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Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

80%

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Specifications

→ 6th-generation Intel Core m3
→ Core i5 or Core i7 processor with Trusted Platform Module 2.0
→ 4GB, 8GB or 16GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 515 (Core m3)
→ Intel HD Graphics 520 (Core i5), or Intel HD Graphics 540 (Core i7)
→ 12.3in IPS at 2736x1824 resolution and 267ppi, one USB 3.0 port
→ one Mini DisplayPort, one microSD slot
→ WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac)
→ Bluetooth 4.0, 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD
→ Windows 10 Pro OS, 8MP rear-facing and 5MP front-facing cameras (both with 1080p video)
→ 4th-generation Surface Pen (included) with 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, 292x201x8.45mm, 766g-786g

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  • Design

12.3in tablet with Windows 10 Pro and a superb display

UNLESS YOU’RE planning on picking up a Surface Book, Microsoft would very much like you to leave the laptop behind. That’s always been the premise with the Surface Pro series of business-capable 2-in-1 tablets, but it’s the new Surface Pro 4, with its Intel Skylake processors, Windows 10 Pro OS, and reworked Type Cover attachment, that makes the strongest argument yet.

Its performance in the enterprise will be crucial to Microsoft, especially with the iPad Pro entering the scene at the same time. We’ll return to the subject of comparisons, but for now, there’s a question that needs answering: can the Surface Pro 4 really replace a laptop?

Design

Surface Pro devices have never looked particularly elegant with their barely-rounded corners and trapezoid profiles. The Surface Pro 4, however, is the slimmest and lightest yet at 292x201x8.45mm and 766g to 786g depending on the internals. That’s not as airy as the iPad Pro, and still a bit too weighty to hold in one hand, but this is still a perfectly portable slate that can be stuffed in a satchel much more easily than a laptop.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

It’s well built as well, with a magnesium case that confers a reassuring firmness, despite looking and feeling almost like plastic. The fully adjustable kickstand uses a multi-point hinge for extra firmness and stability.

The Surface Pro 4 covers all the bases where connectivity is concerned. In addition to a Mini DisplayPort and microSD card slot, the series’ trademark full-size USB 3.0 port sits on the right edge. As always, this port is a small but significant inclusion that allows the easy use of thumb drives and USB peripherals. It’s a big advantage for productivity over most micro USB-equipped, consumer-focused tablets. These devices also commonly charge via USB, unlike the Surface Pro 4 which keeps the port free by including a separate power connector.

There’s also a new and stronger magnetic clip for the redesigned Surface Pen, which, unlike with the Surface Pro 3, doesn’t obscure any ports when fastened on. The Pen is excellent. Drawing and handwriting feel silky smooth, changes in pressure are seamless and the ‘eraser’ on the rear tip is highly intuitive to use. We didn’t use this feature much, but holding down the eraser will now open the Cortana digital assistant, in addition to the older controls of pressing it once to open OneNote and twice to take a screengrab.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

We also like the new Type Cover, although this isn’t included with the Surface Pro 4 as standard and will cost an extra £109.99. Instead of being crammed together, the backlit keys now have a bit more space between them without being overly shrunk, which makes for a more familiar, and thus more accurate, typing experience for our laptop-accustomed fingers. The glass trackpad is also slightly wider than on previous Type Covers, which will be good news for fans of low cursor sensitivity.

The Type Cover’s thinness still means that the Surface Pro 4 is top-heavy when used in this faux-laptop configuration. Nonetheless, the kickstand does an admirable job of preventing it from toppling backward, even on an uneven surface like, say, a lap.

We have only one problem with the Surface Pro’s design, and it isn’t even a problem on certain models: with an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, the fan can emit a highly conspicuous whirr under heavy load. Most of the time, though, it remains quiet, and models with a more power-efficient Core m3 chip are fanless, so won’t suffer from this at all.

Display

Reducing the size of the bezels has allowed Microsoft to squeeze a slightly larger 12.3in the display into a similar overall body width to that of the 12in Surface Pro 3. That said, the really impressive thing is the resolution.

At 2736×1824 and 267ppi, the Surface Pro 4 is beautifully sharp, by tablet standards and in general. HD videos and high-res photos look absolutely superb, helped in no small part by the quality color balance which ensures vibrant hues across the entire spectrum. Deep blacks and clean whites also make for some pleasantly crisp text documents and OneNote scribbles.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Sadly, the Surface Pro 4 hasn’t escaped the reflection problem that plagues so many tablets. Lights don’t produce huge amounts of glare but their reflections can block the view somewhat, and unless we had a lot of bright white on-screen, such as from a web page or word processor, we could sometimes see ourselves staring back.

More positively, the glass is much, much better at resisting fingerprints than it does light sources; we’ve been using the Surface Pro 4 for days and haven’t felt the need to clean it once. This, combined with the outstanding resolution, vivid colors, and extremely wide viewing angles, makes the Surface Pro 4’s display the best large tablet display we’ve ever seen. We can’t wait to get our hands on the 12.9in, 2732×2048 iPad Pro to see how the two square up in this department.

Operating system and software

As glimpsed in the Surface Pen’s Cortana integration, Microsoft has built the Surface Pro 4 specifically with Windows 10 Pro in mind. It is indeed a good fit for a business tablet, allowing compatibility with legacy applications as well as newer productivity software like Office 2016.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

The Continuum UI feature in Windows 10 Pro enables the Surface Pro 4 to switch between a Type Cover-friendly desktop view and a touch-optimized tablet mode, a swift and smooth change that can be set to occur as soon as the Type Cover is attached or removed.

Windows 10 Pro is loaded with a wealth of enterprise-specific tools, which are not shared with Windows 10 Home or the iPad Pro’s iOS 9. Among these are security features like BitLocker encryption and the face recognition authentication of Windows Hello, mobile device management applications such as the built-in Local Group Policy Editor, and other general tools like Remote Desktop support.

The Surface Pro 4 is nicely light on third-party bloatware, although a few minor software additions have been made. These include Sway, a more casual slideshow creation alternative to PowerPoint, Drawboard PDF, a nifty program for adding handwritten notes and annotations to PDF files, and the Surface app, which doesn’t actually do much besides changing the Surface Pen’s sensitivity.

Security

Windows Hello means that the Surface Pro 4 eschews fingerprints in favor of faces; once a user has enrolled they can unlock the device simply by looking at the front-facing camera. This worked reliably and promptly in our experience, and we were recognized as soon as we sat down in front of the camera even from a couple of feet away.

The time it takes varies, but even if it takes a second or so longer than a fingerprint sensor, we prefer it simply for the sheer ease of use. The camera wasn’t fooled by photographs, either.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

Whichever processor is chosen, it will include an up-to-date Trusted Platform Module 2.0 chip. A common feature of business machines, this locks down the Surface Pro 4 if it detects that someone is modifying the hardware – a tell-tale sign of nefarious parties attempting to circumvent security software.

Speaking of software, BitLocker offers a convenient tool for encrypting everything on the SSD, including system files. This is on top of the basic device encryption in Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Home, which protects only a single user’s files and folders.

Performance

There are several Intel Skylake CPU and RAM combinations available, ranging from the cheapest Core m3 with 4GB of RAM model to a monstrous-sounding Core i7 model with a whopping 16GB of RAM.

Our test unit was in the middle of the pack, containing a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-6300U and 8GB of RAM. That’s still on a par with a reasonably beefy laptop, so we weren’t exactly shocked when it put in some very good benchmark scores. These were 256ms in Sunspider, 1,303.7ms in Kraken and 2,977 single-core, and 6,337 multi-core in Geekbench. Lower scores are better in Sunspider and Kraken, while higher scores are better in Geekbench.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

This particular Surface Pro 4 model is therefore on a par with the ThinkPad Yoga 12, a high-end convertible ultrabook. It also handily beats the competing HP Inc Elite x2 1011 G1, although that had a much weaker processor despite costing more.

Also of note is that the single-core Geekbench score puts the Core i5-6300U among high-end desktop CPUs like the Core i7-4770HQ. The multi-core score isn’t quite as great, but is still highly competitive, especially for a tablet.

The Surface Pro 4 coped well when put to the test as our main work machine for a day. Video editing and 3D modeling were buttery smooth with no slowdown whatsoever, and busy webpages that would often force our aging everyday laptop to its knees loaded instantly.

The only hitch came when editing pictures in Gimp. The Surface Pro 4 can handle light tweaking of small and medium-sized images, but the program became noticeably sluggish when we piled on layers over one particularly high-resolution photo.

Cameras

Unusually for a tablet, we were pretty impressed with the Surface Pro 4’s cameras. The 8MP rear camera and 5MP webcam capture colorful stills and smooth 1080p videos, with good detailing and minimal light distortions or artifacts, although curiously the rear camera’s videos look a bit more washed out than its stills.

Of course, the Surface Pro 4’s size means that using it as an everyday camera is awkward at best. Conversely, the quality of the front-facing camera, which, like the display, is among the best we’ve seen in its class, is such that we’d use it as eagerly for an important video conference as we would for a friendly Skype chat.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

The front camera has also been kitted out with infrared capability. This won’t see much use most of the time but did come in useful for making sure that the face recognition of Windows Hello continues to work in low light.

Battery and storage

The Surface Pro 4’s battery performed decently in our video loop burn tests, averaging eight hours and 32 minutes, very close to Microsoft’s stated nine hours.

However, the battery life crumbles in mixed-use. We drained 40 percent in just two hours of typing and web browsing on the ‘Suggested’ brightness setting, ultimately stretching to just five hours and 30 minutes after we switched to the ‘Darker’ setting and threw in some image and video editing tasks.

This isn’t too bad compared with the kind of laptops the Surface Pro 4 intends to replace, as judging by what we’ve reviewed ultrabooks can last anywhere between five and eight hours. But it’s far from the ‘all day’ performance Microsoft advertises, even when defining that as a standard eight-hour workday. Unfortunately, this tablet will need to be shackled to the mains at least once per shift.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

We were also disappointed to find that, despite the lack of added bloatware, our test unit’s 256GB SSD included only 188GB of effective free space. We imagine it’s a similar story with the 128GB and 512GB alternatives, although to be fair these are still serviceable capacities for a business tablet, and they can all be expanded further via microSD. A mammoth 1TB model is also on the way, but no prices or release date information has been revealed.

In short

The answer is yes: the Surface Pro 4 can very much replace your laptop, on the condition that your laptop isn’t a full-on mobile workstation. For most tasks, including basic design work, it will do the job and do it well while providing a level of security, connectivity, and visual fidelity that most convertibles, including those made for the enterprise, just can’t match.

The price tag at £859 for the basic model and keyboard means it’s not likely to tempt standard iPad or tablet users away, but in place of a laptop, the cost becomes more palatable.

With Microsoft’s latest effort a success, then, our eyes turn toward its big rival, the iPad Pro. We’re currently trying out Apple’s first productivity tablet, so we’ll be able to determine for sure which is the better choice for business.

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