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I bought the cheapest Surface Pro Copilot+ PC – these are my 3 key points as a Windows expert

I bought the cheapest Surface Pro Copilot+ PC – these are my 3 key points as a Windows expert

Microsoft Surface Pro 11

Ed Bott/ZDNET

ZDNET’s Key Takeaways

  • The Microsoft Surface ProBattery life is exceptional, with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X processor lasting roughly twice as long as PCs with Intel CPUs.
  • Performance is impressive across the board and heat doesn’t seem to be an issue, even under heavy load.
  • Most common business software written for Intel-based Windows PCs should work fine, but apps like VPNs and older hardware devices that require custom drivers may not install or function properly.

The Windows PC industry has been in a bit of a rut over the past decade. Microsoft and its OEM partners routinely ship a slew of new devices each year, usually based on incremental speed increases for Intel CPUs. Buy this year’s model and you’ll get slightly better battery life and a modest performance boost over last year’s crop. Yawn.

That predictable pattern is why the just-released Copilot+ PCs have so much potential. Yes, they run Windows 11, but at their heart is a new engine: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X-series Arm-based processors.

Also: Repairability of Microsoft’s new laptops stuns iFixit and sets the bar high for rivals

Mine Surface Pro 11 (I know the official name is “Surface Pro, 11th Edition” but let’s keep it simple, okay?) arrived last week. I purposely ordered the cheapest configuration and had no idea what to expect. Yeah, it should get better battery life than an Intel-based alternative, and all preliminary benchmarks suggested it would deliver impressive performance, but seeing is believing.

View at Best Buy

After a whole week I can say without reservation: this device is really great.

My original plan was to use the new Surface Pro as a secondary mobile device, while keeping my Dell Precision workstation on the desktop for my day-to-day tasks. I now use the new Surface Pro as my daily driver.

How did this happen? Let’s dive in.

The experience is well known

It’s a radical change to the Windows ecosystem, but it doesn’t feel all that different from its predecessors. In fact, it’s nearly indistinguishable from the Intel-powered Surface Pro 9 sitting next to it on my desk. The thin bezels surrounding the two devices’ displays are nearly identical in size. At 1.9 pounds, the new device is the same weight as the Surface Pro 9 and a few ounces heavier than the Surface Pro X, though you’ll only notice that if you’re lugging it through an airport trying to connect. The Type Cover from the older Surface Pro snapped into place on the Surface Pro 11, just as you’d expect.

And as for the software, well… It’s Windows 11, which looks and works the same on an Arm-based PC as it does on an Intel device.

Also: 7 Ways to Make Windows 11 Less Annoying

The big difference is that this next-gen machine runs extremely cool and quiet. After a three-hour Zoom call the other day, the chassis was barely warm; on an Intel-based machine, it would have been uncomfortably hot. There’s a fan on the Surface Pro 11, but I didn’t hear it spin up, even under the most demanding conditions. And it’s extremely responsive, with none of the hesitation I occasionally noticed on the Surface Pro X. If you’ve used a MacBook Air with M2, the feeling will be familiar.

Of course, this new device also embodies everything you like and/or dislike about the Surface Pro design. If you’re expecting a radical change that will suddenly make the stand more comfortable on your lap, I’m sorry to tell you that you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re familiar with that design, you’ll find this iteration completely familiar.

Battery life is a big advantage

If the Arm architecture has one great feature, it’s battery life. The Surface Pro X delivered the goods on that front, but did so at the expense of performance. This generation, on the other hand, extends battery life impressively and does so without any compromise on speed or responsiveness.

It’s too early to make any definitive statements about how long I can use this Surface Pro before I start looking for a place to charge it. The first week with a new device is never typical, as it involves a lot of downloading, installing, configuring, and fiddling around that is unlikely to be common.

Also: How to Improve Your Windows Laptop’s Battery Life

But these actual usage figures, taken from a report generated by Windows Powercfg /batteryreport command, speak for oneself.

Surface pro 11 battery report

In real-world use, the Surface Pro 11’s battery lasts twice as long as an equivalent Intel-based model

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

With an average real-world, perceived battery life of over 10 hours, this Surface Pro lasts more than twice as long as my Intel-based Surface Pro 9. It’s also at least as long as the M2 MacBook Air in my office.

Compatibility is good, but not perfect

The battery life of these Snapdragon X PCs is undoubtedly a success, but the compatibility is less clear.

Microsoft has been developing Windows on ARM for over a decade, and it’s remarkable how well most software just runs on an ARM-based PC. If you do most of your work in a web browser and Microsoft Office, you might never notice a difference. But there are still some rough edges, and you can expect to have compatibility issues, especially if you’re using older hardware or apps that rely on low-level system drivers.

Also: How to reset Windows 11 without losing your apps, files, and settings

On this PC, of ​​course, every preinstalled Microsoft app is compiled to run as native ARM64 code. That includes the Edge browser, the entire collection of Microsoft 365 apps, and every conceivable Windows utility, from PowerShell to Registry Editor to Calculator. Even the semi-official PowerToys collection installs in ARM64 mode. I installed a wide selection of progressive web apps that ran in the ARM64 Edge environment, and they all worked fine.

Microsoft Surface Pro 11

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Common x86 apps written for Intel-based machines generally install without issues in the Windows on Arm emulation layer. The apps I tried had no noticeable performance penalty, including my go-to screen recording utility, SnagIt.

Many third-party developers have gone to the trouble of recompiling their apps for Arm64, and if you can find them, they are preferred. But you might have to do some digging. For example, the default download for the VLC Media Player is a 64-bit x86 version, but there are nightly builds available that are compiled for Arm64 machines. Likewise, the normal download options for 1Password get you the x86 release, which is hassle-free, but there’s a preview of the Arm64 version if you know where to look.

Also: The best password managers of 2024: tested by experts

But I’m not sure what to make of Adobe, which tweeted earlier this year that it’s “excited to announce that your favorite Adobe apps are coming to Copilot+ PCs.” What does that actually mean? Photoshop has been available in an Arm64 version for three years, albeit with significant limitations, but I can’t find a native Arm version of Acrobat. Maybe Adobe just means that the x86 versions are certified to run in emulation mode? Who knows.

And then there’s Google, which finally released an Arm64-native version of Chrome in April. Hurrah! But you won’t find a version of the Google Drive for Desktop sync client that works on a Copilot+ PC. If you try to install the x86 version, you will get this unfriendly error message:

google-drive-not-installing-on-arm

Without having to adjust any compatibility settings, you can successfully install the Google Drive desktop client on an Arm PC.

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

So if you’re a confirmed Google Drive user and you want your cloud-based storage to integrate with File Explorer, you’ll want to stick with Intel-based machines for now. Or maybe switch to OneDrive.

The most troublesome compatibility issues arise when you try to install an app that requires custom drivers for low-level networking and file system access. Most commercial VPNs, including Proton VPN and ExpressVPN, refuse to run on Windows on Arm for this reason; try Wireguard or Viscosity instead. And if you insist on running a third-party antivirus app, you’re likely to be frustrated. (Spoiler: you probably don’t need it.)

Also: The Best VPN for Windows: Tested and Reviewed by Experts

I had no hardware issues to speak of. My 10 year old Logitech C930 webcam worked just fine. And so did my trusty Brother laser printer. ScanSnap x1600 Scanner. I connected the Surface Pro 11 to a StarTech Thunderbolt 4/USB4 Docking Station and everything worked exactly as it should.

Your experience may vary, of course, especially if you have exotic hardware like video capture cards and old multifunction printers that require custom driver packs and won’t work with the included Windows drivers. Fortunately, I don’t have any of those things.

The AI ​​story is incomplete

Each PC in the Copilot+ line contains a powerful neural processing unit designed to accelerate AI-based operations. Because I don’t buy Microsoft’s expensive new ones Flex keyboard and I stuck with my old Type Cover, I didn’t get a dedicated Copilot key. Instead, I had to use the Copilot app, which works exactly the same as it does on any other Windows 11 PC. If chatting was faster, I didn’t notice it.

Also: I tried Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop Copilot+ PC and it beat my MacBook Air in 3 ways

And of course, what was supposed to be the headline feature of these new PCs, Recall, was pulled at the last minute due to security concerns and will be available later this year as a Windows Insider Preview feature.

Some of the app-based AI features were more useful. The Surface Pro 11’s front-facing camera is one of the best I’ve seen in a laptop, and the AI-powered Studio Effects (accessible via the Quick Settings menu in the taskbar) include some useful options like auto-framing and eye tracking. The neural processing unit makes background-blurring options look more natural than they would on a conventional camera.

surface-pro-11-studio-effects

These AI studio effects can be accessed from the taskbar

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

The Paint and Photos apps are also loaded with AI-based image creation and editing features. The options to remove background distractions and use blur effects to simulate portrait mode were useful; the style options, which transform a photo into an alternative style (impressionist, anime, etc.), feel gimmicky.

The real question is whether those features are powerful enough to make you switch from your current image processing tool to one of Microsoft’s built-in options. History shows that that is quite an ask.

Even if you avoid the AI ​​features entirely, there’s more than enough power in this budget PC. And as long as your apps and hardware requirements aren’t exotic, you’ll appreciate the cool, quiet operation.