Is the Surface Pro X good for developers?

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Along with the upcoming release of the Surface Laptop Go, Microsoft is also about to release the follow up to the Surface Pro X model from last year, the Surface Pro X (2020). 

The Surface Pro X is Microsoft's attempt at breaking into the ARM - based architecture market for their Surface Pro line in order to give users a better overall always connected experience. It resembles the Surface Pro in many ways, such as thin and lightweight form-factor and a high-end type cover and that phenomenal hinge mechanism that makes changing modes a seemless process.

I currently use the Surface Pro 6 model for most of my work, and after switching over to various other tablet-hybrid devices, I can definitely say that Microsoft has nailed the hinge.

The Surface Pro X has it's own unique pen stylus which tucks away into the type cover itself for easy charging, which is very convenient as the non 'X' models rely on a magnetic strip on the left-side and relies on external batteries for power.

Let's get into a few of the highlights for this new 2020 model.

Highlights

The most notable changes to the Surface Pro X line is the new processor the SQ2, which Microsoft has worked wth Qualcomm in developing. This is an update from the SQ1 processor in the last gen model.

The biggest benefit of moving over to an ARM based chipset is the overall decrease in size and thus power consumption is reduced overall. This essentially means an improvement in battery life, which is noticeable in the estimated 15 hours that Microsoft has stated.

For comparison, the Surface Pro 6 that I use is estimated to last around 9 hours, which in reality converts over to around 7 hours for my personal work.

This of course also means better performance and battery life when connecting to an LTE network, which I think is the direction that Microsoft is headed.

The Surface Pro X also includes the unique Eye Contact feature in which the onboard Neural Network accelerator on the SQ1 or SQ2 can track your eye movement in order to simulate direct eye contact when communicating through apps such as Skype or Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft states that this new processor is the fastest in its line so far, though the list of hardware to compare it to is still limited.

The Surface Pro X looks like a high-end device. It is made out of high-grade materials, is super thin, offers a decent battery life and is aimed for connectivity, in a nutshell.

The specs

Here are the technical specs highlights for the latest model.

OS Windows 10 Home on ARM
Display 13 inch PixelSense Display
2880 x 1920 (267 PPI)
CPU Microsoft SQ2
Graphics Microsoft SQ2 Adreno 690 GPU
Memory 8GB or 16GB LPDDR4
Storage Removable SSD - 128, 256, or 512GB
Battery Up to 15 hours of typical device usage

Overall, even the base model of the Surface Pro X will deliver high-end power and that's mainly due to Microsoft's push towards in-house chipsets, much like Apple did with its Bionic line.

The challenges

The biggest issue with the Surface Pro X line so far has been the very same thing that makes it stand out, and that's the fact that it is built upon an ARM based processor.

This has lead to many compatiility issues with many x86 based applications in the past. And those applications that do tend to run, might not run as well in this chipset.

Microsoft has worked on addressing this issue though by allowing for emulation of 32-bit applications, but that left 64-bit apps to fend for themselves. Until now that is.

The newest Surface Pro X model will allow finally for 64-bit emulation which should address compatability issues more thoroughly.They have also stated that they were working closely with software maufactuers in developing ARM based versions of their applications.

Having said that, emulation tends to be more expensive than running an app natively. This means that you won't get as good of a battery life or high performance when running applications in this manner.

Good for developers?

I can definitely appreciate where Microsoft is headed with this new form-factor and chipset. An always connected device similar to your smarthone but powerful enough to handle your PC tasks as well. It's definitely an admirable goal.

The only thing that keeps me from giving this a "Yes", is the current support for applications. As a web developer, I tyically rely on a fair number of Windows based apps to do my job and many of those are heavy-duty x86 based apps.

The new 64-bit emulation process should resolve that issue, but it will come at a cost to battery life. Emulation is more exensive than native support, and while we don't have benchmarks yet on how the SQ2 chip will handle emulation, it is safe to assume that the 15-hour estimte might be a bit generous.

The Surface Pro X is great for the always on the go digital nomad that needs a trusty well-built and relatively high-end user expeirence.

But for your digital "developer" nomad I would still recommend the Surface Pro line before anything else. At least for now. In the near future I do imagine that more and more companies will begin to develop their own naive ARM-based applications particularly as tablets and tablet/hybrids continue to grow in popularity.

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