Review: Microsoft's Surface Pro 8 beckons in a new era for stylus use but at substantial cost

Surface Pro 8 and the Slim Pen 2
Can the new model deliver optimum hybrid table and laptop functionality? Photo credit: Newshub

It's been over five years since I last purchased non-gaming related Microsoft hardware for my own use but I was certainly impressed with it at the time.

That was a Surface Pro 4, complete with Surface Pen and a bright blue Type Cover that, in hindsight, was more an attempt to pretend I indulged in the colourful side of life instead of being the stereotypical house-ridden geek who prefers being alone.

The newest version of the device is the recently launched Surface Pro 8, which is now available to buy in Aotearoa.

It's got a different look and feel about it compared to previous generations: The stylus has had a complete redesign and the keyboard... well, that looks almost identical but I won't hold that against it.

So is the new model going to deliver the hybrid tablet and laptop functionality that so many people desire, or is it a generation too far for a range that stretches back to 2013?

I've been using the Surface Pro 8 for a couple of weeks now and here are my thoughts.

The good

The first thing I really appreciated about the new Surface Pro was the change in look and feel compared to previous generations.

The harder lines around the edges on the backside have been transformed into softer curves that feel better in-hand and give a more elegant look.

That's helped even more by the smaller bezels around the sides and bottom on the front. The top one is still large, but I'm willing to forgive that given it holds a 1080p front-facing camera for video conferencing as well as the IR hardware necessary for Windows Hello's passwordless login.

When in use, the 13-inch screen itself is a thing of beauty, particularly when you switch it into 120Hz mode. 

Combined with the 2800x1920 resolution, that high refresh rate offers a ridiculously smooth scrolling experience with great colours, even if it does eat into your battery life.

If you're looking for all-day usage, you're definitely going to want to change the refresh rate to 60Hz. Microsoft claims up to 16 hours of usage, but I was running out of juice much quicker than that.

You can get a full working day out of Surface if you use it carefully and don't have it too bright. Of course, if you're docking it then that no longer becomes an issue.

Surface Pro 8 and the Slim Pen 2
Photo credit: Newshub

The biggest success for me is the new Slim Pen 2.

Once you get used to the slightly odd shape, it really is an absolute pleasure to use. One click on the end opens up a whiteboard app for note taking, a double click allows you to draw a rectangle anywhere to take a screenshot.

If those options don't suit, then you can reconfigure it from a list of other preapproved actions.

Unquestionably, the best functionality is the use of tactile signals while using the pen. One of the downsides of using a stylus has always been the feeling - it never quite replicates the experience of using pen and paper.

Pushing the tactile signals up to maximum is as close as I've come to doing so using any electronic stylus.

Apple's Pencil 2, as good as it is, simply doesn't compare for the feel, configurability and use of the Slim Pen 2. It really is that good.

Earlier I said the keyboard looked virtually identical to previous generations, but it turns out that's not the case as it has a hidden compartment to store and charge the pen. It's a good way to avoid losing it while transporting and to avoid using the cumbersome USB charger.

Surface Pro 8
Photo credit: Newshub

Overall, with Windows 11 on board and enough RAM installed that I never worried about response times or the computer slowing down. It handled what I threw at it with aplomb, gaming aside. More on that later.

A couple of final things: Video conferencing on the Pro 8 was just fine. The high-quality video worked a treat and the dual far-field studio microphones meant my voice was picked up with no issues.

There's also a pair of 2W stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos on board. I enjoyed the experience of listening to music with them and it sounded fuller and better than many of the laptops I've tried.

There is also a 10MP rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD and 4K video functionality, but I'm really not sure why that's there.

It's not something I could see myself using and it seems overkill as I'm not taking this outside to take artsy sunset shots when I have mobile phones with much better specs.

I guess it's there if you want it?

Surface Pro 8
Photo credit: Microsoft

The bad

There's no getting around the major downside to the Surface Pro 8 and that's the cost - and not just that of the device itself.

The version I tested comes with an $2769 asking price, although you can reduce the cost by around $900 by opting for an i5 chip, 8GM RAM and just 128GB of SSD storage.

But why would you? That'd mean you were practically begging for an upgrade before you've even purchased the thing.

And that's only part of it. If you want the Type Cover and Slim Pen 2, then you're going to be adding another $480 to your bill. Ouch.

That's not as bad as the $239 for the Apple Pencil 2 and the $639 for the Magic Keyboard that goes along with the iPad Pro I reviewed earlier this year, but it's close. And the Apple keyboard is better than the Type Cover.

Speaking of which, I'm still not the biggest fan of the Alcantra fabric covering on the Type Cover. It feels quirky and I'm still haunted by the wear and tear around the edges on previous versions I've used.

Surface Pro 8
Photo credit: Newshub

I don't know why but it feels like it belongs in the 1970s and not on a high-end piece of electronics.

There's also a little too much flex with the keyboard, particularly when I'm in type-touching mode and hammering the keys. While the keys themselves are nice enough to use, I just don't like the overall feel of it.

Normally I wouldn't mind too much as I'd simply dock the Pro 8 to my monitor and plug in my external keyboard and mouse. Except with only two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports, my dongle won't fit into the Surface Pro 8.

So that's more money for a new keyboard and mouse, or forking out for a docking station you can add to the overall cost. It's starting to mount significantly.

As with many devices like this, gaming is pretty much an afterthought, despite Games Pass being thrown at you from the very first minute you log on.

I installed the newly released Forza Horizon 5 and the Intel Iris Xe Graphics simply cannot handle it.

There are gaming options like The Good Life which plays just fine - just know you're not getting a device that's going to double as a gaming laptop.

Surface Pro 8
Photo credit: Newshub

I lost track of the number of times I was prompted to accept a free month's trial of Microsoft's impressive gaming package, Game Pass. The problem is I already subscribe. You know that, Microsoft, because you insisted I sign in to my account to set up the Surface Pro 8 and then again at the Store when I downloaded other software. 

I got irrationally angry after about the 10th time. But how exactly can such an obviously user-unfriendly thing can continue to happen?

The verdict

The Surface Pro 8 really does have an awful lot going for it. It's sleek and professional and the curves around the screen really appeal to me.

My hesitancy in a full-blown recommendation comes down to personal preference, however. As with virtually every hybrid I've used, I invariably end up using it more with a keyboard attached than as a simple tablet. 

If you're OK with spending $3350 on the Pro and its accessories then you'll get a fast machine that really has taken a big step forward in the feel of the stylus on the screen. But if you know you're going to use it more in laptop mode then I'd suggest an actual laptop might be more appropriate for you.

Surface Pro 8
Photo credit: Newshub

Not only are there plenty out there that have touchscreens, they're also likely to have a bigger range of ports for your existing accessories. You'll probably save on the total cost too.

Microsoft has done a tremendous job in diversifying from being an operating system and software company to producing hardware that is right up there with the best.

On this occasion, however, it's just a bit too rich for me.


Newshub was supplied with a Surface Pro 8 with an i7 processor, 256GB of SSD storage and 16GB RAM for this review.