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
Microsoft Surface Pro 4: The Essential Review
Canonically the successor to the Surface Pro 3, the Surface Pro 4 shed light on the Windows tablet and 2-in-1 laptop categories for consumers and manufacturers alike. Equipped with the Type Cover keyboard and Surface Pen stylus also created by Microsoft, the Surface Pro 4 has gone on to inspire the HP Spectre x2 and Acer Switch 3 from its Windows-bearing partners.
However, with the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft focused more energy building on top of its roots than making dramatic overhauls to its design. That’s why it essentially looks the same as the Surface Pro 3, albeit with a few minor refinements including a new chrome-laden Microsoft logo and a chassis more than half a millimeter thinner than that of its predecessor.
The Surface Pro 4 also added more levels of pressure sensitivity and a crowd of buttons to the Surface Pen. Likewise, the Type Cover keyboard is weightier and more satisfying to the touch, while the screen resolution was bumped all the way to 2,736 x 1,824, making it 216 pixels per inch (ppi) as opposed to the 128 ppi display of the 13-inch MacBook Air.
Frankly, what’s more impressive than its iterative refinements is that the Surface Pro 4 remains well within the same modest price range as its precursor. That’s $799 (£749, AU$899) to start, less the inclusion of the Surface Pen and Type Cover keyboard, though Surface Pen bundles can be found from $999 (£749, AU$1,178).
Unfortunately, the Surface Pro 4’s biggest issue now is that it’s difficult to find. Unless you don’t mind settling for the baseline configuration, housing an Intel Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage space, you won’t find it on the Microsoft Store website – and it’s only available refurbished on Amazon. Still, it holds up if you’re on a budget (even pre-owned).
Whereas you can expect to pay $799 (£799, AU$1,199) for an entry-level, fifth-gen Surface Pro with an Intel Core m3 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage space, you could get a Surface Pro 4 with a more capable Intel Core i5 processor along with the same amount of RAM and storage space for $200 less.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4: Who's it for? Should I buy it?
The Surface Pro 4 caters to several different audiences. So, whether you’re a college student or a graphic designer – even, say, an aspiring tech reporter, Microsoft has devised a first-rate tablet that doubles as an equally fine laptop.
So, has Microsoft finally done it? Well, despite the ‘somewhat average battery life’ and the fact that the Type Cover has to be purchased separately unless it’s bought as part of a bundle, we could easily see the Surface Pro 4 as our daily driver. Even so, we could have used that LTE chip Microsoft reserved for the Surface Pro coming in spring 2018.
We particularly enjoy the sharper, larger display and lighter frame, with the improved Type Cover taking it all to the next level. However, that the Type Cover still doesn't come in the box by default is a major detraction, given it's a core conceit of the device. More annoying is that the battery life hasn't improved much either – one of the low points of the previous model.
Despite having come a long way since its reveal two years ago, the Surface Pro 4 is still due for some improvements. The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, for example is now available to download and install, though we advise that you be aware of a disappearing app bug popping up in some copies of the newest version of the OS.
Likewise, we can count on more hardware updates later on down the road, given that the Surface Book 2 has been announced.
Design and display
This is the Surface Pro 4 configuration sent to 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 (786g)
Size: 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inches (292.10 x 201.42 x 8.4mm; W x D x H)
Just like last time, the same all-magnesium, uni-body casing is still here, though the 'Surface' logo has been replaced with Microsoft's new logo in chrome.
Microsoft managed to up the device's screen size by a few hairs, from a straight 12 inches to this year's 12.3 inches, without affecting its footprint at all. In fact, the firm shaved more than half a millimeter off of its thickness, from 9.1mm to 8.4mm – all while fitting full-fat mobile processors.
As for how this was done, the capacitive Windows button said goodbye, thus the extra room for that three tenths of an inch in the display.
Then, Microsoft brought the screen's optical stack – the series of sensors, diodes and pixels beneath the glass – even closer to the glass now, a key point of Microsoft's trademarked PixelSense screen technology.
The display is thus incredibly responsive to touch, and the further sensitivity it brings to the stylus experience is huge. In tandem with the improved Surface Pen, the screen detects 1,024 levels of pressure, even during a single stroke.
Now, let's talk pixels. Even though it didn't have to, Microsoft boosted the Surface Pro 4's resolution from 2,160 x 1,440 (216 ppi, or pixels per inch) to 2,736 x 1,824. That makes for a huge 267 ppi for the Surface Pro 4, which blows a key rival, the (128 ppi for the 13-inch), out of the water and narrowly edges out Apple's 12.9-inch at 264 ppi.
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. 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, this means more realistic-looking movies and more vibrant photos and games. That's despite even thicker black bars sandwiching your favorite films in 16:9 – and even more so for those in 21:9, or widescreen format, thanks to the 3:2 aspect ratio that remains from last generation.
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 a middle ground between 16:9 and 4:3 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
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.
This version 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, the left side of the frame 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, functional eraser button up top that does what it says on the tin, but has three more functions. 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 help you out.
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 Microsoft offers additional pen tips right out of the box.
Coupled with Microsoft's PixelSense display, the duo makes for the best stylus experience we've had on a tablet yet for as little as we're wont to use it. While we're neither artists nor designers, the screen's superb palm detection and the accuracy and nuance of the Pen tracking give us confidence that the Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft's best shot at luring in that crowd yet.
These improvements pale in comparison with Microsoft's new-and-still-not-included Type Cover. This time around, Microsoft took a chiclet-style approach. This makes keeping track of which keys your fingers are on by feel much easier, and it allows for each key to be individually back lit.
The new Type Cover is also 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 a true laptop keyboard. Microsoft also widened the touchpad and coated it in glass rather than plastic.
Finally, Microsoft has a version of the Type Cover with a biometric Fingerprint ID for $159 (£149, AU$249). The new keyboard cover is only available in black and uses 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 too.
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 bested the 2015 HP Spectre x360 in almost every test by roughly 25%. As for the 13-inch MacBook Air, its multi-core Geekbench 3 (which tests CPUs primarily) score is plenty short of what the Surface achieved.
Ultimately, don't expect to see a major difference between how any of these three machines perform day-to-day, though the MacBook Air will last way longer on a charge. If anything, you might get slightly better frame rates out of games played on the Surface Pro 4 than that 2015 Spectre x360.
If you're curious, the Pro 4 runs Hearthstone (our go-to tablet testing game) without a hitch on its highest settings, even at an automatically-adapted resolution. Plus, the color-calibrated display makes every element on the game's interactive play boards that much more distracting.
Tested on pre-production hardware that we were promised has been scrubbed of its battery woes, the Surface Pro 4 produced far better battery life results than at the onset. 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 test, lasting 5 hours and 15 minutes. That's enough to last you on most coast-to-coast US flights.
In a 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 to a far lower-resolution display and likely a larger battery.
Regardless, Microsoft promises up to 9 hours of video playback, and these numbers aren't close. 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 hybrids.
Longevity is then about the only thing holding the Surface Pro 4 back from truly, honestly replacing your laptop – or at least your MacBook Air specifically. Otherwise, the machine offers somewhat below-average lasting power.
Not convinced? Try these:
: With an incredible display, long battery life and of the essential accessories in the box, this tablet all but requires you to make liberal use of Samsung’s phone-exclusive syncing and biometric login features via Samsung Flow, its key selling points. Just mind the lack of Windows Hello.
: A great price, USB-C USB 3.0, and an included keyboard cover make the Miix 510 an appealing option. While there are a couple of reasons (battery, screen) why you’d go for the Surface Pro 4 instead, but the Miix 510 offers an awful lot for the price. But, again, what's counting against it is considerable.
: Its unique kickstand, even sharper IPS screen and hardier included keyboard cover help the Spectre x2 stand out. You'll stay for the impressive spec sheet and premium. That said, it's too bad that the stylus doesn't come included with this device, unlike its rivals. This is likely the biggest rival to the Surface line today.
Kane Fulton and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this review