Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8.
The Surface’s signature stand is as always.
Surface Pro 8 in profile.
In addition to the Surface Connect port, the Surface Pro 8 has two Thunderbolt 4 ports.
The Surface touchpad (left) is smaller than some 13-inch laptop trackpads (see XPS 13 9310 right). But it’s still accurate and pleasant to use.
The new Type Cover has a charging and storage compartment for the Slim Pen 2.
It took Microsoft three tries to get the Surface Pro right. The 2nd and 3rd generation models both aggressively improved on the small screen and mediocre battery life of the first model, achieving something that was laptop-like enough to fill a laptop but tablet-like enough to be unique .
And then things kind of … stood still. Some of the ports have changed over the years – the late 2019 Surface Pro 7 finally got USB-C – but the basic design and accessory compatibility were exactly the same on every mainline Surface Pro between 2014 and today.
The interoperability of accessories across five generations is commendable and useful in some cases, especially when you have multiple generations of Surface Pro tablets in a company and need to be able to swap parts quickly. But some elements of the Surface Pro 3 design have proven their age in the past few generations – Thunderbolt and / or USB-C ports do almost everything the proprietary Surface Connect port tries to do, and other laptops, tablets, and convertibles do have been downsizing their display bezels to increase the screen size for several years.
What brings us to the Surface Pro 8. The template here remains the same since Microsoft got it right the first time: a decent screen, the guts of a decent ultrabook, and a kickstand and detachable keyboard cover with solid pen support. But Microsoft has finally refined the device on important ways, including some we first saw on other Surface devices. If you have an older Surface and want to upgrade or buy a Surface to replace the laptop you have now, this is the place to start.
A refreshed design
Microsoft has modeled the Surface Pro 8 on the design of the ARM-based Surface Pro X – the two tablets can even share keyboard covers. The Pro 8 is 0.1 inches (or 2 millimeters) thicker than the Pro X to make room for the additional cooling hardware an Intel processor needs. But you have to have the two devices side by side to really tell the difference.
Compared to the Surface Pro 7 and the previous Surface design, the Pro 8 is almost identical in dimensions, but swaps the 12.3-inch screen with 2736 × 1824 for a 13-inch panel with 2880 × 1920 and the same 267 PPI pixels have a density and the characteristic aspect ratio of the Surface range of 3: 2. The bezels around the display are thinner to allow for the bigger screen without increasing the size – the same design trick we’ve seen on almost every phone, tablet, and laptop in recent years.
The Pro 8’s bezels are similar to those of the iPad Pro on the left and right of the screen, but they’re also thicker at the top and bottom (assuming I’m always talking about the Pro 8 in landscape mode unless I say otherwise). This presumably leaves space for the webcam and the IR Windows Hello camera above the screen, while at the same time the keyboard can rest against the screen without blocking the display.
Also new to the Pro 8 is a refresh rate of 120 Hz, but ex-factory the tablet still uses the more typical refresh rate of 60 Hz. This is likely a decision to conserve the tablet’s battery life, which compared to laptops with similar performance in Okay but not great. Microsoft also supports an Apple-like adaptive tinting feature called Adaptive Color, which, like Apple’s True Tone, adjusts the color temperature of the surface to match the ambient light in your location.
The only bad thing I can say about the screen is that, unlike Apple’s iPad Pros or MacBook Pros, the Surface Pro 8 still doesn’t support the DCI-P3 color space. The display covers 99.4 percent of the sRGB color space and has a respectable contrast ratio of 1211: 1 and a maximum brightness of 433 nits, but its DCI-P3 coverage averages 82.9 percent according to our i1 Display Studio colorimeter.
New connections and accessories
The new Surface Slim Pen 2.
The Surface Pro 7 finally added a USB-C port in 2019 that didn’t completely replace the proprietary Surface Connect port, but at least enabled the tablet to be used with USB-C chargers and monitors that support USB power. The Surface Pro 8 replaces the USB-C and USB-A ports on the old Surface with a pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports that offer faster data transfer speeds for Thunderbolt accessories and enable external GPU support, while being compatible with USB -C devices is retained. The Surface Connect port remains on, with the same functions as before.
Losing the USB-A port could still be a little frustrating for people with a plethora of legacy accessories. On the other hand, I think it’s worth being able to connect a pair of monitors to the Surface without having to rely on an expensive dock or some sort of DisplayPort daisy chain. In any case, the MacBook lineup, Dell’s XPS 13 and 15, and other laptops have already set the all-USB-C precedent. Losing the microSD card reader is more annoying – you’ll have to rely on an external dongle or, if you’re using a camera, your camera’s USB port to transfer data from SD cards.
The Pro 8 uses the same keyboard cover as the Surface Pro X – it’s pretty much the same as the old Type Cover, but with room for the Surface Slim Pen or Slim Pen 2 in it. The trackpad is definitely smaller than on laptops like the XPS 13 9310, but it’s as big as it needs to be and still feels accurate. The backlit chiclet keyboard also looks and feels great. But as with all Microsoft Type Covers, there is a certain degree of flexibility in the keyboard deck that you don’t get with a normal laptop with a more stable base (Lenovo’s ThinkPad X12 Detachable still has the most stable keyboard cover I’ve ever seen with a surface-like PC).
The Surface Slim Pen 2 is only a slight improvement over the first generation Slim Pen. It moves the button from the narrow edge of the pen to the wider, flatter edge. And when used with newer Surface devices, including the Pro 8, Laptop Studio, and Laptop 4, it has nifty haptic feedback that makes it vibrate subtly like a real pencil or pen would if you did pull over paper.
I’m not an artist, but I always check out Brad Colbow’s YouTube channel for an artist’s opinion on these devices. He’s had years of video on Surface Pro, iPad, and other pencil-compatible devices, and I trust what he has to say about the usefulness of each tablet for people who draw and do freehand drawing on their tablets. Colbow’s problem with the Surface range – and one that the Pro 8 and the new pen don’t fix – is its use of the Microsoft Pen Protocol.
Compared to iPads and tablets with Wacom digitizers, Colbow says MPP pens have excellent palm repellency, which makes them good writing tools. However, they tend to draw a little wobbly lines, which can make it difficult to use for fine lines. I can definitely recreate this wavy line effect on the Surface Pro 8 with the new pen when I’m not drawing quickly, although you won’t notice it when writing or working with faster strokes. If you’re already using a Surface and you’re happy with the pen’s performance, the Pro 8 will still work just fine for you. But the newer devices don’t address complaints people have had about earlier versions.