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An actually useful review of the Surface Pro 9 for actually normal people

Update, June 20, 2024: I’ve been trialing the new Snapdragon X-Elite Surface Pro. It’s in rough shape, too. Read my initial review of the Surface Pro on ARM so far here. And another one after several weeks of use reviewing the Surface Pro 11 with OLED on ARM.

I love computers and the Surface Pro 9 is a computer. But I do not love that computer.

I owned a Surface Pro 4 many years ago and I want to love the Surface Pro. I want to use it to its fullest, and this is not possible. It wasn’t possible with the Surface Pro 4 and it’s not possible with the Surface Pro 9 and it’s probably not possible with the Surface Pro 10 coming up.

The tech reviewers clearly talk about the same things with this device, including its form factor, screen, keyboard cover, blah blah blah. YouTube reviewers talk about all those same things but take twice as long. Here, in no particular order, are things worth knowing about the Intel i5/i7 Surface Pro 9 in 2024:

  • Plugging it into a monitor will demand so much from the GPU that it will ignite the fans into a frenzy. They’re loud and annoying.
  • People who question “Why are the fans a problem?” Have never used a Mac or an iPad and come to experience what it’s like not having the background noise blare at you. The fans are straight up annoying.
  • Edge is a genuinely kinda nice browser with some nice features, like the split panes/tabs view. But it’s mucked up by ads, paid placement, shopping and news features, and other things that are clearly more valuable to Microsoft than to normal people. It’s tasteless that way.
  • The hardware is great. Camera’s good, screen’s good, the kickstand is wonderful. It’s light, and it’s everything people could hope for in size and weight.
  • The pen is fine. Just fine. The little vibrating motor in there is borderline gimmicky but also maybe useful.
  • When you unplug the Surface Pro 9 it throttles the Intel processors back. This is a Windows feature to eke out more battery life. Except it doesn’t do much and some apps, like Adobe Fresco, will actually prompt you to turn your PC up to “performance mode”, which is a level of fiddling no one should have to work with.
  • When the battery gets low, which it will very quickly, you can turn on “Battery Saver” mode to throttle your Surface back even more. This makes using some apps borderline unbearable. Fresco will show pen lag that’s more than a second behind. Photoshop will freeze. Illustrator will show black or white screens for seconds at a time with no response. It’s slooooow.
  • The battery life claims are laughably bad. They say “up to 15 hours” and the tech press and YouTubers just went for it, which is how you know they’re useless and didn’t use this for more than a day. You can get maybe 5-6 hours. That’s not “all day battery life.”
  • Some people will say, “I just plug mine in.” Fine, good for you. You’ll need to and maybe this will work in your life. But for me in mine where I work in places far from outlets, or a student who can’t always get near an outlet in a crowded classroom, or a healthcare provider walking around all day, it’s not great.
  • The Qualcomm-powered one has everyone hyped for the Surface Pro 10 because in the Surface Pro 9 it supposedly has more battery life. But at the cost of behaving like molasses to do anything. This won’t change in the Surface Pro 10 because no matter how much it has, there are still few good apps for Windows on ARM.
  • The app ecosystem is what everyone talks about Windows, but no one talks about how the app ecosystem is kinda bleak. Like, I don’t know how you all view PDFs or resize images, but I find this annoying in Windows. On a Mac there’s Preview and it takes mere clicks. I tried cropping an image in the Photos app the other day and it took 8 more clicks than Preview. And loading PDFs in a web browser along with a zillion other tabs is lousy.
  • Having the Copilot app in the bottom right of the taskbar feels like a gimmick as I find using ChatGPT for anything I do completely useless, unhelpful, and dumb. Even on straightforward queries like, “What is the weight of the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard compared to the Surface Pro 9 with a type cover and pen?” It gave me political talking points about all these things, but no weight and no comparison .
    What’s most bothersome is Microsoft has had so many years to work on this and the refinements are still so rough. It boggles the mind how using a 3 or 4-year-old iPad can be so buttery smooth and damn near perfect drawing a circle virtually anywhere in any app, but doing the same thing in the same app on a Surface Pro 9 in your hand (on battery) is so laggy, hot, and downright burdensome.
    My opinions are exactly the same as they always were about the Surface Pros: I want to love this because the hardware is nice and the form factor is perfect and it’s everything I want an iPad to be. iPad OS is so frustrating to use (I still don’t understand why I can’t figure out how to consistently open lots of different file types from the Files app.) And there are times that scrolling on a screen or using a pen is preferable than a trackpad or mouse. But none of that ought weighs a device that loses 20% of its battery life every hour under what I’d call “normal” use, even using all the recommended battery settings and apps and services.

Just makes the iPad even more frustrating

Why can’t I get fonts into my iPad? How can it not sync this stuff from my Mac? How does Apple think people use Photoshop? By hand drawing every character?
Why is Google Docs so bad on an iPad?
How is it possible in 2024 that an iPad can’t have even half the feature parity of Word for PCs? It’s a word processor!
The Surface Pro does reveal these frustrations, but introduces its own. I’m not convinced Apple is totally evil by making you buy two devices. But I am convinced that even in 2025 the best device is probably just a nice 14” MacBook. Pen support and touch be damned.

Lack of iMessage on Windows is kind of a perverse benefit

As an aside, I use an iPhone and have a MacBook. Using iMessage is a huge benefit to me because all but two of my regular contacts use iMessage. I’m an American and I don’t care about Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or whatever. I use iMessage, my friends use iMessage, my clients are all in iMessage and everyone’s a “Blue Bubble Friend.” This drives nerds nuts because they don’t understand why anyone would need to care, but I _constantly_take screenshots of work or issues and send them to clients. It works for them and me very, very well.
Not having iMessage on a Windows PC had a strange benefit of being “less distracting.” My phone is always in Do Not Disturb mode, so the lack of it wasn’t noticed until I realized I never saw the red bubble in the dock icon. It’s kind of a perverse benefit. Even though I’d run into a situation where I needed to send a screenshot and the best I could do was “Drop” a screenshot over to my iPhone via the Edge browser’s “Drop” tool. Clumsy.

You might like the Surface Pro 9

You might like the Surface Pro if you rarely use the pen, have never compared it to anything else, only use your computer at a desk or for less than a few hours a day, never have to worry about being away from an outlet, don’t mind carrying the charger everywhere, and spend lots of time in Microsoft Office apps.
But aside from that, yeah, it’s great.

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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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