Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

The Surface Pro 4 is 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

The Essential Review

This is TechRadar’s review summary that gives you all the key information you need if you’re looking for quick buying advice in 30 seconds – our usual full, in-depth review follows.

With its previous flagship tablet, Microsoft inspired its partners to make their own award-winning 2-in-1s in a similar vein. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise then that the Surface Pro 4 makes only slight revisions over its predecessor  – not that we're complaining.

What are the biggest changes? Well, a slimmer frame to the tune of just 0.33 inches (8.4mm) and a larger, sharper display at 12.3-inches and 2,736 x 1,824 resolution, respectively, are marquee improvements. Even the Type Cover keyboard has seen subtle boosts, as has the Surface Pen over the previous generation.

All of these improvements don't cost a dime more than the previous model did: $799 (£749, AU$899) to start. Sadly, that's with neither the Surface Pen nor the Type Cover, and no configuration comes with the Type Cover – configurations with the Surface Pen included start at $999 (£749, AU$1,178).

We particularly enjoy the sharper, larger display and lighter frame, with the improved Type Cover taking it all to the next level. However, that the Type Cover still doesn't come in the box is a major detraction, given it's a core conceit of the device. Worse off is that the battery life hasn't improved much either – one of the low points of the previous model.

Ultimately, while it may not seem like much on the surface (ha), Microsoft Devices team lead Panos Panay and company have written a love letter with the Surface Pro 4 to their long-time supporters who've taken the time to issue feedback along the way. It's further evidence that Microsoft is listening, and its response is stellar.

Who's it for and should I buy it?

The Surface Pro 4 benefits from awfully wide appeal, from general users to college students to digital designers and much more in between. For those looking for the best of both worlds between the tablet and laptop experience, this is among the very best.

That said, the Surface Pro 4 will not please traditionalists or purists, requiring a bit of an open mind for the first-time 2-in-1 laptop or Windows tablet user. For those that expect a 100% proper laptop experience here, we'd suggest looking elsewhere.

So, has Microsoft finally done it? That depends on how considerable of a compromise you consider "somewhat below average" battery life. If that's about the only thing that Redmond's mission rides on, with the typing, tracking and penning experience vastly improved, then we'd consider the fourth go at it so narrow of a miss that you might be able to pass it for everything it does so well.

Even more so than the version before it, I could easily see the Surface Pro 4 becoming my daily driver, not to mention my comic book reader and Hearthstone and mobile movie machine (I'll deal with the black bars). And that's despite the arguably middling battery life, considering the screen resolution bump. If it can last for a whole cross-country flight, then that's enough for us.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Design and display

Spec Sheet

This is the Surface Pro 4 configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 3GHz with Turbo Boost)
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520
RAM: 8GB LPDDR3
Screen: 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 PixelSense display (Contrast ratio: 1,300:1, 100% sRGB color, 10-point multi-touch, 3:2 aspect ratio)
Storage: 256GB SSD (PCIe 3.0)
Ports: 1x USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort, microSD card reader (UHS-I), headphone/mic jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi (2 x 2 MIMO), Bluetooth 4.0 (Low Energy)
Cameras: 8MP rear-facing, auto-focus camera (1080p HD); 5MP front-facing, 1080p HD camera
Weight: 1.73 pounds (786g)
Size: 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inches (292.10 x 201.42 x 8.4mm; W x D x H)

Just like last time, the same all-magnesium, uni-body casing is still here, though the 'Surface' logo has been replaced with Microsoft's new logo in chrome.

Microsoft managed to up the device's screen size by a few hairs, from a straight 12 inches to this year's 12.3 inches, without affecting its footprint at all. In fact, the firm shaved more than half a millimeter off of its thickness, from 9.1mm to 8.4mm – all while fitting full-fat mobile processors.

As for how this was done, the capacitive Windows button said goodbye, thus the extra room for that three tenths of an inch in the display. 

Then, Microsoft brought the screen's optical stack – the series of sensors, diodes and pixels beneath the glass – even closer to the glass now, a key point of Microsoft's trademarked PixelSense screen technology.

The display is thus incredibly responsive to touch, and the further sensitivity it brings to the stylus experience is huge. In tandem with the improved Surface Pen, the screen detects 1,024 levels of pressure, even during a single stroke.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

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

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. 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.

Screen

For the rest of us, this means more realistic-looking movies and more vibrant photos and games. That's despite even thicker black bars sandwiching your favorite films in 16:9 – and even more so for those in 21:9, or widescreen format, thanks to the 3:2 aspect ratio that remains from last generation.

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 a middle ground between 16:9 and 4:3 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

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.

This version 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, the left side of the frame 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, functional eraser button up top that does what it says on the tin, but has three more functions. 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 help you out.

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 Microsoft offers additional pen tips right out of the box.

Suface Pen

Coupled with Microsoft's PixelSense display, the duo makes for the best stylus experience we've had on a tablet yet for as little as we're wont to use it. While we're neither artists nor designers, the screen's superb palm detection and the accuracy and nuance of the Pen tracking give us confidence that the Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft's best shot at luring in that crowd yet.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

These improvements pale in comparison with Microsoft's new-and-still-not-included Type Cover. This time around, Microsoft took a chiclet-style approach. This makes keeping track of which keys your fingers are on by feel much easier, and it allows for each key to be individually back lit.

The new Type Cover is also 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 a true laptop keyboard. Microsoft also widened the touchpad and coated it in glass rather than plastic.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Finally, Microsoft has a version of the Type Cover with a biometric Fingerprint ID for $159 (£149, AU$249). The new keyboard cover is only available in black and 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.

Performance

Benchmarks

Here’s how the Surface Pro 4 performed in our suite of benchmark tests

3DMark Cloud Gate: 5,873; Sky Diver: 3,673; Fire Strike: 856
Cinebench CPU: 305 points; Graphics: 37 fps
Geekbench 3 Single Core: 3,135; Multi-Core: 6,649
PCMark 8 Home: 2,406
PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Every performance score here, save for PCMark 8 Home, shows a minor increase from the first unit I tested. It's a good sign that the Surface Pro 4 was already operating at its peak, and that only the battery needed fixing.

The Surface Pro 4 bested the 2015 HP Spectre x360 in almost every test by roughly 25%. As for the 13-inch MacBook Air, its multi-core Geekbench 3 (which tests CPUs primarily) score is plenty short of what the Surface achieved.

Ultimately, don't expect to see a major difference between how any of these three machines perform day-to-day, though the MacBook Air will last way longer on a charge. If anything, you might get slightly better frame rates out of games played on the Surface Pro 4 than that 2015 Spectre x360.

If you're curious, the Pro 4 runs Hearthstone (our go-to tablet testing game) without a hitch on its highest settings, even at an automatically-adapted resolution. Plus, the color-calibrated display makes every element on the game's interactive play boards that much more distracting.

Battery life

Tested on pre-production hardware that we were promised has been scrubbed of its battery woes, the Surface Pro 4 produced far better battery life results than at the onset. Unfortunately, they're still well below not only Microsoft's own claims, but what choice rivals are able to put up.

While arguably the most harsh battery test in our lineup, PCMark 8 Home Battery saw the Pro 4 last 3 hours and 15 minutes, a marked 50% increase from before. Still, the Spectre x360 held out in that test for 4 hours and 38 minutes.

Microsoft's tablet fared much better on our video playback test, lasting 5 hours and 15 minutes. That's enough to last you on most coast-to-coast US flights.

In a similar test, the MacBook Air was able to stream 1080p video over Wi-Fi for a whopping 13 hours and 24 minutes. Though, that's thanks to a far lower-resolution display and likely a larger battery.

Regardless, Microsoft promises up to 9 hours of video playback, and these numbers aren't close. Sure, these figures are far better than last year's Surface Pro 3, despite the serious screen resolution bump, which should not be overlooked. But, they still can't hold a candle to neither Apple's leading laptop nor its top tablet – much less comparable Windows hybrids.

Longevity is then about the only thing holding the Surface Pro 4 back from truly, honestly replacing your laptop – or at least your MacBook Air specifically. Otherwise, the machine offers somewhat below-average lasting power.

Not convinced? Try these:

Samsung Galaxy Book: With an incredible display, long battery life and all of the essential accessories in the box, this tablet all but requires you to make liberal use of Samsung’s phone-exclusive syncing and biometric login features via Samsung Flow, its key selling points. Just mind the lack of Windows Hello.

Lenovo Miix 510: A great price, USB-C and USB 3.0, and an included keyboard cover make the Miix 510 an appealing option. While there are a couple of reasons (battery, screen) why you’d go for the Surface Pro 4 instead, but the Miix 510 offers an awful lot for the price. But, again, what's counting against it is considerable.

HP Spectre x2: Its unique kickstand, even sharper IPS screen and hardier included keyboard cover help the Spectre x2 stand out. You'll stay for the impressive spec sheet and premium. That said, it's too bad that the stylus doesn't come included with this device, unlike its rivals. This is likely the biggest rival to the Surface line today.

First reviewed: October 2015

Kane Fulton and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this review