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Microsoft Surface Pro 6 Preview

Microsoft’s Surface line broke the mold when it burst onto the scene in 2013, delivering on the vision of a streamlined transformable laptop-tablet hybrid running the full Windows operating system. And each iteration has seen only minor changes—you can’t always reinvent the wheel, nor should you if you already have a solid product. The Surface Pro 6 (starts at $899; $1,199 as tested) is perhaps the softest update yet, with only two changes from its predecessor. The 2-in-1 now comes in all black, an alternative to its long-running steely gray, and it features an eighth-generation Intel processor for improved performance. Our full review is forthcoming, but my initial hours with our test unit are promising, even if it’s not a radical upgrade.

Black Is the New Black

Though the color shift is completely aesthetic, it lends a somehow sleeker look to any already-slick design. As fellow hardware analyst Tom Brant also noted in his hands-on at the preview event, the black color delivers on its famous slimming effect, somehow making the Pro 6 look trimmer than its predecessor. Fittingly for the product’s name, the color also makes it look more professional. The traditional, relatively tame gray color wasn’t exactly wild, but this gives off even more of a business laptop vibe. If that’s your use case, you may very well appreciate the look—if not, you might still just like the color. If you’re not a fan, you can also buy it in its original “platinum” color.

Despite the fact that it may look thinner, in reality the Pro 6 is no slimmer than the previous edition. At 0.33 by 11.5 by 7.9 inches (HWD) and 1.7 pounds, it’s still a compact machine, though. At this size, the Pro 6 is perfectly portable and functional. It’s still lighter and slimmer than the Editors’ Choice Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet (0.35 by 12 by 8.9 inches and 1.96 pounds) and the Dell Latitude 5290 2-in-1 (0.42 by 11.5 by 8.2 inches and 1.89 pounds).

The display is identical to the previous edition, which is to say, it’s gorgeous. The 12.3-inch screen comes in a 3:2 aspect ratio, different from the more standard 16:9, and as such bears an unusual 2,736-by-1,824 resolution. That’s a higher-than-HD resolution and looks very sharp in practice. The display has great viewing angles, and gets super-bright at maximum settings, with colors looking especially vibrant.

Since it’s a tablet, the screen, of course, offers touch technology. This is convenient for poking around in Tablet mode, or tapping the screen lazily when you’re using the keyboard and touchpad. It’s also good for stylus use: The $99 Surface Pen is sold separately and attaches to the side of the display magnetically. It’s a good place to put the pen while working, though I wouldn’t keep it there in transit as it doesn’t take much to knock it loose.

Best-in-Class Convertibility, With a Few Caveats

Because there are no physical changes, the Surface Pro’s trademark convertibility is untouched. The built-in rear kickstand, which has been the subject of mimicry since its debut, is executed just like the previous model. A fully adjustable hinge allows you to recline the screen by 165 degrees of range, including almost nearly flat, which can be helpful for stylus use. The original Surface models featured a hinge with a limited number of set adjustment points, so this system is still very preferable.

The kickstand is just half the battle in turning the Surface Pro (technically a tablet) into a laptop. It’s the Surface Type Cover—the detachable keyboard also subject to many copycats over the years—that makes the magic happen. As it always has, the keyboard easily attaches to the bottom of the Surface Pro magnetically, making transformation a breeze.

The Type Cover is still sold separately. This has been a complaint of mine, and that of plenty of others, since the Surface hit the market. The Surface Pro is already on the pricey side, but adding another $129 to get what feels like full functionality is a bitter pill to swallow. The keyboard is a fairly integral part of the experience—Microsoft rarely shows or advertises the two apart—so to sell it separately is something of a bait and switch. Without it, the Surface Pro is really just a nice, and expensive, tablet. The Type Cover should really be included to fully deliver on the device’s concept.

It is a great keyboard, though. Despite its thinness, the Type Cover offers a surprisingly comfortable typing experience, with good key travel. There’s also backlighting, adjustable through several levels of brightness. The keyboard is a little flimsy if you press down too much, especially if you’re not using it on a desk (more on that in a moment), but it’s still the best in the business for detachables.

You can also angle the keyboard for a more comfortable slanted typing angle by folding the top of the keyboard up against the screen, where more magnets hold it in place. This innovation was introduced to the Surface line several iterations ago, a small addition that makes a noticeable usability difference. The touchpad is also excellent, and tracks very smoothly. I genuinely enjoy typing on this keyboard, at least on a solid surface, even if the $129 price seems a bit steep.

While the kickstand setup works great on a desk, it still leaves something to be desired in your lap. While writing this preview on the device, I tried sitting cross-legged on the couch, and there’s simply no good way to support the kickstand and still be able to see the screen and type comfortably. It’s definitely better with your feet down on the floor, since the kickstand can straddle your thighs, but it doesn’t quite replicate the sturdiness of a traditional laptop screen and keyboard.

One of the bigger disappointments is the array of ports, though calling it an array seems generous. Not counting the audio jack and proprietary power connector, there are just three connections on the Pro 6. There’s one USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort, and a microSD card slot. More than one USB port would be useful for using multiple peripherals like a mouse and external drive, but the exclusion of a USB-C port is disappointing. The technology is no longer new and should be included by default as more and more devices and systems adopt it. The ThinkPad X1 Tablet, for example, has two USB-C ports, and they even offer Thunderbolt 3 support.

Mini DisplayPort is useful for external video output, but it’s not one of the more common connections; full DisplayPort or HDMI would be more useful. The microSD slot is a helpful inclusion for file transfers, especially for media pros. On the whole, it just seems like this premium device should come with a few more, or more useful, ports than it offers.

Configuration Conundrum

When ordering your Surface Pro 6, there are several possible combinations of processor, memory, and storage to choose from. It’s not all that simple, however—you can’t combine any component option with any other. Microsoft guides you along starting with memory (8GB or 16GB), which dictates which processor (eighth-generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7) and storage (128GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB solid-state drives) you can choose.

The color of your Surface Pro depends on its components, though there doesn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to the combinations. For example, the black model can be configured with 16GB of memory and a Core i7 CPU, but you can only choose the 512GB SSD, while the platinum model can pair with a 512GB or 1TB drive. Some other limitations make a bit more sense (16GB of memory is only available with a Core i7 CPU, both of which suit power users), but the storage is a bit mix and match.

There are several such permutations depending on color and which memory amount you start with, but you can likely find a combination that’s right for you—it just may not be in the color you want. The prices vary greatly depending on components, starting at $899 for 8GB of memory, a Core i5 processor, and 128GB of storage. This review unit is outfitted with 8GB of memory, a Core i5 CPU, and the 256GB SSD for $1,199. At the high end, the priciest possible configuration (16GB of memory, a Core i7 CPU, and a 1TB SSD) is $2,229.

Generational Jump

This middle-of-the-road review unit isn’t the most powerful with its Core i5 processor, but generally, Intel’s newest gen of chips are very quick. Because even the mainstream chips in Intel’s eighth generation boast four cores, the Surface Pro 6 also crosses the finish line as the first 2-in-1 with a quad-core processor. The particular CPU in this model is the i5-8250U, the U-series being a power-sipping, efficient family. For what it’s worth, the i7 option is also a U-series chip.

I haven’t yet put the Pro 6 through our full suite of tests, but was able to run a few of our benchmarks to get a feel for speed. In general use, the device was perfectly snappy. I was able to open many web browser tabs, run Spotify, and manage word processing without any slowdown or noticeable lag. If your use case includes similar tasks, you shouldn’t have any speed complaints.

If you plan to do more serious or professional work on the Surface Pro 6, perhaps you should consider 16GB of memory or the Core i7 model. Microsoft claims up to a 67 percent performance boost over the previous Surface Pro, but it’s hard for us to confirm that. The Surface Pro 5 model we reviewed had a Core i7 processor, so comparisons with this unit aren’t 1:1.

Even so, I ran the PCMark 8 and Handbrake benchmarks to get an idea of the machine’s capability. The Surface Pro 6 only includes integrated graphics, there’s no discrete card, so I didn’t bother with 3D tests for now since the results will inevitably be mediocre. Despite the Core i5 versus Core i7 discrepancy, it still shaved about 20 seconds off the Handbrake time of the previous model with a score of 1 minute, 24 seconds.

On the PCMark 8 test, the new machine scored a few hundred points lower. The additional cores in the eighth-gen chip don’t really get a chance to show their value on this test as they would with multimedia tests like Handbrake, so this result makes sense. We’re still running our battery tests, but Microsoft claims 13.5 hours of juice between charges. The previous model lasted almost exactly that long on our rundown test, so this doesn’t appear to be an improvement. I’ll rerun all the tests for the full review, and reserve final performance judgment for after all the benchmarks are complete.

Growing Domination

The Surface Pro 6 is moderately faster than the last generation (at least in early testing), and the black color option is sleek, but those are the only changes. These modest alterations mean you won’t likely need to upgrade if you have a more recent Surface model, but if you’re coming from an older version, an entirely different 2-in-1, or don’t have a similar product at all, the new kid on the block is worth considering. The extra cost for the keyboard is still disappointing, but it does work as well as ever. With few changes to a tried-and-true formula, one that has helped Microsoft reach the upper echelon of hardware sellers, the Surface line is likely to continue to make new converts. We’ll return shortly with a more definitive conclusion on how the Surface Pro 6 stands up to our favorite Windows tablets like the ThinkPad X1 and the Dell Latitude 5920.


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