AI Can’t Change the Surface Pro’s Ugliest Truth

It might as well be false advertising at this point.

Microsoft's new Surface Pro (2024) powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite chip still needs a keybo...

Microsoft got a lot right with its new Surface Pro. While the iconic silhouette of the tablet 2-in-1 hasn’t changed, inside, Microsoft’s done everything to make the Surface experience better — and critically, competitive with Apple silicon-based MacBook Airs.

The revamped Surface Pro has an option for a brighter OLED screen, new Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite chips inside for more efficient performance and significantly longer battery life, and a whole host of AI features, like universal live transcriptions, and Recall, which catalogs everything you do on your computer and makes it searchable. Even Surface Pro accessories have been improved. The new Surface Pro Flex Keyboard is more rigid than before, has a larger haptic trackpad, and — for the first time — it works detached from the Surface itself.

One thing has remained frustratingly the same, however. Despite all the improvements (for largely the same price as before) Microsoft is maintaining a tradition that at this point feels unacceptable: It still doesn’t include a keyboard into the price of the Surface Pro, the accessory that arguably turns the tablet into the 2-in-1 the company advertises it as. Until Microsoft includes a keyboard with the Windows-powered tablet, can it really claim the Surface Pro has been reinvented?

A Laptop That Moonlights as a Tablet

Surface Pros are basically never pictured without a keyboard.


The Surface Pro’s ability to work with a detachable keyboard is fundamental to its appeal. As I’ve written about before, the device may have started as more of a direct response to the iPad, but changes to Windows itself morphed it into a multifunctional laptop that — full credit to Microsoft here — is genuinely great. From those early days, Microsoft has sold the Surface Pro Keyboard separately. At first, because the device was meant to function as a tablet, and later, because keyboard changes would presumably happen slower than changes to the Surface’s internal hardware. You would be more likely to upgrade the Surface Pro’s tablet half than its keyboard.

Improvements have been made to the Surface Pro keyboard over the years (like adding a slot to stow away and charge a Surface Slim Pen), but the biggest change has to be with the new Surface Pro Flex Keyboard. Gone is the bounce when you’re typing too fast; gone is the too-small trackpad (though it could certainly still be bigger); added are a Bluetooth radio and a battery to make the whole thing usable while detached from your Surface Pro. Now you can prop your Surface Pro up wherever it makes sense and still get a great keyboard experience on your lap. Or you can sling the keyboard to the side, fold the Surface’s kickstand flat, and draw without losing the ability to use keyboard shortcuts.

The Surface Pro’s ability to work with a detachable keyboard is fundamental to its appeal.

It’s a big enough change that it feels shortsighted because the Flex Keyboard isn’t included with the new Surface Pro. Maybe Microsoft has compelling data that suggests customers are happy buying their Surface Pro sans stylus and keyboard, but to me, it seems like the company enjoys the hidden cost. Microsoft can claim the Surface Pro starts at $999 to pique interest and make it look competitive with a M3 MacBook Air, but a majority of customers aren’t leaving the store without buying a keyboard with it. So actually, the real cost of a Surface Pro is at least $1,180 with a keyboard. The number of people who buy a Surface Pro and don’t also get a keyboard can’t be very large. Any other tablet would work, otherwise.

Expensive Accessories

The Flex Keyboard makes the Surface Pro even more adaptable, but it’s a separate purchase.


The easiest counter to complaining that the keyboard isn’t included with the Surface Pro is to compare Microsoft to Apple. The new M4 iPad Pros similarly don’t ship with a Magic Keyboard or Apple Pencil Pro, despite working quite well with both of them. Being able to use these accessories is a differentiating feature for the iPad Pros, and Apple charges you extra for them!

The problem with this argument starts with Windows. Despite the thoughtful changes Microsoft has made to Windows to make it play well with touchscreen input in the last decade, it’s still a much better laptop/desktop operating system than a tablet one. iPadOS is the exact opposite. Aside from several half-hearted efforts Apple has made to distinguish using an iPad from a Mac (anyone use Stage Manager?), iPads are still better as tablets than laptop replacements. That makes Apple’s refusal to bundle the Magic Keyboard with the iPad acceptable in a way that it just isn’t with the Surface Pro. The iPad works well without a mouse because it was conceived that way.

The Surface Pro Flex Keyboard is also pretty expensive at $350. Since it’s backward compatible with other Surfaces (unlike the new Magic Keyboard, which only works with the M4 iPad Pros) and theoretically useful beyond the lifespan of these Surface Pros, maybe the price makes sense. But it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow paying $450 for the Surface Pro Flex Keyboard and the Surface Slim Pen, a chunk of change that will get you a solid laptop on its own or over halfway to paying for Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop Go 3.

If It’s a 2-in-1, Let It Be

Ahead of Microsoft announcing these new Surfaces, all I really wanted was for the company to show off some powerful new computers and some interesting software ideas, like Recall to run on them. Microsoft arguably did that at Build this year. It remains to be seen if Copilot is going to actually change the way people use their computers, but I can’t deny that Microsoft has identified some cool things for AI to do on Windows. Things I can actually imagine myself using. But even if the software is impressive, I can’t in good faith say Microsoft has rethought Surface hardware in all the ways it should have.

I don’t need a radical reinvention or another stab at smartphones, but I do need Microsoft to acknowledge the device it’s selling. The Surface Pro is not a tablet that can occasionally do laptop things; it’s a laptop that can split into a tablet and keyboard. Until the Surface Pro ships with a keyboard instead of charging you to add it on after the fact, I don’t think Microsoft’s work is truly done.

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