Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: We test out this super-powered Surface Pro tablet, rocking full Windows 10 and a physical keyboard as well as a seriously accurate stylus.
When Microsoft unleashes a new Surface, you can expect a few staple design elements that collectively preserve the company’s ideals of ‘lapability’ (shudder) and the hybrid experience that can only be found from one of Microsoft’s tablet-cum-laptop offerings.
Unsurprisingly the Pro 4 looks almost identical to its predecessor and for the most part that’s a good thing. The magnesium alloy body gives a solid, sturdy feel to the slate and whilst it’s notably thicker than your average tablet, it does have its benefits – namely in the way of connectivity.
One side of the Pro 4’s body is lined with ports for charging, a full-sized USB connection and a display out whilst the other side features a headphone jack and along the top sit hardware controls for power and volume.
The most distinctive part of the Pro 4’s body is its integrated kickstand, which as of last year’s Pro 3 was upgraded to feature a variable hinge rather than one that could only fix into a limited number of positions. The flexibility of this hinge design makes it significantly easier to go from typing on-screen whilst it’s on a table or your lap, to snapping in the new type cover and standing the Surface more upright.
Speaking of the new type cover, Microsoft has spaced out the keys and dramatically increased the size of the trackpad, which is now made of glass. Both elements work together to significantly improve the typing and swiping experience when not interacting with the Surface’s touchscreen directly and the design of the magnetised strips also allow for flat and raised typing positions.
The biggest gripe here is that it’s an essential accessory that isn’t included in the price tag. Once you’ve braved the awkward on-screen typing experience, you’ll understand why it’s so necessary.
Microsoft pulled off a neat trick by squeezing in a bigger, better screen over last year’s Pro without having to alter the height or width of the device’s body at all. The new 12.3-inch PixelSense display packs a whopping 2736×1824 resolution, making for one wonderfully crisp image.
Colours appear accurate, it’s incredibly bright and the loss of intensity and distortion is minimal at more extreme viewing angles. What’s more the touch experience is precise and responsive, making navigating Windows easy enough, even when it’s not set to operate in its dedicated tablet mode.
The other hook is the screen’s 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity when used in conjunction with the new Surface Pen. The improvements in performance are slight, but apparent, with impressively low latency when drawing, writing and sketching.
How much of a benefit you feel from the pressure sensitivity hinges on the app you’re using, as different applications handle that aspect of the experience differently. Palm rejection is also consistent and the fact that using the other end of the Pen as an eraser actually works is incredibly handy.
Like the Surface Book, in Microsoft’s own words the Pro 4 was purpose-built for Windows 10. The company’s shiny new operating system has a big focus on marrying the classic Windows desktop experience users are familiar with and integrating aspects of touch that aid navigation and for handling tasks like image manipulation.
The interface takes two distinct forms, governed by the aforementioned tablet mode. As has been the case for sometime, beyond the classic Windows interface layout swiping on the edge of the screen from the left will initiate task view where you can jump between applications quickly, swiping and dragging all the way down from the top of the screen will close applications whilst swiping from the top and dragging and application to one side or the other will snap it to occupy a portion of the screen.
Initiating tablet mode adds more fluid side-by-side app multitasking control and transforms the applications and live tiles that reside in the start menu into a full screen experience. Action Centre which we’re already familiar with from Windows Phone handsets swipes out from the right and features a set of shortcuts and toggles for connectivity options along with notifications from apps, including email.
There’s quite a lot going on and at times it can become confusing, with the myriad of window management tools and the like, but once you’ve got your head around Windows 10’s distinct quirks, it can make for a fluid experience that blends touch and a keyboard and mouse really well.
It’s also worth noting that although the lacklustre Windows Store is still part of the experience and will likely see little use for most users, operating on full Windows means you can effectively install any compatible application you’d like. Which is a huge advantage over the likes of the new iPad Pro, which still centres around Apple’s (admittedly robust) app ecosystem.
As we mentioned when we learnt about the Pro 4’s initial pricing and availability, the new device can be had in a range of storage and memory options, the amounts of which are dictated by the processor at its core. The model we’ve been using is powered by a competent middle-of-the-road 6th generation Intel Core i5 processor, but you can pick a Pro 4 up with a beefier i7 brain or a more conservative M3 chipset at the bottom end of the lineup. Interestingly the M3 will also technically be quieter as its design doesn’t require an internal cooling fan, which also accounts for the notably lower weight.
Battery longevity can vary wildly depending on usage, with full 3D gaming (which we managed despite relying on integrated graphics) killing the battery in a mere two hours. More conventional varied usage including video playback and streaming, word processing, web browsing and so on gave use around six and half hours continuous use, whilst Microsoft promises video playback of up to nine hours, which sounds like a bit of a stretch based on what we’ve experienced.
The Surface Pen, which comes as part of the standard Pro 4 purchase relies on a single AAA battery, but we’ve been promised up to a year on a single cell which is highly commendable, especially when the new Apple Pencil dies in a matter of days.
The Pro 4 also totes a pair of solid cameras for a slate with a front-facing 5-megapixel snapper and an 8-megapixel unit on the back.
The camera experience is surprisingly deep with manual control over everything from focus, to ISO and white balance along with a burst shutter mode and Full HD video recording.
They’re not really intended for photography in the conventional sense, but rather suited for use with Windows 10’s native Skype Video app and Windows Hello, which pairs the camera optics to a depth sensor for facial recognition, making logging into and unlocking your Surface significantly faster and easier.
Looking back over last year’s Surface Pro 3 review, it’s startling how similarities can be drawn with our opinion of this year’s model. Microsoft has clearly made strides in ironing out the wrinkles in the Pro formula, but there are still one or two aspects that won’t gel for everyone.
Windows 10 is without question a huge improvement over Windows 8 and 8.1, but there are some elements that have carried over which still need work if you intend to pick this up and forgo the extra cost of a type cover. The on-screen typing experience is still really weak and the gestures and amount of control you have surrounding how the interface behaves is almost overwhelming.
Being able to run powerful full-blown PC class applications on a device that’s effectively a chunky iPad is hands-down the best thing about the Surface family and the Pro 4 is this year’s entry to keep things feeling snappy and relevant. It’s most likely one of the best ways to experience Windows, as Microsoft intended it – wrapped up in slick, sexy, adaptable hardware.
Note: This review was entirely written, edited and published using the Surface Pro 4.