The Surface Pro 4 builds on the best parts of the Surface Pro 3, and it finally delivers a solid typing experience with the revamped Type Cover. It’s the ideal hybrid tablet in practically every way , it’s as light as a tablet, but as productive as any laptop.
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.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.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.The USB and Mini-DisplayPort jacks are on the right flank when the Surface Pro is used with the keyboard.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.
Display and Pen
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has a 3:2 aspect ratio touch screen with an N-Trig digitizer that supports 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. 256 levels in Surface Pro 3.The pen is included and it’s updated too with a softer nib (pen tip) that’s quieter and feels less slippery on the glass.The new pen has a rubbery eraser that… erases… and a single hidden side button that by default acts as a right click. Writing and drawing feels more fluid, though still not quite as buttery as Wacom EMR digitizers and pens. 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity matters less than good pen pressure tracking and registration.This is certainly the most responsive and enjoyable N-Trig experience yet, and that’s not faint praise.The new Surface Pen will work with any N-Trig tablet, including the Vaio and the Surface Pro 3.As with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has WinTab drivers for the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book if you’re using a legacy program that requires WinTab for pressure sensitivity.The 12.3″ IPS PixelSense display has 2736 x 1824 resolution, which is 60% more than Surface Pro 3. That’s 267 PPI vs Pro 3’s 216 PPI. It’s extremely bright at 387 nits and it represents 99% of the sRGB color gamut and 75% of Adobe RGB.Surface Pro 4 is calibrated from the factory and as shipped is one of the most accurate in terms of color rendition. Contrast is high at 1080:1, though not quite as high as Surface Book’s. Unless you work with print production images or TV/cinema, the gamut is perfect.Viewing angles are wide, and glare is an issue despite the high brightness and bonded glass. In subdued office lighting glare isn’t noticeable and I didn’t spy myself reflected in the glass. The tablet’s kickstand allows for nearly flat use and will firmly stand at any angle in the supported 22-150 degree range.
The Surface line has a great configuration for the speakers. They are front facing, but the speaker grilles blend almost invisibly into the display bezel. They give you nice stereo separation without making the tablet itself wider.The speaker volume is sufficient, getting up to around 77-80 dBA depending on content. As with most devices, there is a definite lack of low end but that would be difficult to achieve on something so thin.
Connections and performance
The Surface Pro 4 fits in a single USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort for video, a microSD card slot, and an audio jack, which is essentially the same setup as last year’s Surface Pro 3.Inside, you can choose from Intel Core M, Core i5 or Core i7 processors, all from the latest Skylake generation of chips just hitting products now.The Core i5 is going to be your standard mainstream choice, and with it, the Surface Pro 4 could juggle multiple browsers, HD media streaming, office applications and more, without any slowdown. Using Photoshop on high-resolution images was similarly trouble-free. Basic games ran fine as well, although without a dedicated graphics chip, you’re restricted to only the most casual of games.As a tablet, you’d expect the Surface Pro 4 to run all day, but neither the older Surfaces nor this new one are at the bleeding edge when it comes to battery life. In fact, this year’s Surface Pro 4 ran for less time in our standard battery drain test than the Surface Pro 3, at 6 hours 32 minutes for the Pro 4 versus 7 hours 46 minutes for last year’s Pro 3. This particular test can be tough on some systems, and since last year, we’ve also had a major OS jump, from Windows 8 to Windows 10.
The Surface Pro 4 comes with an 8 MP rear camera, and a 5 MP front facing camera. The front camera also supports Windows Hello authentication however that’s not enabled at the moment. Microsoft built their own solution for Windows Hello, rather than go with the Intel RealSense 3D system, so when it gets enabled I’ll take a look at it and report back. My experience with the Intel solution was much better than I thought it would be, with extremely fast unlocks, so if Microsoft can match that experience then they have done a great job.The front camera also has 1.4 micron pixels, but the 5 MP sensor is just 1/4″ in size. It keeps the F/2 aperture but moves to a wider field of view for use with video conferencing. For a Skype Camera, it’s fine and images are a bit grainy but serviceable for a webcam.
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.It’d be reasonable think the Surface Pro 4, being a Microsoft device, would include firmware that communicates with the operating system well.Like most laptops, the Pro’s camera detects ambient light and adjusts the display’s brightness accordingly.
Even though the keyboard isn’t included with the tablet, and you can buy one to use with your Surface Pro 3, it was launched with the Pro 4. The new model is similar to the outgoing model: it uses the same mechanical connection to the tablet and strong magnets hold it in place. It’s backlit, is available in a variety of colors and the back has a nice faux suede finish. It protects the display and acts as a cover in transit.The trackpad is larger and is glass–it’s much better than the outgoing model and is better than most Windows trackpads in terms of tracking and reliable multi-touch gestures for things like two-finger scrolling.
One of the trade-offs that Microsoft has made with the Surface Pro 4 is a reduction in battery capacity. Ever since the first Surface Pro was launched, Microsoft has equipped it with a 42 Watt-hour battery. That is a large size for a tablet, but the Surface Pro has always been a larger than normal tablet too. With the Surface Pro 4, the battery capacity has been reduced slightly to 39 Wh. Part of this is the thinner chassis, and part of it is the new hybrid cooling which puts a copper plate over the battery.
Microsoft always called the Surface Pro the tablet that could replace your laptop. And then the company went and made its own laptop, the ambitious new Surface Book. That’s fine, because the Surface Pro was never really a laptop anyway. It’s an amped up iPad or iPad Pro, that can also run any Windows software you need, but particularly excels at drawing and sketching apps, and is great for reading and video viewing.It’s lightweight and portable enough to go around with you anywhere, and the hinge and keyboard cover provide lots of flexibility for setting up in potentially awkward spots.The Surface Pro 4 adds some very valuable refinement to last year’s already excellent Surface Pro 3, and its only real competition as a showpiece premium detachable hybrid is the still-embryonic Surface Book.