charts.
Microsoft’s Core i7 Surface proved slightly underwhelming in the main test (a surprise), where it trailed the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 and especially the convertible laptops. (The SQ3 Surface couldn’t run the test.) However, it still cleared the 4,000-point threshold we consider to mark reliable devices capable of handily completing basic productivity tasks.
The Core i7 Surface redeemed itself, however, with competitive scores in Cinebench and especially HandBrake, though it trailed the pack in Geekbench. Based on these numbers, you’re looking at one of the most capable and speedy Windows tablets to date, which should even be able to handle light multimedia work while on the go.
Graphics and Gaming Tests
For Windows PCs, we run both synthetic and real-world gaming tests. The former includes two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL’s 3DMark, Night Raid (more modest, suitable for systems with integrated graphics) and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs). Also looped into that group is the cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 5, which we use to gauge OpenGL performance.
The Core i7 Surface was once again competitive throughout, though it’s of course far from a dedicated gaming machine. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 fell well behind because its Core i5 processor has slower onboard graphics than the Core i7 chips. While you shouldn’t expect this tablet to natively run games all too well, it should prove a decent cloud gaming device (particularly with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass).
Battery and Display Tests
PCMag tests laptop battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file (the open-source Blender movie Tears of Steel) with screen brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100% until the system quits. Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting are turned off during the test.
We also use a Datacolor SpyderX Elite monitor calibration sensor and its software to measure a laptop screen’s color saturation—what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts or palettes the display can show—and its brightness in nits (candelas per square meter) at the screen’s 50% and peak settings.
Microsoft’s SQ3 Surface Pro 9 battery life was clearly unmatched here, but 13 hours and change for our Core i7 version is still commendable for a device in this class. We saw 12 hours and 34 minutes when we tested the Surface Pro 8, so the Core i7 Surface’s higher number suggests it’s more power efficient. Dell’s XPS had nowhere near the same stamina.
Our screen tests show that the Core i7 Surface edged out the XPS in Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 color, but the HP’s OLED panel was unbeatable there. The Surface’s peak brightness turned out to also be excellent, though its battery life will undoubtedly suffer if you run it at 100% brightness for an extended period of time. (Remember, we do our battery test at 50% brightness.)