Passively Cool – The Surface Pro 6 Review

One of the computers I was interested in at the beginning of this yearwas the Surface Pro 6 from Microsoft. I had owned a Surface Pro 3 in the past and was very happy with it. But, as mentioned in a previous article, I had noticed something like a moiré pattern on the screen when white background was displayed. It wasn’t as pronounced on the Surface Pro as it was on a lower resolution HP notebook, but it was there, and I was afraid it would bother me.

I managed to get my hands on a Surface Pro 6 base model with a Signature Type Cover in Alcantara and used it as my main computer for about a week instead of my MacBook Pro.

Guess what: it didn’t bother me, and I could have saved a lot of money compared to the MacBook Pro. But that’s only part of the story.

Let’s start with the specs of the device. It comes with an Intel Core i5 8thgen with a base clock of 1.6 GHz, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. Very basic, but powerful enough for mobile work. The processor itself is a quad-core CPU with hyperthreading and the coolest part of it: no fans. The system is passively cooled. And it is staying cool. Very much unlike the MacBook that immediately jumps to 100° C when you push it. Apple doesn’t limit the CPU by its TDP, which is normally 28W, but rather by temperature. As a result, it frequently uses up to 40W until it has to throttle down. I don’t know the TDP rating of the Surface Pro CPU, but it never freaked out like the MacBook did. I even upgraded to a newer version of Windows 10 and the chassis never became uncomfortably warm. The TaskManager showed the CPU spiking up to around 3GHz, so it was using the headroom it has.

Of course, this comes with a downside as well. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the base clock of the Surface i5 is 1.6GHz whereas the MacBook comes with 2.3GHz. When push comes to shove the MacBook can provide 700MHz more on four cores. But I didn’t really have to push it to notice differences. Browser window resizing wasn’t smooth at all. Almost all windows resizing was laggy. Was it enough to warrant a big red “HALT!” sign? No, not at that price. Although 799€ is a lot of money (plus the additional 100€ for the keyboard), the Surface Pro 6 is still capable of doing more than an iPad Pro at a similar price level. It’s running full Windows with access to all kinds of applications. You can do anything you want with it.

Another part of the performance story is the RAM. 8GB is enough for writers or occasional limited development on the go. Depending on the kind of development you might even get away with it easily. I’m a Java developer by trade so running a browser with a few tabs and a Java IDE used all there was but about 1GB.It does work, but you better not be managing huge projects. Compilation and debugger startup were also very slow, as can be expected from the CPU. It was good enough to do something with it but limited to be overly productive. It was quiet all the time though and that was nice.

One thing that surprised me was VM performance. I occasionally run a Linux virtual machine to stay up-to-date on what’s happening there, and it was much smoother on the Surface Pro 6 than it is on the more powerful MacBook Pro. I did some research and it seems that it is a VirtualBox specific issue. I expect Parallels, a Mac-native application, to perform a lot better in that regard. It does, however, cost 80 bucks more than VirtualBox – which is free. Note though, that this only seems to affect graphical user interfaces. I haven’t noticed any issues using a headless VM on the MacBook and I assume it will perform better than the Surface Pro in cases where there’s load on the VM.

Another advantage of the MacBook Pro over the Surface Pro is the speakers. Although the Microsoft tablet comes with a stereo setup, the sound is just horrible. You can watch YouTube videos and TV shows fine, but don’t expect music to sound good. It just won’t.

Besides the passive cooling there is one other big advantage over the MacBook the keyboard (I notice this is becoming as much a comparison as it is a review). As mentioned in the MacBook Pro review, I like the new Apple keyboard (as long as it is reliable). Now, after a few days with the Microsoft keyboard, I do prefer the Signature Type Cover feel. This is just amazing. It has a bit more travel and a very nice resistance that make it feel high quality and a joy to type on. It’s more of a natural keyboard feeling than the MacBook’s “button presses”, like the physical iPhone or iPad home buttons (it’s not exactly like that, I know, it’s just a simplified metaphor). Apple, please copy this. And while you’re at it, make it work in the current models and provide an affordable exchange program for the 2018, 2017 and 2016 MacBooks please. It does, however, based on how the keyboard is built, provide some flex, even while placed flat on a table. Oh, and before I forget: there’s a physical ESC key and a physical row of function keys. The TouchBar looks cool, even when set to showing the function keys only instead of unnecessary application stuff but having a physical row of keys is so much better. Apple, please copy. Microsoft should copy the trackpad though. It works well, but it requires physical movement of the trackpad for a button press (or tap-to-click of course) and it’s rather small. Other than that, it worked nicely.

Another thing I really liked was the Windows Hello face recognition. As I have mentioned in the MacBook review, to unlock TouchID it is necessary to enter the password at least once. Not so in the Windows world. Windows Hello immediately starts looking for known users and once it recognizes you it instantly logs in. It is a blazingly fast process and I wish I could do the same on my Mac. I’d be happy to get rid of the password-first requirement so that TouchID accepts my finger anytime. It’s fast alright, but only when I wake the Mac from sleep. How is that so different from rebooting? Different topic, though.

I have to provide some obvious downside as well. It’s Windows (read on! 😉) and how it handles high-DPI monitors. The display of the Surface Pro 6 is gorgeous. It has nice colors and the text is very crisp. It’s all nice and shiny most of the time as long as you do not connect and disconnect an external display, e.g. in a docking station scenario. As soon as you do that, some applications do not scale well. Heck, even Windows itself has a lot of issues. Dialogs will become blurry, notifications may be displayed super-sized, but somewhat off-screen. Please Microsoft, fix that. At work I prefer to run the Laptop screen at a lower resolution to avoid setting a scaling factor to work around this problem. I don’t have perfectly crisp text there, but it’s better than odd looking applications and displaced notifications on any screen. macOS is so much better in that regard.

Also worth noting is the single USB-A port and the single mini-DisplayPort… port… I guess. I do like the magnetic power plug, like MagSafe used to be. I really don’t understand why people make such a fuss that this is a proprietary connector instead of USB-C. Since it comes out without any resistance it is very unlikely that you’d send the device flying if you trip over the power cable. That has to count as a benefit, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s more than just a power plug and for connecting a docking station Microsoft could have included USB-C instead.

What about portability, as the Surface Pro is clearly a tablet? It’s good. It’s much lighter than the MacBook and more flexible than an iPad. And that’s because it has a kickstand built-in. I clearly could envision this to become my YouTube and TV machine for the bed. It has a bigger, more immersive screen than my iPad Mini. It is also easier to hold because of the kickstand. I merely need to make sure it doesn’t slide off my belly, but other than that it stands on its own. It has stereo speakers. For being a portable multimedia machine, the device is very good. Battery life is about the same as the MacBook, which would put it behind a new iPad (my Mini already has a few years on its battery). If you don’t mind tweaking a little, using the tool ThrottleStop allows you to limit the CPU’s TDP, disable boost or undervolt it. In doing that, you can get an amazing battery life. Disabling the Turbo Boost helps the most and the minimum CPU frequency is enough to watch 1080p videos flawlessly. Or write articles in Word.

When it comes to browsing, this device has the same advantages and disadvantages as any other big tablet. The big plus is the big screen. Websites don’t get “dummed down” for mobile use and you are able to see everything. On the iPad mini I frequently have to scroll or zoom on sites that don’t expect a device that sits between a phone’s size and 10 inch. The advantage of that big screen is also its biggest weakness. It is not as comfortable to hold as an 8” tablet. It is thicker as well to provide enough room for a higher capacity battery. I can’t declare a clear winner here, but I do tend to prefer the iPad mini simply because I can hold it safely in one hand. This is up to personal preference.

Do I have a verdict? I kinda do, but it’s ultimately up to each user’s desires. I think the Surface Pro 6 is able to compete with the iPad Pro line. The iPad may have more optimized and specialized software to out-perform the Surface Pro 6 base model when it comes to certain tasks. But you have to hope that there is something in the iOS App Store that suits your need. On a Windows 10 machine you can be certain that there is something for you and in many cases, you don’t even have to pay for it. And even if you do, you are able to use a mouse as a pointing device for potentially easier navigation through an app’s user interface. And if you are already a Windows user, chances are you already have a selection of applications that you need, and you only have to install them on your Surface tablet. In the Apple ecosystem it is very likely that you are required to pay twice, once for the macOS app and a second time for the iOS version.

For my final words I think I should stop the comparison now. Overall, I really liked the Surface Pro 6 base model. For a price under 1000 (insert currency here) you get a very well-built computer with a very good screen, decent performance and an absolutely silent cooling system. The keyboard’s keys are very good too and probably pretty reliable. If you like Windows, require it for some applications even, and need a mobile computer that should sometimes serve as a tablet then this is a very good option. If I weren’t a developer that requires a little more horsepower, I would have considered this model. On the other hand, as much as I know my way around Windows, I do prefer macOS. It’s a hefty price to pay, that’s for sure. If you don’t care about the OS and only want a flexible and reliable and (mostly) affordable computer, go for the Surface Pro 6. Models with better specs are also likely to easily compete with the MacBook on the performance side of things.

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