Can you believe it's been 10 years since Microsoft first launched the Surface? That's a decade of trying to make hybrid tablet PCs a thing, something I'm still not sure many people actually want. But, you know what, I'll give Microsoft credit for trying to push laptop designs forward in an era when everyone was trying to copy Apple's unibody MacBook Pro and ultra-thin MacBook Air. The Surface was a radical alternative.
The Surface Pro 9 with 5G makes it clear that Microsoft has learned some lessons since its first tablets: It's impeccably designed, and it's the first Surface to tap into speedy 5G networks. Unfortunately, it's also a disappointing reminder that Microsoft can't help but repeat many of its earlier mistakes. It's yet another ARM-based Windows PC that we can't possibly recommend.
- Great AI webcam features
- Excellent hardware design
- Gorgeous 13-inch screen
- Convenient removable SSD
- Built-in 5G
- ARM chip leads to generally slow performance
- Some compatibility issues with older apps and games
- More expensive than the faster Intel model
- Still suffers from Surface ergonomic issues
Gallery: Surface Pro 9 5G | 13 Photos
Gallery: Surface Pro 9 5G | 13 Photos
That's not exactly surprising, given our lukewarm reaction to the ARM-powered Surface Pro X line. But what's more galling this year is that Microsoft is actually calling it the Surface Pro 9 with 5G, as if it's directly comparable to the Surface Pro 9 powered by Intel's 12th-gen chips. That's more than hubris – it's an outright lie, one that will undoubtedly confuse shoppers and IT workers for the next year.
Sure, they both have the same gorgeous and impressively thin aluminum case, 13-inch PixelSense display, and very usable keyboard covers (which are unfortunately still sold separately). Both models also have the same built-in kickstand, which lets you prop up the screen on a table, or if you're feeling risky, on your leg for on-the-go computing. If you've seen a Surface tablet before, especially last year's solid Pro 8, not much has changed.
A tale of two Surfaces
Here's the rub: Microsoft now has one product line running on two very different chip designs, Intel's x86 hardware and Microsoft's custom SQ3 ARM system-on-a-chip (itself based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3). The Intel-powered Surface Pro 9 can run all of the legacy Windows apps you'd expect. The SQ3 model, on the other hand, can only run newer apps natively. Everything else is emulated, leading to significantly slower performance. On the plus side, Windows 11 supports x64 emulation now, so the Pro 9 with 5G can run plenty of apps that the Pro X couldn't when it launched. But that doesn't cover games, and it's a compromise I don't think anyone should be making at this point.
What's even more frustrating is that Microsoft is making you pay a $300 premium above the $999 Surface Pro 9 for the privilege of owning an inherently slower computer. How much is built-in 5G worth to you, then?
A better Windows on Arm experience, but not by much
After using the Pro 9 with 5G for several days, I'm even more baffled by Microsoft's reckless attempt at shoving its x86 and ARM product lines together. While a few of the company's engineers assured me in a recent interview that the performance would be comparable between the SQ3 and Intel models, I knew that was inaccurate the minute I launched Chrome. As an emulated x86 app, it's slower to launch and fairly laggy while browsing the web and juggling tabs. Microsoft Edge, on the other hand, is snappier all around because it's a native ARM app.
I typically run multiple browsers at once, since it's the easiest way to separate work and personal accounts. I can't just move to Edge full time. So if I wanted to work the way I'm used to on the Surface Pro 9 with 5G, I'd just have to live with an experience that's worse than a three-year-old Surface Laptop. Does that sound like progress to you? While it performed generally fine with native apps like Spotify and Evernote, multitasking between them and emulated apps still felt noticeably sluggish. In many ways, it felt like a step down from the Surface Pro 6 I reviewed four years ago, save for the silkier 120Hz refresh rate on the Pro 9's larger screen.
Geekbench 5 CPU
3DMark Wildlife Extreme
Microsoft Surface Pro 9 5G (SQ3, Adreno 8cx Gen 3)
Microsoft Surface Pro 8 (Intel Core i7-1185G7, Intel Iris Xe graphics)
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go 2 (Intel i5-1135G7, Iris Xe graphics)
ASUS Zenbook 17 Fold OLED (Intel i7-1280P, Iris Xe graphics)
All of the benchmarks I ran on the Surface Pro 9 also show that it's slower than any premium laptop we've reviewed over the past few years. Sure, Geekbench 5 was running as a slower emulated app, but its score is also indicative of how other emulated programs will run. Even the weak Surface Go 2, with its low-power 11th-gen Intel chip, managed to outperform the Pro 9 5G in single-core performance. (At least the SQ3 faired better with multi-core speeds.) 3DMark's Wildlife Extreme test, which is one of the best ways to compare cross-platform gaming, also returned a low score, as I expected. (The bigger surprise? It was on par with the ASUS ZenBook Fold 17, a foldable computer held back by a low-wattage Intel chip.)