Microsoft Surface Pro 7 review: Still the best Windows tablet you can buy

For now, Microsoft owns the Windows tablet category.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7
Mark Hachman / IDG

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At a Glance

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7, the latest in the company’s excellent Surface Pro series, continues the tradition of being a durable, dependable tablet for the ages. It’s measurably better this time around, too, with an internal upgrade to Intel’s 10th-gen, 10nm Ice Lake chip and a nod to the future, a USB-C port. There are many good reasons why the Surface Pro 7 won our Editor’s Choice award, as you’ll see in our review.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to be the best game in town when rival Windows tablets are few and far between. At this point, the field consists largely of Microsoft’s Surface Pro models, the Surface Pro X, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Tablet, monstrous tablet workstations like the HP Zbook X2, and our longstanding favorite, the Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 520. There’s a definite gap between these and $300-ish Atom-powered tablets from names like RCA and iView, which we wouldn’t necessarily recommend. If you’re looking for a full-fledged computer that’s extremely portable and can even work as a tablet, the Surface Pro 7 is your best choice.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 virtually requires the a Type Cover of some sort, transforming it into a lightweight laptop.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 basic specs

The Surface Pro 7 is a full-fledged PC made superportable. You won’t get discrete graphics, but you will get CPU choices up to a Core i7, and generous RAM and storage options. Here are the full specs: 

  • Display: 12.3-inch PixelSense display (2736x1824)
  • Processor: Intel Core i3-1005G1, Core i5-1035G4, Core i7-1065G7 (as tested)
  • Graphics: Iris Plus 940
  • Memory: 4GB, 8GB, 16GB LPDDR4x (as tested)
  • Storage: 128GB, 256GB (as tested), 512GB, 1TB SSD
  • Ports: 1 USB Type C, 1 USB Type A, MicroSDXC reader, Surface Connect, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Camera: 5MP front-facing, 8MP rear-facing, w/1080p video
  • Battery: 43.2Wh (reported)
  • Wireless: WiFi 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth 5
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home, version 1909
  • Dimensions (inches): 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33 inches (8.5mm)
  • Weight: 1.74 pounds, 2.42 pounds with Signature Type Cover, 3.04 pounds total with charger
  • Colors: Platinum, Black
  • Price: $1,399 MSRP as tested, $1,199 at Microsoft; prices range from $675 to $2,099
  • Optional accessories: Surface Pro Signature Type Cover ($160 on Amazon), Surface Pen ($100 on microsoft.com).

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

Yes, the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 is indeed a tablet.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 offers the same tablet experience as in years past: Prop it up with its iconic kickstand, connect the “optional” Surface Signature Keyboard (that you’ll want unless you’re seriously tablet-centric), and get to work. A Surface Pen, as always, is optional. Though it’s among the most portable of Microsoft’s Surface offerings, the tablet isn’t quite the mobile-forward design that you might have hoped—that’s left to the Surface Pro X ($900 on Amazon), though that tablet ships with its own set of issues.

Our Surface Pro 7 test unit shares an Intel Core Ice Lake processor with the Surface Laptop 3 (for Business), a substantial improvement in processing power from the prior generation. Traditionally, this has been what’s separated one Surface Pro from its predecessor. 

Versus a modern laptop or Android tablet, the Surface Pro 7’s bezels are relatively ginormous: about a half-inch along the left and right bezel of the device, and slightly less along the top and bottom. They’re a necessary evil for enjoying the Surface Pro 7 as an actual tablet, and holding it by its edges. Still, the large, chunky bezels give it a rather dated look.

The built-in, glossy 2736x1824 display remains unchanged from previous models, slightly less than the true 3,000x2,000 resolution of, say, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet (3rd Gen). Microsoft hasn't moved to OLED technology yet, unfortunately. The 396 nits of brightness that the display puts out is in line with that of previous Surface tablets, and not too far out of line with rival notebooks and tablets. It’s still not bright enough for working in full sunlight, though, especially as the glossy display is very reflective. Inside my somewhat dim basement office, though, the Surface Pro 7 was a pleasure to work upon.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

After a decade or so, the Surface Pro’s kickstand might be taken for granted. Don’t—it’s still a key part of the Surface Pro 7’s value. The power button and volume rocker are on the top of the tablet.

By the way, while Microsoft claims that users may be able to open the Surface Laptop 3 and upgrade the SSD, the Surface Pro 7 is decidedly sealed

A solid keyboard and typing experience

As always, if you do buy the Surface Pro 7, be sure and budget for a Surface Pro Signature Type Cover, $160 from Microsoft. (We've also seen discounted prices from Amazon.) Unofficially, you have cheaper alternatives: If you can track down the Surface Type Cover for the Surface Pro 3 (with a pen loop!) or the $50 Surface 3 Type Cover, they'd both work—I attached each in turn to the Surface Pro 7 and wrote a couple of paragraphs in this review. They rattle a bit, and the layout is slightly different compared to the more modern Signature Type Covers that begin with the Surface Pro 4. But they cost a lot less.

The older Type Covers feature larger keys, though with less key travel and resistance. In some ways, I prefer the older Type Covers, as there’s a happy medium between the need to depress the keys and the desire to glide over them quickly. Over succeeding generations, the Type Cover’s individual keys have shrunk, giving more room to the trackpad. Like any keyboard, however, the feel is subject to individual interpretation.

The Type Cover also protects the Surface Pro’s display. The more modern Type Covers feel a bit stiffer and more sturdy, suggesting they might shelter the screen even more. They also offer three levels of backlighting, or no lighting at all.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Surface Signature keyboards provide a comfortable typing experience.

We were sent the Charcoal Signature Type Cover to accompany the Surface Pro 7. Other color options include Poppy Red and Ice Blue. All three are coated in the soft, yet durable Alcantara fabric, which seems a bit less furry than in generations past. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

The long magnetic strip at the top of the keyboard feels a bit weaker than usual in this current version of the Signature Type Cover.

As you might expect, the Type Cover includes a Microsoft Precision Touchpad, which easily processes taps and other gestures. It’s clickable over its entire surface, though it requires a bit more effort near the top.

At this point, Microsoft has done a surprisingly good job of nailing the inking experience. You’ll have to buy a Surface Pen, sure. But setup is a breeze, with a quick walk-through via the Surface app. A click of the rubber eraser and the Surface Pro 7 launches the Whiteboard app—not my first choice for drawing, but a real pleasure to use nevertheless. Digital ink flows smoothly as the Pen glides over the display, and the pen connects magnetically to the side of the tablet.

Note that the Camera app turns on the user-facing camera by default—perhaps assuming you live within Skype. The rear-facing camera offers normal and panorama photography, plus document-scanning and whiteboarding options. Virtually everything on the Surface Pro 7 is about productivity.

Ports: USB-C, but no Thunderbolt yet

If you’ve owned a previous Surface, you’ll be happy to know that the Surface Connector remains the same, allowing you to use an old Surface charger with the new model. The same goes for the Surface Dock, which Microsoft has never updated. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft removed the miniDisplayPort connector and replaced it with a USB-C port. The Surface Connector for the Surface Dock remains.

What is new about the Surface Pro 7 is the addition of the USB-C port—and the removal of miniDisplayPort. In all, this is a net positive for the Surface Pro lineup, given the wide and varied range of USB-C hubs to compensate for a single, dedicated port. Tablets like Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 tablet have previously offered more flexible port options, and it’s nice to see Microsoft’s prosumer tablet line catch up. The Surface Pro X offers a pair of USB-C ports, however, compared to the Surface Pro 7's single port. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

On the other side of the tablet is a lonely 3.5mm headphone jack.

Some rivals go beyond this to offer a Thunderbolt-enabled USB-C port, which allows more bandwidth for connecting to secondary monitors and the like. In the Surface Pro 7's case, its USB-C port (specifically USB 3.1 Gen 2, at 10GBps, using DisplayPort 1.4) will accommodate a pair of external 4K displays at 60Hz. The Surface Pro X’s capabilities slightly outshine the Surface Pro 7's: It can connect up to two 4096x2304 displays using its pair of USB-C ports.

The Surface Pro 7's USB-C port can also be used to charge the tablet, which offers additional flexibility. Like the Surface Laptop 3, the included charger offers quick-charge capabilities, too.

We’ve beat this drum before, but we’ll sound it again: If the Surface Pro series had Thunderbolt as well as the Surface Connector, you'd have two high-speed I/O interfaces. You can still connect to the Surface Dock. But there seems to be a missed opportunity here. 

Don’t forget about the microSD card slot under the kickstand, as in previous models. Sure, Microsoft would like you to upload your smartphone photos directly to the cloud. But as long as point-and-shoot cameras exist, schlepping the microSD card from the camera to the phone remains an easy way to upload your photos. Most USB-C hubs already include a microSD slot, however.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

Remember the microSD card slot! It’s hidden, but still useful.

So far, Microsoft hasn’t announced an SP7 with an integrated or external SIM. For that, you’ll want the Surface Pro X.

Unexpectedly nice audio

Microsoft has usually designed its tablets with audio in mind. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 offers a wide, balanced range of highs and lows, though you’ll still miss some of the deeper bass notes.

The Surface Pro 7 includes Dolby Audio within the Realtek Audio Console app, and the sound enhancement is on by default. Though the app doesn’t provide any equalizer functions, the default configuration sounds suitably balanced for you to enjoy audio over the tablet’s speakers—still a rare luxury in today’s laptops.

DTS Sound Unbound is a surprise, a paid app that’s bundled with the tablet. It asks you to pay a whopping $15 to unlock surround sound from both your speakers and headphones, similar to what THX offers for free with Walmart's Motile laptop. To my ears, the DTS solution sounded much better than what THX offered, and the positional audio was the best I can recall since Aureal Semiconductor’s HRTF positional audio demo two decades ago.

dts sound unbound app Microsoft Surface Pro 7 Mark Hachman / IDG

If you buy a Surface Pro 7, check out the free 15-day trial of the DTS Sound Unbound app. The positional demo is unreasonably fun.

Performance: top of the tablets

It would be nice to wave away some of the Surface Pro 7’s performance requirements, in an argument that a simple tablet deserves some concessions. That argument holds more water with the Surface Go, hovering around $500. Because there’s a strong chance that our $1,200 Surface Pro 7 will replace a notebook PC as a primary device, however, we can’t use the same criteria.

We also can’t directly compare the Surface Pro 7 to Microsoft’s recent Surface Pro X in all but a small handful of benchmarks. In large part, that’s because the two devices use different microprocessors: The Surface Pro 7 uses Intel’s mobile Ice Lake chip, while the Surface Pro X uses a custom chip based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon architecture. The latter can’t run most benchmarks that we use to test Windows laptops and desktops. but you'll see it in a few where they intersect.

Given the somewhat limited comparison set, we’ve also included the Ice-Lake-based Surface Laptop 3 for Business. This laptop and its tablet cousin actually bear a close resemblance on paper—they share the same exact processor and GPU, clocked identically. As you’ll see from the CPU-specific Cinebench test below, the CPU performance of both the Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Laptop 3 are close.

Our daily experiences with the Surface Pro 7--everyday Office use, web browsing and the like--were more than acceptable. The Surface Pro 7 also offers "instant on" capabilities, waking almost instantly with a combination of the Windows Hello-enabled camera and a fast internal SSD.

Our first test is the older PCMark Creative benchmark, used in part because we could pull results from a couple years' worth of tablets. It measures light gaming, photo and video editing, and web browsing. Not surprisingly, the Surface Pro 7 excels. 

Note that the default behavior for the Surface Pro 7, like the Surface Laptop 3, is to prolong battery life, sometimes at the expense of performance. That’s a perfectly acceptable choice, but we also tested while maximizing the performance (noted with the black outline). In some tests, that made a difference. In others, it didn’t.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 pcmark 8 creative Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench

Especially when you dial up the performance, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 is the fastest tablet around for everyday use, as measured by PCMark 8.

In terms of pure CPU workloads, we use the Cinebench benchmark, which renders a CGI scene using the full power of the CPU. The Core i7-1065G7 is a 4-core, 8-thread processor, just like the older chips that power the Lenovo IdeaPad Miix and ThinkPad X1 Tablets. But it's fabricated at 10nm, giving it a performance advantage over the older 14nm chips.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench Mark Hachman / IDG

Two identical processors, two nearly identical scores.

Our other CPU benchmark is a stress test, a prolonged transcoding exercise using the open-source HandBrake app. It tests both the CPU's stamina and the device's ability to stay cool during a rigorous workload. The Surface Pro 7 delivers decent performance here, but we suspect some slight throttling may be at work.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench handbrake Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench

The chart is distorted by the agonizingly slow performance of the Microsoft Surface Go, but the Surface Pro 7 is still superior. Better cooling on the Surface Laptop 3 helps its prevail.

When it comes to graphics benchmarks, the differences become clear. We saw some rather significant differences in GPU frame rate in our 3DMark Sky Diver test, which developer UL touts as a benchmark for gaming machines.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench 3dmark sky diver Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench

The Sky Diver benchmark shows sharp differences between the Surface Laptop 3 and the Surface Pro 7, but there is also a pronounced performance improvement over the older tablets.

Though the Surface Laptop 3 for Business and the Surface Pro 7 share a common CPU and GPU platform, the differences in this benchmark are stark. Why? Using Intel’s Power Gadget widget, we traced the GPU power and frequency as it ran the benchmark. The Surface Pro 7 seems to throttle the GPU pretty hard in this particular test. Though the SP7’s GPU occasionally spikes to a peak speed of 3.7GHz, it tends to run at prolonged periods at 267MHz. The Surface Laptop 3's typical speed is 283MHz, and with much longer prolonged “spikes” of 3.35GHz to 3.75GHz. This translates to better prolonged graphics performance.

The gist of this result is that quasi-modern games like Grand Theft Auto V will play, though you’ll have to dial down the resolution down to 720p or so and turn off most of the advanced graphics options off. The Iris Plus graphics integrated into Intel’s Core i7-1065G7 provides decent GPU performance, almost (but not quite) to the point of a low-end discrete GPU.

As noted above, we definitely see some throttling going on within the Ice Lake GPU, resulting in a sharp difference between the Surface Laptop 3 and the Surface Pro 7. Stay focused on the real message, though: The Surface Pro 7 outperforms all other tablets we’ve tested by a substantial amount.

Finally, we look at battery life. We charge to full and then pull the plug as we loop a 4K video, with volume set to about 50 percent, until the battery dies. At a design capacity of 43.2Wh, it’s a tad smaller than the Surface Pro 6’s 45Wh battery. (Full charge capacity on the SP7 was 46.4Wh, indicating some variation in the manufacturing.) The older Core i5-8250U can run as low as 10W, while the i7-1065G7 runs as low as 12W. Did that make a difference? Perhaps. In any event, battery life just shy of 9 hours is satisfactory.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench battery life Microsoft Surface Pro 7 cinebench

The Surface Pro 7 delivers about we’d expect of a prosumer-level tablet's battery: about 9 hours from a 43Wh supply.

Conclusion: The best Windows tablet right now

It’s no surprise that the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 comes out on top within its limited field of competitors, especially because it’s the first Windows tablet we’ve seen with the Intel Ice Lake platform.

The Surface Pro design retains some advantages. For many, the inclusion of a USB-C and an older USB Type-A port represents an ideal compromise, even if we'd have preferred Thunderbolt. The kickstand is overlooked as an absolute necessity for desk work. Even the chunky bezels make the tablet easier to tote from room to room while playing Spotify or Netflix. 

Surface pioneered the Windows tablet market and has delivered a quality experience generation after generation in the years since. Nothing has changed in that regard. Right now, the Surface Pro 7 is the best Windows tablet you can buy.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft updates its Surface Pro 7 Windows tablet with a powerful Intel Ice Lake chip and a modern USB-C port.

    Pros

    • Powerful Intel Ice Lake CPU boosts performance
    • USB-C, USB-A ports allow for peripheral flexibility

    Cons

    • Lack of Thunderbolt and WWAN option are disappointing
 
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