2-in-1 PCs aren’t dead, and Microsoft’s class-redefining Surface Pro 4 is proof
- New Type Cover is wonderful
- Pen is standard and works well
- Pixel-dense display
- Loud, clear speakers
- Strong performance in all areas
- Still heavy compared to dedicated tablets
- Battery can drain quickly in real-world use
The original Surface Pro was bulky. Its battery was limited. The keyboard was annoying, the display wasn’t great, and performance was just okay. It was expensive. Worst of all, it was forced to run Windows 8, an awkward operating system poorly suited for dedicated touchscreen use.
Yet, for all its faults, the Surface Pro was also revolutionary.
If Microsoft was as stodgy as its reputation suggests, it would’ve given up on the Pro and set its sights on some other pie-in-the-sky project. Instead, it hunkered down, analyzed the problem, and tried again. And again. And again. After just two and a half years we’re now on the fourth iteration. On average, a new Pro has arrived every eight months.
A look at the latest model’s specifications makes the improvements clear. Aside from a move to Intel’s 6th-generation Core chips – significant, because Microsoft skipped the fifth generation entirely – the new model has a long list of updates. The keyboard is more spacious, the touchpad is larger, the display is both bigger and more pixel dense, the pen is more sensitive, and the base hard drive offers twice the capacity as before.
But the Surface Pro 4 also finds itself competing in an increasingly diverse field. Its revolutionary nature has forced other companies to respond. Apple and Google have their own, mobile-first interpretations due this holiday season, and PC manufacturers have started to clone the Pro in droves. Can the original keep up with the imitators?
Microsoft is obviously comfortable with the design of its Surface notebooks. Like the less powerful Surface 3, which debuted over the summer, the Pro 4 doesn’t look much different than its predecessor. The new model is a hair thinner, and a few hundredths of a pound lighter, but its dimensions are otherwise the same.
The Surface Pro 4 is still bulky for a tablet. Virtually everything based on mobile hardware is thinner and lighter, even the iPad Pro, which has a similar display size. For a PC tablet, though, the Surface Pro 4 is pretty svelte.
Whether it’s small enough depends on how you plan to use it, and perhaps even your own dimensions. People who find a regular iPad a bit unwieldy are going to find this massive. I managed alright. More recent competitors like the Samsung TabPro S and Huawei Matebook indisputably feel slimmer in-hand, and are easier to handle. But the Surface Pro 4 is a lot easier to handle than any 2-in-1 with a 360-degree hinge, like Lenovo’s Yoga series.
Microsoft has set up the Pro properly for use as either a PC or tablet. Though its overall size has hardly changed, the new model jumps from a 12-inch to a 12.3-inch display. That’s accomplished through thinner bezels which look more attractive, but still provide enough room to grip the Surface Pro without grazing the touchscreen.
The device also benefits from thoughtful location of buttons. The power and volume keys are located on the upper left edge when the device is held in landscape orientation or used as a PC. That becomes the upper right flank when it’s turned and used in portrait orientation, which is typical for tablets. In either case, the buttons are accessible, yet not positioned where they’ll be accidentally bumped.
Connectivity is a bit more awkward. The USB and Mini-DisplayPort jacks are on the right flank when the Surface Pro is used with the keyboard. That works well enough, but it means anything attached will jut out from the bottom if the device is used as a tablet in portrait orientation. The combo headphone/microphone jack is difficult in either case, as its always located near the top edge of the device, leaving the user to tangle with the cord. There are only so many places to put a port on a slate.
The power brick’s connector works well. Its magnetically aligned and multi-directional, so it’s easy to insert and doesn’t send the entire device flying if you happen to trip over it and tug it out. It’s past time for this type of design to become the standard for both tablets and laptops, but most of the Pro 4’s PC competition is saddled with a stiff, stubborn plug. Better still, the brick itself offers a USB port, so you can charge your phone without using the USB 3.0 port on the Surface Pro 4 itself.
Type Cover triumphant
Keyboard quality has long been our most serious issue with the Surface Pro line. Microsoft always used a strange keyboard layout that lacks significant gaps between keys, making it more difficult to discern between them. Previous Type Covers also made poor use of the available space, so both the keyboard and touchpad weren’t as large as they could be.
The new Type Cover – which is compatible with the old Surface Pro 3, by the way – entirely fixes the problem. It better uses the available space, so it’s larger and offers plenty of room between keys. The touchpad is bigger, especially in height. Like the previous version, the new Cover is powered over a simple connector that attaches magnetically, and it can be used flat or propped at an angle for a more ergonomic experience.
The improved Cover transforms the Surface Pro. The Pro 3’s cover asked the user to bargain with it. “Okay, kid,” it said, “I’ll give you a touchscreen, but you gotta put up with this keyboard.” The Pro 4 asks no such compromise. It works as well as most dedicated laptops and has a major edge over many competitors including the iPad Pro, Samsung TabPro S, and Huawei Matebook, all of which feel flimsy by comparison. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet is the only device we’ve tested that beats the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover.
Lenovo’s X1 wins mostly because it’s more comfortable on your lap. Microsoft’s adjustable hinge needs a flat surface to be stable. That can be a problem if you want to mash the keys while reclining on your sofa to enjoy an episode of Deep Space Nine. Microsoft contends this issue isn’t a big deal because laptops are actually used on a tablet or desk the majority of the time, and for the most part, that’s true. But it can be annoying – even damaging, as a shift in posture can send the unsteady Pro 4 tumbling off your lap and onto the floor.
The pen is mighty
The pen, too, has been improved. It has four times the sensitivity of that which shipped with the Surface Pro 3. It also includes a “real” eraser that works just like you’d expect it to. While the older model looked as if it had one, it in fact used a button, a design that went against decades of muscle memory.
These changes are a big upgrade – the eraser, especially. Microsoft’s software has continued to mature, as well, so pen input works far more smoothly than it did with the original Surface. Now, for the first time since its launch, using a stylus doesn’t feel like a constant hassle. It’s handy and, when using the Surface Pro 4 as a tablet, often preferable to the virtual keyboard.
Some issues do persist. If you stay in Microsoft’s eco-system of apps, like Edge and OneNote, the pen works almost without flaw. Third-party applications are not always as compatible. The Google Chrome browser, for example, absolutely refused to initiate pen input in any of its text entry fields. Slack, an organization app used by companies worldwide, seemed finicky about detecting the pen’s “clicks.” And if you were hoping to play games with touch or pen input, forget about it. Very few properly are designed for it.
Still, the Surface Pen is arguably the best in the business. The pen itself is well balanced, feels sturdy, and places its button in locations that are ergonomically comfortable. But what sets it apart from others is that Microsoft doesn’t intend the Surface to be used without the pen (with most competitors, he stylus is an optional add-on). That means Microsoft can aggressively design features that benefit it. Microsoft’s Windows 10 Anniversary Update — the first big update to Windows 10 — is a great example. Windows Ink, its headline feature, is all about the pen.
When you’re not using the pen, it can be stowed magnetically on either flank of the Surface Pro 4. We’re still not happy with the security of this approach, as the pen is a bit too easy to knock off. We can imagine plenty of disasters involving errant limbs that send the pen flying into drinks, sewer grates, or food processors. The pen can be clipped in the Type Cover when it’s closed, instead, and that’s the more secure option.
The display receives an unnecessary, but appreciated, upgrade
The Surface Pro 3’s screen was not a weak point of the device, but Microsoft decided to improve it anyway. Aside from the increase in size from 12 to 12.3 inches, the display has upped its pixel count to 2,736 x 1,824. That’s 267 per inch, which is far more than needed when the Surface is used as a laptop. It’s still not the best in the tablet category, but it beats most, including the iPad Pro.
There’s a lot more to the screen than pixel count, and the new Surface nails the details. We recorded a high maximum brightness of 349 lux alongside a maximum contrast ratio of 940:1. Most figures are among the best we’ve recorded from any laptop, tablet or 2-in-1. Color accuracy was the only soft spot, as the average difference of DeltaE 6.49 was high.
All these results are good, but the competition isn’t giving Microsoft an easy time. Samsung’s TabPro S is the standout. It’s the first 2-in-1 with an OLED display, and its contrast ratio is off the charts. The Dell Latitude 12 7000 Series 2-in-1, Lenovo ThinkPad X1, and Vaio Z Flip also manage to beat the Surface Pro 4 slightly in color gamut, contrast, and overall color accuracy.
Our impressions were as expected based off the results. A high contrast ratio should mean the appearance of deep black levels and brilliant whites, and the Surface Pro 4 delivered, creating a sense of depth in movies and images. The color issues made themselves apparent, however, through poor reproduction of skin tones. Actors often looked more like wax figures rather than real people.