Microsoft Surface Pro 8 review: Let's be honest, it's more laptop than tablet — buy the keyboard with it

  • Microsoft's new $1,100 Surface Pro 8 tablet officially launches Tuesday in tandem with the first big refresh to Windows 11.
  • It's a big update to the Surface Pro 7 in every way, with newer processors, a larger screen and better pen input.
  • But it really works better as a laptop, which means you'll have to drop another $180 on the keyboard.

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Microsoft's new Surface Pro 8 tablet launches Tuesday in tandem with the first big refresh to Windows 11.

I've been using the tablet for the past several days. It's a great alternative to the iPad if you want Windows, and Microsoft made a lot of refinements that make this one of the biggest updates to the Surface tablet line in years. With a starting price of $1,100, it's a great computer that may be especially compelling as offices begin to embrace hybrid models of work, with some days in the office and some at home.

But you should think of it as a laptop first and a tablet second, and buy the optional $180 keyboard to get the most out of it.

I still think Apple's $329 iPad is the best option for people who just want a simple tablet for watching movies, playing games, downloading apps and browsing the web, largely because the iPad is just a lot more comfortable to hold and navigate with touch.

Either way, it's poised to help Microsoft sell more hardware. Sales of Microsoft's Surface computers dropped 20% during the fourth quarter because of supply constraint issues, and new models, including the Surface Studio Laptop and a refresh of the smaller Surface Go tablet, could help it revitalize sales during the holidays. But Surface products aren't a major revenue driver for Microsoft alone. They're part of the company's More Personal Computing segment, which also includes Windows, gaming and search advertising, and generated $14.1 billion during the June quarter, or about 30% of the company's $46.1 billion in overall revenue. 

Here's what you need to know about it.

What's good

Microsoft improved the Surface Pro 8 in nearly every way from the Surface Pro 7. 

It has a bigger 13-inch display with thinner borders around the screen than the 12.3-inch Surface Pro 7. While it's slightly heavier, I think it looks and feels more refined and less clunky than earlier versions of the Surface Pro.

The screen gets plenty bright and I appreciated the built-in kickstand — a staple on Microsoft's Surface Pro — to help prop up the device while I watched "Squid Game" on the couch over the weekend.

I also like that Microsoft ditched the older USB-A port (some people might still prefer having it for older accessories) in favor of faster USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4. You can easily add two 4K monitors, which makes it a great option if you're moving from work and home, or from your office desk to the couch.

There are lots of other noticeable upgrades. It has the latest Intel Core processors. The model I tested, $1,600 as configured, included an Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM. The new Windows 11 operating system felt plenty fast, even with lots of tabs open in Chrome and an Amazon Workspaces session going in a separate window for work. Also, I was surprised that it was able to run Amazon's New World game on the lowest settings. I'd rather play the game on high settings, but I didn't expect it to run at all on a tablet. 

Windows 11 is a big new update to Windows 10, which is about 6 years old at this point. I'm not going to fully review the software here, but it's a nice looking refresh.

I like that the task menu and Start bar are centered now and that there's more transparency to windows. It looks a bit Apple-y. Still, it feels a little clunky using Windows 11 as a tablet — it's still mainly a keyboard-and-mouse operating system, compared with an iPad which is built primarily with touch screens in mind and does not work as well with a keyboard and mouse.

Sure, you can move around Windows 11 just fine with touch, but it's a lot easier with the Surface Pro Signature Keyboard attached. So, definitely buy that if you're purchasing a Surface Pro 8.

Another option is the Slim Pen 2 bundle, which costs $280 and includes both the keyboard and Microsoft's new pen, which is helpful if you're planning to take notes or sign documents on the Surface Pro 8.

Plus, the Signature Pro Keyboard now hides and charges the pen when you're not using it. (Side note: the pen has a new haptic motor that buzzes when you use it. It's supposed to make it feel like you're writing on paper but it just feels like it's rumbling to me.)

There are a lot of other niceties. Windows Hello is still my favorite way to log in to a PC. It's like Apple's Face ID: You just look at the Surface Pro 8 and it unlocks and logs you right into Windows in a flash. And the speakers get nice and loud, which I liked while streaming the game Dirt 5 from Xbox Game Pass. Also, I like that you can remove the hard drive in case you ever need to upgrade it or get it serviced. You can't do that with an iPad.

Lastly, the battery life has been pretty good so far. I'm still testing the differences between leaving the 60hz screen on by default or switching to the more power hungry but nicer 120hz mode. But I was able to get several hours of work in before I had about 50% battery life left. If you adjust the display brightness you should be able to make it through a full workday just fine. Microsoft promises up to 18 hours of battery life.

What's bad

I love and hate the kickstand. On one hand, I love popping the Surface Pro 8 off the keyboard, sticking it up on a table and watching movies or playing games. On the other, the kickstand still doesn't sit well in my lap, and that's always been the case. You may not use a laptop in your lap very often, but it's frustrating when you need to. When I tried working from the couch, for example, the Surface Pro 8 just started to fall over if I don't balance it perfectly.

It's a lot easier to just use a regular laptop in those situations. Otherwise, if you're mostly at a desk or table, the kickstand is fine.

Also, the Surface Pro 8 is still a little heavy and big to use as a regular tablet like you might an iPad. It's difficult to balance above your head if you're trying to just surf the web or something the way you might on Apple's tablets. If you want a Windows tablet for that, consider Microsoft's smaller Surface Go 3. 

Lastly, I wish Microsoft sold a 5G option. We're all stuck at home right now so it's not a big issue, but I think people who commute would appreciate having faster cellular service where it's available, especially for streaming games or movies. Instead, you'll need to stick to Wi-Fi networks (though, thankfully, faster Wi-Fi 6 networks are supported if you run one at home).

Should you buy it?

The Surface Pro 8 is an upgrade in pretty much every way from last year's Surface Pro 7. I think it's a great tablet for anyone who prefers Windows over Mac or iPadOS. Just think of it as a full-fledged computer first and buy the keyboard with it. It's a fine tablet if you just want to kick it up and watch movies or play games with an Xbox controller, but it's not as easy to hold or navigate as an iPad is when you're in that tablet mode.

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