Summer ’16 update
After years of development and millions of advertising dollars spent to convince us that a tablet could plausibly replace a laptop, Microsoft finally delivered the goods with the Surface Pro 4. Equipped with robust processing power, a perfectly sized display and just-right aspect ratio, and a few critical add-on accessories, the Pro 4 solidified the Surface’s position as the gold standard for Windows tablets. And with the arrival of Windows 10 in July 2015, that which blemished all previous Surface models — an inelegant operating system — was finally replaced by a solid OS that could fulfill the potential of its form factor.
In fact, in a surprising turn, the Surface line has become something of a category trailblazer. Apple’s iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C have lately borrowed envelope-pushing features like the Surface’s snap-on keyboard and multitasking chops. In the meantime, Microsoft has brought out its first-ever laptop, the competent Surface Book, while rumors about the next generation, the Surface Pro 5, continue to smolder. And in June, the company sweetened the deal for the back-to-school set, offering students a free Xbox One with the purchase of a Surface Pro 4.
The new Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft taking a victory lap — and a well-deserved one at that.
After three generations of pitching “a tablet that can replace your laptop” — with mixed success — the formula has finally clicked. The 2015 version of Microsoft’s tablet adds the latest Intel processors, a slightly larger screen (perfectly sized at 12.3 inches with a just-right 3:2 aspect ratio), and a handful of hardware and software tweaks, but doesn’t radically change the DNA of its predecessor, 2014’s excellent Surface Pro 3 . That’s a wise move, because at this point, the Surface Pro line is less about pitching the very concept of the tablet PC with a detachable keyboard to wary shoppers, and more about seeing how far it can go in refining the finished product.
Looking at the finely polished Pro 4, it’s worth remembering the humble beginnings of the Surface line . Debuting in 2012, Microsoft’s line of tablets were, if not outright mocked, then damned by faint praise at best: an overreach by a software-and-services company into the rough-and-tumble world of computer hardware; a Hail Mary response to the mega success of Apple’s iPad the previous year. Any design innovations — the snap-on keyboard, the fold-out kickstand — felt overwhelmed by quirks and compromises. Not the least of which was the choice of operating system: either the much-maligned Windows 8, or the the severely limited (and now deservedly extinct) Windows RT . In those early days, the Surface was looking less like an Xbox-style home run for Microsoft, and more a Zune -like fiasco.
But that’s all ancient history — call it the Ballmerzoic Era. The 2014 Surface Pro 3 became what Microsoft always hoped it would be: the flagship device for touch computing on Windows, the go-to alternative for those who wanted both a tablet and a laptop without feeling shortchanged on either front. The Surface Pro 4 refines the hardware formula even further, and with Windows 10 on board rather than Windows 8, the platform’s final big compromise evaporates too. Now, the Surface line is the design leader: Apple’s upcoming iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C tablets are the ones aping Microsoft’s design, adding snap-on keyboards and ramping up the multitasking chops of their touch-first operating systems.
But, as a very refined product, the Surface Pro 4 is not inexpensive. The wide variety of configuration options and accessories mean that its starting price of $899, £749 or AU$1,349 is not very realistic. For that entry price, you get a Surface Pro tablet with an Intel Core M3 CPU, 128GB of solid state storage and 4GB of RAM, plus a touchscreen stylus that magnetically attaches to the side of the screen.
From the handful of systems we’ve tested with earlier Core M processors from Intel, it’s just not what you’re looking for from a full-time, all-day, everyday computer. The latest versions may be better, but we have yet to benchmark them in a consumer laptop or tablet. A more suitable choice for most will be the mainstream Intel Core i5. Microsoft has updated the processors across the board in the Surface Pro 4 line to Intel’s still-new sixth-generation models, sometimes referred to by the codename Skylake, and a configuration with a Core i5 jumps to $999. Double the storage to 256GB and the RAM to 8GB, and you’re at $1,299 (and that is the specific configuration tested here). You could spend more than $2,000 for an even faster Core i7 processor and bigger hard drive.
But no matter how much you spend on a Surface Pro 4, when you open the box and set it up, there will be one important missing ingredient. The Type Cover, a slim keyboard and screen protector in one, is still sold separately, no matter which Surface Pro 4 configuration you buy. From the earliest days of the Surface, that keyboard cover has rightly been called out as an impressive engineering feat, and the latest version even improves on that. It now features widely spaced island-style keys (like those found on practically every laptop), and a larger touchpad with a better touch surface.
Like the previous Type Covers, it connects via a magnetic hinge along the bottom of the tablet, and folds shut over the cover for easy transport. Also like previous Type Covers, it costs an extra $129, £109 or AU$199. We rarely see a Surface in Microsoft’s advertising materials or press previews without the keyboard cover attached, but for some reason, the company still won’t pack the most noteworthy part of the Surface ecosystem into the box. For such a premium product, it’s an omission that continues to mystify.
At least the touchscreen stylus — improved over last year’s version, and magnetically attachable to the tablet’s edge — is included by default. Likewise, the display is a tad larger (12.3 inches diagonally versus 12), without expanding the overall size of the tablet.
The one design issue that Microsoft hasn’t changed with the Surface Pro 4 is its “lapability” problem. When the keyboard is attached, its rear kickstand works well on a tabletop — but typing on your lap or in a crowded airline seat remains a logistical challenge. Instead, Microsoft has addressed this problem with a whole new sister product, the Surface Book . Billed as the “ultimate laptop,” it takes some of the Surface Pro’s design cues (detachable screen, impressive keyboard) and folds them into a more traditional notebook-style product with a strong hinge that keeps it from tipping back. The Surface Book is cool, and available in even more powerful configurations — but it lacks the Pro 4’s lighter weight and better portability.
Just as the Surface Pro is a full-time tablet and part-time laptop, the Surface Book is a full-time laptop and part-time tablet, and may be what someone looking for a combination of laptop and tablet features is really looking for. Detached from their respective keyboards, the two screens are difficult to distinguish at even a few feet away, and it makes one wonder if the next generation of these products won’t be a single high-performance tablet that combines with your choice of a clamshell laptop base or a portable keyboard cover. Now, that would be something that could truly be a no-compromise tablet and laptop at the same time.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
|Price as reviewed||$1,299, £1,079, AU$1,999|
|Display size/resolution||12.3-inch 2,736×1,824-pixel touchscreen display|
|CPU||2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U|
|Graphics||128MB Intel HD Graphics 520|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)|
Design and features
The Surface tablet line set out its basic design rules with the very first generation of products and has largely stuck to its guns since. What we’ve seen, instead of wholesale reimagining, is a steady march of improvements to the display and chassis, helping the product feel just a bit more premium with every generation.
The earliest Surface Pro models were 13mm thick, while last year’s Surface Pro 3 shaved that down to 9.1mm. This year, we’re down to 8.4mm, despite increasing the size of the screen. Both the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4 are 1.7 pounds (771 grams) by themselves, or 2.5 pounds (1.13 kg) with their keyboard cover and stylus pens attached.
One of the biggest improvements to last year’s Surface Pro carries over here: the highly adjustable kickstand, which can be adjusted to nearly any angle between 22 and 150 degrees. The kickstand, which runs the entire width of the system, is stiff enough that it will stay where you put it, and hardly moves at all, even when using your fingers or the pen on the touchscreen.
Missing from the black bezel surrounding the screen this time around is the capacitive Windows logo touch button. In previous Surface models, this moved around from the long edge to the short edge of the system, but always served the same purpose: to take you back to the Windows 8 tile interface. As we’re now operating in the Windows 10 world, having a physical home button isn’t necessary, although the Windows 10 “tablet mode” is still very similar to what Window 8 looked like.
The pen, almost perfected
Also missing is the awkward plastic loop that used to tether the included stylus (Microsoft calls it a pen) to the keyboard cover. The new pen accessory is a little larger than the previous model, and has a flat edge along one side. This allows it to securely connect to the left or right edge of the tablet via a fairly strong magnetic connection. While it may seem dodgy if you plan on running around all day with your tablet, inserting and removing it from a backpack or shoulder bag, I found that the pen remained securely attached, even in my bag — although I’d recommend doing frequent spot-checks to make sure it hasn’t popped off.
Clicking the eraser-like button on the back of the pen automatically brings up OneNote, Microsoft’s preferred app for pen input. If you have all your Microsoft cloud services properly setup, your OneNote files can sync to other devices such as your phone or tablet (with cross-platform support on Android and iOS devices) or laptop (Windows or Mac).
You can also used the pen with a variety of other apps, including the built-in Fresh Paint, for drawing and sketching, and the New York Times crossword puzzle app, which took pen input and converted it to printed characters. You can also tap the pen on most text fields, even in a Web browser, and a pop-up box will take handwritten input and convert it to text for Web searches, filling in forms or composing email.