Microsoft Surface Pro 6 review: Microsoft adds quad-core power to its tried-and-true tablet

While an 8th-gen Core processor upgrade is noteworthy, this is the third straight generation that Microsoft's Surface Pro has remained largely the same.

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The Home test migrates the workloads into more familiar space, such as web browsing and light gaming. Here, the Surface Pro 6 does fairly well, though it’s the gaming portion where it struggles a bit. (We’ll take a harder look at this below.)

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 pcmark home Mark Hachman / IDG

Again, the Surface Pro 6 finishes quite well, though some of its competition tops it. 

PCMark’s Creative tests push the multimedia aspects a bit harder, with photo and video editing. Note that gaming also plays a large role here, which could explain the Surface Pro 6’s close ranking relative to the higher-end 2017 model.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 pcmark creative Mark Hachman / IDG

Remember, PCMark aggregates several tests to determine a composite score. The superior GPU on the Surface Pro (2017) probably elevates its gaming score to a point where its score is comparable to that of the Surface Pro 6.

We use Maxon’s Cinebench test as a standardized test of the CPU within the Surface Pro 6, as well as other PCs we’ve tested. Cinebench is a widely adopted standard, primarily because it stresses each and every core and thread in a CPU, really demonstrating the potential performance of a laptop or microprocessor. It’s here where the bump to four cores and eight threads benefits the Surface Pro 6. Keep in mind, though, that many conventional applications aren’t written as efficiently, which make the PCMark tests a more effective real-world evaluation.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 cinebench Mark Hachman / IDG

The four cores and eight threads within the Surface Pro 6 make quick work of the Cinebench benchmark—a 47 percent performance increase over the Surface Pro (2017). We’d bet Microsoft’s “65 percent performance increase” was based on comparisons to the Core m version.

HandBrake, meanwhile, is an open-source video-conversion tool. We use it as a prolonged stress test of a laptop under load, converting a movie into a format appropriate for an Android tablet. It’s a real-world application, though niche. But it’s also a good test to see how the laptop will manage thermal stress under a heavy workload. Will it slow down to avoid overheating? The Surface Pro 6 barely broke a sweat, posting one of the best scores of the group.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 handbrake Mark Hachman / IDG

A fanless laptop that’s nearly the top of the heap in prolonged video conversion? That’s solid work by the Microsoft engineers who designed the Surface Pro 6.

We normally don’t test SSD performance, but we wanted to see whether Microsoft was improving the underlying hardware, or cutting corners. Unfortunately, based upon the available tablets remaining in our testbed—we returned HP’s tablets, unfortunately—it seems like Microsoft lags behind Lenovo’s latest ThinkPad X1 tablet. Our Surface Pro 6 review unit included a 256GB SKHynix BC501 NVMe SSD.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 SSD performance Mark Hachman / IDG

Lenovo’s latest ThinkPad X1 Tablet substantially outperforms the Surface Pro 6 in SSD performance.

Next up is the 3DMark test, which tests the laptop GPU. In this case we’d expect the Surface Pro (2017) to outperform the Surface Pro 6, and that’s exactly what happens, though the substantial 39-percent performance advantage speaks as much to the Iris Pro GPU Microsoft designed as to the Core i7 our Surface Pro (2017) review unit shipped with. Microsoft seems to be leaning back toward the mainstream productivity aspect with the Surface Pro 6, and away from games.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 3dmark sky diver Mark Hachman / IDG

If you’re a potential Surface Pro 6 buyer, this is good news if you’re considering graphics-intensive applications. But if you already own a Surface Pro (2017), graphics is no reason to upgrade.

Any disappointment you may feel as a result of the 3DMark test, though, should be leavened by the improvements in battery life, to over 8.5 hours. We’re seeing two changes here: a shift from the Core i7 to the Core i5, and possible improvements in the fundamental Core chips. Note that the battery capacity of the Surface Pro (2017) and the Surface Pro 6 are both 45 watt-hours, so there’s been no improvements there. Also note that this graphic looks worse than it is: We included laptops like the Surface Laptop, the HP Spectre x360, and the Dell XPS 2-in-1, which twists into tablet mode.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 battery life Mark Hachman / IDG

The two bars may be right next to each other, but this represents about a 12 percent improvement in battery life for the Surface Pro 6 over the Surface Pro (2017.) That result is still dwarfed by some of the thin-and-light notebooks we included for comparison.

Should I buy the Microsoft Surface Pro 6?

Some have suggested that the lack of substantive differences between the Surface Pro (2017) and the Surface Pro 6 indicates of sort of Apple iPhone-like “S-year,” where little changes are preparation for more dramatic reinventions. There are subtle improvements: Adding a quad-core processor is certainly worth applauding. 

Microsoft seems more likely to launch smaller (Surface Go) or larger (Surface Studio) variations than dramatically revamp the Surface Pro series. Is a USB-C port on the way? Maybe. But if you want a Surface Pro tablet, this is pretty much it.

If you already own a Surface Pro (2017), there aren’t that many reasons to upgrade. A Surface Pro (2017) with 8GB of memory and 256GB of SSD storage currently costs $999, $200 less than the Surface Pro 6 we tested with the same configuration.

You also have some alternatives to consider. The Lenovo Miix 520 is more affordable, includes both the keyboard and the pen, and was the first to offer quad-core performance, but it lacks Windows Hello and skimps on battery life. Its corporate cousin, the ThinkPad X1 (3rd Gen) Tablet offers a brighter, more high-resolution screen and optional LTE, though battery life is again subpar. We also like the HP Spectre x2's consumer-friendly design, superior display, and GPU—though battery life suffers yet again. 

Lenovo Miix 520 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Lenovo Miix series are strong performers with an eye toward value, but their Achilles heel is battery life. 

Though we like elements of all those other tablets, however, the Surface Pro 6 is an all-around solid entry. Most notably, it smokes those alternative models in battery life. That's why we are giving the Surface Pro 6 an Editor's Choice designation, even if in other ways it's just an incremental upgrade. (Editor's note: We neglected to give the Editor's Choice designation at the time the review posted due to author error. PCWorld regrets the oversight.) 

In retrospect, Microsoft’s recent Surface launch suffered from multiple hardware “spec bumps.” Microsoft product chief Panos Panay may have gamely tried to tie the launch together by invoking a need for focus, but unfortunately it’s hard to get past lukewarm efforts in hardware, software, and execution. (Microsoft's Windows 10 October 2018 Update was middling, and it was initially held up due to a risk of data loss.) And for all the talk about the need for connected PCs, it would have nice at least to pre-announce a Surface Pro 6 with LTE.

Set aside what the Surface Pro 6 should be, though, and what you have is this: Microsoft’s implicit statement that the Surface Pro lineup has reached its zenith, and needs no further improvement save for periodic upgrades. HP and Lenovo would probably disagree. I stand by what I said in my review of the Surface Pro (2017): You can’t go wrong buying a Surface Pro 6. But you might be able to do better.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Surface Pro 6 is the latest iteration of its iconic Windows tablet, complete with an 8th-generation, quad-core chip inside of it. While it's nearly identical to earlier Surface Pro versions, that means its design remains one of the best—plus, it offers very good battery life compared to similar competition.

    Pros

    • Quad-core 8th-gen Core chip adds a performance bump
    • Core i5 model does away with the fan
    • Battery life improves somewhat

    Cons

    • External chassis is essentially unchanged...again
    • Step down in GPU power from previous model
    • Confusing mix of configurations to choose from on Microsoft site
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