Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: It's faster, it's better, and it has more competition

This time around, what sells the Surface Pro 4 is on the inside.

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Welcome to the world of Windows 10

Windows 10 may have been officially released months ago, but the Surface Pro 4 is one of the first machines to include it from the get-go.

surface pro 4 setup pen Mark Hachman

The Surface Pro 4 setup includes a Pen walkthrough.

Both the Surface Pro 4 and the Book feature a new set of Surface-specific setup screens that serve as a useful introduction to two new features: Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, as well as the new Surface Pen (which we’ll discuss more later). This accomplishes two things: first, it ensures you’ll hit the ground running. And by waiving (or not) all the privacy concerns associated with Cortana before you actually use it, you slide gently into Microsoft’s world.

And it’s a pretty nice world. 

The inclusion of Windows 10 means that the Surface Pro 4 doesn’t need the dedicated Windows hardware button, and can instead use the soft Windows button on the screen that launches the Start menu.

Surface Pro 4 setup Cortana Mark Hachman

You’re hustled through the Cortana privacy agreement, too.

Packed with power

Without a doubt, the primary reason to buy a Surface Pro 4 is its dramatic boost in performance relative to the Surface Pro 3.

surface book pcmark8 home conventional Gordon Mah Ung

You won't see the benefit in mainstream productivity, as evidenced by the mere 6-percent uptick in the PCMark Home Conventional test at native resolutions, or the slight 3-percent drop in PCMark Work Conventional performance. Our Surface Pro 3 contains a 1.9GHz Core i5-4300 Haswell chip and 8GB of RAM; the Surface Pro 4 includes a 2.4GHz Core i5-6300U Skylake chip  and 8GB of RAM. Remember, the SP4 is also pushing a few more pixels.

surface book pcmark8 work conventional Gordon Mah Ung

But what we did measure was a 32-percent increase in the 3Dmark Sky Diver benchmark, and a 36-percent boost in the Cloud Gate benchmark. When we forced the Surface Pro 3 to throttle itself, the performance gap leapt upward to the 81 percent we cited earlier.

surface book 3dmark skydiver overall Gordon Mah Ung

In part, this is due to improved liquid cooling system in the Surface Pro 4. With the SP3, heat collected in a spot on the rear of the machine, causing the fan to rev up and the SP3 to limit its CPU speed in an attempt to prevent overheating. New cooling pipes in the Surface Pro 4 route heat across most of the rear panel. This causes the rear panel to warm as a whole, but prevents the need to run the fan.

If the Surface Pro 4 suffered from the same thermal issues as the SP3, you’d see it in this prolonged Handbrake media encoding test—and you don’t.

surface book handbrake encode 0.9.9 Gordon Mah Ung

What that means, of course, is that you won’t notice any difference in how your Surface runs Office. But any applications that make heavy use of the CPU as well as the integrated graphics will demonstrate improved performance, from light gaming to simple Web browsing, 3D applications and more.

surface pro 4 hybrid liquid cooling Sean Ong

Here's how the Surface Pro 4 dissipates heat under the hood.

And yes, you can play games: I eked out 34 frames per second on Crysis 2 (1280x720, High settings, DX11 off); 30 frames per second on Dishonored (1600x1200), but only 25 frames per second on Batman: Arkham Origins (1024x768, all options off). If you're the type of person who doesn’t mind playing older games on the cheap, the Surface Pro 4 suffices.

The Surface Pro 4 is dramatically faster in disk speed, as well. Both of our Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4 test machines include 256GB SSDs. The Toshiba device in the SP4 reported a CrystalMark 5 read score of 1578MB/s and a write score of 311MB/s; that’s roughly three times the read speed of the Surface Pro 3's drive (552MB/s read, 136MB/s write).

surface book surface pro 4 mobilemark 14 1.5 office productivity battery life Gordon Mah Ung

The disappointment here is battery life: Using the standard MobileMark 2014 test that measures normal Office use, we recorded about 481 minutes (8 hours, 1 minute), versus 519 minutes with the SP3. We haven't tested the Core m3-based Surface Pro 4, but it should offer longer battery life—and lesser performance, of course.

Final page: Pens, docks, and verdicts, oh my!

At a Glance
  • The combination of an Intel Skylake chip, a new Type Cover keyboard and faster SSD speed help push the Surface Pro 4 into a higher echelon of performance.

    Pros

    • New Intel Skylake processor dramatically increases performance
    • Redesigned Type Cover more closely approximates laptop keyboard
    • New Surface Dock is now semi-portable

    Cons

    • Battery life is slightly lower than Surface Pro 3
    • New Surface Pen tends to slide off tablet
    • The "curse of the missing cursor" still rears its head occasionally
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