Most would cut their losses if it amounted to the tune of 900 million dollars. But, if you're a company with deep pockets and a vision like Microsoft, things are a little different. It's been two years since the write off and its once ailing Surface line is finally thriving and gaining traction. Last year's Surface Pro 3 was the tipping point, a device that can only be described as the perfect amalgamation of guts, technology and perseverance. It's been roughly two months since I first cracked open the Surface Pro 4, and after daily use with much needed and appreciated software updates, I can finally give my thoughts on Microsoft's latest offering.
|Surface Pro 4|
|Display||12.3” PixelSense display
2736 x 1824 (267 PPI)
10 point multi-touch
|Processor||6th Gen Intel i5|
|Graphics||HD graphics 520|
|Connectivity||802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless / 802.11a/b/g/n compatible
8.0 MP rear-facing autofocus camera, with 1080p HD video recording
Full-size USB 3.0, microSD card reader, 3.5mm headset jack, mini DisplayPort
Ambient light sensor
|Launch OS||Windows 10 build 10240 at launch / updated to 10586.3|
|Launch Date||October 2015|
|Size & Weight||
Surface Pro 4: 11.50" x 7.93" x 0.33" | 1.73lbs
It's no surprise that Microsoft chose to change very little with the Surface Pro 4. The Pro 3 was heralded for its design, and as such, the Pro 4 builds on last year's design by making things thinner and lighter. As a whole, the design remains the same, with the chassis being built from magnesium and the front display protected by Corning's Gorilla Glass 4.
In terms of ports, the Pro 4 carries over the same set from last year's Surface and offers one USB 3.0, a DisplayPort, a proprietary magnetic charging port, 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSD expansion slot. Some may find the available ports limiting, but with a design like the Surface, limitations are to be expected.
The Surface Pro 4 offers a slightly larger display from its predecessor measuring in at 12.3-inches. The Pro 4 maintains its predecessors 3:2 aspect ratio that allows for a better experience when it comes to work and portrait orientation. Not only did Microsoft bump up the screen size, but it also chose to bump up the resolution to 2736 x 1824 - giving the screen a pixel density of 267 PPI. It goes without saying that the screen looks gorgeous - text is crisp, images look sharp and videos look lively.
Type Cover / Pen
Since inception of the Surface, the Type Cover has been a staple part of upping the interaction that allows it to transform from a standard tablet to a workhorse. The latest Type Cover comes in two flavors: the standard and one that has a fingerprint reader. Both options improve on last year's design and offer a better key layout, larger trackpad and quieter keys. The culmination of all of these things makes this an amazing tool when navigating the Surface. Microsoft's Panos Panay was extremely excited to debut the cover at Microsoft's October event and for good reason.
As hinted at previously, the new cover feels great in day-to-day use. The improved spacing of the keys, coupled with farther key travel and a quieter stroke - make this one of the most comfortable detachable keyboards that I have used to date. There is a tiny bit of bounce when typing, but the more you use the cover, the less you notice it, and it does not affect the experience in the least. Expanding beyond the improvements of the keyboard is the glass trackpad, which has been increased in size by 40% over the previous years Type Cover. The expanded width offers the ability to perform gestures and multi-touch actions with ease.
If there is one gripe (and this is a huge one) it is how unreliable the Type Cover is in day-to-day use. While I don't understand why this occurs, during the two months, I would have the Type Cover disconnect and become unusable on a weekly basis. This wasn't just a once a week occurrence, this would happen multiple times during a week's period. While undocking and redocking the keyboard did tend to fix the problem, other times I was left in limbo. Without a solution, often times I would have to restart the Pro just to get the keyboard to respond. Even worse is when I would just lose functionality of the trackpad - multi-touch would disappear without a real cause. I would try to enable it in the settings, just to find that it was already enabled and just not functioning. Over the course of two months, Microsoft has improved the Surface Pro 4 with various software updates and the problem has become less frequent, but it still begs the question as to why this is even a problem to begin with.
As for the Surface Pen, it now offers 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, and can now be secured to either side of the Pro 4 thanks to its magnetic housing. Although convenient, I wouldn't recommend storing it in this manner during travel, as it could easily be knocked off and become lost. The Surface Pen still retains the same quick actions from last year - a single click of the button on its rear opens OneNote, a double click takes a screenshot. Microsoft has also brought something new to the table by introducing a functional eraser on the end of the pen. Much like a traditional eraser, you can now use the tail end of the pen to gently rub away mistakes and yes, it is as fun as it sounds.
The Surface Pro 4 is available in a variety of different configurations - ranging from an Intel m3 to an i7. I opted for the middle of the road model that offers an Intel i5 CPU, 8GB RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. For the most part, I use the Surface to browse the Internet, author posts and watch video streams.
It goes without saying that the Pro 4 is easily able to handle the lightweight stuff. For the most part the experience was snappy, but it did run into some issues when it came to streaming video. When trying to stream 4K from YouTube or Vimeo, there was occasional stuttering that affected both the video and audio. But, local media was a different story, as the Pro 4 was able to handle all files thrown at it, even 4K. Naturally, the inability to play 4K via streams isn't really a huge problem due to the screen's resolution, but it would have been nice to see that the Surface has enough power if necessary, since it has the ability to output to a higher resolution display via its DisplayPort.
For those that like to game, you'll be happy to know that the Pro 4 can handle games fairly well. While not a powerhouse, if set to medium settings, most popular games will run smoothly. Per usual, I have ran benchmarks using 3DMark and PCMark, and have posted the results above. If you are looking for something with more power and want to stay in the Microsoft family, you can either upgrade to the i7 model with an Iris GPU or jump to the more powerful Surface Book.
Camera / Windows Hello
Capturing images with a tablet has been seen as faux pas since the product's inception. Despite the public stigma, many have continued to photograph using their tablets, and thus many manufacturers offer rear shooters. With that being said, the Pro 4 offers an 8MP rear camera that shoots reasonably quick, but offers only what can be deemed as passable by today's standards.
Unlike what you might find on a smartphone, the camera software for the Pro 4 is fairly simple. It offers a limited set of options that allows you to adjust the aspect ratio, framing grid, flicker reduction and video recording settings (1080p, 720p, etc). While I don't imagine many using the Pro 4 to shoot a whole bunch of photos / videos, it's the same old story from last year, you're probably better off shooting images and videos with your smartphone, and relying on the tablet as a last resort.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the front-facing 5MP camera is in its ability to unlock the PC using 'Windows Hello'. Windows Hello was introduced with Windows 10 and offers a new means of unlocking a device that utilizes facial recognition or an iris scan. I've talked about this a little before, but for the most part it works well, but does rely on your face being aligned properly, and also at a proper distance. If it is a little too far or your face is at an angle, the camera struggles to recognize and will ultimately result in a failed attempt to unlock your device.
When creating something as thin as the Pro 4, there are always bound to be sacrifices. Fortunately, audio remains respectable - providing loud, crisp and full sounds. Naturally, there is only so much sound that the speakers can produce, but at all volumes, the sound remains consistent. There were some issues with audio initially that resulted in random popping noises, but this was later corrected by performing a restore.
Battery / Charger
The Pro 4 averaged about 6 to 7 hours during my daily use with the brightness set to "suggested" (50%) , Wi-Fi enabled and the Type Cover connected. Like last year's model, the Pro 4 utilizes a proprietary magnetic charging mechanism that easily slips into the charging port of the device. Although the plug does have a charging light, it only indicates whether it has been connected and does not have a multi-color LED to indicate when charging has completed (e.g. red, orange, green).
For its size and weight, the Surface Pro 4 provides excellent battery life, but one of its weakest points comes when putting the device to sleep. Unlike other devices that tend to sip battery life, the Pro 4 tends to obliterate it, often times leaving you with a dead tablet. Naturally, this is frustrating and for the interim I have defaulted to just fully shutting down. Sadly, Microsoft won't have a fix available until sometime in 2016.
I could say a lot about Windows 10, but I think that the OS and how it functions is covered in our in-depth review from summer. For the most part, the core of the OS has remained the same, although Microsoft did release a major update last month that refines Windows 10 offering enhancements and improvements.
A majority of my experience with Windows 10 on the Surface has been spent with the Type Cover. With the Type Cover, you tend to forget that the Surface is a tablet and interact with the unit as if it were a standard laptop. Naturally, there are moments when touching the screen feels natural and over time you train yourself to the benefit of having a touch-enabled device. Windows 10 is designed with touch in mind and for the most part functions well. Naturally, third party applications that are not as touch friendly tend to make the experience a bit jarring when moving from a seamless touch experience to one that offers little support. As a whole though, Windows 10 works how you would expect it to work on any machine - and that's inherently part of the problem.
For as long as I can remember, Windows has always had some type of issue when it comes to functionality. That tends to happen when you are building something ambitious as an OS that is meant to be compatible with hundreds of different types of PCs and configurations. But, with this year's Surface line, Microsoft has set the stage showcasing two devices that are supposed to represent the very best of what Windows has to offer. Sadly, despite Microsoft's efforts, the Pro 4 stumbles like any other PC on the market and fails to represent the what should be perfect harmony between hardware and software.
I have discussed the issues I have experienced prior in this review and while most have been resolved over time, I still think that launching a high-end device with such flaws corrodes the product and hinders the experience. Maybe it's my fault, but I think there comes a certain expectation when you are dealing with a product that is supposed to represent the very best of Microsoft.
After all, as I mentioned before, Windows isn't an exclusive product and can be found on hundreds of different PCs. And while that's a part of the allure with Windows - having options - it means that the playing field is effectively even. What makes each unique is its specifications, build and price point. That’s why in my mind it’s absolutely critical for Microsoft to offer a different experience with its PCs. Before I dove into the Surface Pro 4, I expected the device to offer some kind of edge over other products. This goes beyond physical build and aesthetics, but a true amalgamation between a software maker and a piece of its own hardware. Again, perhaps I'm asking too much when it comes to wanting a refined experience with a fine tuned OS paired with elegant hardware.
Like many who have invested in the Surface line, I can only hope that my investment will pay off and Microsoft will improve the experience. It's without a doubt that they are fast tracking updates, but is this really a device that should have had this many problems out of the gate? Frankly, it's a huge disservice to consumers, and although this product will undoubtedly get better and better over time, it really goes without saying that a product of this caliber shouldn't be this broken to begin with.
Last year the Surface Pro 3 was the "be-all, do-all tablet from Microsoft". This year, while that title still holds true, there are some shortcomings that mainly have to do with the tablet's software. While Windows 10 as a whole works well, the problems mentioned above are what really hold the Surface Pro 4 from being a truly excellent device. Don't get me wrong, despite my complaints, I like the Pro 4 and I think that it's a great device - but that's only when it's working properly.
Many times during my experience, I was left questioning the reliability of the unit, doubting it. Is this really how you should feel when owning a premium device? The answer is a resounding “no”.
Much like any product, part of what the user feels, is important and relies on the experience. When you consider the out of the box issues, the Pro 4 fails to deliver a confident product, especially one that is being touted as Microsoft's top of the line. Above all, when you take everything into account, you still have to factor in the price tag of owning a Surface. While you get one of the most svelte PCs available, the admission price to own a Pro 4 starts at $899 and that doesn't even include the Type Cover. If you opt to go all in, the price for a base model is a bit over $1000.
The Surface Pro 4 is undoubtedly one of the more compelling devices of 2015. If Microsoft can continue to improve the experience by delivering its promised fixes, it could end up with the product it intended to when it first launched. But if the past is any indication, by that time, we’ll be clamoring and discussing the Surface Pro 5.