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Microsoft Surface Pro 6 review: a brilliant machine with one, shining flaw

Microsoft Surface Pro 6 review: a brilliant machine with one, shining flaw
29 Oct
12:53

A funny thing happens when you ask computer manufacturers why they did some stupid or mean-spirited thing to the computer they made.

No matter how unfathomable their action appears to be, they always seem to have a good reason. A reason that makes you think, “Oh! okay! I guess I really didn’t appreciate how many factors manufacturers have to consider when they come up with decisions which, on the face of it, make no sense whatsoever.”

Ask Microsoft why it sells the Surface Keyboard and Surface Pen separately from its Surface notebooks, and they’ll tell you that such and such a percentage of Surface owners don’t even want a keyboard, much less a digitiser, and so they’re actually doing the right thing by customers when they sell those items separately, even though, on the face if it, they’re just maximising their income at customers’ expense.

Ask HP why it still has hideous black bezels around the screens on its notebooks, when all the cool kids are doing away with bezels, and they’ll tell you that it lets them keep the web camera hidden in the bezel at the top of the screen, rather than underneath the screen, which in turn means HP customers don’t have to do Skype video calls with a camera pointed right up their nose.

Bizarrely the Surface Pro 6 views a keyboard as an optional extra that, apparently, some people use for typing. Faceless ...
Bizarrely the Surface Pro 6 views a keyboard as an optional extra that, apparently, some people use for typing. Faceless people.

Or ask HP why it’s sticking to the 16:9 screen aspect ratio on otherwise gorgeous new notebooks, when all the cool kids are moving to the 3:2 ratio championed by the Microsoft Surface, and . . . well, that one is a little hard to figure out, but I bet they’ll have a reasonable-sounding reason for it.

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Which is why I am absolutely busting to ask Microsoft what the effing eff it was thinking, leaving USB-C ports off the new Surface Pro 6, and sticking us with old-fashioned USB 3 ports and the old-fashioned, proprietary brick charger.

I’m positive there must be some excellent logic to it, rather than the crazy logic that immediately comes to mind: they’re just taking a page from Apple’s playbook, and squeezing the maximum possible profit out of an old design before investing in a new design.

Because what the hell? No USB-C, in 2018? How can a device as otherwise marvellous as the Surface Pro 6, a device which despite being in its sixth generation, despite having been copied by just about every other PC maker on the planet, somehow still manages to set the standard for ultra-portable, ultra-useful PCs, how can it not have something as basic as USB-C?

Do they not travel, these engineers at Microsoft?

Are they not aware of the value of being able to travel with the one charger for all your devices? The same charger for your PC, your phone, your headphones and your battery pack?

Travel hassle

Not only do you have fewer things to carry when you have a single USB-C charger, you also have one fewer thing to forget to bring with you in the first place. You’re far less likely to forget your laptop charger (my greatest fear when heading off on a work trip) if it’s also your phone charger and your headphone charger.

And, heaven forbid, should you forget that one charger, it’s much easier to pick up a generic USB-C charger at your destination, or even at an airport en route, than it is to find a custom charging brick for your PC.

In every other respect, the new Surface Pro 6, which we’ve been trialling here in the Digital Life Labs for a couple of weeks now, is every bit as marvellous as the Surface Pro has been ever since the Surface Pro 3, when Microsoft switched to that 3:2 aspect ratio and produced the greatest productivity notebook on the market.

The latest model has a few improvements on last year’s model, the most obvious one being that it now comes in black, like a ThinkPad, and the most important one being it now has the latest generation of Intel processors, which have done wonders for the battery life.

Battery life

Microsoft advertises you can now get up to 13.5 hours of battery life from the Surface Pro 6 . . . as long as you spend all of those 13.5 hours watching video.

In our tests, which we conducted by using our device to do our regular daily tasks, we got battery life results ranging from four hours when undertaking heavy-duty tasks such as installing apps, importing photos in Adobe Lightroom and building apps in Android Studio; up to 11 hours 40 minutes when doing very light tasks such as web browsing and writing reviews.

We imagine you could probably get that advertised 13.5 hours should you take the Surface Pro 6 on a plane, and use it to binge watch some TV show. Only, of course, without those USB-C ports making this the greatest of all travel PCs, you may never know.

You might opt instead for a computer that actually does have USB-C, so you can travel with just the one charger.

What were they thinking?

Maybe Microsoft left off that essential feature so the new model would continue to work with the old Surface docking stations, which utilise the proprietary brick charging port? That could make sense, given the way it set its whole pricing structure for the device around what we can only imagine is a tiny percentage of buyers, who don’t want the keyboard.

But I digress.

The Surface Pro 6 we reviewed this year happened to be the lesser, Intel Core i5 model, which did three things to our review process: it gave us that excellent battery life, which Microsoft only advertises for the Core i5 model and which is presumably a little less for the faster Core i7 model; it rendered it meaningless for us to compare this year’s model with last year’s model, since last year we tested a Core i7 Surface Pro; and it confirmed our belief that you should always buy a Core i7 model of any computer, whenever you can afford it, battery life be damned.

Processor power

You see, there’s not just a little difference between Core i5 and Core i7 in terms of performance. There’s a lot of difference, especially in the Surface Pro line of computers, which feature an internal cooling fan in the Core i7 models, but have no fan in the Core i5 models, and which therefore must throttle the processor performance when they start to overheat.

For instance, an Adobe Lightroom test we do, importing 4500 photos from the PC’s desktop into the Lightroom catalogue, took 10 minutes on the 2018 Core i5 Surface Pro 6, but only 5 minutes on last year’s Core i7 Surface Pro.

The older Core i7 model, you see, was able to spin up its fans and keep operating at 100 per cent CPU utilisation (or close to it) for the entire test, while the newer Core i5 model quickly overheated and throttled its processor to around 50 per cent utilisation. Hence, the huge, two-fold difference in the time it takes to do that very real-world process.

Meanwhile, that same Adobe test took only 1 minute 5 seconds on the new Apple MacBook Pro, which is a beast of a machine and which, for the record, is vastly more expensive than the $1849 it costs to buy the Surface Pro 6 model which we reviewed, which has that Intel Core i5 processor, 8 gigabytes of RAM and 256 GB of storage.

$1849, that is, plus $199.95 for the keyboard and the $139.95 for the pen, both of which we consider to be essential to the Surface experience. Though I presume there must be someone out there who begs to differ, because otherwise the way Microsoft prices the Surface would make no sense whatsoever.

Source: https://www.afr.com/technology/microsoft-surface-pro-6-review-a-brilliant-machine-with-one-shining-flaw-20181028-h176pc

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