Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review

If you go back and rewatch Microsoft’s Windows devices event from earlier this month—as I have, a few times now—you will be reminded that the most exciting moment from the presentation came when Panos Panay queued up Surface Pro 4. This is interesting to me because, of all the new devices Microsoft did announce that day, only Surface Pro 4 wasn’t completely new.


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A big part of the excitement, I think, comes from an understanding in the audience that Surface Pro 3 was the first truly successful Microsoft mobile device. And as Panos noted, competitors—like Apple and Google, long held up as leaders in this space—are now chasing Microsoft, and copying the Surface Pro 3 design with their own products.

So Microsoft faced a choice. “Do you double down, and bring the thunder?” Panos asked, of following up Surface Pro 3. “Or do you reinvent the category again? I’ll tell you what we chose.”

To the pumping strains of “Thunderstuck,” the AC/DC rock anthem, Microsoft then introduced Surface Pro 4, highlighting each of the device’s—and the device’s peripheral’s—advantages, over both its predecessor and the wannabe competitors from California.

And those advantages are many. As Apple notes of the iPhone 6S, which looks identical to its own predecessor, when it comes to the Surface Pro 4, “the only thing that’s changed is everything.” Point being, Surface Pro 4 may look like Surface Pro 3. But Microsoft has improved literally everything that needed to be improved. It has improved some things I didn’t think needed to be improved. And it has carried forward with everything that made Surface Pro 3 magical. It has, in short, brought the thunder.


What does that mean, practically speaking?

It means keeping the same basic form factor as with Surface Pro 3, which has proven to be a wonderful travel companion. It means bumping up the screen size to 12.3 inches. It means a thinner and lighter body, though to be fair, I have trouble seeing or feeling any difference between SP3 and SP4.


It means bringing forward the hybrid cooling system that debuted in the previous product and refining it yet again so that the new 6th generation Intel processors run cooler than before and don’t trigger annoying fan noise as frequently.

It means listening to customers further and offering a full 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of fast SSD storage for those who need it.

It means offering a new Type Cover that, finally, has real laptop-style keys and, as important, a real glass trackpad. It means offering a version of this Type Cover with a fingerprint reader so that even Surface Pro 3 users can take advantage of the new Windows Hello sign-in with Windows 10.


And it means upgrading Surface Pen to a version that can last all year on a single battery charge, and obviating the need—no, not completely, in my opinion—for a messy Surface Pen Loop.

Rethinking Pen storage: Where SP3 used Loop (left), SP4 uses magnets.
Rethinking Pen storage: Where SP3 used Loop (left), SP4 uses magnets.

That Surface Pro 4 is, in many ways, so completely lacking in surprise is what makes it so surprising. It is just a steady drone of refinement hitting critical mass, the culmination of a history of listening to what people want and then just delivering it again and again until there is nothing left to complain about. Anyone who has gazed longingly at previous Surface Pro devices and found them lacking in some way will be hard pressed to mount much of a defense this time around. With Surface Pro 4, this form factor has in effect been perfected.

So what’s it really like?

Duh. It’s awesome.


The 12.3-inch screen is gorgeous, as you’d expect. Microsoft has coined its own version of Apple’s word “Retina,” called PixelSense, to describe displays that are of such high pixel counts that you can’t see individual pixels at normal viewing distances. The Surface Pro 4 has such a display, offering 267 PPI, a resolution of 2736 x 1824, or a total of over 5 million pixels.

(OK, PixelSense isn’t really about pixel count. What Microsoft is doing here is advancing its screen technology to be thinner, and more responsive for both touch and pen. In doing so, it has also created its own chipset, called G5, taking Surface Pro 4 in an interesting new proprietary trajectory that I suspect will become more of the norm moving forward.)

To get this slightly larger display inside essentially the same form factor as SP3, Microsoft made the bezel a bit smaller. In doing so, it also lost the Windows button, which I originally thought was going to be problematic. Good news: I never missed it.

While Microsoft offers various Surface Pro 4 models, the version I received for review is a mid-level Core i5 model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. Which is convenient, because the Surface Pro 3 I’ve been carting around for the past year is similarly outfitted, albeit with a two generation-old Core i5 processor.

Day to day, the performance seems very similar to that of Surface Pro 3, to me. But there are two very obvious differences that I’ve noticed.


First, and most important, Surface Pro 4 lacks the seemingly random fan noise that continues to dog me with Surface Pro 3. I have heard the fan, but only rarely, and it certainly never seems to come on randomly, or when the PC isn’t even doing anything, as still happens with Surface Pro 3. That is a huge improvement. And if fanless—and thus completely silent—computing is your ultimate goal, you can snag a version with a Core M chip instead.

The other semi-related improvement is file copy performance: Surface Pro 4 features PCI-E-based NVMe SSD storage, which is a bunch of gobblygook that means one thing and one thing only: Lighting-fast disk access. So where SP3 was no slouch, Surface Pro 4 simply flies when it comes to copying or moving files. You can see it over a network, from a USB memory stick, whatever. It is a thing of beauty.

From an expansion perspective, Surface Pro 4 makes no leaps, major or otherwise. There is still a single full-sized USB port, a mini DisplayPort port for video-out, and a microSD port for storage expansion. The headphone port is still awkwardly at the top of the device when used with the kickstand, leading to dangling wires.

Minor button layout changes between SP4 (top) and SP3 (bottom).
Minor button layout changes between SP4 (top) and SP3 (bottom).

One thing that is new, however, is the front-facing camera, which Microsoft had custom-designed for this device. It supports Windows Hello, I’m told, though the review unit did not. (Perhaps a firmware or software update will enable this functionality.)

SP4 rear camera (top) is clearly bigger, improved when compared to SP3 camera (bottom).
SP4 rear camera (top) is clearly bigger, improved when compared to SP3 camera (bottom).

The new Surface Pro 4 Type Cover is a huge improvement over the previous Type Cover. Microsoft says it is thinner and lighter than previous Type Covers, but as with the Surface Pro 4 itself I don’t really see or feel that difference. What I do notice is how much better—how freaking excellent–the typing experience is on this Type Cover.

The keyboard takes up more of the surface area of the SP4 Type Cover (top) than does its predecessor, and the key layout has changed a bit.
The keyboard takes up more of the surface area of the SP4 Type Cover (top) than does its predecessor, and the key layout has changed a bit.

This is a big deal for me. Yes, I’m a professional writer. But the issue I had with all previous Type Covers is that they just felt a little too small, just a bit under full-sized. With the new Type Cover, the typing surface is just a bit bigger than before. But by spacing out the keys, finally, and providing a more laptop-like key throw, Microsoft has demonstrably improved the performance of the keyboard. The stiffer cover itself helps as well, as it no longer bounces as much as you type.

SP4 Type Cover (top) vs. SP3 Type Cover (bottom).
SP4 Type Cover (top) vs. SP3 Type Cover (bottom).

There is also a full-sized glass trackpad, a first for any Surface, and it actually works, also a first for any Surface. Point being: Yes, I do prefer a real mouse, but I could and did use only this trackpad, and that alone is a huge change. It supports multitouch gestures as expected.

SP3 touchpad (left) vs. SP4's larger glass touchpad (right).
SP3 touchpad (left) vs. SP4’s larger glass touchpad (right).

Also, if you are sticking with Surface Pro 3, know that, yes, the new Type Cover works with your device too. Of course it does. But Microsoft sells a second version with an integrated and Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint reader. Get it. Get it now. (Surface Pro 4 users do not need this version of Type Cover because the device’s camera will support Windows Hello, and facial recognition is even faster than a fingerprint.)


The new Surface Pen provides 1024 levels of pressure like its predecessor, and it also comes in a few colors. But it is quite different from the old Pen in some important ways too. First, there’s a “real” eraser on the top of the Pen, much as we used to see on Tablet PC pens back in the day. And, yes, it still doubles as a button: A single click launches OneNote, and a double-click takes a screenshot.


Somewhat controversially, Microsoft has reintroduced magnets into Surface Pen, so you can now stick it onto the left side (and only the left side) of Surface Pro 4 for travel. It’s pretty clear Microsoft was embarrassed by the need for Surface Pen Loop with Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3, but the magnetic capabilities quickly reminded me why Microsoft abandoned this approach after Surface Pro 2: It does not work. You will lose your Pen if you try to carry it this way. It’s the one, perhaps only, dud in the whole Surface Pro 4 story.

One thing I did not get to test is the new Surface Pen’s ability to work with different pen tips. You get a little carrier and five unique tips when you buy Surface Pen separately, but the version that comes with Surface Pro 4 has just the single tip.

I also did not get to test battery life as fully as I’d like, so I will continue testing and update this review as soon as possible. (It’s difficult using three different new Surface devices at the same time in real world conditions and also performing artificial battery life tests.) That said, Microsoft rates my Surface Pro 4 configuration at 9 hours for video playback, the same as with Surface Pro 3.

There are minor changes to the USB and Mini DisplayPort ports on SP4 (top).
There are minor changes to the USB and Mini DisplayPort ports on SP4 (top).

Like its predecessor, Surface Pro 4 comes in a variety of configurations, but new to this generation is the ability to customize key components like CPU, RAM and storage. Stock configurations include:

Intel Core i5 with 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB SSD – $899 
Intel Core i5 with 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB SSD – $1299 
Intel Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB SSD – $1599 
Intel Core i7 with 16 GB of RAM, 256 GB SSD – $1799 
Intel Core i7 with 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB SSD – $2199

A few notes about the prices.

First, these prices do not include the cost of a Type Cover, which remains an additional $129. (The version with the fingerprint reader is $159.) Note also that Microsoft does not offer a Core i3 model this time around, as it did with Surface Pro 3. My guess there is that as a Pro device, SP4 needs to run all Windows 10 Pro features, and the Core i3 just gives up too much. So this device is i5 and higher.

As for the customization options, here you can pick up the curious new low-end version of the Surface Pro 4, which features a Core M CPU, 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD for the same $899 as the low-end stock configuration. You sacrifice i5 performance, but gain complete silence: This version is fanless. (And the Core M, including the Core i3, can handle Hyper-V virtualization.) The most you could spend on a Surface Pro 4—before the Type Cover—is $2700. For that money, you get a Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, and a full 1 TB of super-fast SSD. Yowza.

As for availability, Surface Pro 4 will be available for sale starting next Tuesday, October 26, 2015, though you can pre-order now. Some models, like those based on the Core i7 chip, won’t ship until late November. (And one, the 1 TB custom configuration, is listed only as “coming soon.”)


I’ve been alternating between a Surface Pro 4 and two Surface Book devices since the Microsoft event, and I have a hard time choosing between them or recommending one over the other. So let me offer up some basic advice.

As Microsoft has noted, Surface Pro 4, like previous Surface Pro devices, is “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” That is, the device is really a tablet, and it can operate as a standalone tablet, should you need such a thing. It is a thin, light and highly-portable 2-in-1 PC.

Surface Book, meanwhile, is a laptop. It is bigger and heavier than Surface Pro 4, and much more expensive. (Prices start at $1499.) It can be used as a rather large tablet, but that is a secondary usage, and since most of the battery is in the base, not the screen, you’re limited to 3 hours or less of battery life in tablet mode. What you gain, however, is a real (and superior) laptop keyboard, a larger, more usable screen, and more expansion. Put simply, it’s more like a real laptop than Surface Pro 4, because it is a real laptop.

So the choice here comes down to which you value more: A smaller, lighter travel companion that is still a fully-functional PC, or a more expensive, no-compromises laptop.

That choice is of course yours to make. But Surface Pro 4 comes highly recommended. This is a magical, nearly perfect device.


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