Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Iterative in the best sense of the word

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Our Verdict

Has Microsoft at last crafted a tablet that can reasonably, without considerable compromise, replace your laptop? Short of going back to the drawing board on the battery, this looks as close as it's going to get.

For

  • Larger, sharper screen within same dimensions
  • Vastly improved Type Cover
  • Even better Surface Pen

Against

  • Type Cover still sold separately
  • Intel Core m3 at entry level
  • Battery life hasn't improved much

It's almost as if Microsoft predicted that, if it was so very close to making good on its mission to overthrow the laptop with the Surface Pro 3, the firm would surely win it on the fourth go.

The proof? Almost every change about the Surface Pro 4 seems to subtly upgrade the existing blueprint. It's iterative design executed nigh flawlessly.

From trimming the profile while upping the display size within the same frame to vastly upgrading the Type Cover through what look like minor improvements, Microsoft Devices team lead Panos Panay and his crew have clearly taken every bit of feedback to heart. And the result is Microsoft's most refined piece of gear yet.

Recent developments

Despite creating a top-end tablet, not all has been sunny for Microsoft and its fans as of late. However, the firm has made long strides in turning the corner recently.

Following a rocky start to 2016 namely involving faulty power management, Microsoft finally released a Surface firmware patch in late February that is widely believed to have resolved the issues. Addressing anything left in the aftermath were 17 different updates that arrived in mid-April.

And, despite their troubles at the onset, Microsoft's latest Surface devices are the only 2-in-1 products enjoying strong shipments in a tablet market that's seen better days, although according to market research firm IDC, the iPad Pro is faring comparatively better. Contrarily, Windows 10 as a whole has been installed on 300 million devices, and Apple isn't seeing the same level of success with its MacBook PCs.

Recently, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley reported that the second phase of Redstone, an internal moniker for the next marquee Windows 10 updates, may have been shoved back as far as Spring 2017 to align with an eventual hardware release. So, it may be way longer than expected before we see a Surface Pro 5.

Now, following Build 2016, we know that the next major version of Windows 10 will be enhanced for Surface and other tablets running it through Windows Ink. Coming in this summer's Anniversary Update (presumably the first phase of Redstone), Ink is a series of new apps and revamped old ones optimized for stylus control. June (or July) can't come soon enough, unless you plan on waiting until then to make the jump from Windows 7 or 8.

Finally, let's discuss Microsoft's winning hardware design already, shall we?

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Design and display

Perhaps the most obvious way in which this year's Surface Pro model is iterative is its looks. The same all-magnesium, unibody casing is still here, though the "Surface" logo has been replaced in favor of Microsoft's new logo in chrome.

Microsoft managed to up the device's screen size by a few hairs, from the 2014 model's straight 12 inches to this year's 12.3 inches, without affecting its footprint at all. That is, unless you count the Redmond firm shaving over half a millimeter off of its thickness, from 9.1mm to 8.4mm this year – all while maintaining support for full-fat mobile processors.

How did they do it?

For one, Microsoft's product team decided it was time the capacitive Windows button said goodbye, especially with Windows 10 providing easy access to the Start menu, thus the extra room for that three tenths of an inch.

Secondly, the team managed to bring the display's optical stack – the series of sensors, diodes and pixels beneath the glass – even closer to the glass this time around, a key point of Microsoft's trademarked PixelSense screen technology. This helped the firm bring the slate's thickness down by half a millimeter.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

The idea here is to bring the sensor elements of the touchscreen as close to your finger or Surface Pen as possible, and it works awfully well. The display is incredibly responsive to touch, and the further sensitivity it brings to the stylus experience is huge. In tandem with the new Surface Pen, the screen detects 1,024 levels of pressure, even during a single stroke.

Now, let's talk pixels. Even though it really didn't have to, Microsoft went and boosted the Surface Pro's resolution from 2,160 x 1,440 (216 ppi, or pixels per inch) in the old model to 2,736 x 1,824. That makes for a huge 267 ppi put forth by the Surface Pro 4, which blows its main rival, the MacBook Air (128 ppi for the 13-inch), out of the water and narrowly edges out Apple's new, 12.9-inch iPad Pro at 264 ppi.

Screen

But more importantly, the new screen proves to be far more luminous and more color accurate than the Surface Pro 3 display at all brightness levels, as you can clearly see. That's bound to be a key selling point for creative folks, namely artists and designers that have yet to leave the Wacom tablet and calibrated monitor combo behind.

For the rest of us, it simply means more realistic-looking movies and more vibrant photos and games. However, considering Microsoft kept to its rare 3:2 aspect ratio to best emulate the notepad experience for the stylus users, you'll see even thicker black bars sandwiching your favorite films in 16:9 – and even more so for those in 21:9, or widescreen format.

It's a fair concern for folks that watch plenty of movies and TV on a tablet. But fear not, workers, for you're the very reason Microsoft made this decision. The 3:2 aspect ratio is wider and shorter than 4:3, but taller and slightly more narrow than 16:9, the most common aspect ratio for TV and desktop (and laptop) screens today. The result is a middle ground between the two that is ideal for both photo and design or drafting work, wherein 3:2 is much more common, as well as getting computational work done, given the extra vertical space.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Surface Pen and Type Cover

To best make use of that extra space, Microsoft has given its Surface Pen and Type Cover accessories some serious upgrades. In addition to the aforementioned 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, the new-and-included Surface Pen is redesigned to feel more like a pencil. The stylus now has one flat side, as if a Number 2 pencil had all but two of its angles rounded off.

The reason for this is two fold. For one, this stylus is even more comfortable to hold than the last as a result – your index finger rests just above the main function button on the flat end. Secondly, this surface (no pun intended) is coated with thin, powerful strip magnets that allow it to cling onto the tablet's left side. The age of stylus loops is over.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

The Pen also sports a new, and actually functional, eraser button up top that not only does what it says on the tin, but offers up three unique use cases. In addition to opening OneNote with a single press, the button now takes a screenshot and then opens OneNote with a double press. Finally, a long press summons Cortana to answer to your every whim.

Microsoft seems to have expertly weighted the Surface Pen to make it feel not much heavier than your average clickable pen, despite all of the tech inside. Plus, now that Microsoft offers additional pen tips right out of the box only sweetens the pot.

Suface Pen

Coupled with Microsoft's PixelSense display, the duo makes for the best stylus experience I've had on a tablet yet for as little as I'm wont to use it. Now, I'm no artist or designer, but between the superb palm detection and the accuracy and nuance of the Pen tracking, the Surface Pro 4 looks to have Microsoft's best shot at luring in that crowd yet.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Sorry, artsy folk, but these improvements almost pale in comparison with the Redmond firm's new-and-still-not-included Type Cover. This time around, Microsoft managed to greatly widen the spacing between the keys for a chiclet-style approach. What this does is make keeping track of which keys your fingers are on by feel much easier, and it allows for each key to be individually backlit.

The new Type Cover is also slightly thicker and far more rigid than before, allowing for deeper key travel and punchier feedback – not to mention a sturdier, quieter surface to type on – that brings it so much closer to the true laptop keyboard. Panay's team also managed to widen the touchpad and coat it in glass rather than plastic.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

These two huge improvements make a world of difference in answering the question of whether Microsoft's tablet can replace your laptop. The Surface Pro 3's keyboard cover was excruciatingly close to honestly providing a laptop-level typing experience. Now, the new Type Cover has all but closed that gap.

Microsoft upgraded the Surface Pro 4's Type Cover with biometric functionality. The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover with Fingerprint ID has gone on sale in the US and Australia at a cost of £135 (around $192 or AUS$258). The new keyboard cover, which is only available in black, uses Windows Hello to login to the Surface with a fingertip press. The scanner can also authorise app purchases from the Windows Store, and because the keyboard is backwards compatible, it can be used with the Surface Pro 3 too.

Kane Fulton and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this review