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Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: A refined Surface Pro is still the king of the tablet PC hill

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The Good The Surface Pro 4 fits a larger screen with a higher resolution into a slightly slimmer body than last year's model. The pen and keyboard cover are also improved, and this is one of the first mobile systems shipping with Intel's latest processors.

The Bad Microsoft still refuses to include the Type Cover keyboard by default, forcing a separate purchase. Battery life still isn't enough for a full day.

The Bottom Line A host of small refinements cements the Surface Pro 4's position as the best-in-class Windows tablet -- so long as you're prepared to pay extra for the required keyboard cover accessory.

8.5 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 7

Editors' note (June 29, 2017): Microsoft has unveiled its followup to the acclaimed Surface Pro 4. Called, simply the Surface Pro, the new version is very similar to its predecessor, reviewed below. The modest improvements include incrementally better battery life, a newer processor and a quieter, fanless design. On the downside, the Surface Pen stylus that came bundled with previous editions is no longer included by default and the new keyboard covers are more expensive than ever. That noted, the new $799 Surface Pro ($1,027 with the Surface Pen and basic black keyboard cover) remains the gold standard for Windows hybrid PCs though it does not warrant the upgrade from current Surface Pro 4 owners.

Now playing: Watch this: A very familiar-feeling Surface Pro
1:42

Editors' note: The review of Microsoft's Surface Pro 4, originally published in October 2015 and updated since, follows.

Fall '16 update

After years of development and millions of advertising dollars spent to convince us that a tablet could plausibly replace a laptop, Microsoft finally delivered the goods with the Surface Pro 4. Equipped with robust processing power, a perfectly sized display and just-right aspect ratio, and a few critical add-on accessories, the Pro 4 solidified the Surface's position as the gold standard for Windows tablets. And with the arrival of Windows 10 in July 2015, that which blemished all previous Surface models -- an inelegant operating system -- was finally replaced by a solid OS that could fulfill the potential of its form factor.

In fact, the Surface line has become something of a category trailblazer. Apple's iPad Pro and Google's Pixel C have lately borrowed envelope-pushing features like the Surface's snap-on keyboard and multitasking chops. In the meantime, Microsoft brought out its first-ever laptop, the competent Surface Book, which it refreshed in October 2016, increasing the power and battery life (and price) of the top-tier model (the $2,399 Surface Book i7).

Microsoft has also unveiled the $2,999 Surface Studio -- a desktop PC for artists and designers in need of high-end horsepower and display -- and the $100 Surface Dial accessory, a touch-friendly dial designed to sit beside your keyboard for fine contextual controls in whatever program you're using. Clearly, Microsoft is on something of an innovation turn, and rumors about the next generation Surface Pro continue to smolder -- but don't expect that inevitable model until sometime in 2017.

Potential Surface customers who currently have Apple laptops should note Microsoft's limited-time trade-in deal, which offers up to $650 credit for MacBook owners looking to move over to a Surface Pro.

Editors' note: The original Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review, published in October 2015, follows.

The new Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft taking a victory lap -- and a well-deserved one at that.

After three generations of pitching "a tablet that can replace your laptop" -- with mixed success -- the formula has finally clicked. The 2015 version of Microsoft's tablet adds the latest Intel processors, a slightly larger screen (perfectly sized at 12.3 inches with a just-right 3:2 aspect ratio), and a handful of hardware and software tweaks, but doesn't radically change the DNA of its predecessor, 2014's excellent Surface Pro 3 . That's a wise move, because at this point, the Surface Pro line is less about pitching the very concept of the tablet PC with a detachable keyboard to wary shoppers, and more about seeing how far it can go in refining the finished product.

Looking at the finely polished Pro 4, it's worth remembering the humble beginnings of the Surface line . Debuting in 2012, Microsoft's line of tablets were, if not outright mocked, then damned by faint praise at best: an overreach by a software-and-services company into the rough-and-tumble world of computer hardware; a Hail Mary response to the megasuccess of Apple's iPad the previous year. Any design innovations -- the snap-on keyboard, the fold-out kickstand -- felt overwhelmed by quirks and compromises. Not the least of which was the choice of operating system: either the much-maligned Windows 8, or the the severely limited (and now deservedly extinct) Windows RT . In those early days, the Surface was looking less like an Xbox-style home run for Microsoft, and more a Zune -like fiasco.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But that's all ancient history -- call it the Ballmerzoic Era. The 2014 Surface Pro 3 became what Microsoft always hoped it would be: the flagship device for touch computing on Windows, the go-to alternative for those who wanted both a tablet and a laptop without feeling shortchanged on either front. The Surface Pro 4 refines the hardware formula even further, and with Windows 10 on board rather than Windows 8, the platform's final big compromise evaporates too. Now, the Surface line is the design leader: Apple's upcoming iPad Pro and Google's Pixel C tablets are the ones aping Microsoft's design, adding snap-on keyboards and ramping up the multitasking chops of their touch-first operating systems.

But, as a very refined product, the Surface Pro 4 is not inexpensive. The wide variety of configuration options and accessories mean that its starting price of $899, £749 or AU$1,349 is not very realistic. For that entry price, you get a Surface Pro tablet with an Intel Core M3 CPU, 128GB of solid state storage and 4GB of RAM, plus a touchscreen stylus that magnetically attaches to the side of the screen.

From the handful of systems we've tested with earlier Core M processors from Intel, it's just not what you're looking for from a full-time, all-day, everyday computer. The latest versions may be better, but we have yet to benchmark them in a consumer laptop or tablet. A more suitable choice for most will be the mainstream Intel Core i5. Microsoft has updated the processors across the board in the Surface Pro 4 line to Intel's still-new sixth-generation models, sometimes referred to by the codename Skylake, and a configuration with a Core i5 jumps to $999. Double the storage to 256GB and the RAM to 8GB, and you're at $1,299 (and that is the specific configuration tested here). You could spend more than $2,000 for an even faster Core i7 processor and bigger hard drive.

The Surface Pro 4 next to the Surface Pro 3.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But no matter how much you spend on a Surface Pro 4, when you open the box and set it up, there will be one important missing ingredient. The Type Cover, a slim keyboard and screen protector in one, is still sold separately, no matter which Surface Pro 4 configuration you buy. From the earliest days of the Surface, that keyboard cover has rightly been called out as an impressive engineering feat, and the latest version even improves on that. It now features widely spaced island-style keys (like those found on practically every laptop), and a larger touchpad with a better touch surface.

Like the previous Type Covers, it connects via a magnetic hinge along the bottom of the tablet, and folds shut over the cover for easy transport. Also like previous Type Covers, it costs an extra $129, £109 or AU$199. We rarely see a Surface in Microsoft's advertising materials or press previews without the keyboard cover attached, but for some reason, the company still won't pack the most noteworthy part of the Surface ecosystem into the box. For such a premium product, it's an omission that continues to mystify.

At least the touchscreen stylus -- improved over last year's version, and magnetically attachable to the tablet's edge -- is included by default. Likewise, the display is a tad larger (12.3 inches diagonally versus 12), without expanding the overall size of the tablet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The one design issue that Microsoft hasn't changed with the Surface Pro 4 is its "lapability" problem. When the keyboard is attached, its rear kickstand works well on a tabletop -- but typing on your lap or in a crowded airline seat remains a logistical challenge. Instead, Microsoft has addressed this problem with a whole new sister product, the Surface Book . Billed as the "ultimate laptop," it takes some of the Surface Pro's design cues (detachable screen, impressive keyboard) and folds them into a more traditional notebook-style product with a strong hinge that keeps it from tipping back. The Surface Book is cool, and available in even more powerful configurations -- but it lacks the Pro 4's lighter weight and better portability.

Just as the Surface Pro is a full-time tablet and part-time laptop, the Surface Book is a full-time laptop and part-time tablet, and may be what someone looking for a combination of laptop and tablet features is really looking for. Detached from their respective keyboards, the two screens are difficult to distinguish at even a few feet away, and it makes one wonder if the next generation of these products won't be a single high-performance tablet that combines with your choice of a clamshell laptop base or a portable keyboard cover. Now, that would be something that could truly be a no-compromise tablet and laptop at the same time.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Price as reviewed $1,299, £1,079, AU$1,999
Display size/resolution 12.3-inch 2,736x1,824-pixel touchscreen display
CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U
Memory (RAM) 8GB
Graphics 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)

Design and features

The Surface tablet line set out its basic design rules with the very first generation of products and has largely stuck to its guns since. What we've seen, instead of wholesale reimagining, is a steady march of improvements to the display and chassis, helping the product feel just a bit more premium with every generation.

The earliest Surface Pro models were 13mm thick, while last year's Surface Pro 3 shaved that down to 9.1mm. This year, we're down to 8.4mm, despite increasing the size of the screen. Both the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4 are 1.7 pounds (771 grams) by themselves, or 2.5 pounds (1.13 kg) with their keyboard cover and stylus pens attached.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the biggest improvements to last year's Surface Pro carries over here: the highly adjustable kickstand, which can be adjusted to nearly any angle between 22 and 150 degrees. The kickstand, which runs the entire width of the system, is stiff enough that it will stay where you put it, and hardly moves at all, even when using your fingers or the pen on the touchscreen.

Missing from the black bezel surrounding the screen this time around is the capacitive Windows logo touch button. In previous Surface models, this moved around from the long edge to the short edge of the system, but always served the same purpose: to take you back to the Windows 8 tile interface. As we're now operating in the Windows 10 world, having a physical home button isn't necessary, although the Windows 10 "tablet mode" is still very similar to what Window 8 looked like.

The pen, almost perfected

Also missing is the awkward plastic loop that used to tether the included stylus (Microsoft calls it a pen) to the keyboard cover. The new pen accessory is a little larger than the previous model, and has a flat edge along one side. This allows it to securely connect to the left or right edge of the tablet via a fairly strong magnetic connection. While it may seem dodgy if you plan on running around all day with your tablet, inserting and removing it from a backpack or shoulder bag, I found that the pen remained securely attached, even in my bag -- although I'd recommend doing frequent spot-checks to make sure it hasn't popped off.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Clicking the eraser-like button on the back of the pen automatically brings up OneNote, Microsoft's preferred app for pen input. If you have all your Microsoft cloud services properly setup, your OneNote files can sync to other devices such as your phone or tablet (with cross-platform support on Android and iOS devices) or laptop (Windows or Mac).

I also used the pen with a variety of other apps, including the built-in Fresh Paint, for drawing and sketching, and the New York Times crossword puzzle app, which took pen input and converted it to printed characters. You can also tap the pen on most text fields, even in a Web browser, and a pop-up box will take handwritten input and convert it to text for Web searches, filling in forms or composing email.

Comic book artist Dan Parent works on the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft says the new pen offers reduced latency, and 1,024 pressure levels. It's excellent overall, and an improvement over last year's version. Aftermarket swappable tips for the pen should appeal to artists looking for a specific feel and size.

Now playing: Watch this: Comic book artist Dan Parent test-drives the Surface
2:14

But don't take my word for it. We were able to coax comic book writer and artist Dan Parent, best known for his work on "Archie" comics, to test drive both the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book. As an illustrator who works both on paper and in programs such as Photoshop, he was impressed by the feel of the Surface Pen and especially its eraser. You can see more of his reactions and a live drawing demo in our video.

The Type Cover is still a must-buy add-on

Looking at the Surface Pro 4 next to previous models, the most obvious generation-over-generation difference may be the keyboard cover. Though sold separately, it's still an integral part of the Surface ecosystem, and it's hard to imagine anyone would purchase a Surface Pro without stumping up the extra $129, £109 or AU$199 for the keyboard accessory.

The new version makes a major change to the keyboard itself, dropping the wide-faced, tightly packed keys of the previous Type Covers, and replacing them with widely spaced, island-style keys that mimic the look and feel of practically every consumer laptop on sale today. In practical terms, it means typing has less of a learning curve, and I was typing accurately on the Surface Pro 4 keyboard right away. On previous versions there was always an adjustment period, and it never felt completely natural.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Also revamped is the touchpad built into the cover. Touchpads on most hybrids are a hit-or-miss affair, and while it was great to have one built into previous Surface covers, it was never more than barely adequate. The new version is a little larger, but more importantly, has a more responsive feel, and a surface coating that feels more like a high-end touchpad, where last year's had a distinct plastic feel. It's still not as responsive as the touchpad on a MacBook, but it's another step in the right direction.

This new keyboard cover retains last year's other big addition, a secondary hinge near the top edge that you can fold the cover along. This lifts the rear up to hold it against the body via a magnetic connection and provides a more natural typing angle.

A bigger, better screen

One area we never had a problem with in previous Surface tablets was with the display. Over the past three years, the screen resolution and size has evolved, most recently going from 12 to 12.3 inches, with a small resolution bump as well, to 2,736x1,824 pixels from 2,160x1,440. The aspect ratio is 3:2, the same as a standard piece of A4 paper, which makes the Surface Pro 4 especially conducive to reading e-books and PDFs, or working on designs and layouts intended for eventual paper use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The display looks great, even from far side angles, and the higher resolution makes sure you won't see individual pixels, even when reading plain black text on a white background. Apple calls this kind of very high resolution "retina," and has rolled it out across much of its product line. Microsoft calls it "PixelSense," but it's essentially the same concept.

Ports and connections

Video 1x Mini DisplayPort
Audio 1x combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 1x USB 3.0, 1x microSD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Connections and performance

When you've got a hybrid that's mostly laptop but with a removable screen, such as the Surface Book, there's usually plenty of room for ports and connections. When it's a hybrid that is primarily a tablet, your options suddenly narrow. The Surface Pro 4 fits in a single USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort for video, a microSD card slot, and an audio jack, which is essentially the same setup as last year's Surface Pro 3. By way of comparison, the Surface Book adds a second USB 3.0 port and has a full-size SD card slot.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Inside, you can choose from Intel Core M, Core i5 or Core i7 processors, all from the latest Skylake generation of chips just hitting products now. Both our Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 review units had the same Intel Core i5 processor, and the same 8GB of RAM.

Not surprisingly, in our benchmark tests, those two units performed nearly identically, and a bit faster than last year's one-generation-behind Surface Pro 3. The Core i5 is going to be your standard mainstream choice, and with it, the Surface Pro 4 could juggle multiple browsers, HD media streaming, office applications and more, without any slowdown. Using Photoshop on high-resolution images was similarly trouble-free. Basic games ran fine as well, although without a dedicated graphics chip, you're restricted to only the most casual of games.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As a tablet, you'd expect the Surface Pro 4 to run all day, but neither the older Surfaces nor this new one are at the bleeding edge when it comes to battery life. In fact, this year's Surface Pro 4 ran for less time in our standard battery drain test than the Surface Pro 3, at 6 hours 32 minutes for the Pro 4 versus 7 hours 46 minutes for last year's Pro 3. This particular test can be tough on some systems, and since last year, we've also had a major OS jump, from Windows 8 to Windows 10.

We went back and re-tested the Surface Pro 3, and after more one year of moderate use, and with a Windows 10 upgrade, it now runs for 6 hour 19 minutes on the same test. Any of these scores should be fine for moderate use through most of the day, but unlike the new Surface Book, there's no extra battery hidden away in the keyboard dock.

Conclusion

Microsoft always called the Surface Pro the tablet that could replace your laptop. And then the company went and made its own laptop, the ambitious new Surface Book. That's fine, because the Surface Pro was never really a laptop anyway. It's an amped up iPad (or iPad Pro), that can also run any Windows software you need, but particularly excels at drawing and sketching apps, and is great for reading and video viewing.

It's lightweight and portable enough to go around with you anywhere, and the hinge and keyboard cover provide lots of flexibility for setting up in potentially awkward spots, although it still doesn't feel quite right on your lap.

The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The same complaint comes up over and over again, that the keyboard cover isn't included, and a decent configuration costs well over the $899 starting price (the hardware we tested is $1,428, £1,188 or AU$2,198 altogether). But beyond that, the Surface Pro 4 adds some very valuable refinement to last year's already excellent Surface Pro 3, and its only real competition as a showpiece premium detachable hybrid is the still-embryonic Surface Book.

Multimedia Multitasking Test 3.0

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
505
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
519
Microsoft Surface Book
552
Dell XPS 13 (2015)
722
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
911

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)



Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
213
Microsoft Surface Book
214
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
236
Dell XPS 13 (2015)
243
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
261

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)





Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
946
Microsoft Surface Book
684
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
448
Dell XPS 13 (2015)
422
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
392

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM ; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Book Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM ; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 512GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.9GHZ Intel Core i5-4300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD 4400 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2015) Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD

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