Technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 review: A superior Windows 11 tablet

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At a glance

Expert’s Rating

Pros

  • Superior screen: larger, higher-res, higher refresh rate
  • Inking is a pleasure
  • Good audio, with louder speakers
  • New optional Type Cover integrates pen well

Cons

  • Webcam might need some tweaking
  • Pen and keyboard still cost extra
  • Still pricey

Our Verdict

The Surface Pro 8 offers an excellent upgrade to Microsoft’s tablet lineup, with superior performance, inking, and audio, with good value for the money.

Price When Reviewed

$1,599. 99

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Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 tablet arrives as Windows 11 goes out the door. Microsoft has already shipped one tablet this year, the Surface Pro 7+, which rose to the top of our roundup of the best Windows tablets of 2021. Is the Surface Pro 8 able to improve on it?

Yes. Yes. This is a radical rework of the classic Surface Pro tablet line. It will grab your attention.

Editor’s Note: Our original review noted some striking variation in some benchmarks, and performance in some benchmarks that seemed out of line with others. Microsoft was not able to provide an explanation for these inconsistencies. We informed them before publishing the original review. They asked us to revise our review unit and recheck our benchmarks after we published our review. Scores improved in some places. We’ve updated our benchmark charts, the review text, and our score to reflect this. Our original review should be archived here.

Our original review theorized that some interaction between the new Surface Pro 8 hardware, the new Windows 11 operating system, and the firmware/drivers needed to operate the two caused the inconsistent behavior. Before using the Surface Pro 8, we recommend that you ensure your Surface Pro 8 has been updated via Windows Update.

Microsoft Surface Pro 8 specifications

For now, there’s one important change in configuration between the Surface Pro 7+ for Business and the latest Surface Pro 8: The Surface Pro 8 lacks an inexpensive Core i3 option, and thus its base price is $100 higher, at $1,099. All of the Surface Pro 8 options Microsoft sells should provide enough computing power and memory for anyone. We didn’t test cellular capabilities on our review unit.

Microsoft continues to sell the Surface’s companion keyboard and the pen separately, though there’s an explicit keyboard/pen bundle that Microsoft will sell for an additional $279.99. Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 8 was designed with the Surface Slim Pen 2 in view.

  • Display: 13-inch PixelSense Flow (2880×1920, 267 PPI)
  • Processor: Consumer: (Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1185G7) Commercial: (Core i3-1115G4, Core i5-1145G7, Core i7-1185G7)
  • Graphics: UHD (Core i3), Iris Xe (Core i5, i7)
  • Memory: 8/16/32GB LPDDR4x RAM (16GB as tested)
  • Storage: 128GB/256GB removable SSD; 512GB/1TB SSD (256GB as tested)
  • Ports: 2 USB-C (USB 4.0/Thunderbolt 4), 1 Surface Connect port, Surface Type Cover Port, 3.5mm jack
  • Security: Camera (Windows Hello)
  • Camera: 5MP/1080p (user-facing), 10MP (rear-facing)
  • Battery: 50.2Wh (design), 51.3Wh (full charge)
  • Wireless: WiFi 6 (802. 11ax), Bluetooth 5.1; optional LTE: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 38, 39, 40, 41, 66
  • Operating system: Consumer: Windows 11 Home; Business: Windows 10 Pro or Windows 11 Pro
  • Dimensions: 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.37in.
  • Weight: 1. 96lb (as specified)
  • Color: Platinum, Graphite
  • Price: Starting at $1,099. 99, $1,599. 99 as reviewed
  • Optional accessories: Surface Slim Pen 2: $129. 99, Surface Slim Pen Charger: $34. 99, Surface Pro Signature Keyboard w/ Slim Pen 2 Bundle: $279. 99, Surface Pro Signature Keyboard: $179. 99 (Alcantara Ice Blue, Poppy Red, Platinum, Black), Surface Pro Keyboard: $139. 99
technology

Microsoft Surface Pro 8 prices

  • Core i5/8GB RAM/128 GB SSD: $1,099. 99 (Platinum)
  • Core i5/8/256: $1,199. 99 (Platinum, Graphite)
  • Core i5/8/512: $1,399. 99 (Platinum, Graphite)
  • Core i5/16/256 – $1,399. 99 (Platinum, Graphite)
  • Core i7/16/256 – $1,599. 99 (Platinum, Graphite)
  • Core i7/16/512 – $1,899. 99 (Platinum, Graphite)
  • Core i7/16/1TB – $2,199. 99 (Platinum)
  • Core i7/32/1TB – $2,599. 99 (Platinum)

Two years ago, the Surface Pro X showcased the future of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet lineup. The Surface Pro 8 today has been updated with two Thunderbolt ports, and an integrated charging cubby to charge the Surface Slim Pen 2. This can be confusing for Surface Pro 8 owners who have been using it for a while, since Microsoft has changed the way things are done. For example, the power button can now be found on the side of your tablet.

The Surface Pro 8 is slightly heavier and bulkier than its predecessors. However, it’s worth comparing them side-by side. The Surface Pro 8 is exactly the same as when it comes out of the box. Hopefully you’ve already purchased the Surface Pro Signature Keyboard to take full advantage.

Like all Surface Pro devices, the tablet can be repositioned to almost horizontal. However, the Signature magnetic keyboard on the Surface Pro holds it securely. Buy a Surface Pro 8 if you care about this. The magnetic connection is not well-invested in by rival tablets, so a Surface Pro 8 tablet could flip backwards on your knees.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 left side reclined
On the left-hand side of the Surface Pro 8 sits the volume rocker and headphone jack.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft ships its Surface Pro 8 as it ships all of its Surface devices. It has dialed down performance to a minimum level. Although you lose some performance, the Surface Pro 8 is quiet and only engages its cooling fan when it needs to. (You can adjust the performance within the Windows 11 Settings menu, specifically System > Power & battery.) The tablet’s sides are cooled by the narrow grillwork. Surface tablets heat up along the upper rear panel. The SP8 is no exception.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 color gamut
The color gamut for the Surface Pro 8, as measured by our Datacolor SpyderX colorimeter.

Mark Hachman / IDG

With the Surface Pro 8, Microsoft is introducing a slightly larger 13-inch (2,880x 1,920) multitouch “PixelSense Flow” display that preserves the 3:2 screen ratio, versus the 12.3-inch (2736×1824) displays we’ve traditionally received as part of the Surface Pro lineup. Originally, Microsoft told us that the PixelSense Flow display would dynamically shift back and forth between the standard 60Hz refresh rate and a new 120Hz refresh rate, a feature known as Dynamic Refresh Rate. Higher refresh rates are better for the eyes and inking would be easier as ink would flow more easily onto the screen.

Unfortunately,

Microsoft’s dynamic refresh rate feature did not make it to Surface Pro 8. Instead, Microsoft locked the refresh rate at 60Hz, though you can manually adjust it via the Settings menu (System > Display > Advanced Display) to the higher 120 Hz setting. This would have the effect of reducing your battery life, but it didn’t happen to us. This will be discussed in more detail during our performance tests, particularly the battery life section.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 right side reclined
On the right-hand side sits the Surface Connect power port, the two Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, and the power button.

Mark Hachman / IDG

The Surface Pro 8 marks a significant transition to Thunderbolt. This enhanced I/O capability has been available on many tablets and notebooks for some time. The Surface Pro 8 has two Thunderbolt ports, one on each side. It also eliminates the USB Type-A port completely. Microsoft has thankfully added a headphone jack to the Surface Pro X. The Surface Pro 8 can connect to a growing number of Thunderbolt docks and charge from them, provided they are powered. That gives SP8 buyers the option to either charge directly from the included 65W Surface charger, or tap into a Thunderbolt dock.

What was the price?

What was the price? There are many great USB-C dongles that can provide a physical microSD slot.

Audio

We didn’t notice any qualitative differences between the Surface Pro 8 tablet and the earlier Surface tablets. However, the speakers are louder than the Surface Pro 7+’s 1.6W speakers. They also have Dolby Atmos built-in and cannot be adjusted by the user beyond the standard audio settings. The Surface Pro 7+ review found that the speakers sound a bit flatter and softer than the previous model. Microsoft appears to have rectified this issue in the Surface Pro 8.

In general, the audio on the Surface Pro 8 is among the best options for tablets and sounds just as good as some laptops. Surface Pro 8 doesn’t require headphones for music enjoyment.

Typing experience and keyboard

Microsoft’s Surface Pro Signature Keyboard is sold separately and doesn’t appear to differ from what Microsoft offered with previous Surface Pro tablets. The magnetic hinge attaches the keyboard securely to the tablet, removing the need for you to worry about working on your lap. The Surface Pro 8 keyboard is comfortable on a desktop. It has a good amount of key travel and resilience. The keyboard should feel comfortable enough to be used for an entire day with no strain on your fingers or wrists.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 keyboard
The Signature Keyboard connects to the tablet, and provides a lightweight, comfortable typing experience.

Mark Hachman / IDG

The touchpad appears to have remained the same. The trackpad is clickable almost throughout the entire trackpad. However, you will need to apply a lot of force to the top to get clicks to register. Although the trackpad feels a little plasticky, it is very comfortable to use.

What’s New for the Surface tablet range is that the Surface Pro 8 has a new Signature Keyboard. It includes a pen cubby to hold the Slim Pen 2, which seems to be the future for Microsoft’s pens. We noted in our tablet roundup that not all tablet keyboards with these new pens have strong magnetic connections. The keyboard can also fold up to hold the pen in place while charging it. This is a fantastic design that completely eliminates the possibility of losing your pen. The Surface Pro 8 can be stored in your bag or backpack.

Inking

Like Surface Laptop Studio’s Surface Pro 8, inking is a priority. The Surface Pro 8 uses Microsoft Pen Protocol with the Surface Slim Pen 2. Although I am not an illustrator, my impressions are that the Surface Pro 8 uses the Microsoft Pen Protocol in conjunction with the Surface Slim Pen 2. The Slim Pen 2 pairing process is easy. It seemed as if the pen was paired immediately after I connected it to the keyboard. Launch apps by pressing a button. You can also “erase” by simply rubbing the top against the screen.

The Slim Pen 2 includes haptic feedback. This allows you to “feel” the interactions with shapes in Microsoft Whiteboard. Although this may be an assistive technology disguised as a consumer feature, I wouldn’t purchase a Slim Pen 2 for it.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 keyboard cubby Slim Pen 2
The Surface Slim Pen 2 (sold separately) sits neatly in its dedicated charging cubby.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Don’t forget the rechargeable pen and its cubby. It is no longer necessary to search for a AAAA battery to power your Surface Pen. Microsoft states that older Surface Pens can still be used, but you won’t experience the same low latency when using the Surface Slim Pen 2.

I manually adjusted the display refresh rate to 120 Hz to see the improved inking benefits, something that Microsoft had originally pledged that it would do dynamically. However, I did not see any line offsets. This is when ink flows differently from the point where it touches the paper, even if the pen was angled. Although there is still some ink latency when you move around the page, it was not significant. The pen jitter, where the lines of the pen ripple back and forth, is also less than that experienced with the Surface Laptop Studio or the Surface Pro tablets. Although we did not compare the Slim Pen 2’s inking capabilities to the Wacom tablet, it is fair to say that the Slim Pen 2 provides an excellent inking experience.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 ink jitter test
This is what we found when we tested the Surface Pro 8 to determine the ink jitter, or how well the pen tracked our movements. These lines were created by using a straight edge on the tablet. While they should be straight, there is still some wiggle or ripple effect when drawing slowly. It’s still pretty good.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Camera

Microsoft, the company behind Teams videoconferencing software understands that people want to look great in front of the camera when they are chatting with their friends or during meetings. Though the Surface Pro 8’s user-facing camera still shoots just 1080p video, Microsoft has added ambient color and lighting sensors, too. This sensor highlights your image better by using proper exposure. The color sensor adjusts the screen’s color to compensate for ambient light.

Unfortunately, if the color sensor’s job is to show the webcam’s subject in the best light, it needs some work as the image below indicates.

technology Microsoft Surface Pro 8 webcam
I’m Irish on my mother’s side, but I certainly haven’t been this “sunburned” in a while. It’s not accurate to my skin color!

Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft also enhanced its rear-facing camera, too, adding a 10Mpixel camera sensor, up from 8MP. Although we don’t take photos with tablets, the increased resolution is a welcome addition.

We hoped that Windows Hello 2.0 would be available on these machines. Windows Hello 2.0 supposedly can interpret your face even with a beard, glasses, or an N95 mask on. The latter was tested and it did not work. Windows could not create a new profile for me without a mask and it couldn’t even recognize me.

Performance

Our original testing revealed surprising inconsistent behavior when we ran our standard suite benchmarks. We’ve already noted this in the introduction. Microsoft asked us to rerun our benchmarks after publication in order to confirm the anomalies. We updated the Surface Pro 8 with the most recent Microsoft drivers, and ran the benchmarks again. We received consistent results this time.

Microsoft requested that performance benchmarks be added for the Surface Pro 8 at its highest performance settings. Microsoft typically ships its review units with performance dialed down to a minimum to eliminate fan noise. Most competitors use either balanced settings or dial them up to maximum. These revised Surface Pro 8 numbers were already included in previous reviews so we did it again. The maximum performance settings for the Surface Pro 8 are highlighted in black in the chart below.

It’s worth noting that the retests resulted in significant differences in the Cinebench benchmark; our prolonged performance test, Handbrake; and, to a lesser extent, in PCMark 10. The results of our tests for 3D graphics performance were unchanged. The battery life improved slightly.

The Surface Pro 8 is a good performer from a usability perspective. Our 4K streaming test video rendered dropped just 8 frames out of 10,000 or so, which means that video will stream jitter free even at high resolutions. With the same GPU as the Surface Pro 7+, you should expect comparable gameplay if you choose to go that route–plan on playing games at 1080p settings on High. This tablet is designed for business and inking.

We’ve compared Microsoft Surface Pro 8 with the Surface Pro 7+, Surface Pro 7+, and Surface Pro 7+, as well some other tablets in our tablet roundup. The key points of comparison are the Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable and the Lenovo ThinkPad Detachable Gen 1, which directly compete against the Surface Pro 8. In this section, we have highlighted tablets in a lighter blue shade. The Surface Go 2 is technically a smaller tablet rival. As an additional point of comparison

, we have also included notebooks such as the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 or Surface Laptop 4

We use the PCMark test in order to determine how the tablet performs under general computing workloads. The PCMark test measures videoconferencing and word processing. It also includes CAD work and application startup. The Surface Pro 8 performed well, with an increase in gen-over gen performance.

technology Surface Pro 8 PCMark 10 rerun
At default settings, the Surface Pro 8’s performance in our everyday PCMark 10 benchmark falls just under its tablet competition. You can dial up your performance to get better results.

Mark Hachman / IDG

The Cinebench R15 benchmark measures synthesized CPU performance, with the implication that performance will scale on the CPU-dependent applications that we can’t specifically test. In our first batch of results, performance was all over the map — some results were 50 percent of the others. The benchmark scores varied only a small amount after our rerun. These benchmark scores were combined to create a composite score.

Cinebench is an indicator of the performance of all CPU cores and threads operating in concert. It can be found here. The SP8’s single-core result was 188, which is also excellent.

technology Surface Pro 8 Cinebench rerun
The Surface Pro 8’s CPU performance is excellent under our revised testing results.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Cinebench R23, a more advanced version of the benchmark, offers a way to check whether thermal issues may be at play: run a single test, then loop the test over and over for ten minutes and compare the results. Our scores were comparable–2,895 versus 2,867–which led me to doubt that the Surface Pro 8 has any thermal issues where the CPU is concerned.

We initially saw more anomalies during the Handbrake test. This free tool converts video to a format suitable for Android tablets. Although it’s a real-world app, it is less useful in an age where Netflix movies can easily be saved to a tablet. Handbrake’s time to complete the task is measured to assess the tablet’s performance and its ability to maintain cool for a long time. These anomalies vanished in our retesting. We report what we believe to be the true performance of the tablet in our chart below.

technology Surface Pro 8 Handbrake rerun
Only the Surfacer Laptop 4 outperformed the Surface Pro 8 in our Handbrake tests.

Mark Hachman / IDG

In graphics however, the Surface Pro 8 delivered consistent results. We used the 3DMark Time Spy test to determine if the Surface Pro 8 was capable of rendering excellent graphics. The Iris Xe GPU performed exceptionally.

technology Surface Pro 8 3DMark Time Spy rerun 2
Microsoft may be running the Iris Xe at a higher clock rate to achieve increased performance, but it’s paying off.

Mark Hachman / IDG

Finally, we tested the battery life. As more laptop manufacturers include sensors to detect ambient brightness and adjust the output accordingly, battery life is becoming more difficult to test. This is something smartphones do regularly. Three wrinkles are added by the Surface Pro 8. Microsoft and Windows will adjust video content to save battery life. Also, changing the display refresh rate can affect battery life. Finally, our Surface Pro 8 review unit decided after a few days to implement “smart charging,” a new feature that prevents the battery from being charged past 80 percent. Microsoft informed us that you can turn off this feature using the Surface app if your battery is not charging to its full potential.

There are too many variables to give you a complete picture of the Surface Pro 8’s expected battery life. A 4K video loop is a good way to drain a laptop’s battery. To provide a repeatable, even worst-case scenario, we reran the rundown tests in which we disabled the lighting sensor (though it did not affect the content adjustment). (We didn’t test with maximum performance. )

At 9 hours 23 minutes you should get a full workday’s use out of the Surface Pro 8. Dialing up the refresh rate to 120Hz didn’t seem to actually lower the battery life at all, as the tablet expired after 628 minutes.

technology Surface Pro 8 battery life rerun

Mark Hachman / IDG

Turning off both the lighting and content adjustment capabilities on the Surface Pro 8 delivered an awful battery life of 375 minutes, or 6 hours 15 minutes. That’s at a 60Hz refresh rate, too. This is not the default configuration. To achieve this score, you will need to modify the settings in the Settings menu. This result was also part our original testing results. )

After our second round of testing, we feel confident in stating that Surface Pro 8 delivers performance which exceeds or matches its competitors in most cases.

Conclusion

This raises the question: How well are we familiar with the Surface Pro 8’s features? The Surface Pro 8 is quite good from a hardware standpoint. We can see the benefits of the larger display and the tablet’s excellent audio. The webcam may need some work, but it is something that should be possible to fix quickly.

After our retesting with updated updates, we now have a better impression of the Surface Pro 8’s performance and are able to make a more positive assessment. Essentially, your tablet choices boil down to the excellent Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable and the very good Lenovo ThinkPad X12 Detachable Gen 1 tablet, too. A key difference here is price: our Lenovo review tablet is priced at $1,331, while the Dell costs $2,189. Our Surface Pro 8 review unit costs $1,599. Yes, paying $1,500 for a tablet is still a lot to ask, but the Surface Pro 8 simply offers so much more than its current competition.

We are not happy about how quickly Microsoft got this tablet to our hands. However, our initial negative reaction is still valid. However, that was back then. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 offers cutting-edge performance at an affordable price and a superior screen and inking experience. The Surface Pro 8 is our favorite Windows tablet.

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Mark is PCWorld’s senior editor. He focuses on Microsoft news, chip technology and other beats. Formerly, he has written for PCMag and ReadWrite, BYTE and Slashdot.

https://www.pcworld.com/article/538941/microsoft-surface-pro-8-review.html, PCWorld
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