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A (new) 2024 review of the Surface Pro 11 with Snapdragon Elite and OLED for people who do real work and have used Apple devices

I don’t know what happened. Did the YouTuberatti change, or have I? Did tech reviewers change, or have I? My lived experience with the Surface Pro 11, the OLED one with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, which is the mass-market choice at Best Buy with the Snapdragon Elite chip, is not what reviewers are experiencing.

All the reviews say it’s got amazing battery life. Paul Thurott talks about how the emulation in this stuff is “terrific” and how the apps people use are there and work great. Everyone says this device in particular, the OLED Surface Pro 11, is super expensive with the Flex Keyboard. That maybe it’s not worth it for the price, but the money doesn’t scare me away entirely. I’ll pay for good tools like any craftsman.

The tl;dr of this: The Surface Pro’s emulation isn’t “terrific,” devours battery life, and the device gets plenty hot when charging or plugged into a 4K or 5K display. I think what reviewers mean when they say the “Surface Pro 11 is great” is “The Surface Pro 11 is the best Surface ever” and “The battery life, screen, and processing power per watt is the best ever for Windows.” Which are both true.

When I picked up this device on launch day from BestBuy the cashier asked, “Are you into this because of the AI Copilot stuff?” I know he was doing his job well, trying to get a sense of what customers were coming in for. My reply was, “I don’t care at all about that dumb keyboard key. I just want battery life in a tablet that does things.”

Background as an Apple Guy

I have written profusely here, here, and here about my experience juggling an iPad Pro and a 16″ MacBook Pro. I use the hell out of these devices and have for years. I had a Surface Pro 9 for a while not long ago and reviewed that extensively here. So my expectations are very high based on the marketing hype and what was promised.

I recognize the Surface Pro 11 is hard to compare to either a MacBook of any kind or an iPad Pro. The battery wattage is different, the device OS and background tasks are different. This stuff matters, and I’ve learned how. iPad OS just won’t let Dropbox go to town sycing a million files, for instance, and that comes with tradeoffs.

Just so you know where I’m coming from if you’re reading this:

  • I do web design, consulting, and graphics work. I spend a lot of time in Adobe apps.
  • I do a lot of email campaigns and social media work. I spend a lot of time in sites like ActiveCampaign, MailChimp, etc. This matters because these sites’ drag-and-drop block functions don’t work in Safari for iPad OS.
  • I am heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem. I know and have all the apps that do all sorts of specific things, like compressing PDF documents or converting files to various formats.
  • I carry an iPhone. I use iMessage a lot to talk with clients, send screenshots, share files, etc.
  • I’m not a gamer. I don’t really care one way or the other about any of that. Reviewers latch on to the gaming aspects of these devices, which are all pretty lousy.

How to make the Surface Pro 11 behave sorta like it was marketed

The “all-day battery life” of a Surface Pro 11 is true if your “day” is about 5-6 hours. I can work 5-6 hours all before lunch. So it’s not great. BUT, the iPad Pro’s “all day” battery life is equally unhelpful to me because “all day” to me is about 10-11 hours. The Surface Pro 11 was marketed for 10-12, and I have no idea how people get that.

I took a screenshot a little while ago in a dark room with the screen brightness down pretty low. The most taxing app I’m running is probably Microsoft Whiteboard. Every other app you see in my taskbar besides Explorer and Phone Link (Edge, HEY email, Basecamp, TickTick) is running as a web app installed from Edge. This is because I can guarantee they run with the most battery-efficient means possible. I’m even running Apple Music in Edge from music.apple.com.

A screenshot of the Power and Battery settings in Windows 11

You can see it’s estimating a little under 6 hours at 98% battery life.

You can get iPad-level battery life out of the Surface Pro if you don’t do the wrong things or much of anything

My taskbar is running a couple of one-off services, like Dropbox. But Dropbox is ARM-native. The others seem to barely register, despite being x64, like TranslucentTB, LogiOptions +, and Grammarly.

I know that my iPad Pro with an M4 chip and cellular can handle about 10-12% per hour of battery drain doing what I’ll call “normal work.” Listening to the music, editing docs in Google Docs or Word, moving around in a bunch of Safari tabs, and sometimes popping into an app like Affinity Photo or Designer. But boy is that frustrating in its own way. My Logitech mouse is borderline useless on an iPad (iPad life is way better when you lean into a Magic Trackpad or the Apple Pencil), and Grammarly doesn’t run anywhere with any help.

On the Surface Pro I can achieve the same 10-12% per hour of battery drain but the requirements are stricter. I can only use Edge-based apps, can’t run Photoshop (which is ARM-native as of this writing), and have to keep the screen brightness low at about 35-40%. I could eke out a little more time with “Battery Saver” mode, but, honestly, this is a setting too far for me. I don’t understand people who say, “I get great battery life!” And then they report they spend most of their day with the device off in their bag or whatever. It’ll be some college kid saying, “Yeah, I listened to music for an hour this morning and then I walked to class, got lunch, etc…” Are you kidding me? This is not using the device.

The Battery Saver mode is a step too far because it gimps the whole thing. Just run the device at half power, squint at the dim screen, turn everything off, behold a worse-looking refresh rate, disable WiFi, and don’t touch it. Sure, great. Got it.

What you give up moving to Windows

The biggest issue I’m having is finding comparable apps to what I know are high-quality on my Mac or iPad. The lack of Fantastical has been rough, because Windows has no good calendar app. People just seem resigned to Google Calendar (I don’t use any Google services, not even Search) and this “New Outlook,” which no one likes.

MagicPods can help with AirPods transitioning, but it’s not without quirks. And I discovered Pasteboard this morning to replace the excellent Paste app on Mac. The built-in Windows+V function is serviceable, but it is indicative of Windows to me: it is very ugly.

Call me snobbish, but I don’t understand how people look at some of the font rendering on Windows, or the truly visually horrifying apps on Windows and think, “This is fine.”

I still can’t get over that the go-to image viewer, IrfanView, has an icon that is literally roadkill and it has been this way since I was in middle school. This is the icon you get when you load a folder before it can render previews after several seconds or not at all.

A screenshot of Windows Explorer with the IrfanView icons

I just can’t with this.

I know PC people will say, “Just don’t use that app!” but there is no other app simple, fast app that does the ridiculously simple ask of resizing an image’s DPI.

People argue with me about this but this is not merely shrinking the pixel dimensions from, say, 2000×2000 to 1000×1000, but changing its pixel density from 300 to 72 while leaving its dimensions at 2000×2000. I do this dozens of times a day and I ought not have to rely on Photoshop for such a simple task. The Preview.app in macOS fixes this in seconds and is curiously absent from the iPad. Windows has no function for this built-in with the Photos app.

The Photos app, by the way, can integrate with iCloud Photos, which is helpful. But it can’t upload to iCloud Photos. Bummer.

The Phone Link app is Microsoft’s admittedly clever and best-case scenario for linking your phone to your PC. I use iMessage a lot since everyone in my circles, my clients in particular, use iMessage. I often get messages from them and take a quick screenshot to send something as a preview to them. CleanShot X on the Mac and even the built-in screenshot swipe on iPad OS do great for this. The Surface relies on the Windows Snipping Tool which looks so wimpy in comparison, though it is relatively feature-rich. And you can’t start messages from the Phone Link app. This is not Microsoft’s fault, but it is their problem. Because it works by hooking into the notifications from the phone, it can’t send new messages, it can’t send or receive images or media, and group chats don’t work at all.

I have tried to rationalize some of this away by saying I’m not finding the right apps, but there is a comparable dearth of apps on Windows that are of the quality I’d think ought to exist. FTP apps are one that strike me as stuck in the early 2000s. The lack of Things, Fantastical, Permute, Ulysses, and dozens of other great apps found on Apple devices is hard to overcome. I’m sure they exist, but even when I get recommendations I think, “Really?

Sure, you can find alternatives. I’ve been using TickTick to sync my Apple Reminders/iPhone with a to-do list and get it on my PC. But this comes with learning curves, and even when I’ve spent months using it I still run into “niceties problems” cause it just isn’t as nice. I know a lot of people have no eye for this. Just as there are people who don’t notice or care about fonts, or that their town is basically a series of parking lots connected by highway ramps, or seem to mind eating fast food every day. But I care. I care a lot because I notice.

The perks of the Surface Pro are there compared to an iPad, for sure

I’ve had my Surface Pro 11 on for an hour and I’ve lost 16% of the battery. That feels like a lot to me. But this is me being conservative. My device is hardly doing anything. I know from weeks of use now that running much more pushes into a 20%/hour drain. But I know as a technical person it is doing more computing. It’s running more background services at the same time, it’s powering more memory at the same time, it’s multitasking more at the same time. All of this takes power. So comparing these devices is hard.

“So just go back to a Mac then!”

Well. Apple does not make the device I want. The idea of the Surface gets closer.

I like the kickstand. It’s great! I like the Flex Keyboard’s ability to hold the Pen inside rather than on top of the device because it’s more secure in my bag. I like that the keyboard can function without being attached, meaning the killer feature of this device is you can put the Surface in “drawing mode” angled for your hand and keep the trackpad and keyboard just to your left to use keyboard shortcuts. This is HUGE for using Photoshop and other Adobe apps.

I just wish I didn’t have to rely on the web-based apps of so many things, because web apps just plainly are not as good as their native counterparts. They’re just not. They are and always will be webpages, and look, I’m a web guy! I make webpages for a living! But I do not want my email, calendar, project management, task list, notes, music, and everything else to function off of a webpage. For a device that currently doesn’t have cellular options, that’s a glorified Chromebook that can’t function offline at all.

This is why Edge seems like the “killer app”, for better or worse, on any Windows device. Certainly the Surface from a battery preservation standpoint. But I don’t love it because it feels like Microsoft saying, “You don’t have to worry about making a good Windows app. We’ll run your web apps!” To be fair, Apple’s struggling with this on the Mac as big names lean on Electron apps for lots of things, like Slack. But I’m a bit snobbish about this and always seek out the native apps over Electron junk.

There are other perks here, namely that Edge is a real desktop-class browser, and it works like you think it should every time. That has a lot of value in, you know, working.

The other day I had to do a mail merge in a document and realized that my iPad can’t do it. The app (Affinity Publisher, because InDesign doesn’t exist on either of these devices at the time of my writing beyond a Mac or Intel PC) just does not do it on an iPad. But a Surface can. It’s running a full system there that knows real people sometimes move files around between apps and services. Something an iPad is pretty allergic to. All I needed was to pair a .csv file to it, and the iPad can’t do it.

And the Surface can do the one thing I want from a MacBook (or at least macOS): I can draw on the dang screen. I can put the screen down at an angle and just erase an area with the Slim Pen 2 with all the benefits of angle and pressure sensitivity right there in the full version of Photoshop. It is magical every time I do this and do it a lot. THIS right here is the reason I keep wondering, “Can I make this Surface my daily driver?”

Let’s be clear: the Apple Pencil is more precise, though I find the Surface a better device to write lengthier bits with real handwriting that gets transcribed to text. I’m unsure if it’s because Windows is better at recognizing my handwriting or Apple’s Scribble is a little too ornery. Still, the Pencil is faster and smoother with less latency and wobble. The Slim Pen 2 is, I think, easier to hold for longer periods of time since it’s akin to a carpenter pencil than a “barrel.” And the iPad Pro’s screen is, I think, crisper and able to sustain higher brightness with less power draw than the Surface. The Surface can reach a higher peak brightness, but it melts the battery.

I have tried remote desktops and all sorts of tricks to enable the ability to use the Apple Pencil on a Mac via an iPad and none of it works. It’s slow, shows latency, and is not a sustainable way to create a whole cover image or infographic over even an hour of work. Sidecar is the best option, but requires you have both devices with you at all times.

The touch-first model of this is irrelevant. It’s not because tap targets are small or whatever. I have no issue with this and don’t know why Apple keeps insisting as much. Most people spend a lot of time looking at their web browser, and webpages are not exactly all “touch-friendly” as tap targets go.

So I have to ask myself: “Is a kickstand, a real browser, and a good enough Pen enough to warrant this $2,000 device at the loss of iMessage, visually more appealing apps, a more robust native app ecosystem, AND noticeably less power and better battery life?

I just don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it ought to be. But there’s work to be done. It’s nice knowing I have a device that can help me work in Adobe apps with a pen, do everything I need a web browser, AND it’s small and light despite not being an “instant computing” device like the iPad or even a Mac. You open a Surface after it hibernates from a few hours of downtime and you’ll be waiting 20-30 seconds for it to come back.

The other day I used Generative Fill in Photoshop and noticed it took a little while. This, I’ve learned, is because the Adreno GPU in the Snapdragon Elite can’t do it. It offloads everything to the cloud. Not a good look for the “AI PC.”

I have tried to negotiate my way through this by saying, “Well, maybe not having iMessage is a good thing. I’ll be less distracted.” But in reality, it slows me down because when I need to send a screenshot, I need to send a screenshot and iMessage isn’t there.

“Maybe this is enough.” But the GPU is just slower.

“Maybe doing all this in the cloud is fine.” But it is just slower in its own way depending on tethered network conditions.

I see people with PCs always running toward a wall to charge up. This has become my life, too, and I don’t appreciate that because I’m mobile a lot. I like to work from interesting places, like coffee shops, the bus, a park bench, etc. And the Surface will not work in these situations. For one, tethering to an iPhone is a pain (doable, but not nearly as seamless as on a WiFi iPad or Mac). Two, it often requires a very bright screen and the battery life drops to a few hours. This is not “all-day!” for what seems like a simple use case: sitting in a well-lit room. Three, because these places don’t always have outlets.

This is why having one device is so important to me. I don’t feel safe or want to carry a $2000 iPad kit and a $2000 MacBook just to switch between relatively simple tasks. But they all come with tremendous tradeoffs.

No one makes the device that everyone wants to exist and knows should

Apple does not make the device people want, which is a touch/pen-friendly Mac. And Microsoft, to its credit, is sticking with this Surface line but Windows is increasingly an afterthought for developers. I know there are lots of one-off apps that run banks and dentist offices and whatever. But I don’t care about that corporate stuff.

You can sorta get close with an iPad. I love my cellular option in the iPad, and if you pair it with a thin Folio case, an external Apple Keyboard, and maybe a trackpad, it can be “flexible” like the Surface is. You need the external keyboard and not the Magic Keyboard to use keyboard shortcuts when disconnected. Removing and moving it around, only to lay the iPad flat on the ground, is frustrating. The Surface has fixed all this. But this is a lot of separate pieces to carry. And if an iPad can get you 99% of the way to your computing needs, great. The next best step might be to do that and try to use a remote desktop connection to a Mac or PC somewhere else for the other 1%.

But I’m 33/33/33. I’m highly mobile a third of the time. I need demanding processing power a third of the time. And I need niche apps a third of the time. And I need great battery life I can actually trust nearly all the time.

  • The iPad has the processing power, cellular, battery life, Pencil, and mobility but not the app flexibility.
  • The Mac has the processing power, battery life, mobility, and app flexibility but not the Pencil or cellular.
  • The Surface has the mobility, app flexibility, Pencil, and will soon have cellular this fall. But not today and not with battery life or comparable performance. In two hours of writing this post, I’m down to 71%. That’s a 29% loss with all the Edge taps asleep but this one and running a couple of Edge-based web apps.

Seems to me this comes down to one thing: “Are you comfortable with “good enough” apps, battery life, and performance? Then get a Surface Pro 11. This is probably a much easier choice for Android users.

If you’re not and don’t like the idea of settling without well-designed apps, iMessage, and the best battery life and performance per watt for a mobile device of any kind in the industry, go for Apple hardware. Just be prepared to carry a bunch of stuff.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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