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

For now, Microsoft owns the Windows tablet category.

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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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