After several generations, I can now definitively say Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6 is the best 2-in-1 laptop replacement available.
Similar to the Surface Laptop 2 (my pick for best laptop of 2018), the Surface Pro 6 doesn’t reinvent the product, but instead polishes it to near perfection with mighty quad-core performance.
Everything else about the 2-in-1 remains the same, save for a new Batman-approved matte black finish if you step up to at least the 256GB storage model.
And just like the Surface Laptop 2, the $899 entry-level version with its 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM is no longer an underpowered machine with a vastly inferior processor compared to the mid- and upper-tier models.
Hey Apple, take notice: Everyone deserves quad-core performance in a thin-and-light computer without the steep pricing.
No need for a new design
The Surface Pro 6 looks exactly like the Surface Pro (2017) and I’m OK with that. Frankly, I’m not sure why there’s such an obsession with refreshing a product’s hardware every year.
I’m all for pretty gadgets, but the Surface Pro 6, like any laptop, is more utilitarian and it’s more important that:
- the keyboard offers an excellent typing experience no matter if you’re sending off a tweet or typing up a dissertation.
- the trackpad and touchscreen (if it has one) are responsive.
- the battery life needs to last a full work or school day.
- there are ports to connect accessories without dongles.
The Surface Pro (2017) already ticked off all of these checkboxes. So Microsoft focused on souping up the inside, which was the right call this year.
OK, there’s one cosmetic change: it now comes in matte black. But just like the Surface Laptop 2, it’s only available for the 256GB and 512GB models and not for the 128GB or top 1TB versions. All storage models are available in silver (or “platinum,” as Microsoft calls it), though.
I’ve been using the $1,199 black Surface Pro 6 with the 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for the last few weeks as my daily work and personal machine, and the black coating has held up well. There are a few very faint scratches here and there, but that’s mostly because I carelessly tossed it into my backpack where phones, cables, and way too many dongles live.
The 12.3-inch (2,736 x 1,824 resolution) screen is as tack sharp as before, and the touchscreen is smooth and responsive. If you get a Surface Pen (sold separately), it works just the same as on the old Surface Pro. The bezel around the screen could use some shrinking, though. Maybe next year.
Signing into my account with Windows Hello remains one of my favorite things about the Surface Pro 6 (and all of the Surface computers, for that matter). But it could be improved. The face recognition still struggles in dimmer light, and it doesn’t recognize when my hair’s all messed up in the morning or if I have my glasses on. Face ID on the new iPad Pros and iPhone XS and XR are better at identifying my face in these situations.
It’s a bummer there’s no USB-C port on the Surface Pro 6. Microsoft’s stuck with a full-sized USB 3.1 port, Mini DisplayPort, and its proprietary magnetic Surface Connect port for charging and connecting to docks.
I’m fine with all of these ports, especially the full-size USB port, but as I said in my Surface Laptop 2 review, now that Microsoft’s making the best devices in their class, it’s the company’s responsibility to help push us (kicking and screaming if need be) to adopt the smaller, reversible, and more versatile port.
I sympathize with Surface Chief Product Officer Panos Panay’s reasoning that USB-C still hasn’t become as widely adopted as we’d all hoped it’d be by now. But that’s even more reason for Microsoft to back it. I’m not saying to go all in on USB-C the way Apple and Google have on their MacBooks and the Pixel Slate, but at least one would have been nice.
More power under the hood
The most notable changes to the Surface Pro 6 are the updated 8th-gen Intel Core i5 and i7 processors.
Both processors have quad-cores for faster single- and multi-core performance. Performance like this is rare on a tablet and in thin-and-light laptops, and they usually cost a significant premium. Look at the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro: macOS aside, Apple charges $1,799 for quad-cores. Sure, the clock speed is faster on the MacBook Pro, and the integrated Intel graphics slightly better, but the Surface Pro 6 is the better value for anyone not looking to do really pro-level stuff like editing 4K video (it can do it, for sure, but not as fast as laptop with a beefier GPU).
On Geekbench 4, the Surface Pro 6 scored 4,245 on the single-core and 13,795 on the multi-core tests — 5.97 percent faster on single-core and 87.5 faster on multi-core, respectively, compared to the Surface Pro (2017) with a 7th-gen Intel Core i5 chip. That’s a 59.62 percent performance boost in multi-core performance. Microsoft promises “up to 85 percent” faster performance depending on the task.
The Surface Pro 6’s performance is comparable to the Surface Laptop 2… for multi-core performance. It scored 9.63 percent faster on single-core and 0.5 percent faster on multi-core.
Even with a faster clock speed, the 2018 13-inch MacBook MacBook Pro wasn’t a match for Microsoft’s tablet. The Surface Pro 6 performed 3.99 percent faster on the single-core (about 6.25 percent faster), but was 20.29 percent faster on multi-core.
Compared to the 2018 MacBook Air, the Surface Pro 6 was 14.08 percent faster on single-core and 95.71 percent faster on multi-core. No surprise since the Surface Pro’s processor has two more cores than the Air.
These benchmarks give you a sense of where the Surface Pro 6’s power slots in and how much value you’re getting per dollar.
While my black Surface Pro 6 costs $1,199, performance on the the $899 Surface Pro 6 should be the same since the only difference on my unit is more storage and a black color.
At the end of the day, however, unless you’re pushing the Surface Pro 6’s multi-core performance to the extreme, the 2-in-1 flies.
As I’m writing this, I have Chrome open with 27 tabs, the Spotify app streaming music, and the Netflix app streaming an episode of House of Cards and there’s no signs of the Surface Pro 6 buckling.
No stutters as I hop between tabs. No lag as when I alt-tab between apps. Windows 10 Home sings on the Surface Pro 6 and I didn’t even realize it at first until I started writing this review. With most thin-and-light laptops I’ve tested this year, I end up dealing with a fan kicking up, the OS slowing down, or a quickly depleting battery.
But not with the Surface Pro 6. I’ve gone eight-hour work days using the Surface Pro 6 on-and-off throughout the day (consisting of Chrome, Slack, email, Twitter, Microsoft Word, and Spotify) and didn’t need to plug in until I got home. The screen’s bright enough that I rarely needed to have it set beyond around 70 percent.
To pick a 2-in-1 or a laptop?
This has been my dilemma. Having reviewed the Surface Laptop 2 a month earlier, I felt sure at the time it was the better deal at $999.
But now I’m not so sure. The Surface Pro 6 starts at $899 — $100 less than the Laptop 2 — but doesn’t come with a keyboard. So with a keyboard, at the least, you’d have to spend $1,028.
Both machines have the same exact ports. But the Laptop 2 has a larger touchscreen: 13.5 inches versus 12.3 inches.
On the other hand, the Surface Pro 6 is lighter. It’s 1.7 pounds without a keyboard and 2.4 pounds with a keyboard. Regardless, it’s lighter than the 2.7-pound Laptop 2, 3.02-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro, and 2.75-pound MacBook Air.
To decide if the Surface Pro 6 is the machine for you, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
1. Do you want macOS or Windows?
If you answered macOS, then you should close this review right now. But if you said Windows, then the next question to ask is…
2. Do you want a larger touchscreen?
If you do, then you should go with the Laptop 2. If not, then the Surface Pro 6 is your guy. But it’s not so simple…
3. Do you want to use your device to draw or take notes?
If yes, then you can only go with the Surface Pro 6. The Surface Pen works with the Laptop 2, but you won’t be able to place it flat on a table to doodle or in your laptop to read the way you can with the Surface Pro 6.
Whatever your decision is, you’re getting a winner. Where I once strongly felt the Surface Pro was inferior to a proper clamshell laptop, I now can’t rave enough about Microsoft’s 2-in-1. It’s the best laptop replacement there is and the most fun portable computer of the year. Last year that honor belonged to Google’s Pixelbook, but this year the title belongs to Microsoft.