Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review
Redmond’s laptop-tablet hybrid edges closer to perfection, but problems remain
Update 8/02/2016 - Microsoft has announced a recall for faulty power cables included with the original Surface Pro as well as the Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro 3. This recall does not apply to the Surface Pro 4, so there's no need to worry if you've bought Microsoft's latest hybrid or are tempted by it.
Hybrids haven’t been especially popular, but that hasn’t stopped Microsoft in pursuing this vision of combined laptop-tablets as the future of computing. Windows 10 may have many panacea features to appease mouse and keyboard users, but it’s still very much a touchscreen OS as well. Indeed, it’s more seamless than Windows 8 at transitioning between laptop and tablet modes.
Windows 10 has lacked truly excellent hardware to showcase its hybrid abilities though - until now. The Surface Pro 4 is the most refined version yet of Microsoft’s flagship hybrid mobile computer.
Casing and Keyboard Cover
Like its predecessors, the Surface Pro 4 has a magnesium alloy casing that’s both very sturdy and classy-looking in an understated way. It has plenty of flexibility when it comes to hardware peripherals as it has a full-size USB3 port, a micro SD slot and a Mini DisplayPort. It remains relatively heavy for a tablet though at 800g. Although light enough to carry around all day and comparable in weight to other similarly sized tablets, it’s too heavy to hold in hand, even double handed, for any lengthy amount of time. The big screen does have its benefits though, as we’ll soon see.
The charger connects magnetically, so it should fall harmlessly away if someone trips over the lead.
The casing has a thin, but sturdy built-in kickstand. It can be adjusted to various angles, so you should be able to get a comfortable viewing angle whether you’re using the Surface Pro 4 as a laptop or as a tablet.
The magnetically attached screen cover still doubles as a keyboard, but its backlit keys are now even better than before. Big with plenty of travel and resistance, typing is a real pleasure. There was next to no adjustment time for us and it’s far better than almost any other tablet keyboard we’ve seen. The touchpad is larger too and was both smooth and accurate. Naturally, it supports all the new gestures in Windows 10.
The keyboard cover is now stiffer than before. Although this comes at the expense of added thickness and weight (the combined weight balloons to 1.1kg), it means it’s now actually possible to use the Surface Pro 4 on your lap in most circumstances - a feat that couldn’t be said for previous models. There are still caveats though - the bigger your lap, then the more stable the Surface will be. Stability will also still be compromised if you cross your legs, although it’s less of a problem that it was with previous Surface Pros.
It’s worth remembering that the keyboard cover costs an extra £109. Given that the keyboard cover is such a big part of the Surface Pro’s appeal, it’s a surprise that it’s still not included as standard.
Screen, Stylus and Extra Features
The 12.3in screen is very bright, almost painfully so, with great colour accuracy and contrast. It also has a high resolution of 2736x1824 pixels, although that’s sometimes as much of a hindrance as it is a benefit. Although the benefits of a high resolution screen are obvious, some Windows programs still haven’t been updated to take advantage of all those pixels, so fuzzy, pixellated graphics or unreadably small text are still recurring problems, albeit not quite as common compared to just a year ago.
The high resolution, and the sheer size of the screen, are both essential for using graphics apps and the included stylus though. Drawing, painting, sketching and note taking would be trickier and more fiddly on anything less. Although the Surface Pen, as Microsoft calls its stylus, isn’t quite as precise and lag-free as the optional Apple Pencil for the iPad Pro, it’s still very good. It has a grippy texture, and a flat side so it doesn’t roll away when placed on a tablet. We especially like the ability to magnetically dock the stylus to the side of the tablet, making it less likely you’ll lose or misplace it.
We like the eraser at the opposite end of the pen, as well as the ability to quickly double press it to launch Microsoft OneNote. The only disappointment here is the inability to customise this shortcut, so you can quickly launch the note taking program of your choice instead of OneNote.
Windows 10 has other stylus-oriented features, such as the ability to annotate web pages in Microsoft’s Edge web browser. More stylus-specific features will arrive in a forthcoming Windows 10 update. These include a central launchpad in Windows for stylus-enabled apps, an updated virtual sticky notes app that will recognise handwritten dates and times as well as tools such as an onscreen ruler. Third-party app developers should easily be able to add the latter into their apps. If so, all these improvements should further improve the utility of the stylus.
The stylus is powered by a single AAA battery. Surprisingly though, there's now way to check the battery life of the stylus so there's a possibility you could get left high and dry unless you keep a spare AAA to hand. It's baffling that Microsoft hasn't included a stylus battery life indicator widget in Window's system tray.
One of the Surface Pro 4’s best features was, surprisingly, its Intel RealSense forward facing camera. It worked perfectly with Windows Hello in Windows 10. Once set up, a quick glance at the camera was enough for Hello to recognise our face and unlock the Surface Pro. It was quick, accurate and not fooled by a simple photo of the registered face.
Battery Life and Performance
Battery life, while okay, was a little disappointing given that the Surface Pro 4 is one of the first computers we’ve seen to come with one of Intel’s new Skylake processors which are supposed to be even more power efficient than its energy sipping predecessors. It lasted just over seven and a half hours when browsing the web and playing music while connected to a 802.11n router. When playing H.264 video on a loop, it lasted just over eight and a half hours. While these scores aren’t bad, other tablets and laptops can last much longer.
This is a shame, especially as our review sample was easily fast enough to replace most laptops and desktops for all but the most demanding workstation-level tasks. Our unit came equipped with 8GB of memory, a 256GB SSD and a 2.4GHz Core i5 6300U dual core processor.
The Surface Pro 4 has a fan, but it never became loud enough to be intrusive unless we really pushed it with something demanding such as our video editing test. Even then, it wasn’t as flawed as some other Windows tablets which not only have loud fans but pump out uncomfortable amounts of fan through their cooling events.
This configuration comes at a high price of £1079 inc VAT though (and remember, that price includes the stylus but not a keyboard cover). Although there are cheaper versions available, we’d currently recommend against them. There’s a £849 model which retains the Core i5 but has only half the RAM and storage space, shortening its useful life span. There’s an even cheaper £749 configuration based around the new Core m3 processor, but until we’ve had a chance to put Intel’s new Skylake Core m chips through their paces, we’re hesitant to recommend them.
Although Microsoft’s marketing would have you think otherwise, making a laptop-tablet hybrid is all about compromises - choosing and refining those features considered most important. Microsoft’s basic design philosophy hasn’t changed since the very first Surface Pro. What has is the quality of their materials, production processes and components allowing the Surface Pro 4 to be thinner, more stable and more comfortable to use than any of its predecessors. It’s far more usable as a laptop thanks to its improved keyboard cover and, if peripheral flexibility is more important than weight, it’s not a bad tablet either thanks to its ports and Windows 10.
It’s still not perfect though, as you have to live with certain trade-offs. It’s still not as effortlessly usable on a lap as a proper laptop, while its weight and continued paucity of touchscreen apps continue to hold it back as a tablet. Its battery life is also somewhat disappointing. We also noticed a few bugs in the driver for the Intel integrated graphics chip which caused the screen to go blank even while programs were actively running – the only way to get around this was to plug in a second monitor temporarily.
The Surface Pro 4 is by no means a bad computer; it’s merely a niche one and if you can live with its slightly odd, niche mix of design choices then it’s a good computer.
This review was originally published on 26/11/2015 and has since been updated, most recently on 24/05/2016.
Display: 12.3in 2736 x 1824 touchscreen
OS: Windows 10
Processor: 2.4GHz Core i5 6300U dual core processor
GPU: Intel HD 520
Memory: 16GB DDR3
Storage: 256GB SSD
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4 LE, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Ports: 1x USB 3, 1x Mini DisplayPort, 1 x combined audio, 1x micro SD
Dimensions: 201x292x8.5 mm (HxWxD without keyboard cover)
Weight: 800g (1.1kg with keyboard cover)