The original Surface Pro was bulky. Its battery was limited. The keyboard was annoying, the display wasn’t great, and performance was just okay. It was expensive. Worst of all, it was forced to run Windows 8, an awkward operating system poorly suited for dedicated touchscreen use.
Yet, for all its faults, the Surface Pro was also revolutionary.
If Microsoft was as stodgy as its reputation suggests, it would’ve given up on the Pro and set its sights on some other pie-in-the-sky project. Instead, it hunkered down, analyzed the problem, and tried again. And again. And again. After just two and a half years we’re now on the fourth iteration. On average, a new Pro has arrived every eight months.
The Surface Pro 4 is a microcosm of the change Microsoft is trying to spur inside its own walls.
A look at the latest model’s specifications makes the improvements clear. Aside from a move to Intel’s 6th-generation Core chips – significant, because Microsoft skipped the fifth generation entirely – the new model has a long list of updates. The keyboard is more spacious, the touchpad is larger, the display is both bigger and more pixel dense, the pen is more sensitive, and the base hard drive offers twice the capacity as before.
But the Surface Pro 4 also finds itself competing in an increasingly diverse field. Its revolutionary nature has forced other companies to respond. Apple and Google have their own, mobile-first interpretations due this holiday season, and PC manufacturers have started to clone the Pro in droves. Can the original keep up with the imitators?
Updated on 12-01-2015 by Matt Smith: About a month ago, Microsoft released new firmware with the release of the Surface Pro 4 at retail. It fixed multiple issues, the most significant being a problem with battery drain in sleep. The review has been updated to reflect this, and the score was improved. Unfortunately, the firmware issues are back, albeit sometimes in different forms, so we’ve updated the review and lowered the score back down to 4. The portability section has also been updated.
Microsoft is obviously comfortable with the design of its Surface notebooks. Like the less powerful Surface 3, which debuted over the summer, the Pro 4 doesn’t look much different than its predecessor. The new model is a hair thinner, and a few hundredths of a pound lighter, but its dimensions are otherwise the same.
Related: Surface Book review
The Surface Pro 4 is still bulky for a tablet. Virtually everything based on mobile hardware is thinner and lighter, even the iPad Pro, which is similarly sized. For a PC tablet, though, the Surface Pro 4 is pretty svelte. Whether it’s small enough really depends on how you plan to use it, and perhaps even your own dimensions. People who find a regular iPad a bit unwieldy are going to find this massive. I managed alright. A smaller device like my old Nexus 7 is more comfortable for reading eBooks or watching a movie in bed, but the Surface Pro 4 can do the job. It’s just a bit awkward.
Microsoft has set up the Pro properly for use as either a PC or tablet. Though its overall size has hardly changed, the new model jumps from a 12-inch to a 12.3-inch display. That’s accomplished through thinner bezels which look more attractive, but still provide enough room to grip the Surface Pro without grazing the touchscreen.
The device also benefits from thoughtful location of buttons. The power and volume keys are located on the upper left edge when the device is held in landscape orientation or used as a PC. That becomes the upper right flank when it’s turned and used in portrait orientation, which is typical for tablets. In either case, the buttons are accessible, yet not positioned where they’ll be accidentally bumped.
Using the stylus is as intuitive as using a real pen.
Connectivity is a bit more awkward. The USB and Mini-DisplayPort jacks are on the right flank when the Surface Pro is used with the keyboard. That works well enough, but it means anything attached will jut out from the bottom if the device is used as a tablet in portrait orientation. The combo headphone/microphone jack is difficult in either case, as its always located near the top edge of the device, leaving the user to tangle with the cord. There are only so many places to put a port on a slate.
The power brick’s connector works well. Its magnetically aligned and multi-directional, so it’s easy to insert and doesn’t send the entire device flying if you happen to trip over it and tug it out. It’s past time for this type of design to become the standard for both tablets and laptops, but most of the Pro 4’s PC competition is saddled with a stiff, stubborn plug. Better still, the brick itself offers a USB port, so you can charge your phone without using the USB 3.0 port on the Surface Pro 4 itself.
Type Cover triumphant
Keyboard quality has long been my most serious issue with the Surface Pro line. Microsoft always used a strange keyboard layout that lacks significant gaps between keys, making it more difficult to discern between them. Previous Type Covers also made poor use of the available space, so both the keyboard and touchpad weren’t as large as they could be.
The new Type Cover – which is compatible with the old Surface Pro 3, by the way – entirely fixes the problem. It better uses the available space, so it’s larger and offers plenty of room between keys. The touchpad is bigger, especially in height. Like the previous version, the new Cover is powered over a simple connector that attaches magnetically, and it can be used flat or propped at an angle for a more ergonomic experience.
What Microsoft has achieved here is impressive, and Apple should be wary. The keyboard on the MacBook Pro is far behind the latest Type Cover. That could be a bad sign for the upcoming iPad Pro.
The improved Cover transforms the Surface Pro. The Pro 3 asked the user to bargain with it. “Okay, kid,” it said, “I’ll give you a touchscreen, but you gotta put up with this keyboard.” The Pro 4 asked no such compromise. It works as well as most dedicated laptops.
As long as it’s on a desk. The adjustable kickstand still isn’t happy in a lap, and really needs a flat surface to be usable. That can be a problem if you want to mash the keys while reclining on your sofa to enjoy an episode of Deep Space Nine. Microsoft contends this issue isn’t a big deal because laptops are actually used on a tablet or desk the majority of the time, and for the most part, that’s true. But it can be annoying – even damaging, as a shift in posture can send the unsteady Pro 4 tumbling off your lap and onto the floor.
The pen is mighty
The pen, too, has been improved. It has four times the sensitivity of that which shipped with the Surface Pro 3. It also includes a “real” eraser that works just like you’d expect it to. While the older model looked as if it had one, it in fact used a button, a design that went against decades of muscle memory.
These changes are a big upgrade – the eraser, especially. Microsoft’s software has continued to mature, as well, so pen input works far more smoothly than it did with the original Surface. Now, for the first time since its launch, using a stylus doesn’t feel like a constant hassle. It’s handy and, when using the Surface Pro 4 as a tablet, often preferable to the virtual keyboard.
Some issues do persist. If you stay in Microsoft’s eco-system of apps, like Edge and OneNote, the pen works almost without flaw. Third-party applications are not always as compatible. The Google Chrome browser, for example, absolutely refused to initiate pen input in any of its text entry fields. Slack, an organization app used by companies worldwide, seemed finicky about detecting the pen’s “clicks.” And if you were hoping to play certain games with touch or pen input, forget about it. Very few properly are designed for it.
When you’re not using the pen it can be stowed magnetically on either flank of the Surface Pro 4. I’m still not happy with the security of this approach, as the pen is a bit too easy to knock off. I can imagine plenty of disasters involving errant limbs that send the pen flying into drinks, sewer grates, or food processors. The pen can be clipped in the Type Cover when it’s closed, instead, and that’s the more secure option.
The display receives an unnecessary, but appreciated, upgrade
The Surface Pro 3’s screen was not a weak point of the device, but Microsoft decided to improve it anyway. Aside from the increase in size from 12 to 12.3 inches, the display has upped its pixel count to 2,736 x 1,824. That’s 267 per inch, which is far more than needed when the Surface is used as a laptop. It’s still not the best in the tablet category, but it beats most, including the iPad Pro.
The new Type Cover is a huge leap over the previous, and better than some laptops.
There’s a lot more to the screen than pixel count, and the new Surface nails the details. We recorded a high maximum brightness of 349 lux alongside a maximum contrast ratio of 940:1. Most figures are among the best we’ve recorded from any laptop, tablet or 2-in-1. Gamma came in at a perfect rating of 2.2, which indicates accurate reproduction of grayscale. Color accuracy was the only soft spot, as the average difference of DeltaE 6.49 was high. HP’s Spectre x360, for comparison, hit an average of 1.85 – lower is better.
My impressions were as expected based off the results. A high contrast ratio should mean the appearance of deep black levels and brilliant whites, and the Surface Pro 4 delivered, creating a sense of depth in movies and images. The color issues made themselves apparent, however, through poor reproduction of skin tones. Actors often looked more like wax figures rather than real people. That said, I’m picky about color, and I doubt most would notice. The Surface Pro 4’s high contrast and pixel density, on the other hand, will be obvious to anyone.
I’m a Surface, hear me roar
Despite its small size, the speakers in the Surface Pro 4 made an impact. They were loud at maximum volume and produced clear, crisp audio with minimal distortion, even in bass-heavy music. Human voices were reproduced with particular clarity, which makes sense. This is a business machine, after all, and Skype is useless if others can’t be heard.
Skylake rises to the top
The Surface Pro 4 makes several important hardware changes over the Pro 3. It can equip up to 16GB of RAM, instead of 8GB, and the base hard drive now offers 128GB instead of 64GB. Those are nice upgrades. The base model has received an arguable downgrade, however, because it now has a Core m3 processor rather than a Core i3. Whether that’s a downgrade is arguable because the m3 represents a trade-off. The base clock is only 900MHz, and its graphics component is weaker than other Core chips. Performance will suffer, but battery life may improve.
I can’t tell you more than that. Microsoft predictably shipped the mid-range Core i5-6300U pair with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB hard drive. I threw the chip into our benchmarks and found it an excellent performer.
The Surface Pro 4 did well in Geekbench, beating most of the notebooks we’ve tested with a dual-core processor. It even came within a stone’s throw of the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina. Intel can be given much the credit for this gain, as the Surface Pro 4 is the first notebook we’ve received with a 6th-generation mobile dual-core. That makes it hard to say how, exactly, the Surface Pro 4 will compare against ultrabooks and 2-in-1s shipping throughout the holiday season. But I can say with certainty that the new Surface is quicker than most notebooks shipped in 2015, and it feels snappy in regular day-to-day use.
The 256GB solid state drive also did well. Crystal Disk Mark’s sequential test recorded an average read speed of 928 megabytes per second and an average write of 449MB/s. Those figures are not the best we’ve seen, but they’re near the leading edge. The Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Retina and Asus Zenbook NX500J are the only notebooks we’ve tested with faster drives.
Gaming is not something the Surface is built to handle, but it does have the latest incarnation of Intel’s mainstream mobile graphics, in this case called Intel HD 520. It managed admirably, beating the average notebook from the last generation.
Of course, the integrated graphics solution is still way behind a real gaming laptop. The Razer Blade, for example, scored 15,239 in Cloud Gate. In Fire Strike, a more demanding benchmark, the gap was greater still. The Surface Pro 4 scored 850 to the Blade’s 6,497. That said, the integrated graphics component is sufficient to handle basic 3D games and AAA titles from the previous generation of console hardware.
Small device, small battery
The Surface Pro 4 isn’t going to throw your back out, as it weighs about 1.7 pounds without accessories, and just over 2.3 pounds with Type Cover and Pen included. Its light weight, combined with its slim profile, makes it easy to chuck in a bag for a trip. Even the power adapter is small.
The Surface Pro 4 beat most notebooks we’ve tested in GeekBench.
A large 38 watt-hour battery provides juice on the go. That’s a respectable capacity, but the high-resolution display sucks down power, so the Pro 4 quotes the same nine-hour maximum as the Pro 3.
I had some problems in our real-world tests. In one instance I managed to squeeze six hours and a half using the Peacekeeper browsing benchmark. However, on other occasions I drained the battery in three and a half hours using a simple web browsing and YouTube viewing loop.
In any case, the promised nine hours is optimistic, as the Pro 4 fell well short of that in every scenario. My subjective experience was the same, as I found the device can’t handle a work day on a single charge. Instead it falls well short, often lasting barely more than half a day. On one short-lived occasion I worked on several open Word documents while also slacking off by watching YouTube videos. I killed an entire charge in under three hours.
That’s a disappointment. Many of the best laptops easily last a day, and even 2-in-1s last longer. The HP Spectre x360, for example, managed seven hours and 15 minutes in our web browsing loop.
Windows 10 is still pretty great, but the firmware isn’t
While Windows 10 has been out for several months, it’s worth mentioning the operating system’s contribution to the Surface Pro 4. Previous models were hampered by Windows 8 and 8.1, neither of which offered a good blend of desktop and tablet experience. The newest version of Windows still has its flaws, but it does a lot to help the Surface line fulfill its mission, and it makes Windows 8.1 look positively obtuse. Check out our full review for more.
While Microsoft’s update of Windows achieves its goals, the Surface Pro 4’s firmware and software is less reliable. Upon initial review, I noticed a number of quirks, such as a pulsing backlight at low brightness settings and consider battery consumption during sleep. These have been fixed, but other issues remain. Wi-Fi is unreliable on certain networks. The system occasionally fails to wake from sleep. Bluetooth connectivity drops out once in a blue moon, which means the keyboard can’t be used. And so on.
These problems spoil the experience of using the device. Anyone hoping Microsoft’s full control over both sides of the device will result in Apple-like polish is bound to be disappointed.
The Surface Pro 4 is covered by a one year limited warranty against manufacturer defects. Further warranty extensions are available as an option. This, of course, is standard for the industry. Very few laptops come with more than a year of standard coverage.
The Surface Pro 4 is a microcosm of the change Microsoft is trying to spur inside its own walls. Time and time again, it missed the opportunity to leap on a new trend in consumer technology. But not with Surface. This time, Microsoft is a leader. It’s setting the trend. And unlike its new competitors, it’s had a few years to work out the kinks. Though it’s not perfect, the fourth incarnation of the Surface Pro is a great piece of hardware, and easily defeats every other 2-in-1 currently available.
No one master stroke is responsible. Instead, the Pro has grown through evolution. Numerous bits, from the keyboard to the power charger, have changed little by little. The original Surface Pro had serious flaws. The second and third versions were good, but still demanded compromise. The fourth incarnation overcomes the limitations of its predecessors without sacrificing the core mission. It’s a true do-it-all-device.
With that said, no one will call the Pro a bargain. The base model is $900 without the keyboard. Our review unit, with keyboard, rings up at $1,430. That’s a lot of money, and anyone looking at the Surface still needs to ask themselves if a single do-it-all device is really needed. You could buy a Dell XPS 13 and an iPad instead. Doing so would net you a better laptop and a better tablet, but at the expense of having to carry both around, and coordinate your data and apps between them.
For some, the Pro’s enhanced portability is never going to make sense. But those looking to lighten their load will fall in love with the Surface Pro 4. It’s the best 2-in-1 PC yet.
- New Type Cover is wonderful
- Pen is standard and works well
- Pixel-dense display
- Loud, clear speakers
- Strong performance in all areas
- Still heavy compared to dedicated tablets
- Battery can drain quickly in real-world use
Review originally published on Oct. 20, 2015.