Microsoft Surface Pro 9 5G review (SQ3): A beautiful lie

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

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.

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.

Surface Pro 9 with 5G
Surface Pro 9 with 5G

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?

Surface Pro 9 with 5G
Surface Pro 9 with 5G

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

Cinebench R23

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 5G (SQ3, Adreno 8cx Gen 3)

1,122/5,764

2,959

575/1,866

Microsoft Surface Pro 8 (Intel Core i7-1185G7, Intel Iris Xe graphics)

1,289/5,217

N/A

620/4,619

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go 2 (Intel i5-1135G7, Iris Xe graphics)

1,349/3,764

2,799

1,127/3,115

ASUS Zenbook 17 Fold OLED (Intel i7-1280P, Iris Xe graphics)

1,596/6,491

3,012

1,504/5,384

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.)

Surface Pro 9 with 5G
Surface Pro 9 with 5G

While I don't think many people would be buying the 5G Surface Pro 9 for its performance alone, it's still worth reiterating that it'll be a far slower computer than its Intel counterpart. I didn't have that other Pro 9 model to test, but we did review the ASUS ZenBook Fold 17, which uses a similar Intel Core i7-1250U CPU. That's a low-power chip but otherwise comparable to the i7-1255U on the Surface Pro 9. Compared to the SQ3 Pro 9, the ZenBook blew it away in Geekbench 5's CPU test, as well as Cinebench R23.

Surprisingly, both the ZenBook Fold 17 and 5G Pro 9 scored similarly in the Wildlife Extreme benchmark, but the Intel chip has the advantage of being able to run games natively. The Pro 9 5G couldn't even successfully emulate older titles like Quake on Steam. (For the truly desperate, you can always stream Xbox Game Pass titles over the cloud, and a handful of low-power native games like Minecraft run fine.)

Surface Pro 9 with 5G
Surface Pro 9 with 5G

What good is built-in cellular?

The Surface Pro 9's built-in 5G connectivity gives it one major leg up over the Intel model, but I didn't find it very compelling during my testing. During cellular setup, Windows directed me to Ubigi and Gigsky as two potential providers that would connect to the Surface's eSIM. I went with Ubigi, and after 20 minutes of account setup, I was able to hop onto their LTE network. Unfortunately, I didn't see any 5G speeds in my Atlanta suburb, but the network still delivered a respectable 33.6 Mbps down and (far less impressive) 2 Mbps up over LTE.

If you already have a working SIM card, you can open up the Pro 9's expansion area under the kickstand and slide it in there. My Verizon SIM was recognized in 30 seconds, and it delivered 50 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up over LTE. You can also easily swap out the notebook's SSD in that expansion area too. (It's even simpler on the Intel Pro 9, since you don't need a SIM tool to access the expansion area.) In exchange, though, Microsoft removed the SD card slot. I wouldn't consider that a dealbreaker — being able to upgrade to a larger SSD down the line is incredibly useful — but it's something to keep in mind if you rely on SD cards to store your music or photos.

Having the ability to hop on cellular everywhere, especially for international providers like Ubigi, is certainly impressive. Personally, though, I'd trade that in for the increased speed and app compatibility from the Intel Surface Pro 9. Is it really that tough to tether your phone? And true road warriors are likely better off with a mobile hotspot, which can connect to multiple devices easily.

Surface Pro 9 with 5G
Surface Pro 9 with 5G

Same Surface issues, 10 years later

Perhaps I'm just grumpy from the whole forced ARM transition, but I also couldn't help but be frustrated by the other annoyances from the Surface Pro 9. Microsoft has been pumping these things out for a decade now, and they're still annoying to use on your lap. Unlike a traditional laptop, which has a flat base connected to a screen, you have to juggle the Surface's keyboard cover and kickstand on your leg to keep it propped up. It's functional enough — I was able to type this whole review with the Surface on my lap — but not exactly comfortable.

I've been able to bear it for years, but by this point, it'd be nice to see Microsoft try something to improve the experience. Maybe add a secondary hinge to stabilize things, or offer a case that can completely unify the keyboard and tablet (like HP's leather-clad Spectre Folio). With ultraportables like the MacBook Air and Dell XPS 13 getting lighter and thinner every year, Microsoft can't just assume consumers will live with subpar ergonomics. Perhaps the tradeoff would be worth it if the Surface was usable as a tablet on its own, but I still find it too large and unwieldy compared to the iPad Pro. (And it’s not like Windows is any better on tablets, either.)

There are still some nice design ideas around the Surface — I love the way the Slim Pen 2 hides away in the $180 Signature Pro keyboard, and it remains one of the best styluses on the market when it comes to drawing and jotting down notes. Still, it feels like the Surface is turning into a computer that's more performative than it is functional. Look at its kickstand! Don't worry about how impractical it is. It's got 5G! But ignore the fact that it has a slow mobile processor. Even its two USB-C ports are compromised; they're limited to USB 3.2, whereas the Intel model's ports all support the faster Thunderbolt 4 standard. I was initially impressed by the Pro 9's 20-and-a-half hours of battery life in our benchmark, but when it came to real-world usage it only lasted around 10 hours.

Surface Pro 9 5G video chat
Surface Pro 9 5G video chat

AI-assisted video chats

Oddly enough, there's one thing the 5G Surface Pro 9 excels at: video calls. It sports a sharp 1080p front-facing camera, but crucially, it's assisted by the SQ3's Neural Processing Unit. That powers features like automatic framing, background blurring and sustained eye contact during video calls. And in my experience, it's almost magical. The portrait blurring effects are close to what I'd expect from a larger DSLR camera, and the automatic framing was silky smooth. Those features also work across any video chat app, so you don't have to worry about looking different across Zoom or Teams.

The one downside of the Intel-powered Surface Pro 9 is that it can't take advantage of any of those features. While Intel's 12th-gen CPUs are plenty powerful, they don't have an NPU built-in. Microsoft reps say any future chips that add AI processing will be able to use these features, but that doesn't help people buying Intel Pro 9 models this year. At the very least, they'll have a good front-facing camera (as well as a very capable 10-megapixel rear camera).

Surface Pro 9 with 5G
Surface Pro 9 with 5G

Wrap-up

If you're still interested in the 5G Surface Pro 9, having read my complaints and frustrations, be prepared to pay dearly. It starts at $1,300 with a relatively modest 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, while the Intel model goes for $1,000 with those same specs. And if you want a keyboard, add another $120 for the Pro Type Cover (though we’d recommend the $140 Pro Keyboard instead). Jumping up to 16GB of RAM with the 5G Pro 9 (like our review unit) will cost you $1,600 with 256GB of storage. As you go up the price range, the Intel and SQ3 models end up costing the same — but who wants to pay nearly $2,000 for an ARM-based Windows PC?

Perhaps one day, Microsoft's dream of an ultra-thin, ARM-powered Surface will come true. But the company has failed at every attempt to make that happen (my condolences to anyone who bought the Surface RT). The 5G Pro 9 is an improvement, but its beauty belies its many practical issues. If you're at all interested in a new Surface, buy the Intel model and get a hotspot on the side. You'll be far happier.

Update 11/2, 11:08AM: An earlier version of this review claimed SSD upgrading was a new feature on the Surface Pro 9, but it was also available on the Pro 8. We've corrected that section, and added a note about the process being simpler on the Intel Pro 9.