Microsoft has updated its flagship Surface line with the new Surface Pro 4.
This Windows 10 hybrid is a evolution from the previous Surface Pro 3, starting with a thinner, lighter chassis and slightly larger display, and adding new processors from Intel, a redesigned keyboard, improved stylus functionality, and a front-facing camera that can instantly log you in to Windows 10 using facial recognition.
The starting price is $899 in the US, and the keyboard cover is still sold separately at $129. In the UK it starts at £749, with the cover adding £110. In Australia the Pro 4 will start at AU$1,349 with further pricing, including accessories, still to be confirmed.
It's actually only one of two new computers from Microsoft today: you may also want to take a look at Microsoft's so-called ultimate laptop, the new Surface Book.
How far we've come
The Surface was originally pitched as Microsoft's ultimate companion piece for Windows 8, taking full advantage of that operating system's touch-friendly interface. The hybrid took an Intel Core i-series slate and added a magnetic clip-on keyboard cover to create a device that could work as a full-time tablet and part-time laptop.
While the first and second generations of the Surface Pro, launched in 2013, were decent proof-of-concept pieces (the less said about the Windows RT variants, running that now largely disowned limited version of Windows, the better), it was with the 2014 release of the Surface Pro 3 that Microsoft finally created a worthwhile flagship.
That system slimmed down the thick body of the earlier Surface models, bumped up the screen size and resolution, and improved the tablet's built-in kickstand, all while maintaining performance and battery life on par with similarly priced mainstream slim laptops. The mechanical keyboard cover remained its most impressive design feature, but rather than being packed in with the system, it was sold separately, making a full Surface setup more expensive than its starting price would indicate.
In the interim between that model and this one, Microsoft released the smaller, less expensive Surface 3. That non-Pro version had a smaller, lower-resolution display, and ran a slower Intel Atom processor. Starting at $499 in the US (£419 in the UK and AU$699 in Australia), it was an inexpensive way to get the engineering and design benefits of a Surface for less, although the magnetic keyboard cover was still sold separately.
The Surface Pro 4
In the Surface Pro 4, the biggest upgrade is in the new processors, part of Intel's sixth generation of Core chips, also known by the code name Skylake. These processors offer improved performance and battery life, and in the case of the Surface Pro 4, it's an especially important upgrade as the Surface Pro 3 was already two CPU generations behind. Microsoft says the new Surface Pro 4's new processor makes it 30 percent faster than the Surface Pro 3, and up to 50 percent faster than Apple's MacBook Air.
Besides Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors, the same as those found in most mainstream and premium laptops and hybrids, Microsoft is adding support for Intel's Core M processors. These low-power, highly efficient chips have turned up in only a handful of lightweight premium systems, such as the 12-inch Apple MacBook and Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro. In those systems, the Core M underperformed, at least compared to Intel's hype about the chip, so we'll have to wait until we can test the new version of this processor in the Surface Pro 4 to see if the Core M has improved enough.
(Microsoft claims the device can get 9 hours of battery life, but that's only during offline video playback with a Core i5 model.)
The display jumps from 12 inches to 12.3 inches diagonally in size, and ups the screen resolution to 2,736x1,824 (267 pixels per inch) without making the magnesium alloy frame any larger. In fact, it's slightly thinner at 8.4mm, compared to the Surface Pro 3's 9.1mm chassis, and starts at just 1.69 pounds for the Core M version.
Microsoft's optional keyboard cover has also been redesigned, offering more separation between the individual keys. It looks and feels more like a standard island-style laptop keyboard now, whereas before, the keys were very tightly packed together.
The keyboard's also thinner now, with a new type of key, "ProSet," that offers 1.3mm of travel. The backlit keyboard cover also has a 40 percent larger glass precision touchpad with five-point multitouch, and an optional fingerprint sensor that's compatible with Windows Hello's one-touch log-in system. (The Type Cover with the fingerprint sensor costs $30 more.)
The stylus, now included with the Surface Pro 4, is tightly integrated with Windows 10. Click and hold the eraser button on the top and you'll activate Cortana, the Windows digital assistant. The stylus has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, and Microsoft claims the battery will last a full year. Microsoft is also talking up the speed and accuracy of the new stylus, thanks in part to a dedicated Pen and Touch chipset inside the device, and an extremely thin 0.4mm Gorilla Glass 4 screen cover glass.
It'll come in five colors and Microsoft will sell interchangeable pen tips for different types of drawing and painting applications.
The new Surface Pro 4 also includes two cameras: a front-facing 5-megapixel camera with Windows Hello facial recognition, and an 8-megapixel rear camera. Ports include a SurfaceConnect cable for power and docking, a Mini DisplayPort, a headset jack, a full-size USB 3.0 port, and a microSD card reader. Microsoft will also offer an optional docking station with four USB 3.0 ports, two 4K-capable DisplayPorts, and an Ethernet jack that can all be added to the tablet using that single cable.
Correction, Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. PT: The Surface Pro 4 docks and charges with a proprietary cable dubbed Surface Connect, not USB Type-C.
The base $899/£749/AU$1,349 model of the Surface Pro 4 will come with a Core m3 processor, 4GB of memory, and 128GB of solid-state storage, with the top-of-the-line $2,199/£1,799 configuration stretching up to a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. There will also be a 1TB solid-state drive as an option.
Surface Pro 4 US/UK pricing (without $129/£110 keyboard cover)
Preorders begin October 7, and the device will ship on October 26 in the US, November 7 in Australia and November 20 in the UK. Stay tuned to CNET for a full review of the Surface Pro 4 in the coming weeks.
See all of today's Microsoft news.