Apple iPad Pro

There are plenty of good options if you can afford a premium work computer. For most the best choices are something with MacBook in the name, an iPad Pro or a Surface Pro 41.

All are light, robust, portable and have long battery life. They have beautiful build quality. They all look and feel attractive. While they offer a similar range of business functions, each goes about it in a different way.

You won’t go far wrong if you choose any of the three. They are all excellent. I have spent quality time with them all and would be happy with any of them.

Surface Pro 4 hardware

Since the first Surface Pro, Microsoft has shown it can match the world’s best on build quality. There is nothing to complain about with the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft has an Apple-like attention to detail.

One detail where Microsoft trumps Apple is the kickstand. It sounds trivial. In practice always having a flexible way of standing the Surface Pro on a table makes life easier. This is one idea I’d like to see Apple copy.

Another big plus for the Surface Pro 4 is that, on the whole, its speakers do a better job of delivering audio. The sounds are crisp and clear. They work fine for music but are at their best when using apps like Skype.

Keyboard

Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard is a step up from earlier models. It needed to be. The original soft Surface keyboard wasn’t adequate. More recent versions have been acceptable, not great.

The latest version brings backlit keys. It now feels much more like a real keyboard. One thing still bothers me: While you can use the Type Cover angled or flat, neither option feels right.

When angled the keyboard is too steep and the keyboard flexes too much when you pound away at the keys. When used flat it feels better, there’s no flexing, but it is uncomfortable.

Despite this, touch typing is more practical than on earlier Surface Pro keyboards. It still isn’t as good as on a laptop keyboard. I suspect this is where Microsoft’s Surface Book is going to make a difference.

The Type Cover is at least as good as Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover for the iPad Pro. If anything, I prefer the Surface Pro Type Cover.

Surface Pro 4 Pen

A pen, or rather the Pen, comes as standard with the Surface Pro 4. It has two buttons and a clip — I wonder about the wisdom of that addition. It isn’t rechargeable. Instead it uses an AAAA battery. Microsoft says it should last 18 months between replacements.

The Pen shows it value with Microsoft OneNote. Click the pen button and OneNote will open ready to take you handwritten notes. This is great for my work when I’m at, say, a conference, and I need to make a quick note without setting up the keyboard.

Let down by poor battery life

I can get 10 hours from my MacBook Air between charges. The Retina 2015 MacBook works for about seven hours. My iPad Air 2 is good for more than 10 hours, the iPad Pro sails past the eight hour barrier with juice to spare.

In comparison the Surface Pro 4 is a huge disappointment. If I use it away from home, I can just about get to lunchtime before needing to plug it in. At best I can squeeze six hours and that’s with turning it off and cranking down settings more than I’d like.

I can’t figure out what to blame for the poor battery performance. It could be down to the raw power of the processor — which has a lot of grunt — or Microsoft’s design choices.

Another possible culprit is Windows 10.

Windows 10

When Microsoft released Windows 8 it was awful on conventional, old school PCs. It didn’t make sense to me until I saw it on an original touch screen Surface. That doesn’t mean I liked it, just that it seemed logical on a touch screen in ways it didn’t on an ordinary PC.

While Windows 10 goes some way towards fixing Windows 8’s cognitive dissonance, it still feels clumsy on a non-touch PC. It feels much better on the Surface Pro 4. I’d go further, it feels right on the Surface Pro 4.

Windows 10 is solid and predictable. There’s still a little weirdness about tablet mode. As the name suggests Microsoft optimised this for a touch screen tablet. Apps open full screen. The screen keyboard appears when another keyboard isn’t attached. Everything revolves around the Start screen.

In practice I found it easier to stay all the time in tablet mode than shift between modes.

After years not using Windows as a day-to-day operating system, I expected frustrations. This didn’t happen. There were occasions where I couldn’t figure out how to do something. That’s not going to bother everyday Windows users.

Microsoft’s own apps have matured and work well on the Surface Pro 42. Many other Windows apps feel stuck in the past. Like old friends that haven’t changed a bit, while I’ve moved on.

That tablet thing…

One aspect of the Surface Pro 4 that needs exploring is that it still doesn’t work well as a pure tablet. iPads beat it hands down for lying on the sofa browsing web pages or reading documents.

For me it is not a tablet with PC characteristics, but a reboot of the laptop. I’d score it at seven out of ten for a tablet but ten out of ten as a replacement for a Windows laptop.

Price

Microsoft wants a premium price for the Surface Pro 4. The review model I looked at had an Intel Core i5 processor, 256GB of storage and 8GB ram. This sells in New Zealand for $2350. You need to budget an extra $200 for a keyboard.

You could spend $4000, plus $200 for the keyboard, to get a core i7 version with 16GB of ram and 512GB of storage. The cheapest model is $1600, for that you get an m3 processor, 128GB storage and 4GB ram.

Summary

Microsoft has given its Windows tablet a speed bump and a new type cover keyboard. These updates are more than enough to keep the Surface Pro 4 ahead of the Windows pack. They also keep the Surface Pro 4 competitive with alternatives from Apple.

The speed increase is significant. Microsoft uses Intel Skylake chips and improved the performance of the solid state drive.

This isn’t going to make a difference to, say, writing with Word. It does mean complex Excel spreadsheets crunch numbers faster. The real benefit is with more demanding apps. You’ll see an improvement with intense graphics and video tools. There’s a noticeable difference when playing games.

Conclusion

I found I could be as productive on the Surface Pro 4 as on any other laptop3. It beats all the Windows laptops I’ve seen so far by a wide margin. There is nothing I need that I can’t do on this computer.

Having said that, I suspect the Surface Book is a better laptop because of the improved keyboard. We’ll revisit this point when I get to see the Surface Book.

I’m going to save in-depth comparisons with the iPad Pro for a later post. Surface Pro 4 is a better choice for people who have invested in Windows skills, software and mastering Microsoft apps.

My advice to people who ask me about buying a mainstream business portable is: Choose a MacBook or a Surface. Maybe opt for an iPad Pro if you’re embedded in the iOS world.

I was late to review the Surface Pro 4. The beauty of being behind the pack meant I had longer with the machine.


  1. Maybe Microsoft’s Surface Book belongs on the list. I’ll let you know when I see it. You’ll notice I don’t include any Windows PCs in this list. That’s, in part, because the sweet spot for Windows laptops is lower than NZ$2000. The devices I list are displacing conventional Windows laptops because they offer better productivity. This goes some way to explain why Windows PC sales are falling..  
  2. Office is particularly good. Word and Excel are wonderful on the Surface Pro 4.  
  3. I’m going to qualify that statement in a fresh post in the coming days.  

8 thoughts on “A month with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4

  1. Do you find any frustrations with software not being able to handle such a high res screen?

    • In part that’s what I meant about non-Microsoft Windows apps not staying up to date. I thought they looked retro compared to Microsoft apps, lower resolution could explain some of that.

  2. great review Bill 🙂 A couple of thoughts I had when reading:

    Backlit keyboards first shipped with the Surface Pro 2 type cover, then the Surface Pro 3 had it as well as the new Surface Pro 4.

    In a Microsoft external study, in a blind test the SP4’s keyboard and trackpad were ranked over the SP3 type cover as well as over the MacBook Air and MacBook 2015. Then in a typing test the SP4 type cover improved on the SP3 type cover and was on par with MacBook Air for typing speed and accuracy.

    Significant battery life improvements are coming soon in an upcoming Surface firmware update, as we optimize for Intel’s new Skylake Silicon, Surface drivers and Windows 10. Surface is trail-blazing here as the very first Skylake 2n1 on the market.

    Another thing I’d call out is the unique screen that sets this device apart as well – 2736×1824 at 267 PPI, aspect ratio of 3:2 and 10-point multi-touch. That 3:2 aspect ratio is a thing of beauty.

    I look forward to your Surface Book keyboard and screen review.

  3. Hi Bill, what is your experience hooking it up to a “lower res” monitor like a 1080p? And hooking it onto a projector? I am concerned about how it handles regular 16:9 resolutions and how it scales.

    • I didn’t try any of that. It’s not the kind of application I’m familiar with as I’m rarely asked to present. Hopefully someone else reading this has and can comment.

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