Home Technology I tested the cheapest Surface Pro Copilot+ PC for a week, and it easily replaced my daily driver

I tested the cheapest Surface Pro Copilot+ PC for a week, and it easily replaced my daily driver

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I tested the cheapest Surface Pro Copilot+ PC for a week, and it easily replaced my daily driver


Microsoft Surface Pro 11

Ed Bott/ZDNET

The Windows PC industry has fallen into a rut over the past decade. Microsoft and its OEM partners routinely ship a crop of new devices each year, mostly based on incremental speed bumps to Intel CPUs. If you buy this year’s model, you get slightly better battery life and a modest increase in performance over last year’s crop. Yawn.

That predictable pattern is why the just-released Copilot+ PCs have so much potential. Yes, they run on Windows 11, but at their core is a new engine, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X series of Arm-based processors.

Also: Microsoft’s new laptops’ repairability stuns iFixit, sets high bar for rivals

My Surface Pro 11 (I know its official name is “Surface Pro, 11th Edition,” but let’s keep it simple, OK?) arrived last week. I deliberately ordered the least expensive configuration and had no idea what to expect. Yes, it should get better battery life than an Intel-based alternative, and all the preliminary benchmarks suggested it would deliver impressive performance, but seeing is believing.

After one full week, I can say, without qualification: This machine absolutely rocks.

My original plan was to use the new Surface Pro as a secondary mobile device, while keeping my Dell Precision workstation on the desktop for my everyday activity. I am now using the new Surface Pro as my daily driver.

How did this happen? Let’s dive in.

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The experience is familiar

This is a radical shift in the Windows ecosystem, but it doesn’t feel all that different from its predecessors. In fact, it’s almost indistinguishable from the Intel-powered Surface Pro 9 that’s sitting on my desk alongside it. The slim bezels around the displays of the two devices are nearly the same dimensions. The new device, at 1.9 pounds, is the same weight as the Surface Pro 9 and is a few ounces heavier than the Surface Pro X, although that’s not something you really notice until you have to lug it through an airport as you rush to make a connection. The Type Cover from the older Surface Pro clicked into place on the Surface Pro 11, exactly as expected.

And as for the software, well … It’s Windows 11, which looks and acts the same on an Arm-based PC as it does on an Intel-powered device.

Also: 7 ways to make Windows 11 less annoying

The big difference is that this next-gen device is extremely cool and quiet. After a three-hour Zoom call the other day, the chassis was barely warm; on an Intel-based machine, it would have been uncomfortably hot. There’s a fan inside the Surface Pro 11, but I have yet to hear it run, even under the most demanding conditions. And it’s extremely responsive, with none of the hesitation I occasionally noticed on the Surface Pro X. If you’ve used an M2-equipped MacBook Air, the feeling will be familiar.

Of course, this new device also embodies everything you like and/or dislike about the Surface Pro design. If you’re expecting a radical shift that will suddenly make the kickstand comfortable in your lap, I’m sorry to report you will be disappointed. But if you’re comfortable with that design, you’ll find this iteration completely familiar.

Battery life is a huge win

If the Arm architecture has a killer feature, it’s battery life. The Surface Pro X delivered the goods on that score, but it did so at a cost in performance. This generation, on the other hand, ups the battery life impressively and does so without any compromise in speed or responsiveness.

It’s still a bit too early to make definitive pronouncements about how long this Surface Pro will allow me to work before I begin to look for a place to plug in. The first week with a new device is never typical, as it involves a lot of downloading, installing, configuring, and futzing that presumably won’t be a regular thing.

Also: How to improve your Windows laptop’s battery life

But these actual usage numbers, from a report generated by the Windows Powercfg /batteryreport command, speak for themselves.

surface-pro-11-battery-report

In real-world usage, the Surface Pro 11 battery lasts twice as long as an equivalent Intel-based model

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

At an average of more than 10 hours of actual, observed battery life, this Surface Pro is able to run for well over twice as long as my Intel-based Surface Pro 9. That’s also at least as long as the M2 MacBook Air in my office.

Compatibility is good but not perfect

For these Snapdragon X PCs, battery life is an unqualified success, but the compatibility story is more mixed.

Microsoft has been developing Windows on Arm for more than a decade, and it’s remarkable how well most software just works on an Arm-based PC. If you do most of your work in a web browser and in Microsoft Office, you might never notice a difference. But there are still some rough edges, and you can expect some compatibility headaches, especially when using older hardware or apps that require low-level system drivers.

Also: How to reset Windows 11 without losing your apps, files, and settings

On this PC, every preinstalled Microsoft app is, naturally, compiled to run as native Arm64 code. That includes the Edge browser, the complete collection of Microsoft 365 apps, and every imaginable Windows utility, from PowerShell to Registry Editor to Calculator. Even the semi-official PowerToys collection installs in Arm64 mode. I installed a wide selection of Progressive Web Apps that run in the Arm64 Edge environment and they all worked just fine.

Microsoft Surface Pro 11

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Mainstream x86 apps written for Intel-based machines mostly install without any issues in the Windows on Arm emulation layer, and there was no obvious performance hit for the apps I tried, including my go-to screen capture utility, SnagIt.

Many third-party developers have gone to the trouble of recompiling their apps for Arm64, and if you can find them, they’re the preferred option. But you might have to do some digging. The default download for the VLC Media Player, for example, is a 64-bit x86 version, but nightly builds compiled for Arm64 machines are available. Likewise, the normal download options for 1Password will get you the x86 release, which is problem-free, but there’s a preview of the Arm64 version if you know where to look.

Also: The best password managers of 2024: Expert tested

But I’m not sure what to make of Adobe, which tweeted earlier this year that it’s “excited to announce that your favorite Adobe apps are coming to Copilot+ PCs.” What does that even mean? Photoshop has been available in an Arm64 version for three years, albeit with significant limitations, but I can’t find a native Arm version of Acrobat. Maybe Adobe just means that the x86 versions are certified to run in emulation mode? Who knows.

And then there’s Google, which finally released an Arm64-native version of Chrome back in April. Hooray! But you will not find any version of the Google Drive for Desktop sync client that works on a Copilot+ PC. If you try to install the x86 version, you get this unfriendly error message:

google-drive-doesnt-install-on-arm

No amount of fussing with compatibility settings will get the Google Drive desktop client to install on an Arm-based PC.

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

So, if you’re a confirmed Google Drive user and you want your cloud-based storage to integrate with File Explorer, you’ll need to stick with Intel-based machines for now. Or maybe switch to OneDrive.

The stickiest compatibility problems arise when you try to install an app that requires custom drivers for low-level access to networking and the file system. Most commercial VPNs, including Proton VPN and ExpressVPN, will refuse to run on Windows on Arm for that reason; try Wireguard or Viscosity instead. And if you insist on running a third-party antivirus app, you’ll probably be frustrated. (Spoiler: You probably don’t need it.)

Also: The best VPN for Windows: Expert tested and reviewed

I had no hardware problems to speak of. My 10-year-old Logitech C930 webcam just worked. So did my trusty Brother laser printer and ScanSnap x1600 scanner. I connected the Surface Pro 11 to a StarTech Thunderbolt 4/USB4 docking station and everything worked exactly as it should have.

Your mileage may vary, of course, especially if you have exotic hardware like video capture cards and ancient multifunction printers that require custom driver packs and won’t work with the in-box Windows drivers. Thankfully, I have none of those.

The AI story is incomplete

Every PC in the Copilot+ line includes a powerful neural processing unit designed to accelerate AI-based activities. Because I didn’t spring for Microsoft’s pricey new Flex Keyboard and stuck with my old Type Cover, I didn’t get a dedicated Copilot key. Instead, I had to run the Copilot app, which works exactly like it does on any other Windows 11 PC. If it was chatting faster, I didn’t notice.

Also: I tried Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop Copilot+ PC and it beat my MacBook Air in 3 ways

And, of course, what was supposed to be the marquee feature of these new PCs, Recall, was pulled at the last minute over security concerns and will be available as a Windows Insider Preview feature later this year.

Some of the app-based AI features were more useful. The front-facing camera on the Surface Pro 11 is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a laptop, and the AI-powered studio effects (which are accessible from the Quick Settings menu on the taskbar) include some useful options like automatic framing and eye tracking. The neural processing unit helps make background blur options look more natural than on a conventional camera.

surface-pro-11-studio-effects

These AI studio effects are accessible from the taskbar 

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

The Paint and Photos apps are also loaded with AI-based features for creating and editing images. The options to remove background distractions and use blur effects to simulate portrait mode were useful; the styling options, which transform a photo into an alternate style (Impressionist, Anime, and so on) feel gimmicky.

The real question is whether those features are powerful enough to make you switch from your current image-processing tool to one of Microsoft’s built-in options. History says that’s a pretty big ask.

Even if you avoid the AI features completely, though, there’s more than enough power in this budget PC. And as long as your apps and hardware requirements aren’t exotic, you’ll appreciate its cool, quiet operation.





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