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Review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3): Windows on Arm is unprepared

Outstanding hardware is nevertheless hampered by compatibility issues.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3)

After several days of utilizing the Qualcomm-powered Surface Pro 9 as my daily driver for every work in my daily process, video calling has been, without a doubt, the best experience I’ve had on it so far. I’ve had a lot of success with it. This product has a webcam that is of high quality and comes packed with many useful features. However, the majority of the other things that you might need to complete during the course of a workday were excruciatingly slow.
That is because the majority of the apps I use do not operate natively on Arm, and I am certain that is at least a contributing factor in the problem. However, they are not obscure mobile applications. I communicate with people, watch videos, and play video games, and the applications that I use to engage in these activities are typically the same ones that lots of other people use.
I won’t go as far as to imply that everyone else will experience the same level of sluggishness that I did when using this laptop. This is just to illustrate the gamble that one is taking when purchasing the Arm version of the Surface Pro 9; how heavily dependent the payoff will be on the makeup of the constellation of apps that comprises your online life. This is just to illustrate the gamble that one is taking when purchasing the Arm version of the Surface Pro 9.

Review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3): Windows on Arm is unprepared
Microsoft Surface Pro 9
  • A panel with 120 Hz that supports a dynamic refresh rate
  • 5G support
  • 1080p camera with updated artificial intelligence characteristics
  • Expensive (and the keyboard and stylus are not included in the package)
  • There are still many apps that are slow
  • There are only two USB ports (and no headphone jack)

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (Arm) specs (as reviewed):
Dimensions: 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.37 inches (287 x 209 x 9.3mm)
Weight (not including Type Cover): 1.95lbs (883g)
Display: 13-inch touch display, 2880 x 1920 (267 PPI), up to 120Hz refresh rate, 3:2
Memory: 16GB LPDDR4x
Processor: Microsoft / Qualcomm SQ3
Removable SSD: 256GB
Battery life: claimed up to 19 hours of “typical device usage”
Ports: two USB-C 3.2, one Surface Connect port, one Surface Keyboard port, one nano SIM
Cameras: Front-facing Windows Hello camera with 1080p FHD video, 10MP rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD and 4k video
Wireless: Wi-Fi 6E: 802. 11ax, Bluetooth 5.1, 5G, LTE, WCDMA

All of the qualities that made the Surface Pro 8‘s chassis so great have been carried over into the Surface Pro 9’s design, including its attractive appearance, pleasant feel, solid construction, and portability. Unfortunately, it also has a high price tag attached to it. The SQ3 model that costs the least, which includes the keyboard and stylus, can be purchased for $1,579.98. (which, remember, are not included in the base price). My evaluation model costs $1,879.98 total, and that includes the keyboard and the digital pen. Even at that price, the Pro 9 is not the priciest option available. This device is too slow to justify charging for far over a thousand dollars from intensive users that run multiple emulated applications simultaneously.
The good news is that the design department didn’t try to change what wasn’t broken, so the new Pro 9 is just as portable, solidly made, and aesthetically pleasing as its predecessor, the Pro 8. The keyboard deck is durable, the kickstand is able to keep its shape, and the stylus provides a good level of comfort (with a very handy garage folded into the keyboard). The display’s resolution is 2880 by 1920, and it has a refresh rate of 120 Hz. The weight difference between the Pro 8 and the Pro 9 is indiscernible to the naked eye.

Review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3): Windows on Arm is unprepared

The color scheme is the sole alteration that is really noticeable that has been done to the chassis since it was last used. The Surface Pro 8 variants that were available for purchase in the previous year were only available in graphite (black) and platinum (silver), and the only option to customize them further was to purchase a keyboard deck in an unusual color. The outside of the Pro 9 now comes in a variety of additional hues, including Sapphire, Graphite, Forest (which happens to be my personal favorite), and Platinum, all of which are available as options. (As of right moment, it seems as though only Intel Core i7 machines come in a variety of color options; the SKUs for Core i3 and Core i5 are only available in platinum.)
There is also a floral design that is available in a limited edition. On the other hand, I was only given access to the standard platinum version, so that is what you will find here. If you are interested in seeing the more adorable colors, Verge editor Tom Warren was able to get a sneak peek at them in Redmond earlier this month.
Microsoft has also eliminated the headphone jack from the Pro 9, which is sure to be a move that will generate a lot of controversy. (Aside from that, there is a slot for the quirky small Surface charger, as well as two USB-C 3.2 connections.) The buttons for turning the device on and adjusting the volume have been moved to the top. The design is currently relatively similar to that of the previously specialized Surface Pro X, but the latter is slimmer and lighter than the former.
5G is the primary topic of discussion within. This is a feature that the Intel model does not have, and it is possible that this is one of the reasons why the Arm version is more expensive. In the end, I decided to purchase a prepaid plan through Ubiqi, which uses the same network as T-Mobile does in the United States. (Configuring this plan was a bit of a chore, and it required me to switch between the Microsoft Mobile Plans app and the Ubiqi website on multiple occasions. Speaking of which, the Mobile Plans app was extremely sluggish and locked up at many points throughout the process.)
In the Manhattan office of The Verge, I was able to achieve download speeds of approximately 40 mbps and upload speeds of approximately 55 mbps after 5G was operational. At least where I am located, it appears likely that Ubiqi is leveraging T-low-band Mobile’s 5G network. These LTE download rates would be quite acceptable. Everything worked properly, including loading the pages, however nothing seemed particularly quick. (Also worth noting is that the amount of RAM that can be installed in 5G devices appears to be capped at 16 GB and that they ship with LPDDR4x, whilst non-5G models can have up to 32 GB installed and ship with LPDDR5)
The Neural Processing Unit is another one of Qualcomm’s advantages over the type developed by Intel (NPU). The reasoning behind this is that it manages several AI functions directly, relieving the strain that was previously placed on the CPU of the Pro 9. It gives several new camera functions their strength, such as the ability to blur the background of a portrait, make automated eye contact, and enable a Voice Focus feature that mutes ambient noise.
These elements were functional, but the degree to which they accomplished their jobs varied slightly. Automatic eye contact was the one that worked well across the board; regardless of where my glance was, coworkers continually informed me that it seemed like I was staring directly at them. This was the one that worked well across the board. Since my eyes have a tendency to wander during phone calls, even when I’m trying to pay attention, I think this would be a very helpful tool to have, and it’s something I’d keep turned on at all times. The blur effect was also fairly effective, and it did an excellent job of distinguishing myself from the background where I was. Automatic Framing did generally follow me as its name promised, panning as I walked from side to side, although there were occasions here and there when it did not pick up that I was moving. In general, Automatic Framing did what its name promised.

Review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3): Windows on Arm is unprepared

It appeared that Voice Focus was having some difficulties. My coworker Umar Shakir informed me during a Zoom conversation that even though he could hear me clearly, the tracks seemed to be cutting in and out in the background, despite the fact that the music was playing very loudly in the background. There were instances when the instrumental elements of the song were completely muted, then the vocals would come back in and be audible, and then the instrumental portions would fade away again. On the other hand, he was able to hear the same songs playing behind me while we were on a Teams call, and he didn’t get the impression that anything was being done at all to suppress them (though he could still hear me).
Putting a high-tech camera on this equipment makes me think of putting flashy spotlights on a vehicle that is only capable of traveling at a speed of 15 miles per hour. Because of the reasons that will become apparent in a little while, I greatly wish that Microsoft had included these fantastic capabilities on the Intel variants or on the Surface Laptop 5 instead.
The Intel Core i7 that was built into the Pro 8 made it a speedy device. Because switching completely away from Intel would probably have been a risky investment, it does not surprise me that Microsoft will continue to sell an Intel model of the Pro 9 alongside this Qualcomm model. This is because doing so would have been unexpected. Even while Windows on Arm is no longer in the year 2020, the year in which compatibility was an unmitigated catastrophe, it is still a long way from the point where it should be worth $1,800.
It wasn’t the amount of work that I had to do that was causing my aggravation with this computer. It was never particularly quick to begin with, but as I opened more things and began more processes, the pace gradually slowed down. From the very beginning until the very end, there were several bugs and freezes.
When I merely had Slack open, it would still take almost three seconds for me to switch between different channels (yes, I timed it on my phone). Even when there was nothing playing in the background, it would take Spotify 11 seconds to open, and then it would remain frozen for an additional four seconds before I could finally push the play button. When I was typing on Chrome, I frequently had severe lag, which resulted in a wide variety of typing errors (due to the fact that my words didn’t appear on the screen until far after I’d written them). When I tried to watch videos on YouTube, the video would frequently stop playing while the audio would continue. When I attempted to annotate a PDF with the Surface Pen, the strokes I made either appeared annoyingly late or did not appear at all. When I attempted to launch Lightroom, the program would repeatedly hang up on me before finally crashing.
It became immediately apparent to me that I ought to make every effort to limit myself to applications that could operate natively on Arm. Believe me, I endeavored to. I switched from Chrome to Edge, and while Edge was definitely faster than Chrome (even while I was using Google’s apps), it was still a bit slower than what you’ll see from other high-end computers — including other Arm-based devices, such as those that a certain company in Cupertino makes. I made the switch because I wanted a faster web browser, and while Edge was certainly faster than Chrome, it was still a bit slower than what you’ll see from other high-end computers. The actual experience of making a call using Teams was satisfactory; nevertheless, the app remained a little bit unresponsive and was slow to launch. Once, the Settings program entirely stopped, and I had no choice except to exit it by using the force quit button. OneNote was the only Arm application I ran that seemed to run quite quickly and did not experience any problems. I suppose Paint was satisfactory as well. (I made Microsoft aware of these concerns, but I did not receive a response in time for the publication.)
The idea that I can switch over my entire workload to these few Arm-optimized applications quite simply, on the other hand, puts the whole thing in perspective. The fact that a lot of individuals don’t have that kind of luxury or desire is what makes purchasing the Pro 9 something of a gamble for them.

Review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3): Windows on Arm is unprepared

This particular mobile system on a chip (SoC) is known as the SQ3, and it is based on the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 processor. The trade-off with these mobile SoCs is that you give up some processing capability in exchange for a long battery life. That is a fair exchange for many individuals, and the device provided me with an average of 10 hours of continuous use, which is more than I’ve seen from the majority of Windows laptops released in the past year. By lowering the refresh rate to 60Hz, I was able to eke out an additional 12 hours and 23 minutes of play time. Fine. I have no doubt that this model will last for a longer period of time than the one produced by Intel.
The fact that the SQ3 Pro has a longer lifespan and built-in cellular connectivity gives it an advantage over other portable computers, but I do not believe that these advantages are sufficient to make up for the gaps in its performance. Even though I really enjoy the Surface connector because of its small size and its magnetic attachment, it only managed to charge the Pro to 57 percent in an hour. This was one of the more frustrating aspects of the device. The battery life was also ruined by 5G; I was only able to use it continuously for a total of six hours and 42 minutes.
The Surface Pro 9, which features a design that is exceptionally lightweight, support for 5G, and a battery life that is satisfactory, has the potential to be the ideal mobile computer. This is a target that Microsoft has been working toward for a number of years. A stunning tablet that does not have a fan and comes equipped with a high-end camera, in addition to being capable of running a full desktop operating system. An alternative to the iPad for individuals who adore Apple’s hardware but have grown frustrated with the constraints imposed by iPadOS.

Accessibility provided by the Microsoft Surface Pro 9. (as reviewed)

  • The dimensions of the letter keys are 0.6 inches by 0.6 inches, and there is 0.1 inches of space between each key. The only key that does not have a backlight is the power button. There are indication lights for both Fn and Caps Lock. The dimensions of the power button are 0.6 inches by 0.1 inches. The size of the volume buttons is 1.6 inches by 0.4 inches. The keys have a bluish-gray appearance with white lettering, and it takes a little amount of focused pressure to depress them.
  • During my tests, I measured an average decibel output of 75 from the speakers, which is lower than what I would expect from a typical external speaker.
  • When the keyboard is detached, the weight of the laptop drops to 1.95 pounds. The keyboard contributes an additional 0.68 pounds to the total weight.
  • One hand is all that’s needed to lift the lid.
  • A touchscreen is available, and it has a contrast ratio of 1200:1.
  • The size of the touchpad is 4.25 inches by 2.25 inches.
  • During setup, you will need to power on the device and navigate through a few different menus.
  • Facial logins are supported by the Pro, but fingerprint logins are not supported.

Windows 11

  • Windows 11 comes with its own specialized menu for accessibility.
  • Windows 11 comes equipped with its own screen reader by default (Narrator). It is compatible with screen readers made by third parties, such as NVDA, which is made by NV Access, and Jaws, which is made by Freedom Scientific. On the website of Microsoft, you can get a complete list of the software that is compatible.
  • Both voice typing (which can be accessed by pressing Windows + H) and speech recognition can be toggled on and off with Windows + Ctrl + S in Windows 11.
  • Toggle Color Filters by pressing Windows + Ctrl + C. Some of the Color Filters that can be toggled include inverted, grayscale, red-green, and blue-yellow. Toggling contrast themes requires pressing Alt, Left Shift, and Print Screen simultaneously. Under Personalization, you can also access the default Dark Mode as well as colors of your own.
  • The color and size of the captions can be changed, and they will always show relatively close to the bottom of the screen.
  • Using Microsoft’s PowerToys, the layout of the keyboard can be altered. Sticky Keys is a feature that is supported. There is a keyboard displayed on-screen for your convenience.
  • In the Touchpad Settings menu, you may make changes to the size and speed of the pointer, and you can even remap the gestures.
  • Windows 11 has capability for eye control using eye trackers that are external.
  • The Snap Layout feature was added to Windows 11 and may be accessed by moving the mouse pointer over the Maximize button on any open window.

Microsoft is an industry leader when it comes to the hardware side of things. However, it has not yet figured out how to make Windows on Arm a viable option for high-end mainstream computers. Over the course of the last few years, Apple has developed a customized chip architecture that has transformed its product platform. The company has also developed an emulation layer that has operated nearly effortlessly since the very first day it was released. Microsoft’s Arm-based gadgets have not yet reached the point where they provide a seamless experience.
I am only able to conjecture as to how much of that is Qualcomm’s fault and how much of that is Microsoft’s problem, and I am not certain that my speculation is more valuable than anyone else’s speculation. However, I can’t help but think back to the review that former Verge writer Dieter Bohn wrote of the first Surface Pro X, which was the Arm device that launched it all in 2019. According to what Bohn wrote, “Windows itself performs fairly well on the Surface Pro X.” “However, similar to their earlier efforts, Microsoft has not done enough to compensate for the concessions that this aspirational machine requires of its clients.” Even though I’ve had a better overall experience with it over the course of the last three years, I still find that the tale I tell about the SQ3 Surface Pro 9 is essentially the same. Even while Windows on Arm is working, it is not yet ready for the major leagues, which cost $2,000.
I’m going to take it one step further: Right there with them was AMD, whose current processor series excels in both power and efficiency to an exceptional degree. This year, Microsoft has removed AMD from the Surface range (the Surface Laptop 5 is only powered by Intel), but the company has decided to keep Snapdragon. In my opinion, that is a failure.

Listen, I get that nobody is going to buy a device powered by Qualcomm with the expectation that it will have the same processing capability as a Threadripper. Battery life and build quality are two aspects that I don’t want to disregard as potential selling points, and I am aware that the 5G is convenient. I am prepared for this comments section to be full of folks complaining that my performance problems can be solved and that people should simply grit their teeth and use Microsoft’s software around the clock.
But I am fairly confident that if you are someone who uses any of the emulated apps that I mentioned even once a day, the vast majority of other computers, regardless of their price, will provide you with a better experience. This is true whether you use an iPad Pro, a Dell XPS, or, hell, even an AMD Surface Laptop from the previous generation. Windows on Arm is not universally inoperable; nonetheless, it is universally restricted in its functionality.

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