Ratings Breakdown (1-10)
Microsoft might not admit it, but the original Surface tablets were reference devices. With the radically-redesigned Windows 8 and Windows RT launching, Microsoft wanted to show its hardware partners in unsubtle fashion what a new Windows device should look like; kind of like what Google does with its Nexus program.
With the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, Microsoft doubled down and refined the product, but soon thereafter it became clear Windows 8 wasn’t working. User preference evolved askew of the tablet-centric market Microsoft envisioned when building Windows 8.
With Windows 10 looming, Microsoft completely rethought the Surface line, ditching RT, and redesigning the Pro with even more of a productivity focus, including a 3:2 aspect ratio and integrated pen experience.
Given how well the Surface Pro 3 was received by users and critics alike, it’s no surprise Microsoft didn’t change much for the follow-up, the Surface Pro 4. So the question becomes how well an iterative update holds up in a fast-evolving market. Read on to find out.
Build & Design
The Surface Pro 4 looks like the Surface Pro 3 at a glance, but has some minor hardware tweaks. The most salient is the left short edge, which now acts as a magnetic strip for the new Surface Pen, housing only the 3.5mm audio jack on the upper portion. The top long edge now sports the power button and single piece volume rocker in front of the cooling vent, which wraps around the upper portion of the tablet. The Mini DisplayPort and full-sized USB 3.0 sit on the right side, just above the magnetic charging input that debuted with the Pro 3.
The bottom edge houses the magnetic Surface keyboard and cover connector, which retains the same exact design as it did when the device line first debuted. That means that even a first-generation Touch Cover will function with the Surface Pro 4.
The nearly identical kickstand returns, with its fluid hinge, and it hides a microSD card slot underneath. We cannot discern any difference between this kickstand and the Pro 3’s, as both open to about 135 degrees and prove remarkable stable, even when resting on a lap.
The Surface Pro 4 measures 11.5 x 7.93 x .33 inches and weighs either 1.69 (Core m3) or 1.73 (Core i) pounds, making it just .03 inches thinner than the Pro 3, and either .3 or .7 pounds lighter.
Like all Surfaces before it, it’s a remarkably well-built machine. We’ve long claimed that Surface hardware is the best on the market, and that still stands. The Surface Pro 4 has the same magnesium build as its predecessors and it feels solid, with no flex. Judging how well the old Surface models we have in the office have held up with frequent abuse, we are confident the Pro 4 will handle the rigors of daily use very well.
Display & Speakers
The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has a 12.3-inch display with a 2736 x 1824 resolution, which results in 267 pixels per inch. Microsoft brands it a PixelSense display, and it’s one of the best on the market.
By just about any metric, it’s superb. Colors are startlingly accurate and balanced. It has none of the super saturation found in OLED displays (that actually look quite pleasant on smartphones and smaller tablets, but would just be too much on a device this size), and as a result, is easy on the eyes during extended use. Also this Windows 10 tablet shrugs off glare better than just about any consumer device. Some rugged tablets have absurd brightness levels to cut through glare, but the Surface Pro 4 keeps it reasonable. Its glass is just not as reflective, likely due to an optical bonding process. To be fair, glare can still present issues, but it never rendered the Pro 4 unusable.
The display supports the Surface Pen and up to 10 touch points. It picks up smudges and fingerprints, but it’s not what we’d call a smudge magnet. Touch is very accurate and swift. We’ve complained about lag in recent Windows 10 device reviews, but there is none of that here. The Surface Pro 4 is just as responsive as an iPad or any other mobile tablet.
The Pro 4 has a noticeably better display than the Pro 3, compared side-by-side. It’s .3 inches bigger, owing to the thinner bezel, and more pixel dense, 267 to 216 pixel per inch. Microsoft ditched the Windows softkey on the right side, but the light sensor, selfie camera, and pinhole mic remain on the top edge.
The Surface Pro 4 features front-mounted speakers on the upper edges of the display, which is exactly where they should be in order to direct sound at the user. Compared to other tablets and laptops, they are absolutely superb, emitting clear and robust audio. The sound is slightly fuller than what the Pro 3 is capable of producing, and it’s loud enough for personal use, even with plenty of background noise.
Take note that we’re grading on a curve here. Laptop and tablet speakers are routinely awful, so the Pro 4 is good, making it by far the best of a bad bunch. Music fans, gamers, and audiophiles still shouldn’t ditch the external speakers, however.
Ports & Connectivity
We are always happy to see full-sized USB on any device this thin, but we’re getting antsy about USB Type-C. It’s time all devices ship with that. We also have issues with the proprietary magnetic charger. Now on its second-generation of Surface Pro, it’s elegant, but it’s length and thinness make it awkward. It’s also really expensive replace, costing $70 as of this writing from Microsoft.
Curiously, our Surface Pro 4 shipped with a one-piece charger, while the Pro 3 shipped with a two-piece charger that’s similar to the $80 replacement charger. The main difference between the two is that the two-piece charger has a full-sized USB input. This has so much utility, particularly for travelers looking to charging both their Surface and a smartphone at the same time in a crowded airport or lounge. Given the Pro 4’s premium price, it’s a shame Microsoft cheaped out here.
The Surface Pro 4 supports 802.11ac, as well as Bluetooth 4.0. Wi-Fi range is sufficient, and the connections are stable. The iPad Pro supports Bluetooth 4.2, and many other devices at least support 4.1. There are some speed enhancements and privacy protections built into the newer standards, but most of the improvements have to do with dealing with LTE interference and data from wearables. It’s possible to upgrade 4.0 to the newer standards with a software update.
The new Surface Pen relies on the same N-trig technology as the Pro 3’s, but Microsoft wisely improved it. The Pen now supports 1,024 points of pressure sensitivity, up from the previous Pen’s 256, which itself is down from the Pro 2’s 1,024 when Microsoft was relying on Wacom tech.
The new Surface Pen is longer, with about the same circumference and similar weight. It ditches the two buttons on the shaft, featuring only the tip and the nub, along with a flat side that serves two purposes: it makes it the Pen easier to hold and grip, and it enables magnetic docking on the Pro 4’s left short side.
It’s still powered by a AAAA battery. A press of the eraser nub still calls up OneNote, while two clicks takes a screenshot. But a long press now launches Cortana. It’s a minor feature, but it helps heavy Pen users easily incorporate Cortana into a workflow, and that’s a good thing.
Otherwise, performance seems on par with the Pro 3 Pen. We’re sure artists will notice the difference with the increased pressure points, but it’s not obvious with OneNote. Palm rejection works as it should, and there is no difference between the Pro 3 and Pro 4 in terms of hover action distance. Looking at the linearity pen test, it seems the Pro 4 has the same problem as the Pro 3 in smoothing out slow lines, but its edge detection looks improved.
Microsoft seriously upgraded the Type Cover, adding Chiclet-style keys, a glass trackpad, and an option for a fingerprint sensor.
It’s an improvement over the old Type Cover design, as we outline in our full Microsoft Type Cover with Fingerprint ID review. But we will say for the purposes of this Pro 4 review that Microsoft should bundle the keyboard. It’s necessary, and it’s a shame users have to plunk down more money to get full use out of the device.
The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is available in multiple configurations, ranging from a sixth-generation Intel Core m3 with 4GB of RAM to a sixth-gen Core i7 with 16GB of RAM, with Core i5 model in between.
The difference between the most and least powerful entries is stark when straining the system, but users won’t notice much difference in day-to-day use. The Core m3 unit we tested booted up as fast as any system we’ve powered on. We’ve complained in the past about Windows 10 issues with recent non-Core i devices (growing pains with a still new OS, perhaps), but there are no issues here. The Surface Pro 4 Core m3 unit is swift, stable, and bug free. As Apple fans can attest, there are palpable benefits to having both the software and hardware built by the same manufacturer.
Our review unit featured a 128GB hard drive, of which, approximately 83GB is available out of the box, with the 64-bit Windows 10 Pro taking up 15.3GB. This number can vary based on the setup process however. Microsoft gives users the option of syncing OneDrive folders, which will take up space for offline availability. Also, our review unit had 17.3GB of temporary files taking up space. This is a “previous version of Windows” that the system retains for those with Windows 10 upgrader’s remorse. It should automatically delete after a month or so, and users can be proactive about it to free up space.
Rounding out the Core m3 Pro 4 is Intel HD Graphics 515, which is suitable for casual titles, indie darlings, and most PC games made prior to 2011, and two cameras, a front-facing 5-megapixel shooter and 8-megapixel rear shooter. Both are fine for video conferencing (in fact, quite good at dealing with low-light Skype chats), but not much else.
The Core m3 sits above the low-powered Celeron, Pentium, and Atom chips, but below Intel’s Core i offerings. The benchmarks here show it. Of note, Core m has a lot of trouble with the wPrime benchmark, as apparent by the Apple MacBook’s and this Pro 4’s low scores. The Surface Pro 3 cited in the benchmark charts has 8GB of RAM and a fourth-generation Core i5.
PCMark8 Home (Accelerated) measures overall system performance for general activities from web browsing and video streaming to typing documents and playing games (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark8 Work (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for work-related productivity tasks (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark 11 is a benchmark that measures overall graphics card performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
The Surface Pro 4 has a 39Wh battery, which is down from the 42Wh battery on the previous Surface models. This still can’t account for the drastic difference in battery life between the Pro 4 and the others. Streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness maxed out and battery saver turned off, the Pro 4 lasted just 3 hours and 58 minutes. The Pro 3 bested it by more than an hour, while the Surface 3 fared worse, lasting just 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Of course, this is the bare minimum you can reasonably expect out of the Surface Pro 4. Turning on Windows 10 power saver and dimming the display will have a noticeable impact on the battery life, and the Pro 4 should last the word day with moderate to slightly heavy use.
Still, this is a disappointing result, especially for a tablet. We will always choose a little extra girth and weight for added battery life.
The Surface Pro 4 comes in the following configurations, each with sixth-generation Intel chip:
A Surface Pro Type Cover will add an addition $130 or $160, depending on the fingerprint ID.
Surface products are some of the best on the market, so you will be paying a premium against devices with similar specs. For example, a Core m3-powered Asus ZenBook UX305CA-UHM1 Signature Edition features 8GB of RAM and 256GB capacity, and starts at $599 from the Microsoft store. It’s a touchscreen laptop, and considering the cheapest Pro 4 with a Type Cover costs $1,029, with only 4GB of RAM and 128GB, the ZenBook compares favorably.
Just as we stated when comparing flagship Android smartphones, identifying the best device for your personal needs often depends on who’s paying.
Microsoft took the best Windows device, tablet or notebook, of 2014 and made it better with slight, but thoughtful, refinements. Compared with the rest of the market, the Surface hardware is still in a class by itself, and no other machine runs Windows as well as Microsoft’s own. It’s full of good stuff. It has the best display going, the new Surface Pen with its magnetic dock and Windows 10 integration is the best pen-and-tablet combo on the market in terms of both hardware and software, and its speakers are decent by any standard, superb by notebook and tablet standards.
The fact that the Surface Pro 3 still stands up as an excellent device means that what we said about it is true about the Pro 4: It’s the perfect combination of power and portability.
That fact also means that Surface Pro 3 owners shouldn’t upgrade. As we stated, the Pro 4 is an iterative update, with the same ports, slightly better performance, and worse battery life. Pro 3 owners also have the option of picking up a new Surface Pen and Type Cover, which operate exactly the same on the Pro 3 as they do on the Pro 4.
Anyone else looking to upgrade would be wise to consider the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. While other tablets and notebooks offer more value, the Pro 4 is still worth its premium price as a better version of 2014’s best Windows device.