Microsoft Surface Pro 4: The Do-It-All Machine (Review)

I have already reviewed the Surface Pro 3 and I was mostly happy with it. I have upgraded to the newer Surface Pro 4 though, and I have been using it for roughly a year, so I thought, I would do a review. To keep it somewhat compact, I will focus on the improvements / differences in comparison with the Pro 3, so be sure to watch my review on that device if you are not familiar with the basics.

Let’s start with the design. The body is supposed to be thinner, but you can’t really see the difference. It is also supposed to be slightly lighter, but it’s still a bit too heavy for one-handed use as a tablet. Do not get me wrong, I am not disappointed. The sharp, industrial design is still as wonderful as it used to be, and the materials used ensure no flex whatsoever.

Microsoft has also managed to cram in a slightly bigger and higher quality display into the same chassis, translating to smaller bezels around the display. Everybody should love that. It also supports the Surface Pen. I still wouldn’t say it can replace professional graphics tablets, but it comes in amazingly handy for taking handwritten notes, filling out forms, signing documents, etc.

There is also a new “Windows Hello” certified camera, meaning it’s possible to pass the lock screen just by showing your face. It is super quick and a smoother process than using a fingerprint sensor, in my opinion.

The Surface Pro 4 also has newer generation of processors, so it must perform better, right? No, not really. First of all, there are many configurations to choose from, so it might depend on the configuration and your certain use-case. I have the mid-level version and it has been smooth and snappy for the most part. It still isn’t suitable for any sort of 4K video editing, but I was able to complete a relatively simple university CAD assignment, without using any other computer. Just expect the fan to ramp up when the work gets a bit more intensive than writing Word documents and browsing the web.

That should clearly show, that it can work as a laptop in many cases. Speaking of which, it still has the wonderful kickstand, which smoothly adjusts to prop-up the tablet at almost any angle. The problem is, that the “Type Cover”, the magnetically attaching keyboard is quite essential to get the most out of a device of this class. When you first open up the box, you get the Pen, the charger, and the deice itself. No keyboard, as many people are expecting. That one is a £110 extra. That’s a shame, because it’s very good (for what it is). Backlit and with enough travel to make even longer typing sessions comfortable. Plus, the touchpad is almost on par with the older “mechanical” Apple touchpads. Decently sized, made out of glass, and supporting multi-touch gestures which actually work.

The next positive thing, that even though you are buying a compact device, you still get usable I/O. Most notably, mini DP, and regular, full-sized, USB port. On the other side, there is the 3.5 mm headphone jack, and you will probably want to use it, because even though the speakers are stereo, and front-facing, they could sound a bit fuller. There is also a hidden microSD card slot underneath the kickstand to expand the built-in storage, and not to forget, the power port.

It is super cool in theory, following the same principles as the now discontinued MagSafe by Apple, but it is equally proprietary. So, you might be able to attach a Surface Dock through a single cable, but you are forced to buy a dock, which is compatible with only a couple of Microsoft devices.

Speaking of power, the battery life is ok for a laptop. I get around 6 to 7 hours of screen on time, but it is far from what tablets like the iPad offer. Especially when streaming video. The iPad can make it through an entire day without any problems, but I find myself plugging the Surface in around noon, if I want to use it later in the afternoon.

I can only hope the Surface Pro 5 will come with a USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 port. This would make it more universal, it could theoretically charge from an external power bank, and as an icing on the cake, being able to use it with external graphics cards would transform it from a 2-in-1 to a 3-in-1, replacing the desktop computer for even more users.

I have mostly talked about the hardware, but that is no good, unless the software can take advantage of it. Sadly, this is where the typical Windows problems start cropping up. Microsoft is trying to make a “full PC operating system” run on a portable device, which can be used as a tablet. That brings its own set of pros and cons. As I have already mentioned a few times, the flexibility is amazing. The ton of bugs and insistencies less so. Many buttons are small, still unchanged from the days of Windows XP.

Especially in contrast with the iPad, which has better battery, is lighter, offers fuller-sounding speakers, and last but not least, apps, which are designed for touch interactions. It’s not a total win for the iPad, because it has nowhere near as much raw functionality: no mouse / touchpad support, no USB port, no “real” file system…

With all of that out of the way, the Surface definitely has its audience. Mostly students and businessmen, who value portability, and the possibility to do almost anything without any limitations. The only things letting the entire user experience slightly down are the (by 2017 standards) outdated I/O and some weird bugs. Microsoft has almost mastered the 2-in-1 hybrid device design, and is clearly the leader in this category, but still has room for improvement…

 

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