Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: The Windows 10 hybrid that's almost perfect
The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is all about little improvements this time around, but it's still hugely impressive
The Surface Pro 4 is one of those products that proves the best route to success is to take an already great recipe and tweak it very slightly, year on year. Using this method, Microsoft turned an average product into a very good one in three years flat, and this latest model builds yet again on that accumulated achievement.
The improvements evident in the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 are mostly small and incremental, then, but don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking they’re “only” iterative. As Apple has proved time and time again, constant iteration leads to products that end up head and shoulders above the competition. That’s where the Surface Pro 4 finds itself, and it's why its stablemate the Microsoft Surface Book – though quite, quite lovely – isn’t at the same level just yet.
In case you haven’t seen a Surface Pro, or you've been hiding from the multi-million-dollar advertising campaign Microsoft has run since the first one launched, it is designed to be the tablet that can replace a laptop. It runs Microsoft’s desktop OS software, Windows 10, and as such allows you to run any Windows application on the planet, as well as apps from the Windows Store.
That makes it a very different proposition to the Apple iPad Pro, which only runs iOS apps. It’s all at once a powerful laptop replacement that you can use in a business environment to run legacy Windows apps, browse networks and copy and paste files, and a consumer tablet you can use to run casual games and watch Netflix. It’s truly a one-size-fits-all machine.
It's also built around an Intel processor – in our case, the latest Skylake Core i5-6300U – although you can go up to an i7 or even step down to a Core m3. Prices start at £749 inc VAT for the model with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD and rise to £1,799 for an i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. As usual, you’ll have to add on £110 for the (pretty much essential) Type Cover, which means a top-of-the-line Surface Pro 4 won’t leave you much change from £2,000. Microsoft is truly following the Apple model with this one.
Surface Pro 4 review: Design and build quality
That’s not to say, though, that you’re not getting value for money – you’re definitely getting a design and build quality that’s at least as good as Apple’s. Although the design of the Surface Pro 4 doesn’t stray too far from that of the Surface Pro 3, there are little touches that improve it.
There’s still the same beautiful kickstand, which you can adjust to almost any angle, so it’s close to being a laptop-like experience. You can even angle it all the way back, which makes the Surface Pro very usable without your keyboard attached in a lap – think the iPad with a Smart Cover on it, folded back, and you have an idea of the angle at which it sits.
How does it compare with the competition, though? Well, it’s a sight better than the iPad Pro’s keyboard stand. Although I don’t mind typing on that keyboard, its lack of adjustability – it’s set at one angle – backlight and touchpad set it at a significant disadvantage.
And, while Google has made a much better attempt with the Google Pixel C’s magnificent magnetically attachable keyboard, which allows you to adjust the keyboard at any angle and has a stiff, solid base, it suffers from similar shortcomings. It also lacks a touchpad and backlighting, and its small size means it isn’t as comfortable to use as the Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover.
The body is the same as its predecessor, as is the array of ports: USB 3, mini-DisplayPort, and a microSD slot hidden under the stand. Microsoft hasn’t taken the opportunity to shift to USB Type-C, which I think is a shame. This means we’re also stuck with the weird proprietary power connector, rather than being able to charge from USB Type-C. Oh well, perhaps next time.
One small design tweak that's welcome, though, is the addition of a few magnets on the left-hand side. These hold the Surface Pen – which is now included – firmly to the side of the device. How firmly? Firmly enough that, on a flat desk, I can drag the device along just by holding the pen and pulling. It isn't quite as secure as an internal docking slot, but it comes close enough for me to stop complaining about not having a place to put the pen.
Overall, though, the design and build quality remain the gold standard for this kind of convertible. The Surface Pro 4 looks, and feels, like an expensive, high-quality product. And that’s because it is – on both counts.
The biggest question mark over the design remains its "lapability", as Microsoft has taken to calling it. As with the Surface Pro 3, the Surface Pro 4 is helped considerably by the stand’s ability to tilt the screen to a wide range of angles. While it’s now very steady, it's much longer than a conventional laptop on your lap, which means people who have shorter legs (like me) are likely to find it less comfortable.
Although this is something that's raised again and again by journalists, how much of an issue it is in the real world is debatable. Most laptops in daily use are on tables – lap use tends to be a much rarer event for ordinary people than it is for journalists. If you’re someone who spends a lot of time using your laptop on your lap, the Surface Pro 4 will be less suitable for you. If on the other hand, you’re largely desk- or table-bound, it will be perfectly fine.
Surface Pro review 4: Type Cover
I didn’t hate the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover. I could happily type on it for hours, but was always happy to get back to a proper keyboard. It wasn’t so much the size of the keys or the travel, but the slight feel of flexing that you got when you hit it.
The good news is that Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover largely fixes this. Microsoft has added some much-needed rigidity to the cover – it’s actually hard to bend it now – which means the keyboard doesn’t bounce in quite the same way. The keys themselves are still a bit clicky, but it’s a nice experience, and I’d be more than happy to type on it all the time.
The trackpad has also been improved. It’s now a little bigger, and topped with glass, with a much better feel. This has, thus, moved from the “I want a mouse now, please” category to “yeah, I can use this”. There are a few small nice extra touches here. For example, the function key now has a tiny light on it and acts as function-lock. The backlighting has also improved, although the keys still leak light in a way that will alarm those used to Apple keyboards, with their highly precise lighting.
There's also the snappily-named Surface Pro 4 Type Cover with Fingerprint ID. Although this accessory has been available in the US since the launch of the Surface Pro 4, it's only recently made it over to the UK and at £135 inc VAT it isn't cheap. I've now had the opportunity to try one out, however, and can confirm that it works very well indeed. Enrolling a fingerprint works in a similar manner to Touch ID on an iPad or iPhone, and once done you'll be able to tap the sensor - located just to the right of the touchpad - to instantly unlock the tablet, even directly from sleep.
It's so good, in fact, that if you're considering buying a Surface for the first time I'd recommend seriously considering paying the extra £25 for the privilege. Also worth noting is that both versions of the Surface Pro 4 keyboard work with the Surface Pro 3 as well. So, if you have an older Pro, I’d definitely recommend running out and buying one as soon as you can.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 specifications
|Processor||Dual-core 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U|
|Memory slots (free)||N/A|
|Weight||1.37kg inc keyboard and power brick|
|Sound||Realtek HD Audio (3.5mm headset port)|
|Graphics adaptor||Intel HD graphics 520|
|Graphics outputs||Mini DisplayPort|
|Total storage||256GB SSD|
|Optical drive type||None|
|USB ports||1x USB3 (1x USB charging port on power brick)|
|Memory card reader||None|
|Operating system||Windows 10|
|Operating system restore option||Windows 10 restore|
|Parts and labour warranty||One year RTB|
|Price inc VAT||£1,189|
|Part number||Surface Pro 4|