The Surface revolution is one that got off to a pretty slow start.
Microsoft’s vision for a hybrid 2-in-1 tablet that can double as an ultraportable laptop has been in place since the first Surface launched back in 2012, but it wasn’t really until the Surface Pro 3 that the design caught up with the ambition, where Microsoft really honed in on what it’d take to make its devices go from good to great.
So how exactly has the Washington company improved on last year’s much-lauded design? Fine-tuning, mostly. The Pro 4 doesn’t drastically diverge from the formula that finally got the Surface line over that ‘ho-hum hump’.
This update has a slightly larger display (it’s grown from 12 to 12.3 inches) and a resolution bump (from 2,160 x 1,440 to 2,736 x 1,824), but Microsoft has managed to keep the chassis the same size. Well, almost — it’s a tad lighter and thinner and has shaved 15g off the weight and half a millimetre off the thickness.
With the exception of a handful of entry-level Core m3 options, most of the Pro 4s are based on Intel’s brand-new sixth-generation Core i chips, and for this review, we tested the mid-range Core i5 model with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM, which sells for $1,999 locally.
These are great-performing and power-frugal chips, and paired with the Pro 4’s respectably fast SSD, that makes for a slick and quick experience when launching and switching between apps, searching within Windows and just generally tooling around.
And speaking of the OS, this is also the first Surface to ship with Windows 10 preinstalled (and it’s the full-fat Pro version here) and the two do work great together.
This is a device that Microsoft proudly trumpets as being able to replace your tablet and laptop, and the tweaks to Windows 10 make that a much more realistic claim than on Windows 8 — particularly on the laptop side of things, where Mac-like trackpad gestures make navigating and switching between programs a lot slicker and more intuitive.
In our tough PCMark 8 tests, the Pro 4 lasted 3:48hr with the screen at 50% brightness; with the same settings, the Pro 3 managed only 3:16hr — a welcome improvement, if not one to really shout about. (As an aside, we’re keen to check out the Core m3 model to find out what kind of impact that low-power processor has.)
Our test unit had a felt-tip, but you can swap that out for ones that mimic either a pencil or ballpoint pen. The reverse end now works as an eraser by default, too, so you can draw and write in Microsoft’s core apps a lot more intuitively.
It’s worth noting that those nibs are designed to wear out over time, but they do feel great to use and, as with previous Surfaces, the handwriting experience continues to be the best you’ll find on a tablet.
You can move Windows’s handwriting panel freely around the screen and learning to use the small set of handwriting tools is quick and mostly effortless. Even going back into text you’ve previously written and making corrections is frustration-free; in fact, we wrote a good portion of this review by hand simply because the Pen works so well.
The new Type Cover keyboard is even better. It’s much more rigid than before and now has clearly separated chiclet keys with a good couple of millimetres between, so you can feel the edges of each when typing.
There’s a bit more travel in those keys, too, which all adds up to a moderately improved typing experience. It was quite adequate last generation, but with this new keyboard, it’s borderline great.
What also helps is the bigger trackpad that now sports a glass top — what MacBooks have had for generations — and it goes some way to fixing what was perhaps the device’s biggest hardware weakness.
But while this new pad feels great under the fingertip, scrolls beautifully and works more reliably than before, we still weren’t quite enamoured with it.
By default, the sensitivity was set too low, and when we bumped it up, the cursor became a bit jittery, particularly when it came to making fine selections. Still, it’s better than before and certainly serviceable for day-to-day use.
This Surface needs a surface
That freely moving kickstand works fabulously if you’ve got a sturdy flat surface to place it on, but trying to balance it on your thighs while you’re sitting down is an exercise in frustration. As a device that’s supposed to be able to replace a laptop, not working on your lap is a fairly significant shortcoming.
Since we’re listing complaints, it’s worth noting that the keyboard cover does not come included. Adding one of these new models will set you back an additional $200 — and the price on these keyboard covers has slowly been creeping up… the Pro 3’s was just $150 at launch.
For us, neither of those is quite a deal breaker, but they are both important points to factor into any purchase decisions.
Is this Surface for you?
What’s undeniable about the Pro 4 is that it’s still a professional-skewed product with a premium build-quality to match and, as such, it won’t appeal to everyone when it comes to your needs (or how much you’re willing to pay).
But if you can see yourself using the Pro 4’s productivity-focused features, Microsoft’s done a fantastic job of further cementing the Surface concept with this new model.
Now if it can just sort out that lap-balance problem, then it might have a 2-in-1 that will really be ready
to replace both your tablet and your laptop.
Verdict: Doesn’t reinvent anything radical, but further cements Surface Pro as the 2-in-1 to beat.
Price: From $1,349; $2,199 as tested