Iterative in the best sense of the word
Has Microsoft at last crafted a tablet that can reasonably, without considerable compromise, replace your laptop? Short of going back to the drawing board on the battery, this looks as close as it’s going to get.
- Larger, sharper screen within same dimensions
- Vastly improved Type Cover
- Even better Surface Pen
- Type Cover still sold separately
- Intel Core m3 at entry level
- Battery life hasn’t improved much
here’s no doubt about it, the Surface Pro 3 was wildly successful, even going as far as to inspire third parties to make their own 2-in-1s in a similar vein. It should come as no surprise then that when the next iteration rolled around, it delivered only slight refinements over its predecessor. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The slimmer form factor and increased display size do wonders for the Surface Pro 4. Even the Type Cover has seen subtle changes. While it may not seem like much on the surface (ha), Microsoft Devices team lead Panos Panay and his crew have crafted with the Pro 4 a sort of love letter to their long-time supporters who’ve taken the time to issue feedback along the way.
The Surface Pro 4 is evidence that Microsoft is listening, and its response is stellar.
Despite creating a top-end tablet, not all has been sunny for Microsoft and its fans as of late.
However, the firm has made long strides in turning the corner recently.
Following a rocky start to 2016 namely involving faulty power management, Microsoft finally released a Surface firmware patch in late February that is widely believed to have resolved the issues. Addressing anything left in the aftermath were 17 different updates that arrived in mid-April.
A recent controversy known as the ‘Sleep of Death’ has led some Surface Pro 4 owners reverting back to its predecessor. Though it was patched up with a handful of updates (including one that claimed to boost battery life) after tracing the issue back to Windows Hello, the Surface Pro 4 was still failing to automatically rotate the display orientation in conjunction with the screen itself.
We can only hope that with the Anniversary Update imminent, which introduces touch-centric features like Windows Ink, major technical barriers like this can be avoided altogether. In that case, July can’t come soon enough, unless you plan on waiting until then to make the jump from Windows 7 or 8.1.
However, perhaps making up for those mistakes in the eyes of its UK users, Microsoft stealthily launched a Surface Pro 4 in June featuring 1TB of internal storage space and a free leather sleeve as a bonus. Available for pre-order now, the 1TB model that arrived stateside at the turn of the year will ship starting June 30.
Finally, let’s discuss Microsoft’s winning hardware design already, shall we?
Design and display
Perhaps the most obvious way in which this year’s Surface Pro model is iterative is its looks. The same all-magnesium, unibody casing is still here, though the “Surface” logo has been replaced in favor of Microsoft’s new logo in chrome.
Microsoft managed to up the device’s screen size by a few hairs, from the 2014 model’s straight 12 inches to this year’s 12.3 inches, without affecting its footprint at all. That is, unless you count the Redmond firm shaving over half a millimeter off of its thickness, from 9.1mm to 8.4mm this year – all while maintaining support for full-fat mobile processors.
How did they do it?
For one, Microsoft’s product team decided it was time the capacitive Windows button said goodbye, especially with Windows 10 providing easy access to the Start menu, thus the extra room for that three tenths of an inch.
Secondly, the team managed to bring the display’s optical stack – the series of sensors, diodes and pixels beneath the glass – even closer to the glass this time around, a key point of Microsoft’s trademarked PixelSense screen technology. This helped the firm bring the slate’s thickness down by half a millimeter.
The idea here is to bring the sensor elements of the touchscreen as close to your finger or Surface Pen as possible, and it works awfully well. The display is incredibly responsive to touch, and the further sensitivity it brings to the stylus experience is huge. In tandem with the new Surface Pen, the screen detects 1,024 levels of pressure, even during a single stroke.
Now, let’s talk pixels. Even though it really didn’t have to, Microsoft went and boosted the Surface Pro’s resolution from 2,160 x 1,440 (216 ppi, or pixels per inch) in the old model to 2,736 x 1,824. That makes for a huge 267 ppi put forth by the Surface Pro 4, which blows its main rival, the MacBook Air (128 ppi for the 13-inch), out of the water and narrowly edges out Apple’s new, 12.9-inch iPad Pro at 264 ppi.
But more importantly, the new screen proves to be far more luminous and more color accurate than the Surface Pro 3 display at all brightness levels, as you can clearly see. That’s bound to be a key selling point for creative folks, namely artists and designers that have yet to leave the Wacom tablet and calibrated monitor combo behind.
For the rest of us, it simply means more realistic-looking movies and more vibrant photos and games. However, considering Microsoft kept to its rare 3:2 aspect ratio to best emulate the notepad experience for the stylus users, you’ll see even thicker black bars sandwiching your favorite films in 16:9 – and even more so for those in 21:9, or widescreen format.
It’s a fair concern for folks that watch plenty of movies and TV on a tablet. But fear not, workers, for you’re the very reason Microsoft made this decision. The 3:2 aspect ratio is wider and shorter than 4:3, but taller and slightly more narrow than 16:9, the most common aspect ratio for TV and desktop (and laptop) screens today. The result is a middle ground between the two that is ideal for both photo and design or drafting work, wherein 3:2 is much more common, as well as getting computational work done, given the extra vertical space.
Surface Pen and Type Cover
To best make use of that extra space, Microsoft has given its Surface Pen and Type Cover accessories some serious upgrades. In addition to the aforementioned 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, the new-and-included Surface Pen is redesigned to feel more like a pencil. The stylus now has one flat side, as if a Number 2 pencil had all but two of its angles rounded off.
The reason for this is two fold. For one, this stylus is even more comfortable to hold than the last as a result – your index finger rests just above the main function button on the flat end. Secondly, this surface (no pun intended) is coated with thin, powerful strip magnets that allow it to cling onto the tablet’s left side. The age of stylus loops is over.
The Pen also sports a new, and actually functional, eraser button up top that not only does what it says on the tin, but offers up three unique use cases. In addition to opening OneNote with a single press, the button now takes a screenshot and then opens OneNote with a double press. Finally, a long press summons Cortana to answer to your every whim.
Microsoft seems to have expertly weighted the Surface Pen to make it feel not much heavier than your average clickable pen, despite all of the tech inside. Plus, now that Microsoft offers additional pen tips right out of the box only sweetens the pot.
Coupled with Microsoft’s PixelSense display, the duo makes for the best stylus experience I’ve had on a tablet yet for as little as I’m wont to use it. Now, I’m no artist or designer, but between the superb palm detection and the accuracy and nuance of the Pen tracking, the Surface Pro 4 looks to have Microsoft’s best shot at luring in that crowd yet.
Sorry, artsy folk, but these improvements almost pale in comparison with the Redmond firm’s new-and-still-not-included Type Cover. This time around, Microsoft managed to greatly widen the spacing between the keys for a chiclet-style approach. What this does is make keeping track of which keys your fingers are on by feel much easier, and it allows for each key to be individually backlit.
The new Type Cover is also slightly thicker and far more rigid than before, allowing for deeper key travel and punchier feedback – not to mention a sturdier, quieter surface to type on – that brings it so much closer to the true laptop keyboard. Panay’s team also managed to widen the touchpad and coat it in glass rather than plastic.
These two huge improvements make a world of difference in answering the question of whether Microsoft’s tablet can replace your laptop. The Surface Pro 3’s keyboard cover was excruciatingly close to honestly providing a laptop-level typing experience. Now, the new Type Cover has all but closed that gap.
Microsoft upgraded the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover with biometric functionality. The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover with Fingerprint ID has gone on sale in the US and Australia at a cost of £135 (around $192 or AUS$258). The new keyboard cover, which is only available in black, uses Windows Hello to login to the Surface with a fingertip press. The scanner can also authorise app purchases from the Windows Store, and because the keyboard is backwards compatible, it can be used with the Surface Pro 3 too.
With Microsoft so bullish on perfecting its vision of the tablet takeover, you better believe that the firm would stack it up against the inspiration for Ultrabooks, Apple’s MacBook Air, yet again. (Though, Microsoft seems to have dropped the iPad comparison altogether this time around.)
And unsurprisingly, as far as dimensions are concerned, the Surface Pro 4 is indeed more portable than the 13-inch MacBook Air, if only due to its smaller screen. Microsoft’s slate comes in at 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.33 inches (W x D x H), or 292.10 x 201.42 x 8.4mm, meanwhile Apple’s leading laptop measures 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.68 inches (32.5 x 22.7 x 1.7cm). Naturally, the Surface Pro 4’s 1.73 pounds (786g) is far lighter than the 2.96-pound (1.35kg) MacBook Air’s weight on your back.
Now, how about how Microsoft’s latest measures up against one of the best 2-in-1 laptops since, well, the Surface Pro 3? The 13.3-inch HP Spectre x360 measures a way beefier 12.79 x 8.6 x 0.63 inches (32.4 x 21.8 x 1.6cm) and weighs 3.26 pounds (1.47 kg). It’s just one of the cons with hybrids that go into it laptop-first.
Now, let’s see whether Surface Pro 4 can still play ball when it comes to value. Here’s the Surface Pro 4 configuration that Microsoft provided techradar for review:
- CPU: 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 3GHz with Turbo Boost)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520
- RAM: 8GB LPDDR3
- Screen: 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 PixelSense display (Contrast ratio: 1,300:1, 100% sRGB color, 10-point multi-touch, 3:2 aspect ratio)
- Storage: 256GB SSD (PCIe 3.0)
- Ports: 1x USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort, microSD card reader (UHS-I), headphone/mic jack
- Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi (2 x 2 MIMO), Bluetooth 4.0 (Low Energy)
- Cameras: 8MP rear-facing, auto-focus camera (1080p HD); 5MP front-facing, 1080p HD camera
- Weight: 1.73 pounds
- Size: 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inches (W x D x H)
What you see here is the slightly-higher-than-mid-range version of the Surface Pro 4, which will set you back a cool $1,299 (£1,079, AU$1,999) – and that’s before picking up a $129 (£109, AU$199) Type Cover. That said, it would be smart to go with either this model or the one just below it, with the same Core i5 and half the RAM and storage, for $999 (£849, AU$1,499).
The entry-level Surface Pro 4 comes housing an Intel Core m3 processor, rather than the undoubtedly snappier, updated Intel Core i3 (it ran Haswell-generation Core i3 last year), and the same amount of storage and memory. Plus, at $899 (£749, AU$1,349), asks for $100 more than the baseline Pro 3 did at launch.
Frankly, it’s not a great value, and – oddly enough – Microsoft hides the option to purchase the Core m3 version outright behind a “Configure Your Device” button on its US web store.
But what about the Apple’s notebook? For the same price as the Surface Pro 4 configuration listed out above, you could get a 13-inch MacBook Air with a dual-core, 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor with Intel HD Graphics 6000, 128GB of PCIe flash storage and 8GB of RAM.
It’s by no means an apples to apples comparison, of course. The Pro 4 has a 12.3-inch, Retina-rivaling touchscreen, while the MacBook Air has a barely HD, 13.3-inch touch-free screen. Apple’s laptop offers more ports and longer battery life, while Microsoft’s tablet comes with a stylus and rivals most Ultrabooks once its Type Cover is attached. I could go on.
Now, the Spectre x360 makes for an easier comparison, and on paper does seem to stretch your dollar a lot further. For the same price as the Surface Pro 4 unit in question, you could buy HP’s leading Ultrabook complete with a current, dual-core Intel Core i7 chip – not i5 – with Intel HD Graphics 520. This package matches the Surface for RAM and storage, meanwhile tripling its USB ports and claiming to last two hours longer on a charge.
Then again, it’s thicker, it’s heavier and is by no means could or should it be a tablet replacement in the way that the Surface Pro 4 can be a laptop replacement. As it turns out, the Surface Pro line still has so few, if any, worthy direct comparisons.
So, is the Surface Pro 4 worthy of opening your wallet? That’s a more difficult question to answer, because – from the new keyboard cover to the stylus improvements – everything that you can’t quantify about the device is exactly what makes it so worthwhile.
Focused a bit more on being a laptop-lapsing, portable productivity device than even before, it’s a bit easier this time around to compare the Surface Pro 4’s performance with some key rivals.
Since receiving a replacement review unit from Microsoft that I’m told is free of the battery issues that marred the first, the below numbers are closer to what you should experience with your own Surface Pro 4.
- 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 5,873; Sky Diver: 3,673; Fire Strike: 856
- Cinebench CPU: 305 points; Graphics: 37 fps
- Geekbench 3 Single Core: 3,135; Multi-Core: 6,649
- PCMark 8 Home: 2,406
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours, 15 minutes
Every performance score here, save for PCMark 8 Home, shows a minor increase from the first unit I tested. It’s a good sign that the Surface Pro 4 was already operating at its peak, and that only the battery needed fixing.
The Surface Pro 4 has bested the HP Spectre x360 in almost every test by roughly 25%, save for losing by a hair to the device in the PCMark 8 Home test. As for the 13-inch MacBook Air, its multi-core Geekbench 3 (which tests CPUs primarily) score of 5,768 is plenty short of what the Surface achieved.
But ultimately, don’t expect to see a major difference between how any of these three machines perform day to day, save for the MacBook Air that will last much longer on a charge. If anything, you might get slightly better frame rates out of games played on the Surface Pro 4 than on the Spectre x360.
For instance, the Pro 4 runs Hearthstone (my go-to tablet testing game) without a hitch on its highest settings, even at an automatically-applied, adapted resolution. Plus, the color-calibrated display makes every element on the game’s interactive game boards that much more distracting.
Now tested on pre-production hardware that I’m promised has been scrubbed of its battery woes, the Surface Pro 4 produced far better battery life results than before. Unfortunately, they’re still well below not only Microsoft’s own claims, but what choice rivals are able to put up.
While arguably the most harsh battery test in our lineup, PCMark 8 Home Battery saw the Pro 4 last 3 hours and 15 minutes, a marked 50% increase from before. Still, the Spectre x360 held out in that test for 4 hours and 38 minutes.
Microsoft’s tablet fared much better on our video playback loop test, with a result of 5 hours and 15 minutes. That’s just shy of 45 minutes longer than the initial result, and enough to last you on a coast-to-coast US flight. (Both tests were conducted at 50% brightness and with all lighting and radios off save for Wi-Fi.)
In a somewhat similar test, the MacBook Air was able to stream 1080p video over Wi-Fi for a whopping 13 hours and 24 minutes. Though, that’s thanks in large part to a far lower-resolution display and likely a larger battery.
Regardless, Microsoft promises up to 9 hours of video playback on a single charge, and these numbers simply aren’t close to that. Sure, these figures are far better than last year’s Surface Pro 3, despite the serious screen resolution bump, which should not be overlooked. But they still can’t hold a candle to neither Apple’s leading laptop nor its top tablet – much less comparable Windows-running hybrids.
Longevity, or lack thereof, then is about the only thing about the Surface Pro 4 that’s holding it back from truly, honestly replacing your laptop – or at least your MacBook Air specifically. Otherwise, the machine offers somewhat below-average lasting power.
Being a Microsoft-built and sold device, the Surface Pro 4 doesn’t come with any shady third-party software. Every Surface unit from here likely until the end of time will come packing OneNote, Microsoft’s new-and-improved note taking app for use with the included Surface Pen.
Other than that, this review unit came with room made available for Flipboard and the New York Times Crossword puzzle app. You could delete those as soon as you boot up the Surface Pro 4 for the first time, or you could give them a try.
When you splash out a big wad of cash on a device like the Surface Pro 4, it’s only natural to want to know if it can be busted open and repaired, should the need arise. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s tablet isn’t very repair-friendly, earning a lowly 2 out of 10 from iFixit.
The website pointed to difficulties removing the Surface Pro 4’s display and battery, which are both held down with “very strong adhesive”, making removal not only difficult, but downright hazardous. On the plus side, iFixit found that its SSD was easy to remove and replace.
Iterative isn’t generally a word you exclaim or say with pride when discussing the latest entry in a series of video games, movies or especially tech products. But smart iteration is exactly what the Surface Pro 4 needed to finally make good on Microsoft’s mission that tablets can be laptops, too, and the firm delivered just that in spades.
What immediately comes to mind when thinking of the Surface Pro 4’s, well, pros, is the vastly improved Type Cover. Using the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover and moving onto the new hotness truly is like night and day, not to mention seeing them side by side. Largely through the improved Type Cover, the Surface Pro 4 can finally offer a nigh laptop-grade typing experience.
The improved resolution and new optical stack technology, PixelSense, coupled with 100% sRGB color, makes for one of the best displays I’ve ever seen or touched on a tablet. It might not be the best for movies, but for those looking to get things done, this screen is cream of the crop.
The fact that the Type Cover is still sold separately, not even as part of a bundle, sure makes the whole “tablet that can replace your laptop” spiel a harder pill to swallow. Sure, Microsoft likely will make a killing on individual retail sales from the diehard fans, but what about the average Best Buy shopper seeing this and left confused when they realize the “laptop” portion of the offering requires an extra 100 or so bucks.
Speaking of which, the Surface Pro 4 comes in asking for more and offering less in its entry-level model than last year, which will be tough to overlook for the budget conscious. The power gap between the Core m3 chip and the Core i5 is wide enough that I’d recommend you not bother with the former. Furthermore, even after testing an updated unit, the Pro 4 battery life leaves a bit to be desired – despite improving upon the previous model.
So, has Microsoft finally done it? That depends on how considerable of a compromise you consider “somewhat below average” battery life. If that’s about the only thing that Redmond’s mission rides on, with the typing, tracking and penning experience vastly improved, then I’d consider the fourth go at it so narrow of a miss that you might be able to pass it for everything it does so well.
Even more so than the version before it, I could easily see the Surface Pro 4 becoming my daily driver, not to mention my comic book reader and Hearthstone and mobile movie machine (I’ll deal with the black bars). And that’s despite the arguably middling battery life, considering the screen resolution bump. If it can last for a whole cross-country flight, then that’s enough for me.
Microsoft seems to have captured and applied the best definition of ‘iteration’ to almost every end of the Surface Pro 4, making it well worth the wait for creative professionals, students and everyday folks alike. Is this finally the tablet to replace your laptop? That’s still debatable, though the Pro 4 has surmounted more of what’s running against it than ever before.