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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A refined Type Cover, but a step back for Surface Pen

I’ve used the Surface Pro 3 for eighteen months or so, mostly as a daily driver, so my fingers have grown quite used to the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover. While it doesn’t quite boast the rigidity of a laptop's keyboard, I’d say the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover comes pretty close.

surface pro 4 keyboard Rob Schultz

The Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover features backlit keys that are spaced out a bit.

What’s most notable about the Surface Pro 4’s keyboard is that the keys are smaller—about 16 mm square, as opposed to 18 mm for the SP3—but spaced more widely, about 3 mm apart, whereas the SP3's keys almost bump up against one another. All told, the SP4’s key pitch is a more spacious 19 mm, with 1.3 mm of travel.

Although the SP4 keys feel slightly stiffer, I was able to type comfortably. Based on the light that leaks from behind the SP4 Type Cover’s keys, I suspect I’ll have to be careful about dropping crumbs during a working lunch. What’s interesting, though, is that the SP4’s spacebar seems to be almost sealed, while the other keys have more noticeable gaps.

You can use your older SP3 Type Cover with the new Surface Pro 4, saving yourself $130.

surface pro 4 trackpad Rob Schultz

The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 also boasts a larger trackpad, but solid palm rejection means you don’t have to worry about where you place your hands.

The trackpad is wider and smoother, about 30 percent larger than the SP3's. And it’s smooth—your finger easily glides right over it, like a gaming mousepad.

Surface Pen Surface Pro 4 Mark Hachman

A strong magnet grips the new Surface Pen and holds it to the side of the Surface Pro 4 tablet.

I confess that I’m not as much of a fan of the revised Surface Pen, which magnetically clamps to the side of the Surface Pro 4 tablet. Say what you will about the SP3’s pen – that fabric loop meant that thing wasn’t going anywhere. With the SP4, you may find that the Pen slides off and disappears into your backpack every so often—although carrying the SP4 with the Pen at the top helps, too. I still think inserting the pen into the chassis, as the Samsung Galaxy Note series does, is the way to go.

The Surface Pen has quietly evolved into a fourth input device for the Surface line, beyond trackpad, keyboard, and touchscreen. There are some features I really like: For one thing, simply flipping it upside down and sliding it across the screen erases what you’ve written, like—well, an eraser. Clicking the top of the Pen launches OneNote, clicking it twice saves a screenshot. Clicking and holding launches Cortana’s oral search—which is really quite handy while in tablet mode.

Surface Pen erase Mark Hachman

Simply “drawing” on the screen with the top of the Surface Pen erases your digital ink.

But something about the Surface Pro 3’s pen resonates with me a bit more, especially when writing. Microsoft’s new SP4 boasts a technology called PixelSense, which helps reject your hand when inking. That worked flawlessly—but, then again, I haven’t had many problems with the Surface 3 or Surface Pro 3’s pen, either. And maybe it’s the way I scrawl notes, but the Surface Pro 4’s stylus just didn’t feel as comfortable on the glass as the SP3. Some people won’t like how the SP4 eliminates the right-click button from the Pen, either.

Can you use your older SP3 Pen on the new Surface Pro 4? Well, not really. My SP3’s Pen wrote on the Surface Pro 4, but that’s about it. I suspect that the SP3’s Surface app may be updated to allow the the SP3 Pen to launch Cortana, however. 

Both stylii still leave a trail of e-ink that lags behind the stylus when making broad, sweeping strokes. Still, if you didn’t like how pressure distorted the SP3’s display, you’ll be happy to know that’s vanished from the SP4.

The Surface Pen’s battery isn’t rechargeable, so you’ll have to replace the battery when it expires, in what Microsoft says will be a year’s time. (We were apparently mistakenly told by Microsoft that the Pen's battery was not replaceable, and it doesn't unscrew like the SP3 pen does, which fooled us. The cap does slide off, however, so you can replace the battery.) Microsoft also sells a $10 pen tip kit which may very well provide a more comfortable solution than what the Pen offers, but I didn’t have a chance to try it. 

One more note on productivity: the Surface Pro 4 boasts an 8MP autofocusing rear camera, up from a 5MP camera on the SP3. (Both have a 5MP front-facing camera as well.) I often evangelize the use of OneNote to take notes, and I envision the new Surface Pro 4's being used to record a video record of an academic lecture. Think about it: If you’re perched in a lecture hall, you’re tilting your tablet down anyway. That camera’s already in position to record a video of the lecture to accompany your notes!

The front-facing camera doubles as a depth camera enabling Windows Hello, Microsoft's biometric login solution. But Microsoft won't enable it until sometime soon after the launch, when it will push an update that will turn it on. Microsoft will also ship a $160 Type Cover with an integrated fingerprint reader by Oct. 26. 

The new Dock poses a convenience conundrum

There was something predatory in the way in which the mandibles of the original Surface docks clamped the tablet, holding it fast. The new Dock is far more deferential.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station Mark Hachman

The Death Star: the Surface Pro 3 dock.

This time around, what Microsoft calls the Surface Dock is a power brick. And that’s fairly close to the truth: Compare the dock’s actual power brick to the dock itself—Microsoft carved them out of identical hunks of plastic.

Functionally, however, the dock is an upgrade over the previous docks: There are four USB 3.0 connections, and not one but two miniDisplayPort connections, plus gigabit ethernet and a Kensington lock. (You can still use the tablet’s existing USB port, as well.) It’s all routed through a sturdier Surface connector, which snakes from the Dock to the tablet via a short length of cable.

surface dock Rob Schultz

The new Surface Dock is literally the size and shape of its own power brick.

The real advantage here is that the new Dock permits the SP4 to recline to any position, while the earlier docks locked it into a single position. I like that. It doesn’t seem to work with the SP3, though – I was able to power the SP3 via the dock, but when I attached a mouse and keyboard, they didn’t work.

Surface Dock and power brick Mark Hachman

The new Surface Dock (right) sits next to its power brick (left).

About the only concern I have with this is that the Dock is small enough to fit in a backpack or carry-on—which means you have a decision to make. Do you tote along the combined 2.5 pounds of the Dock and its power brick, or leave it at home? Remember, that’s significantly more than the 1.73 pounds the tablet itself weighs. (The Type Cover is about 0.63 pounds, for a total weight of 2.36 pounds.)

Can’t decide? Then consider this: The eTauro dock we reviewed earlier is cheaper, lighter, and nearly as effective as the $200 Surface Dock, though it lacks an ethernet jack. 

I’m disappointed to see that one Surface bug hasn’t disappeared: the tendency of the SP4 to suddenly lose the cursor, or for the trackpad and keyboard to stop working. This occasionally happens, and disconnecting and reconnecting the keyboard usually solves the problem. Occasionally, however, it requires a reboot.

What to buy? You can’t go wrong with Surface Pro 4

So far we’ve considered the Surface Pro 4 in a vacuum of sorts, compared to the Surface Pro 3. For it part, Microsoft took pains to compare the SP4 and Surface Book to Apple hardware like the MacBook Pro and iPad. I reject that comparison. If you want an iPad, buy an iPad. Windows, iOS and MacOS are different animals, and should be treated as such.

surface book front back

Want to know how the Surface Pro 4 compares to the Surface Book? Read our review.

A better comparison would be between the SP4 and the emerging class of Surface clones, like the Lenovo Miix 700 and the Vaio Canvas. Alas, we don’t have that hardware in for review yet. 

And then there’s the other question: Should you buy the Surface Pro 4, or the Book? Microsoft makes the question a simple one. Compared to a Core i5-based SP4, you can pay an additional $400 more for what the Book offers: four more hours of battery life as well as a laptop-like experience. The difference between a Core i7-based SP4 and a comparable Book with a discrete graphics chip, meanwhile, is about $600. Yes, I covet the additional battery life of the Book, if only because I’m paranoid about running out of battery when I need it most. But oh, that price! 

Any review score is a snapshot in time, but that's particularly true for the Surface Pro 4. It’s clearly a much better tablet than its predecessor, because the compelling performance increase overcomes the shortcomings of the Pen and the mediocre battery life. But will it prove to be the best-in-class of this new category of Surface clones? We don’t know yet. But if the up-and-comers proved to be competitive with the Surface Pro 4, that'd actually be great news for the Windows ecosystem 

Correction: The Surface Pro 4's Pen does have a user-replaceable battery.

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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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