Monday, 07 March 2016 16:49

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (review)

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Light, bright, ultra-portable, durable, very powerful and touch enabled - Surface defines the Windows 10, hybrid detachable category.

I apologise for being a little late in reviewing the Surface Pro 4 – in part because it is just a later version of the amazingly successful Surface Pro 3, and in part because you need to use these devices for a few weeks to give an objective review.

The previous Surface Pro 3 was released in Australia August 2014 and it has been my constant travelling companion ever since. It was at the bleeding edge of the ‘hybrid movement’ – detachable two-in-ones - that has since become a category in its own right. It has, or will soon have, worthy contenders from HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer, Samsung, Huawei and many more. It seems that light and flexible is the key to this category that is outselling notebooks by a considerable margin.

So what is the difference? (The Pro 4 specifications are always listed first, followed by the Pro 3 [in square brackets] for comparison).

  • Size: no both are 292 x 201mm – 8.5mm [9.1]
  • Weight: Varies from 766g (Core M) to 786g (Core i5/i7). [798g]
  • Chassis: Still the VaporMg with the infinitely adjustable kick stand.
  • Keyboard: The new Pro 4 keyboard (can be used on the Pro 3) has a larger, glass trackpad and island keys which have improved typing productivity by a reasonable margin.
  • Screen: 12.3” [12”] mainly achieved via smaller bezels. Resolution is 2736 x 1824 (267ppi) [2160 x 140 (216ppi)]. It is also a tad brighter and sharper. Both use the 3:2 ratio for better A4 portrait displays.
  • Processor: Intel 6th generation Skylake Core m3/i5/i7 [4th generation Haswell Core i3/i5/i7].
  • RAM: 16GB now available on i7 [4 or 8GB]
  • SSD: 1TB now available to order and both have USB3.0 and microSD slots.
  • Graphics: Intel HD 515 (m3), 520 (i5), Iris (i7) [Intel 4200 (i3), 4400 (i5) and 5000 (i7)]
  • Pen: Gone to a single button pen with 1024 pressure levels. [Two buttons and 256 pressure levels]. The new pen is backwards compatible but only achieves 1024 pressure levels on the Pro 4 screen.
  • Battery: Up to 9 hours [same as Pro 3] and this really depends on use. On typical tests, both models get closer to five hours ‘office use’.
  • Camera: 8MP rear and 5MP [5/5MP]
  • Windows button (icon): Missing from the Pro 4.

Now to the review.

Out of the box/Design

The Surface Pro 4 is an eighteen-month evolution of what is/was fundamentally a good product. In fact, the evolution had a few niggling issues with its initial firmware (largely due to energy management issues for the new Intel Skylake processor) and the i7 version suffered major out of stock issues from launch until late January.

That was due to both lack of i7 processor availability and heavier demand for that version than expected. It seems that those looking at the excellent 13.5” Surface Book (review here) were perhaps happier with the Pro 4’s value.

You get the Surface Pro 4 and the pen - the type cover in a range of colours is an optional extra. The charger is included.

After using it for a few weeks - apart from the better keyboard, and brighter screen - it is very much like its predecessor and offers no compelling reason to upgrade from the Pro 3. It offers plenty of reasons to consider it over a traditional notebook and, as its touch enabled, a MacBook too.

Type Cover and Pen

I do a lot of typing. The new backlit keyboard improves typing speed and accuracy simply by using island chiclet style keys. As it is also Pro 3 compatible I suspect I will buy one of these even though after eighteen months of reasonable use on the Pro 3 there is no undue wear or need to change.

A type cover with fingerprint ID reader ($249.95) is coming as well.

I am not a big pen user so the upgraded pen did not excite me – yes it offers more of a paper-like experience (the ultimate compliment for a stylus/pen) but it needs the new Pro 4 ‘pixel sense’ screen to achieve this. The top eraser button has three functions - it opens OneNote with a single press, takes a screenshot then opens OneNote with a double press, and a long press activates Cortana.

Wi-Fi and other components

Wi-Fi AC, dual band, 2 x 2 MIMO is faster than the Pro 3 – however that depends on you having an AC, dual band, MIMO router. It has Bluetooth 4.0.

Connectors include a single USB 3.0 port, 3.5mm audio, mini DisplayPort, and the SurfaceConnect power and docking station connection.

Just in case you forgot this is a full-fat, Windows 10 PC and it runs all x86 software and supports all USB devices. It is no different to a desktop in capability. It will support an external 1080p monitor.

Windows Hello, Camera, and sound

I like the concept of bio-metric authentication via Windows Hello.

But Hello can sometimes be slower than keying in a pin. For example, on the Lumia 950XL smartphone, it is faster for me to swipe the screen and key in a pin. On the Pro 4 it takes about the same time to swipe the screen (or press Esc) and key in a password or pin.

In reference shots, the 8MP camera produced better results and seemed to be more accurate on ‘whiteboard’ shots or where you might want to take a snap of the lecture notes.

Being Windows, it plays all forms of audio, video and still content. The stereo, front-facing Dolby audio speakers, are adequate for personal use.

Enterprise Use

It has a TPM (Trusted Platform Module), BitLocker, Enterprise Data Protection, Trusted Boot, and Windows Defender for malware protection and data privacy. With Windows 10 Pro IT departments can set up Surface like other PCs, by joining it to a domain and managing it using tools already in place like Active Directory, SCCM and Air Watch.

Options

At time of purchase you can get the Surface of your choice with an Essentials Bundle with the choice of colour for the Type Cover ($199.95), a Surface sleeve ($49.95), 2-year hardware warranty (value $179), and 1-year of Office 365 Home subscription (value $119) and save about $188 for the bundle.

The Type Cover comes in Black, Bright Blue, Blue, and Red and costs $199.95.

There are plenty of third party covers costing from $49.95 (Incipio) to $124.95 I was also given an Incipio Truman sleeve ($59.95 from JB Hi-Fi) and it is great for the tablet and keyboard and has a zippered compartment for power supply and other storage.

The Surface Pen (supplied – normal price $94.95) can be optioned with a Pen Tip Kit ($14.95) covering B, HB, H and 2H tips and it comes with a low friction ‘ballpoint’ like tip.

The Surface Dock ($299.95) is an external dock that uses the SurfaceConnector to provide 4 x USB 3.0, 2 x Mini DisplayPort, 1 x Gigabit Ethernet Port, 1 x 3.5mm audio and a charger that will also charge the Surface.

There are two Mini DisplayPort adaptors (each $64.95) to provide HDMI or VGA out. Any generic mini Display port adaptor will work just as any USB adaptors will work.

A$ Price:

Some people get that you pay for quality. The Pro 4 is a quality, refined product and faces many worthy competitors.

The m3 processor version is interesting and starting at $1349 with 4/128GB would suit most users. It is more than adequate for Office productivity, playing movies and general use.

The i5 is the sweet spot and comes with 4/128 for $1499 and 8/256 for $1999. I would buy the latter and use microSD if I needed more storage.

The i7 comes with 8/256 for $2499, 16/256 for $2700 and 16/512 for $3399. The 1TB is a special order.

Conclusion

I am a fan of the Surface hybrid detachable design and use the Pro 3 extensively. My wife uses the Atom-based Surface 3 almost every day as an Office productivity device, for movies and Kindle.

The Pro 4 is a refinement – yes it is more polished but it technically does little more than its predecessor.

Would you buy one? If you have a need for the lightness, portability and touch, then absolutely.

But in all fairness look closely at the more expensive Surface Book (a notebook that becomes a tablet), at HP’s amazing Spectre x360 and X2 tablets, and if you can find them the competition from Lenovo, Dell and others.

Because it’s the hybrid form factor running Windows 10, not necessarily the Microsoft Surface iteration, that makes this type of computer perfect for some.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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