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Microsoft Surface Pro 7+ review: A giant leap in graphics performance – PCWorld

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With the Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7+, the best Windows tablet just got much, much better, thanks to its powerful CPU and graphics upgrades. It also offers an LTE option, better battery life and more.
By naming this Windows tablet the Surface Pro 7+, Microsoft mistakenly implies that it’s some sort of minor upgrade from the Surface Pro 7. Nothing could be further from the truth: We rarely see such massive upgrades in CPU and GPU horsepower, as well as battery life. It also offers an LTE option and an absolutely dead-silent, fanless chassis.
Sure, a few decisions made us scratch our heads. Why do we have to choose between an integrated microSD slot or the LTE option? Thunderbolt still isn’t here, either. But even these flaws really can’t mar an exciting leap in performance. This is the best Surface Pro of several generations, and for the moment the best Windows tablet on the market, too.
This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best laptops. Go there for information on competing products and how we tested them.
As we look at the Surface Pro 7+ specs, note that at press time, the only retail source we could find was Microsoft’s own online store. Incidentally, spelling the name as either “Surface Pro 7+” or “Surface Pro 7 Plus” works, but the full name is Surface Pro 7+ for Business. It ships with Windows 10 Pro, which offers more management and security features than the Home version. 
Unlike with past Surface Pro devices, where the base model was often inadequate, every Surface Pro 7+ configuration available is solid. While the $900 Core i3/8GB/128GB version is a bit tight on storage space, at least it doesn’t skimp on RAM.  
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7+ provides a bright enough screen to work outdoors on a sunny day, though shade is preferred.
Optional accessories: Surface Pro Signature Type Cover ($160 on Amazon) Surface Pen ($64 on microsoft.com)
Microsoft’s Surface Pro lineup of Windows tablets has remained largely unchanged since the Surface Pro 3. It’s a 12-inch Windows tablet with a sturdy kickstand that reclines almost flat. Microsoft has always taken pride in the design of the Surface Pro’s hinge, and it’s justified—it enables triple-duty as a tablet, drawing pad, and something close to a traditional clamshell laptop.
Clamshell tablets usually recline to about 45 degrees. The Surface Pro 7+ can recline nearly flat, still sturdily supported by its kickstand. 
Microsoft manufactured the Surface Pro 7+ out of what it calls a “unibody magnesium design with hidden perimeter venting.” The unibody construction gives the tablet structural strength, while the magnesium serves as a passive heat pipe to the outside world, bolstered by the tiny vents cut into the periphery of the chassis. Both the Core i3 and Core i5 models are entirely fanless designs, which absolutely depend on these passive heat distribution methods. As our performance tests reveal, such superb improvements without the distraction of a fan are truly worth applauding.
The Surface Pro 7+ display is as bright and beautiful as ever, offering both “Enhanced” and sRGB color modes. Microsoft continues the Surface tradition of carving out rather substantial bezels around the display—about 1.5 centimeters to the sides in landscape mode, and about 1.2 cm at top and bottom. Aesthetically, they grow uglier each year as laptop display bezels continue to shrink. But they’re still handy when the Surface Pro 7+ is actually used as a tablet, so you can grasp it without accidentally triggering something.  
Every time I test a Surface tablet I realize once again just how convenient it can be to tote a tablet, clicking out the kickstand to watch a video on a bedspread, lap, or side table. If I weren’t so worried about gunking up the display, I might have even brought it into the kitchen.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7+ in a more traditional recline, where the narrow kickstand is visible. Note how the Type Cover’s hinge folds where it meets the keyboard. Visible are the Surface Connector slot, plus the USB Type A and Type C port.
Microsoft representatives told me the display was made thinner to accommodate a larger, 50.4-Watt-hour battery. (Windows reported that the battery was somewhat smaller than Microsoft’s claims, at 48.9Wh.) Microsoft rates the display at 400 nits, according to a company representative.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has stuck fast to its rapidly aging port choices. The integrated USB-A can be used with a keyboard or wired mouse. Microsoft still uses the legacy Surface Connector as either a charging port or as a connection to the Surface Dock 2.  
The Surface Connector was once far ahead of its time, but it now lags somewhat behind. The USB-C port accommodates the vast ecosystem of USB-C hubs, but it isn’t Thunderbolt-capable, as more laptops include these days. Any monitor output must route through the Surface Connector to the Surface Dock 2—which, like a Thunderbolt 3 dock, drives two 4K displays at 60Hz apiece. Still, it’s a proprietary solution that locks you into the Surface ecosystem.
Earlier LTE models of Microsoft’s Surface devices would ship with both an LTE SIM cubby as well as a microSD slot. No longer. Here, you can see the nanoSIM cubby underneath the kickstand to the left, as well as the removeable SSD compartment on the right.
Behind the kickstand, there are two changes. The LTE options ship with a small cubby to insert a nanoSIM, and that appears to be at the exclusion of the microSDXC slot, which is reserved for Wi-Fi-only models. (You can eject the nanoSIM cubby using a SIM ejector tool, though you have to insert it deeper than you might expect before it unlatches.) That’s a change from past Surface Pro tablets. In the Surface Pro (2017), Microsoft placed the LTE microSIM slot alongside the microSDXC slot, allowing you to have both. 
On the brighter side, the Surface Pro 7+ ships with a removable SSD, a first for the Surface Pro series. While Microsoft intends this feature as a convenience for enterprise IT management, the company does provide general guidelines and device-specific instructions for removing the SSD. Like the nanoSIM cubby, you can access the SSD compartment with a SIM ejector tool, which is partially affixed by a strong magnet. The SSD looks like it can be unscrewed with a correctly-sized Torx screwdriver. We would have preferred the hybrid SIM/SSD cubby found within the Surface Pro X, itself a sort of Batman Beyond vision of the Surface Pro series. 
You can pop off the top to the SSD compartment with just a SIM tool. It’s also held magnetically.
Unfortunately, the Surface Pro 7+ isn’t a 5G-capable device, but you do get the option of using the device’s embedded eSIM, or inserting a physical SIM into the tray. We used the latter method to test the LTE around town, performing a speed test and streaming a 4K video from YouTube at selected locations. The wireless performance was adequate—just above 20Mbps downstream unless I was in sight of the tower, when performance soared to 158Mbps. Video streamed without a hitch.
The Surface Pro 7+ features the new Out of the Box Experience (OOBE) which promises to tweak aspects of your desktop for specific uses—adding the Xbox Game Bar to your taskbar, for instance. We checked all of the boxes…but didn’t notice any changes.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets always ship with a hidden cost: the Surface Pro Type Cover. Though you can use Windows’ built-in, on-screen keyboard, a good hardware keyboard is an almost-but-not-absolute requirement for the Surface Pro for maximum productivity.
Microsoft supplies two: the Surface Pro Type CoverRemove non-product link ($130) as well as the Surface Pro Signature Type CoverRemove non-product link ($160), which magnetically connect to the tablets and protect the screen when not in use. (You’re free to use your own USB or Bluetooth keyboard, too.)  They’re otherwise identical, save for the fact that the Signature Type cover includes Alcantara fabric and a variety of colors—currently Platinum, Ice Blue and Poppy Red. Microsoft’s vanilla Type Cover ships in a neutral black.
Microsoft shipped our Surface Pro 7+ with this Surface Pro Type Cover, which offers a comfortable typing experience but a somewhat cramped touchpad. 
While typing on a Type Cover doesn’t offer the same comfort or stability as a laptop’s keyboard, they come surprisingly close. Microsoft’s Surface Pro hinge angles the keyboard slightly, connected via a second Surface Connector that powers the keyboard’s backlight and provides a wired I/O connection. (There are three backlighting levels with a miniscule amount of light bleed.) Microsoft’s Surface Book series offers the most keyboard travel, now at 1.55mm; but the slightly more flattish Type Cover’s spacious keys still function well for long-term work. The trackpad on all options is small, but functional.
None of the Surface Pro tablets, however, have quite solved the “lap-ability” problem of typing in your lap. The double hinge connecting the keyboard to the Surface Pro 7+ tablet still can’t quite always hold the tablet if it flips forward over your knees. The thin, metal kickstand still digs into your thighs. Because the tablet is designed to recline, it simply can’t work as well on a airplane tray table as a similarly-sized clamshell, or a smaller tablet like the Surface Go 2.
Surface Pro tablets offer a creative outlet with their pen compatibility. For that, you’ll need one of Microsoft’s $100 Surface PensRemove non-product link as well as the almost-forgotten Surface Dial. Using a Surface Pen and other styluses in house, we experienced consistent responsiveness compared to other, recent Surface tablets. 
Keep reading to learn about the nifty 1080p webcam and of course, performance.
The Surface Pro 7 and 7+ both include a pair of stereo speakers rated at 1.6W; the Surface Pro 7+ includes Dolby Atmos audio controls. Perhaps because of that internal redesign that increased the battery size, to my ears, the Surface Pro 7+ speakers sound flatter and softer, even after fiddling with the Atmos settings.
You many never use it, but Microsoft mounted a handy rear-facing camera on the Surface Pro 7+. Note the small vents, too—that’s the only ventilation the Surface Pro 7+ has, and they’re used effectively. There’s virtually no way for crumbs to work their way in, either.
Long before the pandemic hit, the Surface lineup emphasized great webcams, though they still lack a privacy shutter. The Surface Pro 7+ includes a great 1080p, user-facing webcam, but also a surprisingly high-resolution rear-mounted webcam. The latter was designed for business-related tasks such as taking snapshots of whiteboards or scanning documents. You can also make “professional” adjustments such as manual white balance and exposure, and even manual focus. You may not care, but it’s extremely rare for a laptop or tablet maker to offer these options.
The Surface Pro 7+ webcam is sharp, with great color.
Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro 7+ benefits from the new 11th-gen Core chip inside of it, a member of the potent new Tiger Lake family. We’ve already compared the Surface Pro 7 to the Surface Pro 7+ in benchmarks, showing that Microsoft increased the CPU performance of the Surface Pro 7+ by about 22 percent. That’s good, but check out the GPU performance, which has improved massively—up to 91 percent!—thanks to the new Xe core built into the Tiger Lake architecture.
In part, that’s because dialing up the Windows power-performance slider actually makes a difference. Microsoft shipped our review unit set to “best battery” by default, even while plugged in. In previous Surfaces, adjusting the slider to “best performance” didn’t alter the results meaningfully, but with the Surface Pro 7+, we saw a boost of another 10 percent. We’ve highlighted those “maximum performance” scores by outlining them in black in our performance charts.
The most impressive part, however, is that the Surface Pro 7+ does all this without a fan—at least in the Core i3 and Core i5 models—and we didn’t notice any evidence of slowdown during prolonged gaming sessions due to thermal throttling. (“[The] Core i7 [model] is designed to minimize fan speed and noise to only the most intensive workloads,” according to Microsoft.)
We rarely see such a significant generation-to-generation improvement as we do between the Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Pro 7+. Not only would we recommend the Surface Pro 7+ for everyday office work, but the upgraded GPU makes it a serious contender for light gaming—without drastically dialed-down visual settings, either. Don’t expect you’ll be able to play graphically intensive games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator at comfortable resolutions and frame rates. But a racing game like Forza Horizon 4? Yes, absolutely.
If our comparison set seems heavily Microsoft, you’re right—the vast majority of Windows tablets sold currently are manufactured by Microsoft. We’re expecting Tiger Lake-based corporate Windows tablets from Lenovo (the ThinkPad X12) and Dell (the Latitude 7320), but they aren’t available yet. So we’ve included gen-over-gen comparisons alongside with some older third-party tablets and Microsoft’s Surface Laptops for comparison.
Our first benchmark is UL’s older PCMark 8 Creative, a synthetic test encompassing photo and video editing, light gaming, and other mainstream tasks. Here, the Surface Pro 7+ leads in both default and performance modes. 
The Surface Pro 7+ rises to the top of PCMark 8’s Creative test, which measures photo and video editing, light gaming, and more. 
We’re shifting to the more modern PCMark 10 suite, which offers an enormous variety of tests, from web browsing, video conferencing, spreadsheet work, photo editing, and 3D rendering. Note that we weren’t able to test some devices using both benchmarks. In any case, the Surface Pro 7+ again posts leading scores in the comparison.
The Surface Laptop 3 rises to the top of the PCMark 10 performance charts, but the Surface Pro 7+ is right behind.
Maxon’s Cinebench test asks each CPU core and thread to render a 3D image as quickly as possible. It’s a short sprint for the CPU in the R15 release of the benchmark. The Surface Pro 7+ posts a midrange score in default mode, but it vaults to the top in performance mode. 
The Surface Pro 7+ is the fastest tablet we tested—and at maximum performance the difference is significant.
We also tested the Surface Pro 7+ using the Cinebench R23 release, which imposes a longer, looped test run. We can use this run to track how well devices manage their thermal load — in other words, does performance decrease over time under prolonged workloads? While we don’t have enough data from other products to create a chart, we can say that the fanless, Core i5 Surface Pro 7+ we’ve reviewed decreases performance by about 20 percent. We’ve tested this performance drop on powerful gaming notebooks, which prioritize cooling, and found the difference there is narrower, about 10 percent. 
Our primary CPU stress test uses the free HandBrake utility to transcode a Hollywood movie for an Android tablet. Because the test can take anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour, it can cause thermal throttling, especially in thinner Windows PCs. The older HandBrake version we use isn’t optimized for the modern features of the Tiger Lake platform, but we stuck with it so we could compare it to older platforms. No surprise, the Surface Pro 7+ was again among the top players.
Again, the Surface Pro 7+ rises to the top.
To test the new Iris Xe GPU within Surface Pro 7+’s CPU, we turn to 3DMark and the older Sky Diver test. This is where we see the Surface Pro 7+ really shine: The graphics performance is nearly double that of the Surface Pro 7!
The Surface Pro 7+ offers a massive leap in graphics performance, thanks to its Iris Xe GPU.
We also compared the Surface Pro 7+ to some similar Iris Xe-based laptops using the more modern Time Spy benchmark.
Here, we’ve compared the Surface Pro 7+ to some other recent laptops, just to position how well it performs graphically. Interestingly, some Iris Xe models respond well to pushing the performance slider to maximum performance, while others are indifferent.
Can you play games with the Surface Pro 7+? Absolutely. We played a pair of real-world games: Microsoft’s own Forza Horizon 4, a visually rich, fast-paced racing game; and Troy: A Total War Saga, which takes a birds’-eye view of a battle simulator, with hundreds of individual characters. Both games stress the CPU and GPU alike. 
In the case of Forza Horizon 4, I eked out 30 frames per second (fps) at Low settings at 1920×1200, which accommodates the tablet’s 3:2 screen ratio. (Unlike some games, Forza recommends 30 fps, versus 60 fps, as a satisfactory frame rate. In my experience, it runs just fine at that setting. At Medium settings, the framerate was about 23 fps to 25 fps.)
The Surface Pro 7+ can hit 30 frames per second on Forza Horizon 4, but at Low settings. Note the scatter graph at the top of the screen.
We used the “battle” benchmark within the Troy simulator, and again generated a satisfactory 30 fps at 1280×1024 at Medium settings—albeit with some odd stutters. While we wouldn’t suggest that this could take the place of a dedicated gaming laptop, clearly the Surface Pro 7+ has acquired some respectable gaming chops. And remember, this is all being done without a fan!
While benchmarking Troy: A Total War Saga, the Surface Pro 7+ suffered some odd stuttering effects. 
Finally, we tested the Surface Pro 7+ battery life by setting the display to a fixed luminance, then repeatedly looping a video until the battery expired. Battery life improves about 12 percent over the Surface Pro 7+, thanks to the thinner display and larger battery Microsoft added. (The battery in the Surface Pro 7 was 43.2Wh; the Surface Pro 7+ comes in at 48.9Wh.)
In all, battery life has improved slightly over previous Surfaces, and that’s good news: Just over 10 hours is excellent. But be careful! Battery life dropped by nearly three hours with performance set to maximum. We also were surprised to see what happened when we accidentally left the Dolby Atmos for headphones setting switched on: Battery life dropped about two hours.
The Surface Pro 7+ battery life averages just about ten hours on default settings.
We still don’t know why this tablet wasn’t called the Surface Pro 8. That’s how much the Surface Pro 7+ has improved over the Surface Pro 7. Because the new Tiger Lake CPU appears to have played a major role in this upgrade, we’ll be interested to see how the Surface Pro 7+ compares to other Tiger Lake-based tablets coming down the pike. If you’d like to wait to shop the alternatives, we understand.
If you’re deciding whether to upgrade from an older Surface Pro, the Surface Pro 7+ performance justifies an unequivocal yes. If you’re debating between the Surface Pro 7+ and a more traditional clamshell, though, we’d be more cautious: Surface Pro tablets come with a price premium attached, and this is no exception. You’re going to see similar benefits from notebook PCs that transition from Intel’s 10th-gen to 11th-gen products, such as the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 9310, as well as the Asus ZenBook Flip 13, and they’re priced similarly as our review unit.
Still—a massive increase in GPU power, a good bump in CPU power, an LTE option, more battery…and no fan? Those are all compelling reasons to consider the Surface Pro 7+. The best Windows tablet just got much, much better.
This story was updated on Sept. 30 to clarify our Cinebench R23 test and how it handles thermal load.
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