• Paul Fingleton

Microsoft Surface Pro 4: Review

The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft's latest attempt to offer a Tablet that can replace your PC. A Tablet that is as easy to use and carry as an iPad, but offer the full functionality of a desktop computer. It also looks to take on the MacBook Air in the high-end executive and creative market.


Microsoft's Surface product line has become the latest Billion Dollar Business for Microsoft. Generating over $1 billion revenue per year for Microsoft is no mean feat. Especially considering the less than stellar start for Microsoft's "tablet that can replace your PC".


The original Surface RT, when it was announced and released was designed to showcase Microsoft's Modern UI and be an example of how do make a Windows-based touchscreen device. Hampered by the Windows RT operating system, being incompatible with traditional x86 applications and easily confused for the more capable Surface Pro the product didn't sell well and Microsoft wrote off almost $1 billion against its failure.

"You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but you know those things are not going to be probably be pleasing to the user,"

- Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

Undeterred, Microsoft released a Windows RT-based successor, the Surface 2, which sold better but still had problems with consumers because of its operating system. However, the x86-based Surface Pro line started to take off.


In 2014, Microsoft launched the Surface Pro 3 and it struck many of the right notes with consumers. It changed the screen from a 16:9 widescreen format, useful for watching movies but not that useful for working on documents or other projects, for a more useful 3:2 aspect ratio. Other internals were also improved, running up to an Intel Core i7 chip. It was thinner, lighter and more useful. Externals were refined, the limited hinge on previous models was replace with a kickstand that could be moved to any angle in an 150-degree range.


Microsoft allegedly took the brave decision to scrap a Surface-mini device, thought to have been scheduled to launch at the same time, because it wasn't good enough. Even after thousands of the device were in production.


For 2015 /2016, Microsoft used the lessons learned in previous years and took their winning formula from the Surface Pro 3 and tweaked or improved it slightly in many areas for the Surface Pro 4. Let's take a look at it and see if it is the device for you.


Size Matters - The Numbers

Microsoft wanted to maintain the form factor as much as possible between the Surface Pro 3 and 4 to ensure that peripherals and such could be carried over. The overall size of the devices remain the same, with over 0.5mm shaved off the thickness of the device.


Although the frame of the device is the same size, Microsoft have managed to fit an extra 7mm to the screen size to squeeze a little bit more real estate for you to work with. The display resolution goes up from 2160x1440 to 2736x1824.


The Surface Pro 4 comes in several models depending on the CPU, RAM and Storage you would like to have from the fanless, mobile Intel Core M CPU with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage, to Core i5 and Core i7 models up to 16GB RAM and 1TB storage.


The Surface Pro 4 is also lighter than its predecessor, weighing in at 766 grams for a Core M model. Our review model, a Core i5 based unit, weighed in a little more at 786 grams as opposed to 798 grams for the older Surface Pro 3. While that might not seem much, it is about the same weight that Mars cut off the size of a Snickers bar in 2013.



Enough Numbers, How does it work?

It is difficult to quantify just how useful it really is to have such a powerful PC that is so portable and flexible. The Continuous Kickstand might have seen like a gimmick compared to the ordinary hinge of a laptop, even spawning it's on term 'lapability' for how easy it is to use on your lap or in any sitting position, but this really works. Compared to the three-step Kickstand of previous Surface Models, including the current non-pro Surface 3, it allows for the tablet to be used in multiple positions: propped up to watch a movie or Skype someone, down low as a graphics designer tablet, on your lap while commuting on the bus, train or plane; all possible with the Kickstand and it feels solid in any of these positions.

"Lapability – a word we coined and have had fun using and seeing used – describes the ability of something to be used effectively on your lap. Surface Pro ... has great lapability."

- Microsoft Blog

The larger screen, with higher display resolution is truly beautiful to look at. Windows 10 does a great job of dynamically scaling icons and text to appear easy to read and beautiful for using the touch interface and without needing to squint to read the text. Colours are rich and deep and watching content that is HD or better on the screen really pops.


The 3:2 aspect ratio mean that some media content will be displayed with black bars on top and bottom of the screen., but it makes the device a better all-rounder for creating content as well as consuming it. Word processing, creating presentations, graphics editing and design are much more suited to the larger screen.


Microsoft aimed to have an experience with the Surface pen that was virtually identical to writing, drawing or painting with a pen, pencil or brush. To achieve this latency with the pen input would need to be negligible, it would need to flow across the virtual page. This is does with aplomb. The action feels natural and with the updated pen on the Surface Pro 4 model it is enhanced by moving the eraser to the top of the pen - you turn the pen upside-down and rub it smoothly across the screen to undo any errors, as you would with a pencil.


The new Surface Pen has increased sensitivity, allowing for more texture, more gradients and finer lines. Surprisingly enough, for those not yet ready to give up their Surface Pro 3, the new Surface Pen can be used fully with the older model to provide if not an upgrade then definitely a 'sideways'-grade and breathe new life into last year's model.



The Type-cover, the detachable keyboard available in many colours, has seen improvement in the Surface Pro 4. Keys are more widely spread out, similar to a laptop keyboard, and not as cramped as on the Pro 3 model. The travel on the keys has been subtly tweaked to feel solid. Certain models of the Type cover also feature a Fingerprint sensor to allow for biometric sign-in. Similar to the new Pen, these type covers can be used with the Pro 3 models to rejuvenate the experience.

This keyboard experience makes the Surface Pro 4 a better laptop replacement, the market at which Microsoft is aiming this device. Strange, it is, therefore that it does not come with the device, but instead must be purchased for €100.


While the Type Cover with fingerprint sensor can bring biometric sign-in to the older models, the Surface Pro 4 comes with a facial recognition camera and leverages Windows Hello to allow you to securely authenticate to your Surface just by looking at it. Set up of the feature is simple and when it signs you in, it is quick and almost magical and will make you smile almost every time. Welcome to the future.

Gaming on the Surface Pro 4, at least on the Core i5 4GB model that we used for testing, was a mixed bag. Some older games such as Portal or Team Fortress 2 ran smoothly, while newer games such as Killer Instinct could run with everything turned low and Forza Motorsport Apex didn't run at all.


The fan would often spin up quite loudly during times of heavy processing and often sound like a jet turbine for several seconds before it would eventually settle back down.


At launch the Surface Pro 4 was beset by power management issues, perhaps because Microsoft went with brand new Skylake processors from Intel, optimisation and drivers were not fully ready. This would lead to the machine not powering down correctly when closed and you could take it out of your bag and the battery would be dead.


However, after several months and with the latest updates installed, it has transformed into a very reliable device. Power management issues are gone and that nervousness of 'will it work when I switch it on' is almost completely gone.


Battery life is decent on the device and depending on your usage and Battery Saver settings, it will comfortable get you through a work day of meetings and note taking along with some media consumption. Anything more intensive and you wouldn't want to be far from that charger.



Summary

Much is to be praised in the Surface Pro 4, it quietly improves on its predecessor with the confidence that the team was on the right track to begin with. The screen is a bit larger, the Type Cover a bit better, the Pen a lot better. The power and performance that is packed into a tablet this light and portable is a wonder.

Apple CEO, Tim Cook's, disparaging remarks about converging a refrigerator and a toaster, when talking of the Surface line, looks like it might have been somewhat premature as Apple launched the iPad Pro - essentially a Surface Clone - a few short years later.




Is the Surface Pro 4 perfect? No. There are a few niggles: The screen, gorgeous and colourful as it is, is a smudge magnet. You will be wiping this thing very often to get rid of fingerprints and all sorts. It is also extremely reflective, so in bright situations you could end up looking at your reflection in the screen a lot.


The Type Cover is such an integral part of the experience, it is a shame then that is sold separately.


That said, these niggles are small. If you are in the market for a Windows Tablet or a new Laptop, the Surface Pro 4 should be high on your list of consideration. It will surprise you how much you can do, and how much you will want to do with it. It is great for work, for study and even for some play.




We Like

New Surface Pen: Writing with this is smooth, accurate and natural. It is as close to writing with an actual pen you will find in a tablet - without smudging digital ink on yourself.

New Type Cover: The keyboard layout is much closer to a laptop keyboard, not as close together or cramped as the Surface Pro 3

Screen: The screen is beautiful, slightly bigger, definitely brighter and more detailed.

User Experience: Using this as a daily driver is a great experience, using type, touch and writing is natural and fluid experience.


We Didn't Like

Type Cover: The Type Cover is such an integral part of the experience, the Surface doesn't feel as such a complete experience without it. It is disappointing that it is not included by default. But this is likely done to keep the price down and, of course, to allow for personalised colour options.

Screen: It is a fingerprint and smudge magnet and extremely reflective. The good thing is that it cleans easily, the bad thing is that you will need to clean it often.

Battery Life: Depending on your usage of the device your mileage may vary, but using our Core i5 model we were never far from battery anxiety. If you switch on battery saver from the start of the day, you can likely make it through a 9-5 work day without a recharge. But we wouldn't recommend being too far from a charging cable.

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