When comparing the new iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4, a lot of people say that the iPad is a great tablet that works as a laptop and the Surface Pro 4 is a good laptop that works as a useful tablet. Are they right? We’ll share our experiences using the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 mostly as a laptop in this review. Don’t worry, we’ll also talk tablet usage since Microsoft wants users to get this device and use it both ways.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Design and Hardware
Microsoft got the design right with the previous generation Surface Pro, but the Surface Pro 4 tweaked it just enough to make it an impressive update. There’s not enough new to entice Surface Pro 3 buyers to replace their devices. However, it’s definitely worth the premium to buy the Surface Pro 4 if you’re just now picking one up.
The display got a pixel boost from a 12-inch display sporting a 2160 x 1440 resolution on the Surface Pro 3 to a 2736 x 1824 resolution in a 12.3-inch display on the Surface Pro 4. Those numbers alone may not look a like an impressive difference, but the difference is obvious when viewed side-by-side. Also, the screen grew by .3 inches from corner to corner, but the size of the device didn’t. They shrunk the wide bezel. That’s a significant engineering feat because it means that owners of the Surface Pro 3 dock don’t have to upgrade to a new one. The Pro 4 fits fine. It also means the display gets bigger but the tablet feels the same and actually weighs less.
The Pro 3 weighs 794 grams, but the Surface Pro 4 went on a diet and weighs it at only 766 grams. Holding the tablet feels more comfortable while reading, watching videos, playing games and doing general Internet tasks.
The Surface Pro 4 doesn’t just show us a prettier face. The touch and pen input work better thanks to greater pressure sensitivity. The marriage of the awesome Surface Pen and the Surface Pro 4 digitizing display makes artwork and handwriting look incredibly good. It feels more natural than the Surface Pro 4.
Microsoft had some fun with Apple when they announced that the Surface Pen is a pen that erases while Apple gives us a Pencil that doesn’t. In practice this isn’t a big deal. I find it easier to just tap the eraser button on the OneNote drawing ribbon or in other drawing and note taking apps than it is to turn the Pen around to use the eraser top. If that’s how you want to work, however, it’s possible now.
Users can attach the Pen to the Surface Pro 4 thanks to a potent magnet that snaps it to the shorter edges of the Surface Pro 4. I hated the old felt fabric loop that glued onto the tablet or keyboard of the Surface Pro 3. Instead, I recommended an awesome accessory from a company called Cleanint. The Cleanstylus ($19.95) attaches to the corner of the Surface and holds the Surface Pen securely. The magnet makes this kind of accessory less important. Users should still take care, though, or get the Cleanstylus. Despite the powerful magnet, I still find the Pen popping off on occasion.
Inside the tablet, we get new processor options, better memory and storage options. The Surface Pro 3 wasn’t a slouch as a computer with decent performance, but the Surface Pro 4 runs noticeably faster.
Microsoft offers a lower power Intel Core M3 processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage that starts at $899 and comes with the Pen but not the keyboard. Travis Pope of GottaBeMobile found that the mobile processor didn’t limit his usage in terms of speed, and the low power processor gave him great battery life of up to 9 hours. I reviewed the Intel Core i5 fifth gen processor version. It includes 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. That’s the sweet spot for this device for users who need a powerful laptop. $1,299 is a good price for this much power. However, the battery life suffers as a result of that added power. I never get more than 5-6 hours with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on and the screen brightness dimmed to about 50-60 percent.
People who need more storage, can get more expensive versions with 512GB or 1TB. If you only want to store your documents, media and personal files, just buy a micro-SD card and insert into the built-in slot on the back (underneath the kickstand on the left) as you look at the back.
The Surface Pro 4 with the faster Intel Core i5 runs blazingly fast compared to the Surface Pro 3. I use a piece of Bible software that gobbles up system resources while installing and indexing the database of research material included. On an old laptop, it can take days to download and index my huge library of books. On the Surface Pro 3, it took most of a single day or a whole night. I’d install it before going to bed and set power options to never turn off over night. When I woke the program was about 75% finished. The Surface Pro 4 installs the software, downloads the library (about 23GB), and indexes that huge database in about 6-7 hours. That’s a huge performance increase that only helps me once when I install the program, but illustrates the power of the system mix of processor, memory and storage. The fan kicks on during this process and gets a little loud, but that sound rarely occurs during day-to-day tasks.
The higher storage options make it easier to keep your favorite files and programs installed locally. I always struggled with the limited storage space on my 128GB Surface Pro 3. Doubling the storage for the same price makes a great upgrade.
The chiseled edges of the Surface Pro 4 with black bezel and gray metal edges and back looks professional and subtly attractive. The buttons feel stiff enough to keep me from worrying about them wearing out like cheap tablets or laptops. I love the magnetic charger attachment. The charger’s inclusion of an extra USB port lets users charge their computer and a phone with one AC outlet.
Turning a tablet into a laptop usually requires a case or a stand to hold the tablet at a comfortable typing angle. Thanks to the well-designed adjustable kickstand, the Surface Pro 4 gets propped up an any angel the user will ever want to use. On a tall table users can prop it up at close to a 90-degree angle. It also lowers to nearly flat for writing on the screen or drawing. Users can prop it at any intermediate angle and it stays put. It’s also remarkably stable on your lap.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Accessories
Microsoft offers a number of excellent accessories. The Surface Pen comes in the box with the Surface Pro 4, but buyers can grab the pen tips ($10), which offer different writing experiences depending on whether you want to draw, write or paint.
The Pen feels lighter yet better balanced than the previous generation. It comes with a useful clip if you want to keep it in a shirt pocket, your jacket pocket or attach it to the edge of your tablet/computer bag. The button on top works as an eraser in supported programs. It also performs one of three customizable functions. Users can customize the button’s function using the Surface Hub app. By default it opens OneNote with a single click. Hold it down to engage Cortana or double-click to take a quick screenshot.
The inking from the Pen flows across the screen and produces some great artwork in the hands of talented people. For note takers it’s nice to not worry about jagged circles and stuttering as I write.
Plenty of people gave Microsoft a lot of crap about not including the Surface Type Cover with the Surface Pro 3 and now the Surface Pro 4. They advertise the device as the tablet that can replace a laptop, so they should include the Type Cover.
This time around, it makes sense to leave the Type Cover out because Microsoft now offers two kinds: one with a fingerprint sensor (see above) and one without. The fingerprint sensor sits to the right of the trackpad. Windows Hello, part of Windows 10, logs the user into Windows with the touch of their finger.
If someone wants to save money, they can get the Type Cover without the fingerprint sensor. It costs $129.99 while the sensor costs $30 more. The cheaper version comes in 6 colors while the more expensive version with the sensor only comes in black.
The new keyboard enjoys a nice improvement. It’s more comfortable and the buttons feel more like a regular keyboard. I adjust quickly when jumping between my MacBook and the Surface. I can type accurately for hours without feeling like I’m compromising when compared to “real keyboards” on high-end computer or desktop keyboards.
Do yourself a favor and attach the keyboard and use it flat on a desk instead of in the slightly lifted angle. The keyboard feels more stable in the flat position.
The Surface Type Cover touchpad is slightly larger, but it still stinks. I hate it and only use it when I have to. The touchscreen and pen input makes it less important, but occasionally you have to use it.
I connect a Bluetooth mouse to use and turn off the trackpad when attaching the external mouse. Do this in All Settings by opening the Devices and then Mouse & touchpad. Turn off Leave touchpad on when a mouse is connected. This keeps the sensitive touchpad from accidentally recognizing your palms as a tap or touch.
The nice Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter hooks up to a TV screen or projector via HDMI. This allows users to cast their screens onto the external display wirelessly. It works well. It usually costs $60, but MS has it on sale now for $50. Alternatively, you could just use a Roku box. It supports the Wireless Display technology built into the Surface Pro 4. Stay away from the Roku 4, which comes with serious performance issues. Instead get the $100 Roku 3 or $50 Roku Stick.
Microsoft produces a couple of options that promise to transform your Surface into a desktop computer. The old Surface Dock that fit the Surface Pro 3 also works with the Surface Pro 4. A new smaller dock does the same thing but takes up less space on a desktop.
If you plan to take your charging brick with you, do yourself a favor and get the Cleancable from Cleanint. We put it in on our list of Surface accessory lists last year. It adheres to the flat surface of the charging brick and folds up to give users a place to wrap their cable. They can then store the cables with the brick and throw them in their computer bag without creating a tangled mess.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Tablet v. Laptop Usage
The Surface Pro 4 became my primary mobile device because it’s small, light and powerful. The keyboard’s great and the screen looks beautiful. I can hook up a Bluetooth mouse and get an awesome mobile computing experience. The kickstand holds the screen an any angle I want to use. My MacBook Pro seldom leaves home thanks to the Surface Pro 4.
I also carry my iPad Pro because it’s a better tablet experience. However, if I didn’t own an iPad, I’d enjoy using the Surface Pro 4 as a tablet as well. Windows Store apps still aren’t as good as iOS apps, but most of the important apps are available and I’ve found good enough alternatives. Also, the Windows controls on the screen are hard to tap with a finger. I use the Surface Pen and my desktop apps most of the time anyway, so these two weaknesses are minor. Thanks to the lighter weight compared to the older Surface Pro 3, I enjoy using the Surface Pro 4 as a tablet more than ever.
The battery life falls a little short. While the Intel Core M version runs for a long time, my Pro 4 with an Intel Core i5 lasts about 5 hours at the most. That’s not as good as the iPad Pro but better than I was getting with the Surface Pro 3.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Value
The Surface Pro 4 starts at $900 for the Intel Core M with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. That’s more storage than users got with the cheapest Surface Pro 3 at the same price when Microsoft introduced the Pro 3. They dropped the price of the Pro 3 to $799, but haven’t done so with the Surface Pro 4 yet.
If you want a real laptop replacement with power and need more storage, go with the version I got. An Intel Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage costs $1300, $1460 with the more expensive keyboard with fingerprint reader. That’s a big investment, but it’s comparable in quality and power to a similarly priced MacBook Pro and offers more versatility. If you’re not a person who says “once you go Mac you never go back,” then the Surface Pro 4 will suit you well. It’s powerful, versatile and built with exceptional quality.
Let me state a few cons. First, there’s a software bug in the display driver. Every so often the screen freezes for about ten seconds and I get an error message stating the display driver crashed. This is a minor annoyance. I haven’t lost any work and Microsoft is working on a fix. The current Insider Preview beta release seems to fix the problem. When it becomes the stable update release, the problem should go away for most people.
Windows 10 is a great operating system, but it’s still a computer OS with some touch and Pen bits tacked on instead of an OS designed with touch/pen input first like iOS or Android. If you’re wanting a tablet to occasionally use as a notebook computer, then consider the iPad Pro first. That said, if you forced me to give up either my Surface Pro 4 or my iPad Pro and use the other one 100 percent of the time, I’d give up the iPad Pro reluctantly.