Hands on: Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 outdoes itself with more power and refined features

Intel's Skylake chip, a revamped Surface Pen and Type Cover, and gobs of memory and storage pump up this productivity tablet.

A month back, and we’d likely be trumpeting Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 4 as the next-generation of Surface. And it is. It’s just that, compared to its newly announced, mic-dropping rockstar cousin—the Surface Book—the Surface Pro 4 loses a bit of its luster.

Shade your eyes from the Surface Book's dazzle, and the Surface Pro 4 has a lot to offer. Bumping up its processor to a sixth-generation Core, or Skylake, has boosted the performance by 30 percent over the Surface Pro 3 and 50 percent over the Apple MacBook Air, according to Microsoft. At a starting price of just $899 (and available for preorder on Oct. 7, with availability on the 26th) the Surface Pro 4 is priced right, too.

microsoft surface pro 4 panos panay cropped

Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 boasts a new Type Cover with a fingerprint reader, laptop-size keys, and a larger, more sensitive touchpad.

Externally, the Surface Pro 4 boasts a new Type Cover. complete with fingerprint reader,  a new dock, and a revamped Surface Pen, which does away with that pesky pen loop entirely.

But wait. $899 doesn’t buy you a Core i-series chip. Instead, the low end of the Surface Pro 4 is powered by an Intel Core m3. Why Microsoft didn’t hold back the Core m for a Surface 4 isn’t clear. At the low end of the Surface Pro 3 lineup is an Intel “Broadwell” Core i3. The Surface Pro 4 skips to Skylake-powered Core i5 and i7 chips, while the Surface 3 uses a quad-core Atom chip—it all makes for an interesting mishmash at the low end of the spectrum. (Only the Core m3 and Core i5 versions are available for preorder, however.) 

surface pro 4 Mark Hachman

The kickstand has been slightly improved, so that it’s quite apparent when you’ve reached the end of its range of motion, rather than stuttering to a stop.

Microsoft helpfully spelled out the integrated graphics options: The Core m includes Intel’s HD Graphics 515, the Core i5 includes HD Graphics 520, and the Intel Core i7 includes the Intel Iris graphics.)

Buy it for the specs, love it for the peripherals

The Surface Pro 4’s display is a bit bigger than the Surface Pro 3's: 12.3 inches (2,736x1,824), as opposed to 11.5 inches. In part, that’s because Microsoft pushed out the bezel, eliminating the Windows home key in the process. You’ll use the soft home key instead, as the tablet (obviously) ships with Windows 10. As before, the display supports ten-finger multitouch. Memory options include 4-, 8-, or 16GB of RAM, and up to a whopping 1TB of SSD storage—the same storage options you’ll find in the Surface Book. Microsoft uses a single USB 3.0 connector for expansion, as it did on the Surface Pro 3.

surface pro 4 Mark Hachman

The new Surface Pen (available in five colors) also includes a choice of nibs.

Moving to a Skylake chip slightly improved the battery life. Microsoft says that the Surface Pro 4 lasts nine hours, as opposed to just eight with the Surface Pro 3.

While newcomers to the Surface lineup will certainly appreciate the power, it’s the external accessories that also help make the Surface Pro 4 intriguing.

An improved Surface Pen

First off, Microsoft revamped the Surface Pen, doing away with that awkward fabric loop that clipped previous pens on to the tablet. Now the Surface Pro 4 grabs the Pen magnetically, holding it tightly to the side of the tablet. It’ll likely still work its way free in your laptop bag, however, because there’s nothing preventing the Pen from sliding off. 

Still, the new Pen boasts 1024 levels of pressure, which works quite well with the PixelSense technology built into the display. There are even interchangeable nibs to vary the tip's shape. The idea is to make inking feel more natural on the Surface Pro 4 than it ever has, and I’d say Microsoft accomplished that goal. I also like the 'eraser' on the top of the Pen, which doesn’t necessarily erase an scrawl in one gesture, but acts more like a natural eraser, partially erasing each bit. 

microsoft surface pro 4 pen

The new Pen magnetically attaches to the side of the Surface Pro 4.

As before, tapping the eraser once launches OneNote; twice, and the tablet saves a screenshot. Press and hold, though, and poof! - Cortana appears, for those who have had some problems awakening her with “Hey Cortana,” presumably.

We ddin’t have a chance to test the SP4’s new dock, but connecting to a pair of 4K displays seems like a nice way to surf the Web—or do some graphics work. Hopefully we’ll have more of a chance to play around with that soon.

I’m intrigued by the new Type Cover. As before, it’s backlit. But the keys are spaced a bit farther from one another, more like the chiclet keys found on most laptop keyboards. They also have a bit more travel than the the Type Cover used by the SP3. It felt completely comfortable under my fingers.

microsoft surface pro 4 fingerprint reader
Some Type Covers will include a fingerprint reader next to the touchpad, which is also larger than the SP3’s Type Cover.

The Surface Pro includes a 8MP rear camera and a 5MP front camera, but neither is capable of recognizing you via Windows Hello. That’s been left to a small, optional fingerprint reader built into an optional Type Cover. Over time, I’ve found Windows Hello has had some problems with my unkempt beard—we’ll see if the fingerprint reader improves on that at all.

I'll need to spend more time with the Surface Pro 4 before I know whether it's as lovable as the Surface Pro 3. I think the unlooped Pen may prove to be annoying. But Microsoft's seems to have made a great tablet even better, and only a showstopper like the Surface Book could detract from that achievement. 

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.