First look review: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 adds refinement and polish
The fourth iteration of the Surface Pro family contains only minor improvements, but the overall effect is profound. This hybrid device isn't for everyone, but the small changes add up to a significantly better user experience.
The fourth iteration of Microsoft's professional-grade tablet contains no surprises. It's a refined version of the Surface Pro 3, with just enough small but meaningful improvements to earn the version number bump.
I've been using a Microsoft-supplied review model of the Surface Pro 4 for the past few days. Normally, that's barely long enough to get accustomed to the layout of a new device. But in this case I felt immediately productive, thanks to more than a year's worth of experience with its predecessor.
The designers of the Surface Pro 4 made a conscious decision to maintain the same overall dimensions as the Surface Pro 3. That means upgraders can continue to use peripherals (especially Type Covers and docking stations) purchased for the earlier version.
Like every device in the Surface family, the build quality of the Surface Pro 4 is exceptional. The buying decision is complicated by the simultaneous introduction of the new Surface Book, which is also a two-in-one Windows 10 device but has a rigid keyboard that gives it the heft and feel of a traditional laptop. (My colleague Mary-Jo Foley has a review of the Surface Book.)
So what's new in the hardware?
Despite fitting in an enclosure that's identical to its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4 display is larger - 12.3 inches, compared to 12 inches for the Surface Pro 3. The extra display size means a slightly smaller black bezel. More important is the higher resolution of the display, which now has a native resolution of 2736x1824 and a pixel density of 267 ppi. That's significantly denser than the Surface Pro 3's impressive 2160x1440 resolution.
The latest edition of the Surface family's signature Type Cover (still an optional accessory at $130) uses the same click-in connector and has the same magnetic attachment at the base of the display, allowing the typing surface to raise slightly for ergonomic purposes.
If you objected to the mushy feel and close-set keys of earlier Type Cover releases, this one might be more palatable. The trackpad is larger and significantly more responsive, in my limited testing. That design forced some changes in the keyboard layout as well, pushing the keys higher and occupying nearly the full width of the cover.
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Most importantly, the keys are now separated rather than being packed tightly together. Couple that with a more rigid (albeit slightly lighter) design and the overall effect is to make the new Type Cover easier to type on.
The other signature input device of the Surface family gets a complete makeover in this release as well. The new Surface Pen is slightly larger than the one it replaces, and it sports a flat edge that snaps decisively into a matching groove along the left edge of the display. The idea is to make it less likely to lose the pen, although in my testing I found that the pen dislodged a bit too easily even with the firm connection.
The new pen offers much greater pressure sensitivity, although I wasn't able to test that feature, which will primarily be of interest to graphic artists. In the near future, you'll also be able to replace the tip in the new pen with custom tips designed for different drawing strokes.
One of the most anticipated features of the Surface Pro 4 is its front-facing infrared camera, which uses the Windows Hello feature to authenticate a user based on facial recognition. Alas, that feature wasn't enabled in my review unit, nor did I have access to the new $160 Type Cover equipped with a fingerprint reader for an alternate form of biometric sign-in. Microsoft says those features will be ready courtesy of a first-day update for buyers.
The biggest change in the Surface Pro 4 design, as far as I am concerned, is the availability of configurations that include more than 8 GB of RAM. The new models allow up to 16 GB of RAM, with storage options that extend as high as 1 TB. Those specs make it possible for a Surface Pro 4 to replace a desktop PC.
In fact, as part of my review process, I used this device, equipped with a 6th-generation Core i5 processor, as a full time desktop PC. What made that transformation easy was the new docking station, a small but impressively dense brick that connects the Surface Pro 4 using its blade-style power connector.
The new Surface Dock, at $200, is an ingenious addition, offering a wired Gigabit Ethernet port, two mini-DisplayPort connections, four USB ports (two on each side), and audio output. I had no trouble driving two 4K 27-inch external displays with a full workload. Being able to attach to the dock with a single magnetic connector and then go mobile by removing that connector was impressively easy.
Microsoft says battery life should be about the same as on the Surface Pro 3. I didn't have a chance to run formal battery tests, but my experience suggested that battery life would be more than acceptable, and recharging with the included 36W power supply was quick.
As was the case with its predecessors, the Surface Pro 4 isn't for everyone. The new Type Cover might be enough to win over those who were on the fence, but the kickstand and less-than-rigid design are still dealbreakers for those who prefer a traditional laptop.
For me, the extreme portability of the Surface Pro 4 and the availability of the new dock makes it seriously tempting, even at its premium price tags (my review unit would cost $1299, without Type Cover, and bumping its RAM to 16 GB would add $200).