Microsoft has begun taking preorders for its new Surface Pro LTE, technically known as the Surface Pro With LTE Advanced. We’ve rounded up the launch reviews from multiple publications.
Before we dive into the reviews themselves, let’s take a quick look at where things stand today. The 2017 Surface Pro (hereafter the “Surface Pro”) was lauded for improved battery life, but dinged for minimal improvements in other areas, including available ports, inflexible configuration options, and Microsoft’s decision to stop bundling the Surface Pen and removing the clip for easy pen storage from the Type Cover. The general consensus from reviewers was that the Surface Pro was a fine tablet, but unlikely to move the dial one way or the other as far as consumer opinions. If you loved previous Surface Pro devices and needed a new one, the Surface Pro delivered. If you weren’t happy with them, or already owned one that met your needs, it wasn’t a compelling upgrade.
Microsoft is making a major push towards connected computing in 2018, even more so than in the past. Every Windows on ARM laptop with an integrated Snapdragon 835 or (later this year) a Snapdragon 845 will also have an integrated LTE modem. The Surface Pro is far from the first Windows laptop to feature an LTE modem, but Microsoft and Intel want to make the case that these kinds of systems are the laptops of the future and the way we’ll all be working whether we use x86 or not.
There are two Surface Pro with LTE Advanced SKUs: An entry-level model with a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM for $ 1,149 and the model sampled to the review sites, with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $ 1,449. In both cases, adding LTE performance costs an additional $ 150 over and above the original SKU price. Although you won’t find this information on Microsoft’s own web pages, both SKUs use a Core i5-7300U (2C/4T, 2.6GHz base, 3.6GHz boost).
Rounding it Up
PCMag, The Verge, and Windows Central all have early reviews of the Surface Pro with LTE Advanced. PCMag notes that you can put a SIM card of your own in the system or rely on an integrated eSIM card, with eSIM prices provided by Transatel. Data prices for this option are quite expensive — 200MB of access for one day is $ 4.99, 1GB over 15 days is $ 13.99, or 3GB for 30 days is $ 29.99.
The Verge describes the new system as “freeing” and notes that while MS isn’t saying which carriers the Surface Pro with LTE supports, the Qualcomm X16 modem it fields can communicate over 20 LTE bands, including those used by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
There’s virtually no physical difference between the current Surface Pro sans LTE and the LTE-equipped variant, but MS published a blog post last year detailing internal differences between the two platforms, including cellular antenna locations. Windows Central sheds some light on why Microsoft hasn’t built a Core i7 version of this device: The antenna and LTE chip are sitting in the same spot where the fan went. Windows Central’s review is a bit different from the others in this roundup, in that it contains an extensive overview of the various utilities and management capabilities MS has either built into the Surface Pro with LTE Advanced directly or those offered by the various carrier apps. Users can, for example, restrict which applications are allowed to use cellular data or use cellular data when Wi-Fi connections are weak (as opposed to not using it at all). WC notes:
Overall, Microsoft went beyond my expectations with the deep integration of cellular data and account management. Everything felt native to the OS and not bootstrapped. AT&T also gets credit for offering an outstanding app to manage your account. Considering 4G LTE can be expensive having these Windows management tools gives relief for those worried about a potentially data-hungry OS.
Performance, Battery Life
The Surface Pro’s performance in 2018 is exactly what we saw in 2017; adding LTE didn’t change any of the underlying metrics. This graph from PCMag summarizes the basic performance landscape between the Surface Pro with LTE, a more expensive Core i7 Surface Pro, and other competitive systems:
As far as endurance, The Verge notes that while MS claims 12.5 hours of battery life for the LTE version compared with 13.5 hours for the Wi-Fi variant, they only managed about seven hours of battery on LTE, “a little less” than on Wi-Fi. PCMag saw much higher numbers in its testing, but the Wi-Fi equipped model still came out ahead, at 13 hours, 15 minutes on battery for the LTE version and 13 hours, 54 minutes for Wi-Fi. PCMag also notes that heavy use of cellular data could shave an hour or two off battery life.
Data consumption, however, could be a significant concern. The Verge writes:
In just a few days of exclusive LTE usage, I was able to burn through almost 4GB of data with just my daily workload (Slack, email, lots of browser tabs, lots of Twitter, downloading and updating apps from the Microsoft Store, etc.), which would put me close to 20GB in a month’s time. I’d use even more if I were to stream Netflix or other video. An unlimited data plan is probably the smart move if you’re using a computer like this.
The overall takeaway from all three reviews is that a Surface Pro with LTE is nicer than a Surface Pro without LTE, for the aforementioned connectivity options and truly on-the-go, always-connected computing. How you feel about the device will depend on how you feel about the Surface Pro 2017, but all three sites give the LTE variant high marks.
The Coffee Lake Question
The white elephant in the room, at least as far as the Surface Pro 2017 is concerned, is the advent of Intel’s Coffee Lake CPU family and the expected launch of new desktop and mobile SKUs in the very near future. Microsoft has historically refreshed the Surface Pro family every 12-20 months, which means there could be a new Surface Pro launching later this year. With Coffee Lake expected to succeed Kaby Lake in mobile devices, it’s hard to see how MS could avoid the need for new SKUs, unless it intends to keep selling 2C/4T products against 4C/4T or 4C/8T devices from its competitors.
We strongly recommend that consumers keep this in mind when evaluating the Surface Pro with LTE Advanced. New hardware with higher-performing microprocessors and LTE connectivity is going to be coming down the pipe from other vendors as well. Also, when deciding on whether LTE connectivity is right for you, price in the cost of additional data from the accompanying cellular plan (if applicable) over at least 12 months. We’re not claiming that an LTE modem isn’t worth the expenditure, but when you go to compare specs on LTE versus non-LTE systems, adding the price of LTE data over the first year of ownership is a good way to consider how much the feature is practically worth to you.