If you’ve never experienced one of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets, now may be the time to give them a chance. There was a bit of skepticism when Microsoft first launched their own Windows tablet, but now that we are four generations in, the Surface Pro 4 has quickly situated itself as a respected and often imitated device.
We’ve already shared our first impressions from our first 48 hours with the device, but now we can really see what the fuss is all about in this full hands-on review of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4.
Without a huge departure in design or function from the Surface Pro 3 before it, the Surface Pro 4 is a 12.3-inch tablet. The optional detachable keyboard helps set this device apart from other tablets, offering up a decent laptop experience as well, and the built-in kickstand goes a long way to making this possible.
Looking around the outside, you’ll find just a few key I/O ports, including the power and volume buttons, a 3.5mm headphone jack, Mini DisplayPort connector, a full size USB port, the Surface Pro 4’s proprietary power connector and the keyboard connector.
Fans of easy to use technology will enjoy the power and keyboard connectors, both of which are secured by way of magnets, simply snap the cable or keyboard to the tablet, and off you go. This makes them extremely easy to connect and disconnect, but are still tough enough to get through your day.
The power connector goes beyond providing electricity, mind you, allowing you to connect the Surface Dock. This allows you to instantly connect to two extra Mini DisplayPort and 4 more full size USB connections.
The overall design of the Surface Pro 4 is more industrial feeling than many tablets out there, This includes a battleship grey color, hard plastic embellishments on a metal case and a vented design that provides function and looks, but is not all that great in hand. Specifically, if you hold this tablet as you would a smaller mobile device, resting it on the insides of your pinkies, the pressure points will have you fairly sore in no time.
Aside from that, the tablet is fairly decent to look at with a design that does not distract you from the display.
Speaking of the display, the Surface Pro 4 comes packed with a 12.3-inch panel, it is a bright and crisp display with a resolution of 2736 x 1824. That works out to 267 ppi.
Although this is still a tablet form factor, capable of lugging around on your daily commute, we can’t help but compare it to a laptop computer. In which case, this compares as a very high-end display with great low-light as well as respectable direct sunlight capabilities.
The touch experience is surprisingly accurate as well. This is not something we usually talk about in a tablet review, but the interface of the Surface Pro 4 offers up somewhat tiny interactive elements. It is often that I press my finger to the display to have it cover two or more on-screen buttons or links, every one of these situations so far has resulted in activating what I had wanted pressed. I can’t deny I am pleased by that.
Taking the display to the next level is the included Surface Pen. This is not your everyday stylus, it is a Bluetooth connected accessory that offers many different functions, we’ll talk more about it in a bit, but when you touch it to the display you are able to interact with the precision of a mouse but the pressure sensitivity of a real pen as it would be on paper. I admit that I have not yet found a great use for this pressure sensitivity aside from drawing, but it does that extremely well.
Handwriting or drawing is fluid and fairly realistic. As much as I am crediting the pen, this is mostly due to the display and its touch input capabilities. This level of touch precision is part and parcel why the display on the Surface Pro 4 is a pleasure to look at, as well as a pleasure to use.
Viewing angles are solid in all directions and colors are vibrant and well saturated.
We cannot talk about the performance of the Surface pro 4 without first mentioning that this tablet can be purchased with drastically different hardware configurations. At the high end of things, you’ll enjoy the latest Intel Core i7 processor with 16GB of RAM. At the entry level, the new Core M3 processor is backed by 4GB of RAM and there are nearly $2000 worth of variations in between, including models with the Core i5 processor.
At the entry level, performance is fast and smooth. Navigating the OS, browsing the web or playing your favorite game performs well. We keep using Asphalt 8 as our example, it is just one of those great games that is available across most ecosystems. While gameplay is smooth, the intro scenes ahead of each race suffer a little lag, but there have been no glitches and load times are as fast, if not faster than most other devices we’d tested.
Considering the Surface Pro 4 is a full blown Windows 10 computer, it is only fair that we gave it a rundown treating like a laptop. The perhaps unexpected difficulty is that the tablet part is not propped up by the keyboard. This means you will need to use the built-in stand to keep the display upright. Luckily, it is a versatile stand, so we can get back to the topic of performance.
My old version of the Microsoft Office suite installed in no time, and the apps load up and perform very well. Using an attached mouse and keyboard, the experience was no different than that of my laptop, able to drive my two displays at once, even with HD video playing on each screen.
Putting things to the test, there ware no problem at all installing Steam, and then directly installing or streaming Fallout: New Vegas over from my gaming rig. I forgot to turn on the FPS counter, but I have all high settings and no hiccups.
For our July 2016 update, we are happy to announce that we’ve seen no degradation of performance of this tablet. We must admit that our usage is fairly light, we been using it as a travel companion when a full Windows device is required. Capable of handling all of our needs to produce these very written articles, we still rely on the old-school laptop/desktop to handle the video processing for our videos.
In addition to producing this content, we were pleased with the Surface Pro 4’s performance in a meeting setting, flipping through web pages, and writing up note on the attached keyboard with ease. We also put the Surface Pen to use, taking handwritten notes and even using the tablet as a presentation board. Not going to pretend the 12.3-inch display was large enough for our needs, but we got through.
We’ve gone ahead and performed a few benchmark tests on a handful of our favorite tablets and ultrabooks, take a look at the table below to see how the Surface Pro 4 stacks up. Do keep in mind that the Surface Pro 4 has been on the market for almost a year now, compared to a few of these other options that are just a few months old, at most.
As you can see, the Surface pro 4 is one of the slowest devices on our tested list, but it is also an entry level Surface Pro 4, we suspect the Intel Core i7 model with a bit more RAM would perform a little differently.
Listing off the spec sheet, The Surface Pro 4 is equipped with either the latest Intel Core m3, i5 or i7 processor. 4GB of RAM at the low end with 8GB and 16GB options available. a 128GB Solid State Drive can be upgraded to as much as a 1TB drive. That about covers the equipment with options.
As for the standard equipment, a 5MP front facing camera serves you well for video conferencing and a 8MP rear shooter offers up a pretty basic photography experience. Sadly, the point and shoot photo experience creates fairly poor quality photos, you’ll have to take some time to get the lighting right if you plan to capture great photos with the Surface Pro 4.
The dual front facing speakers are loud and sound quite good at their default equalization settings. The tablet feels sturdy in the hand, it’s light enough to hold for a fair amount of time, yet weighs enough it won’t be blown over on a windy day.
The built-in kickstand grows on you quickly. It is a little stiff at first, but loosens up and offers a great range for your viewing needs. This works on a desk and even in your lap, the latter of which is best served with the optional keyboard attached for balance.
Perhaps the highlight of the Surface Pro 4 hardware is the magnetic connections for power, keyboard and more. It could not be easier to connect the reversible power connector, it almost does the work for you if you get the plug close. This goes for the keyboard as well. Not to mention the Surface Pen simply sticks to the side.
While Microsoft is reluctant to give up the exact battery size in the Surface Pro 4, through device break-downs it has been revealed a 4567mAh non-removable battery. For our testing, we were able to get 5+ hours of typical web surface and document creation. A hard-core gaming session will reduce screen-on time to about 3 hours.
One thing to keep in mind is that the full size USB port is a mixed blessing, so to speak. Remember that connected USB accessories will be powered by the tablet. This may be negligible when powering a mouse or keyboard, but running a portable hard drive will make a noticeable difference in overall battery life.
In the end, we were not able to get a full days work out of the Surface Pro 4, be prepared to carry your charging cable if you too have a 8+ hour work/school day.
Related reading: Surface Dock review
I am sure most of you have experienced, or at least heard of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system. Available in a few versions, the Surface Pro 4 comes with Windows 10 Pro pre-installed.
If you approach this device as you would a laptop, Windows 10 performs as you would expect, offering up the familiar windowed interface with normal re-sizable windows and all the great multi-tasking abilities that provides. Attach an external display to view larger or expand your viewing experience and so much more.
Now, if you take away all of the accessories, the Surface Pro 4 makes no automatic changes – this time you get to poke around the screen with your finger. There is a new tablet mode interface that better embraces your touch input, but we suspect you’ll keep it on the normal interface as you go.
We previously discussed the Surface Pen, and while I introduced it as a stylus, it falls firmly into the category of smart stylus. As a battery powered Bluetooth accessory, the stylus adds a level of input to the device that really makes Windows 10 shine on a touch screen. Specific features include hover over to move the mouse cursor, tap to click, press down with pressure sensitivity to draw in a supporting app, long press on the display or press the side mounted button on the pen to right click, press the rear pen ‘clicky part’ once to open OneNote, twice to take a screenshot and long press the pen back button to open Cortana.
Needless to say, the combination of these three input methods and techniques makes for an extremely versatile computing experience.
Having used a touch screen Windows 8 laptop at one point, I am confident you will experience a much better touch screen experience with Windows 10, and the additions of the Surface Pen make for a compelling reason to consider the Surface Pro 4 as your next device, or at least to upgrade to Windows 10 on your other machines.
As mentioned earlier, the camera on the Surface Pro 4 is not the camera you’ll want along when photo quality is your concern. With the right lighting conditions, the 8MP rear shooter is capable of decent shots, but low light results are sub-par. In-fact, I was just looking back, and the resulting photos from the Surface Pro 4 are about as good as the 3.2MP shooter on my old LG Optimus One (P500) from 2010.
In light of the poor rear camera quality, the front facing 5MP shooter on the Surface Pro 4 provides above average video quality. Designed to suck up all the light possible, your video conferencing needs will be easily met with this camera. Photos out of the front do better in low light as well, but still fail to impress when compared to an equally equipped smartphone.
Bottom line, I do not believe this 12.3-inch tablet makes for a great mobile camera, but it will do in a pinch.
|Surface Pro 4|
|Display||12.3-inch, 2736x1824 resolution, 267ppi|
|Processor||6th Generation Intel Core m3, i5 or i7|
|Internal Storage||128GB, 256GB, 512GB and 1TB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Pro|
|Connectivity options||WiFi a/b/g/n
Wired Ethernet through optional Dock
|I/O ports||Full USB
Proprietary power/dock port
|Battery life||Up to 9 hours|
|Dimensions & weight||11.5 x 7.93 x 0.33 inches (292.1 x 201.42 x 8.45 mm)
1.69 - 1.73 lbs (766 - 786 g)
Optional magnetically connected keyboard with touchpad
(Also available with fingerprint scanner.)
Pricing and final thoughts
I am torn here folks. I want to make a clear recommendation that the Surface Pro 4 is the tablet that you are looking for. I want to tell you that it is a better choice than a laptop. I want to tell you that it can do everything you need from a computer today. But these words would be only mostly true.
There is no question that the Surface Pro 4 is a capable computing device, even with the entry level specifications, just add in the optional Surface Dock and Surface Keyboard to make a tablet that can not only travel with you, offering up several hours of use on a charge, but then dock in and act as any other computer with external displays and USB accessories.
|Internal storage (SSD)||Surface Pro 4 Pricing|
Intel Core m3, 4GB RAM
Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM
|256GB||$1299 - $1499
Intel Core i5, 8GB - 16GB RAM
$1599 - $1799
Intel Core i7, 8GB - 16GB RAM
|512GB||$1699 - $1899
Intel Core i5, 8GB - 16GB RAM
Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
|Detachable keyboard||$129.99 - includes touchpad
$159.99 - includes touchpad and fingerprint scanner
|Other||Surface Dock with 2 Mini DisplayPort and 4 full size USB ports - $199.99|
I’ve had some of you already ask if it would be worth purchasing the Surface Pro 4 instead of a laptop? With an $899 entry point, and upgrades that can quickly take you as high as $3000, there is a definite barrier to entry. You can certainly find a touch screen laptop with greater specs for the same price as the line of Surface tablets, so it really comes down to your use.
If you are in need of a fairly stationary computer, one that will live on your desk, connected to external displays, I think I would recommend a desktop or laptop. On the flip side, for those of you that want to take Windows on the road, if you like a versatile device that will be used as mostly in hand by the touchscreen, the Surface Pro 4 is an excellent device to consider.
The introduction of several new devices to the market that appear to directly compete with the Surface Pro 4 has been interesting. We’ve touched the iPad Pro and iPad Pro 9.7, both running iOS, but more importantly, we’ve touched the Dell XPS line, Huawei MateBook and are getting ready for the ASUS Transformer 3 Pro. Stay tuned for more coverage of devices that are similar to, or at least are viable alternatives to the Surface Pro 4. Including the MacBook 12.
We’ve been able to compare the Surface Pro 4 to the MateBook, while we fully admit that the Huawei tablet feels superb in the hand, far superior to the Surface Pro 4, we could not help but notice that in the desktop experience, there was no competition, Microsoft wins without a doubt. Not to say that the MateBook is not capable of keeping up in pure performance, just that the MateDock is the only advantage to the experience, the Surface Pro 4 is much easier to physically handle and adjust, a fact that is more important than it sounds when you actually put these tablets to use.
Some more time has passed, and of all of the two-in-one tablets that have crossed our desk, the Surface Pro 4 remains the only one to stay on the desk full time.
With various iOS and Android tablets, ChromeOS, Windows and Linux powered laptops at my disposal, the Surface Pro 4 was the one device I opted to take with me on a trip to Japan this fall. In considering usability, weight, battery life and all else I would need to not only play, but work a little, including clear my camera’s microSD card each day, Microsoft’s tablet was my choice, and I did not regret it at all. I could have used greater battery life a couple days processing photos, but in the end, I was easily able to get by with this one machine for a week.
What do you think, is the premium for this tablet worth it, will you be purchasing a Surface Pro 4?