- Lightweight; packs PC power in a tablet format
- Ongoing power issues took months to resolve; battery life is still limited; tablet apps are weak
Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 was designed to be a showcase for Windows 10.
After spending the past six months with this hybrid device, I can report that it does indeed show off Windows 10, including its occasional frustrations and aggravations.
For my first look at the Surface Pro 4, last October, I used a Microsoft-supplied review unit. (I still have that device on a test bench, running recent Insider preview builds.) But I was impressed enough with that initial experience to purchase my own Surface Pro 4, configured with 16 GB of RAM (an 8 GB bump from the review unit), with the same i5 processor and 256 GB of solid state storage.
I also picked up a new Type Cover (with fingerprint reader), as well as a Surface Dock, with the goal of seeing whether I could use the Surface Pro 4 as my primary PC, replacing a much larger Dell desktop.
This isn't an experiment; it's a real-world use case.
So how'd that work out?
Microsoft calls the Surface Pro "the tablet that can replace your PC." If you had asked me in January of this year whether that claim was reasonable, I would almost certainly have answered no.
Today, I can give a mildly enthusiastic yes, at least for the segment of the market that needs extreme mobility and the ability to do complex work on a large screen. Using a single device for both those functions means no more worrying about syncing software and data files between a desktop PC and a portable device.
Ironically, where the Surface Pro 4 falls short is that "tablet" part, not because of the hardware but as the result of an ecosystem that is light on the kind of apps that make a great tablet.
For the first few months after its release, the Surface Pro 4 was plagued by multiple issues that rendered it unreliable as a primary work PC. Both of my machines regularly failed to resume from sleep, requiring a full power cycle to restore normal operation.
In those first few months, the Surface Dock was similarly frustrating, with flickering video output and a maddening tendency to lose connection with peripherals after resuming from sleep. After trying for a few weeks to use the Surface Pro 4 in place of my older but reliable desktop PC. I finally gave up and put it on the shelf.
Microsoft has delivered multiple firmware and driver updates in the past two months. After the February update, I took the Surface Pro 4 out of mothballs and began using it again. Most of the power-related problems were fixed with that update, but it still suffered from other problems after resuming from sleep.
In mid-April, the Surface Pro 4 received 17 separate updates to firmware and individual device drivers. Those fixes appear to have worked out most of the remaining issues. The device now sleeps and resumes reliably, and its interaction with the Surface Dock is smooth and, for the past two weeks, flawless.
In fact, thanks to the Surface Dock, I am now using the Surface Pro 4 as my main PC, and it is, for the most part, a delight.
As I noted in my first look, the Surface Pro 4 hardware is refined and elegant. For that early evaluation, the Windows Hello feature of Windows 10 wasn't enabled. It is now, of course, and that feature is my absolute favorite part of this device. It takes only a second or two for the infrared camera to recognize me and log me in. I can't remember the last time it failed to recognize me, in a bright room or a dark one, even when I haven't had my first coffee of the day and probably wouldn't recognize myself in a mirror.
And then there's the infamous "lappability" factor. That was genuinely an issue with early Surface designs and still is for some people who prefer the solid feel of a clamshell laptop. I used the Surface Pro 4 on a week-long business trip last week and found it extremely comfortable.
The Surface Pro 4 keyboard is a huge improvement over previous generations, with virtually no flex and lots of separation between keys. The hinge design that allows the kickstand to adjust over an infinite range means it's no trouble to find the right angle. Overall, it feels very solid and stable on the lap.
The Precision Trackpad with built-in palm rejection works perfectly, with no glitching of any kind. That's my experience with other recent high-end Windows 10 laptops designs as well, which have become as smooth in operation as (gasp) a MacBook. Maybe it's time to finally retire those complaints about Windows trackpads.
Where the kickstand designs fails, often comically, is on airline tray tables. As seat pitch has shrunk over the years, so have the tray tables, and I frequently find that the kickstand falls off the back of the tray. On three recent flights (especially one cramped seat on an American Airlines flight) I found it more comfortable to simply use the Surface Pro 4 on my lap.
As a tablet, unfortunately, the Surface Pro 4 deserves only mixed ratings. If I were an artist, I would happily create beautiful drawings. But I'm not, so the pen is useful for quick sketches, for annotating PDFs, and for jotting down thoughts using OneNote.
The Movies and TV app is perfectly acceptable for entertainment, and there's a decent Netflix client as well. But for books and magazines, the dreaded "app gap" is at its worst. Amazon's Kindle app is bare-bones, and options for reading magazines are weak at best, which is why I anticipate I'll continue carrying a Kindle Fire HDX tablet in the same bag as the Surface Pro 4 for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, back in the office, the Surface Pro is happily driving two large Dell displays (a 34-inch curved screen at 3440x1440 resolution and a second 27-inch display running at 2560x1440). I've been pleasantly surprised by the smooth response from the built-in Intel graphics.
The challenges of working with high-resolution displays are still a big Windows 10 annoyance. Depending on which display (built-in or external) is primary when you sign in, you'll either have ridiculously small scaling on the built-in display or ridiculously large scaling on the external displays. The solution is to sign out after switching displays (when docking or undocking, for example). That adds an extra step to the transition between mobile and desktop modes, but I've grown used to it.
The Surface Dock has a wired Gigabit Ethernet connection and a 4TB external backup drive connected to it as well, along with speakers, a full-size wired keyboard (I use a Bluetooth mouse at the desktop), and a few spare USB ports. And everything connects through the single blade-shaped, magnetic Surface connector, which also supplies power.
The biggest shortcoming of the Surface Pro 4, and the one that still has me on the fence about its utility as a mobile PC, is battery life. Over time, this device has consistently delivered between 5 and 6 hours of battery life on each charge. That's not bad for a 38 Wh battery. By comparison, the Dell XPS 13 that I've been using as a laptop has a 57.5 Wh battery. That's 50 percent larger, so it's not surprising that it runs roughly 50 percent longer on battery.
(For a brief period last month, this Surface Pro 4 was barely able to last three hours on a charge. After some troubleshooting, I determined that the problem was a background connection to a cloud service that was misbehaving. With that connection removed, battery life went back to normal.)
For anyone who spends long hours away from a power outlet, that might be a dealbreaker. I travel internationally once or twice a year, and it would certainly be inconvenient to be limited to five hours of working time.
But that caveat aside, I'm finally happy with the Surface Pro 4. And the biggest lesson from the experience? Wait six months before buying the first PC to use a new CPU. In fact, maybe just wait six months before buying any new PC model.
|Resolution||2736 x 1824|
|Touchscreen||Yes (10-point multi-touch)|
|Diagonal Size||12.3 in|
|Diagonal Size (metric)||31.2 cm|
|Native Resolution||2736 x 1824|
|Image Aspect Ratio||3:2|
|Case Material||magnesium alloy|
|Clock Speed||900 MHz|
|Number of Cores||Dual-Core|
|Wireless Protocol||802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Features||Windows Hello, autofocus|
|Data Link Protocol||Bluetooth 4.0, IEEE 802.11a, IEEE 802.11ac, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n|
|Run Time (Up To)||9 sec|
|Product Line||Microsoft Surface|
|Country Kits||Canada, United States|
|Installed Size||4 GB|
|Features||Windows Hello, autofocus|
|Type||Windows 10 Pro 64-bit Edition|
|Service & Support|
|Type||1 year warranty|
|Service & Support Details|
|Full Contract Period||1 year|
|Dimensions & Weight|