Full Written Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 6: Light, Portable, Productive
Video Transcript: The Microsoft Surface Pro 6. Not much has changed on this popular device in the five years since the Surface Pro 3, but that’s a good thing—it was a great device in 2014, and it’s a great device now. But that said, is it a great device for engineers and designers? Let’s take a look.
The Surface Pro 6’s main selling point is how well it straddles the line between laptop and tablet. If you’ve never seen a Surface Pro device before, it does this with the detachable keyboard. Take off this magnetic keyboard, and the SP6 is a slim, lightweight, and comfortable tablet. Snap the keyboard on again, and you’ve got a serviceable laptop running the full version of Windows 10. The SP6 has a very smooth and stable hinge on the back that can position the screen at almost any angle you want, and this along with the Surface Pen makes the SP6 a great device for note taking or drawing or annotating PDFs or whatever. There’s a lot of devices out there that go for the tablet/laptop hybrid, but in my opinion none find that balance better than the Surface Pro.
Let’s move on to the specs of the SP6. There are very limited configuration options. For the CPU, you can choose between the Intel Core i5-8350U or the Intel Core i7-8650U. In both cases, you get integrated graphics with the Intel UHD Graphics 620, and no discrete GPU is available.
Storage and memory are also limited in options. The SSD storage can be any of 128, 256, or 512 GB or 1 TB. The memory can be either 8 GB or 16 GB. Those options aren’t bad, but if you need more of either, you’re out of luck. However, the SP6 does have a microSDXC card reader, so you could potentially add up to 400GB of external memory.
The display on the SP6 is one of the disadvantages of the half tablet form factor. To save on bulk, the screen is necessarily on the smaller side, coming in at only 12.3 inches. So it’s not a huge working space. The display itself is pretty sharp, with a resolution of 2736 by 1824 and a PPI of 267. It falls a bit flat on its color gamut, covering 96 percent of the sRGB color space and only 74 percent of Adobe RGB, but most users probably won’t notice the deficiency.
But there’s another deficiency of the Surface Pro 6 that most users probably will notice, and that’s the low number of ports. The SP6 offers a headphone jack, a Mini Display port, the microSDXC reader, and just a single USB 3.0 port. An extra USB port would have been great, and an extra USB-C port would have been even better, but you’re stuck with just the one USB 3. I should also mention the Surface Connect port, which is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port that also doubles as a connector to the Surface Dock, a $200 hub that can extend the number of available ports by 4 USB 3.0, 2 miniDP, 1 audio out, and one ethernet. The Surface Connect port seems like it’s designed with the capacity to support an external GPU, but it doesn’t, and Microsoft doesn’t seem to have any plans to make that happen in the future.
So what’s the Surface Pro 6 going to cost you? It starts off at $799, and if you max out the specs, you’ll pay $2099. That high end price is around the entry level of some of the more powerful mobile workstations we’ve reviewed, so the price of the SP6 is actually quite favorable if you’re willing to take the hit on ports, display size, and lack of a discrete GPU.
Let’s talk about the performance of the Surface Pro 6. You’re not going to get workstation level performance out of this device. The lack of a discrete GPU really holds the SP6 back in graphics heavy applications. For example, when I was playing around in Fusion 360 I immediately got the message “your graphics card might not be optimal to run Fusion 360.” But that’s not to say it can’t. You’ll still be able to do some light modeling or even rendering on the SP6, but the heavier your workload, the more you’re going to notice the performance limitations.
Benchmarks back this up as well. The one I’ll mention is SPECviewperf, which is perhaps the best gauge of a computer’s graphical performance. It tests across several different viewsets comprised of 3D models from different industries and different CAD packages. The results from the SP6 reveal just how limited it is, especially compared to laptops that specifically target professional users, and not just by shoving the word ‘pro’ in their names. The SP6’s benchmark results really pale in comparison to these professional devices, so if you need a device that can serve as a mobile workstation, the Surface Pro 6 isn’t for you.
The battery life of the Surface Pro 6 is actually quite commendable, with even our most rigorous, draining tests keeping it alive for about 7 hours and 20 minutes. Our most conservative tests didn’t actually improve too much on that, maxing out the battery life at just over nine and a half hours. Either way, the 5405 mAh battery didn’t keep Microsoft’s promise of 13 and a half hours of use, but I’ve learned you can never trust the OEMs on that anyways.
The physical design of the Surface Pro 6 hasn’t changed much, but Microsoft has added a new color option: the matte black we have here in our unit. It’s a nice break from the long-standing platinum, which is still available should you choose it. In fact if you want a TB of storage you have to choose it, because with black you can only go up to 512 GB for some reason. But, it’s a nice change, and it arguably makes the device look, if not act, a bit more professional.
The SP6 really is the ideal mix of laptop and tablet, but this is true only if you get the Type Cover keyboard. Without it, it’s just a tablet, and you can get a better tablet. Ever since the Surface Pro 3 I’ve been frustrated that Microsoft doesn’t include the keyboard in the box, because it’s so critical to this device. But alas, the Type Cover is going to cost you at least $130 on top of the computer itself. That said, the keyboard and trackpad are both quite comfortable for everyday use.
The Surface Pro 6 also has an accompanying stylus called the Surface Pen. The one I have here is an older generation model that I happen to own, because Microsoft also doesn’t include the Surface Pen in the box. That’s extra frustrating to me, because they actually used to, but I guess they decided it makes more fiscal sense to sell it as a $100 accessory. Now, the Surface Pen isn’t quite as essential as the Type Cover, but I personally find it adds a lot to the user experience, especially as someone who likes to take notes by hand and annotate documents and occasionally doodle.
Despite the flaws of the Surface Pro 6, I really love this device. It perfectly captures the balance between a proper, useable tablet and a functional, full-Windows laptop. But this hybrid form factor necessarily draws a perimeter around the SP6’s capabilities, so whether or not it’s a good fit for your workflow depends on whether you’re comfortable with that boundary. When I owned a Surface Pro 3 I used it every day to take notes, browse the web, do some writing, and occasionally do some programming or run some MATLAB simulations. But whenever I was settling in for a longer work session, it was never my computer of choice.
So is the Surface Pro 6 a good option for engineers and designers? Sure, if you’re happy limiting it to tasks adjacent to your professional applications. If you want a device to bring to meetings to take notes and share your latest model, the SP6 is a great option. If you’re looking to do some heavy 3d modeling during your next long-haul flight, you’d be better off with a more powerful machine like a ThinkPad or an HP ZBook.