With the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft has taken something that worked — the Surface Pro 3 — and made it better. That’s it. Review over. You can go outside now and dance.
Still here? I’ve had a Surface Pro 4 over the past week, alongside its now bigger sibling the Surface Book. The two devices are more different than I expected. For the length of this
review rumination, I will presume that you are at least mildly familiar with the Surface Pro line of devices. (If not, head here.)
Before we get into observations and comparisons, watch this:
Oot And Aboot
The Surface Pro 4 is a thinner, more powerful version of its predecessor, with a few improvements that are worth your time.
However, it’s key strength remains that it is a tablet-first device. With the Pro 4, Microsoft has built its best tablet to date, coupled to its best touch-friendly operating system, Windows 10. The Surface Pro 3 was a Windows 8.1 device, something that was, in my view, a material weakness.
With the improvements of Windows 10 over its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4 is stronger out of the box, even before you take into account its hardware improvements. That might sound slightly reductive, but it is true all the same.
After some time with the new Pro, it became clear that it is the culmination of what Microsoft originally set out to build with the Surface RT — it just took some time. The fusion of productivity and mobility is a hard fucking intersection. (Proof of that ranges from the iPad Pro, to Google’s Pixel C.) Finding synthesis between go, and stop is not easy.
But, with the Pro 4, for the first time with any Surface Pro I felt comfortable working, without the feeling of fehlend. With the Pro 3 and prior builds of Windows, working was mostly possible. I could get by. But with improved hardware, and most importantly an improved Type Cover keyboard, the Pro 4 felt in testing that prior compromises were either fully abated, or mostly so.
Testing both the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 simultaneously was a decent way to get to know both. Here’s the core riff:
- The Surface Pro 4 is a tablet-hybrid that wants to replace your light laptop, and tablet.
- The Surface Book is a laptop-hybrid that wants to be your daily driver, and also cut a second device out of your bag.
The two devices size, screens, battery setup, keyboards, and price underscore each point:
- The Surface Pro 4 is smaller, lighter, more mobile, and far less expensive.
- The Surface Book is larger, heavier, less mobile, and far more expensive.
It depends on what your use case is.
If that is slightly confusing, I understand. Both want to straddle the divide between tablets and laptops, device categories sufficiently different that you would be forgiven if you miss the varying emphasis.
Happily in practice they feel quite different. The Pro 4, on your desk, hooked up to monitors feels like a device at the ends of its internal horsepower, while the Surface Book, in tablet mode, feels a bit like Microsoft wanted to eat its cronut and keep it to boot.
I’ve used every major Surface iteration aside from the Surface Mini, which was axed before it made it out of the cradle. The Surface Pro 4 is by far the best of the traditional Surface line. Why? Well:
My core complaint with the Surface Pro 3, aside from Windows 8.1, was its keyboard setup. The useful Type Covers improved over time, but never managed to reach the level of functionality that we nerds require. If you type for a living, even small keyboard annoyances can become daily devils.
The Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover is far and away the best Type Cover to date. Essentially, it kept the core design coupling features present in every Cover for Surface, but baked in chiclet keys, and improved stability for typing. It no longer feels like a compromise. That’s not to say that you don’t notice that you are typing on a thinner keyboard. Instead, you just don’t mind.
Keeping our comparison thread alive, it is nearly as nice to type on as the Surface Book’s keyboard. Nearly, but not quite. You can’t fully replicate the advantages of a stiff computer body to house a keyboard with the full metal, but you can get close, and the Surface Pro 4’s keyboard does.
What’s Less Good
We’ve done enough Surface reviews together, you and I, that I feel like I am something akin to a broken EP player with a dull needle. That said, the Surface Pro 4 answers some former complaints, while building on past strengths.
The Pro 4, for all its improvements, is still a tablet that wants to do more than tablet. So, as with every iteration past, if you need something with full power, it isn’t for you. If you are on the go constantly, and don’t want to carry a heavier, larger device, it could be a good fit. But it still aims at a niche.
That’s all old news. The core complaint that I have with the Surface Pro 4 is that Microsoft boosted the price compared to the Pro 3 generation. Up $100, the Pro 4 starts at $899, before you pick up a Type Cover. So, to get in to the action you are down a sight more than a flat grand. That’s a lot for a device that is not built to be a heavy lifter.
However, you have to keep audiences in mind. I might sound like a Sour Patch Kid, but Microsoft doesn’t expect your parents to buy a Pro 4, I don’t think. Instead, it’s a business device. The company expects it to land in a corporate audience. Here’s some evidence:
Sometimes companies are sufficiently transparent to be useful.
Summation And Synthesis
Iterative improvements are hard to describe without personal hands-on time. Still, the Surface Pro 4 is a fine device, and one that I would cycle into my daily computing life if not for the Surface Book. Power is my favorite, and the Book has more of it.
But with a sturdy battery, lovely screen, improved pen input, keyboard, and more, the Pro 4 does well by its predecessors. And, given that the Surface Pro3 was a hit for Microsoft, I’d be surprised if its legacy child doesn’t perform as well.
What will be interesting to watch is how the Book eats at the Pro 4’s dollar share; will the twin devices expand the Surface family’s aggregate revenue, or merely shift unit volume up the price chart? If you don’t get the implied financial joke there, have a double scotch in the sun.
Regardless, it’s the best Surface Pro yet. Do what you will.