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Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Editor's rating (1-5): rating starrating starrating starrating starrating star

What's Hot: Bigger, higher resolution display than previous model, runs much cooler and quieter. Still one of the best 2-in-1s on the market among tablet-centric designs.

What's Not: Too small for some, not your device if you primarily want a laptop's ergonomics. Limited ports, keyboard costs extra.

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Reviewed October 31, 2015 by , Editor in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Surface Pro 4 is undeniably Microsoft's best Surface tablet yet that can replace your laptop. It's faster, the screen is a third of an inch bigger and it runs at a higher resolution. Windows 10 brings further improved display scaling and (finally!) Adobe CC programs play nicely with these high resolution beauties. Pricing remains the same as with the Surface Pro 3 line, and that means you can grab the base model Core m3 for $899. The Core i5 starts at $999, while the more desirable (for laptop replacement use) 8 gigs of RAM and 256 gig SSD model will set you back $1299. The improved Surface Pro 4 Type Cover is $129, and it's compatible with the Surface Pro 3 too. For those with high performance needs, ample bank accounts and a little patience, the Core i7 with Intel Iris graphics will be out by late November. The top model sells for $2,600 (16 gigs RAM and 1 TB SSD), and if you want a high performance Surface product sooner, you might want to consider the new Surface Book with the same Core i7 and NVIDIA graphics for $2,100, though that seems to be selling out everywhere. Since this is Microsoft's own product, it's functionally a "Signature Edition", which means there's absolutely no bloatware. Nada. Zip. Nice. It ships with Windows 10 Pro rather than Home, which will excite IT types more than home users.

Standard features include Intel 6th generation Skylake CPUs with integrated graphics, dual band Marvell Avastar WiFi 802.1ac, Bluetooth 4.0, a front 5MP camera and a rear 8MP camera. I do wonder why Microsoft doesn't use Intel's WiFi/Bluetooth chipset, which I find offers stronger WiFi performance than Marvell's. The front camera works with Windows Hello, Microsoft's impressively reliable facial recognition for logging into Windows. As ever, the keyboard is sold separately and it's available in two versions: the $129 standard Type Cover and the $159 version that adds a fingerprint scanner. The tablet has stereo speakers located on the sides of the display, and they sound louder and fuller than Surface Pro 3's speakers.

Looks and Feels a Lot Like Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 4 weighs 1.73 lbs. (1.69 lbs. for the Core M model) and is just 8.45mm (0.33 inches) thick. The industrial design is the same as last generation, and that's fine with us since it's iconic, looks chic and it works well. From the kickstand that resists bounce to the elegantly concealed speakers and ventilation, it's all good. Even better, Microsoft has revised the cooling to dissipate and spread heat better, so there's no single hotspot that gets burning hot and the fan comes on much less often and is significantly quieter when it does come on. For those who want no fan noise, the Core m3 model is fanless. We have both the Core m3 and the Core i5 models in house, so we'll provide info for both.

MS Surface Pro 4

As ever, this isn't a computer that you'll casually open for upgrades. It's darned hard to take it apart and RAM is soldered, so you can't upgrade it. You could upgrade the PCIe SSD, but again, to access the internals you'd have to remove the display that's held in place with adhesives. I take apart nearly every laptop that comes in house for review, but I won't disassemble tablets like the Surface models.

Is the magnesium alloy clad Surface Pro 4 really quieter and cooler? Our Core i5 Pro 4 is a very different beast from my Surface Pro 3 Core i5. Pro 3's fan came on seemingly randomly and very audibly, even when I wasn't doing anything particularly demanding. Pro 4 with the Core i5 has a much quieter fan (it's a loud whisper compared to the SP3's hand vac), and the fan doesn't inexplicably ramp up when simply browsing the web or writing an email. When playing Bioshock Infinite or editing 1080p footage in Adobe Premiere Pro, the fan is on constantly, and that's fair since the tablet is working hard. That said, the fan isn't egregiously loud and your family members won't ask you to leave the room so they hear the TV. Good job, Microsoft.

MS Surface Pro 4

The Intel Core m3 model has no fan, so if you're a fan of silence, it's your tablet. The back gets quite warm when the Pro 4 is working hard, but we didn't see any problematic thermal throttling and it never became too hot to hold. That said it can get very warm on the back if you're gaming or exporting video; enough to moisten your palms.

A Few Bugs at Launch

Update Nov. 2, 2015: Microsoft released driver and firmware updates to fix the display bugs, and so far they seem to be working well. We'll leave this section a bit longer until we're sure the bugs are squashed.

Hopefully in a few weeks, these issues will be resolved, but until then we'll note bugs here. Some folks have reported that their Core i5 Surface Pro 4 has a rowdy fan, and I suspect that has something to do with Microsoft's promising but very buggy new default web browser, Edge (our two units didn't have this problem). For better or worse, Surface Pro models always ship with bugs at launch, and we suspect Microsoft will iron things out within a month or so. Speaking of bugs, we've seen a few display driver crashes; the new Intel HD 520 driver has been problematic on several different computers models we've tested, not just Surface. Again, Microsoft expects to have a driver update with a fix in November. Another display driver + MS Edge bug results in browser windows sometimes changing color temperature during scrolling (that one looks freaky enough to make you think the hardware is defective, but it's simply a software issue). Multiple 4K monitors attached to the optional $199 Surface Dock sometimes misbehave (graphics driver strikes again). Lastly, the speakers sometimes pop, generally when scrolling or closing a web page that has an embedded video.

MS Surface Pro 4

Ports and the New Surface Dock

Ports are typically lacking in tablets, and you get just 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 mini DisplayPort, a 3.5mm audio jack and the usual microSD card slot hidden under the kickstand. There are third party adapters, some of which we've reviewed, that snap onto the tablet's side and provide additional USB ports and a full size SD card slot. Microsoft sells an Ethernet adapter, HDMI adapter (you can find a mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter cheaper than Microsoft's though) and a new dock that works with Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. It's a weighted black rectangle that plugs into the magnetic charging port and adds 4 USB 3.0 ports, two mini DisplayPorts, Ethernet and another 3.5mm audio port. It comes with a charger that's significantly larger than the one included with the Pro, that's fine since a dock is meant to stay on your desk rather than travel with you. We noted that the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book were buggy with the dock when we plugged two 4K monitors into the dock. That's due to graphics driver issues, which should get ironed out. And yes, Surface Pro 4 can drive 4K monitors at 60Hz--that's a standard feature for Intel Skylake and its integrated graphics.

MS Surface Pro 4

Pen and Display

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has a 3:2 aspect ratio touch screen with an N-Trig digitizer that supports 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. 256 levels in Surface Pro 3 (the change is in the display's digitizer, not the pen). The pen is included and it's updated too with a softer nib (pen tip) that's quieter and feels less slippery on the glass. Microsoft sells a 5 pack of alternative nibs for slight variations in feel, and the nib pack is included if you buy a spare $59 pen (available in a few colors). The new pen has a rubbery eraser that... erases... and a single hidden side button that by default acts as a right click. Writing and drawing feels more fluid, though still not quite as buttery as Wacom EMR digitizers and pens. N-Trig beats Wacom for better tracking near the edges of the display and it has less parallax (pen offset). I do digital drawing and painting as a hobby, and I might be inclined to agree with the folks at N-Trig who once told me that 256 vs. 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity matters less than good pen pressure tracking and registration (aka good pressure curves). I can't say I 'feel" the added pressure levels, but I do notice improvements in pressure curves that better mimic pen and brush on paper and canvas. This is certainly the most responsive and enjoyable N-Trig experience yet, and that's not faint praise. It's similar to the Vaio Z Canvas, which also features an updated N-Trig digitizer but uses an older DuoSense 2 style pen. Speaking of that, the pens are interchangeable. The new Surface Pen will work with any N-Trig tablet, including the Vaio and the Surface Pro 3 (Surface Pro 1 and 2 used Wacom, so it won't work with them). As with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has WinTab drivers for the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book if you're using a legacy program that requires WinTab for pressure sensitivity (pre-Adobe CC programs, older versions of Corel Painter).

MS Surface Pro 4

Is the Surface Pro 4 pen experience leaps ahead of Pro 3 when using the new pen on both? No, it's a fairly subtle improvement, but it's smoother in terms of pressure registration and latency is reduced. That latency (a delay before a stroke is drawn) will in part depend on the program you're using and the CPU model. We noticed that the Core m3 model had more latency than the Core i5, but it's not horrid. Both Core m3 and Core i5 work wonderfully for note taking in OneNote, which is still an eraser-click away. Press and hold the new pen's eraser to start Cortana and double-click it to take a screen shot.

The 12.3" IPS PixelSense display has 2736 x 1824 resolution, which is 60% more than Surface Pro 3. That's 267 PPI vs Pro 3's 216 PPI. It's extremely bright at 387 nits and it represents 99% of the sRGB color gamut and 75% of Adobe RGB (as measured with our Spyder4Pro colorimeter). That's similar to other high end Ultrabooks and tablets priced around $1,000 and up, but many of those ship with poor color calibration. Surface Pro 4 is calibrated from the factory and as shipped is one of the most accurate in terms of color rendition. Contrast is high at 1080:1, though not quite as high as Surface Book's. Unless you work with print production images or TV/cinema, the gamut is perfect. For those who do need full Adobe RGB, there's the Vaio Z Canvas, which is one of the few Windows tablets offering such a wide color gamut.

Viewing angles are wide, and glare is an issue despite the high brightness and bonded glass. In subdued office lighting glare isn't noticeable and I didn't spy myself reflected in the glass. The tablet's kickstand allows for nearly flat use (perfect for drawing and notes) and will firmly stand at any angle in the supported 22-150 degree range.

 

Deals and Shopping:

 

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Video Review

 

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Performance and Horsepower: Core m3, Core i5 and Compared to Surface Pro 3

The Intel Core m3 CPU replaces the Surface Pro 3's Core i3 as the lowest end CPU in the lineup. The Core m3 is itself the lowest end of the 6th generation Intel Skylake M line (there are m3, m5 and m7 chips in Intel's lineup). It's faster than the Core i3 and it has an effective and aggressive Turbo Boost, which means the machine doesn't spend much time at the 900 MHz frequency when you're using it. Ours typically ran at 1.51 GHz, so don't let that 900 MHz number scare you. The max clock speed is 2.2 GHz for this 4.5 watt platform (U series Core i5 and i7 CPUs used in the rest of the Surface Pro line and in Ultrabooks are 15 watt). The Core m is paired with Intel HD 515 graphics rather than HD 520 graphics in the U series CPUs. The Core i7 will be available with Intel Iris graphics, which isn't yet shipping as of this writing. The Core m3 is fine for everyday productivity work in MS Office, email, web, social networking and even fairly involved Photoshop use.

MS Surface Pro 4

The 6th gen Core m3 feels faster than anything we've tested from the Broadwell era, and it's hard to say if that's thanks to Microsoft's clever design or improvements in this generation since there aren't yet other 6th gen Core M systems on the market to test. The previous generation's CPU benchmarked well, as with the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, but experientially felt a bit dim-witted. The Surface Pro 4 with Core m3 doesn't feel as sluggish, nor does it falter as badly with heavy multitasking. Intel Core m3 does benchmark significantly slower than the Core i5 in graphics benchmarks, and that's borne out in slower relative performance in games, placing transitions in video editors and in Photoshop speed. If you're a power user, you will notice that it takes longer to load more demanding programs like Adobe CC desktop programs and Painter 2016, and it's not due to the storage since all Surface Pro 4 models use the same fast PCIe SSD drives. Video editing in Premiere Pro takes some patience when working with 1080p and 4K footage, and software compiles will take longer. If you're a video producer, gamer or wish to work with CAD programs then the Core i5 or Core i7 would be a better choice. For those who only play casual games, use Photoshop with moderate size files (24MB RAW files) and a moderate number of layers (10 or less) and edit smartphone video for fun, the Core m3 is up to the task.

MS Surface Pro 4 benchmarks

CrystalDiskMark SSD Benchmarks for 256 gig SSD (good, but lower than expected results for NVMe):

MS Surface Pro 4 benchmarks

The Core i5-6300U dual core 2.4 GHz CPU is at the heart of the Surface Pro 4 lineup, with 2 pre-built versions offered: 4 gigs of RAM with a 128 gig SSD and 8 gigs of RAM with a 256 gig NVMe SSD. You can mix and match RAM and SSD capacities if you purchase directly from Microsoft. The Core i5 is a hearty performer that's every bit as powerful as an Ultrabook, including Microsoft's own Surface Book that uses the same CPUs, RAM and fast PCIe SSD drives. Unlike Surface Book, there's no dedicated graphics option, and to be fair no one has made a pure tablet with dedicated graphics due to size and cooling constraints. If you want more graphics power, the Core i7 with Intel's top of the line Iris 540 integrated graphics looks promising and should offer performance just below a NVIDIA 940M dedicated card and Surface Book's custom NVIDIA dedicated GPU. The Core i5 Surface Pro 4 benchmarks faster than the comparable Surface Pro 3 Core i5, and it's faster than expected since Skylake is more about reducing power consumption and heat than amping CPU performance. Intel did put serious work into making integrated graphics faster, and that too shows in benchmarks vs. Surface Pro 3. In actual use when working in non-demanding programs like MS Office and the Edge web browser you won't notice a difference between any Surface Pro 4 model, be it Core M or Core i7. When using Photoshop, Premiere Pro or Visual Studio, the Pro 4 with Core i5 feels a little snappier than my Core i5 Pro 3, and it's sufficiently powerful to use as a main machine unless your needs are great (then look to a quad core laptop with dedicated graphics like the Dell XPS 15 rather than a tablet, or perhaps the Vaio Z Canvas with its quad core CPU).

Lastly, the new cooling model means that the thermal throttling we saw on the Surface Pro 3 is a thing of the past. You can work the machine hard without the CPU dropping frequency and clock speed often or for long periods of time.

Surface Pro 4 Type Cover

Even though the keyboard isn't included with the tablet, and you can buy one to use with your Surface Pro 3, it was launched with the Pro 4, so I'll cover it here. It's better--much better. I didn't have issues with the old model and typed well with it, but I know some of you found it lacking and loud. Indeed, it was loud, and the keys are better damped in the new model so it doesn't sound like someone's jiggling a jar of gum balls when you type. The new model is similar to the outgoing model: it uses the same mechanical connection to the tablet and strong magnets hold it in place. It's backlit, is available in a variety of colors and the back has a nice faux suede finish. It protects the display and acts as a cover in transit. What's different? Microsoft switched to the popular island keyboard design, with space between the keys. It's more rigid overall, and weighs just a hair more at 0.68 pounds. Unless you have very large hands, I think you can get comfortable with the improved keyboard and its 1.4mm travel (Surface Book has 1.5mm and deeper laptops have 1.6mm travel). The trackpad is larger and is glass--it's much better than the outgoing model and is better than most Windows trackpads in terms of tracking and reliable multi-touch gestures for things like two-finger scrolling. It reminds me of the MacBook Pro trackpad, and that's a good thing.

MS Surface Pro 4

Battery Life

Despite Skylake's power consumption improvements, the Surface Pro 4 doesn't have markedly better battery life than Pro 3. Pro 4 does have to push many more pixels and it has a slightly larger display, and that probably negates any possible battery life improvements. Our Core i5 2.4 GHz unit with 8 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD averaged 6.5 hours of use in real world tests including MS Office, web, streaming an hour episode on Netflix, editing 10 RAW photos and drawing in Corel Painter 2016 for 40 minutes. We set brightness to 50% (on this tablet, that's still very bright) and WiFi is active.

As with the last generation of the Core M, despite the much lower wattage, we didn't see better battery life, perhaps because it spends so much time in boost mode above base clock speed. Our Core m3 unit with 4 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD averaged 6.75 hours on a full charge.

Microsoft includes their usual compact charger with a USB charging port with the Core i5 and Core i7 models. The Core M model gets an even smaller charger with pop-out prongs and no USB charging port. You can use the Core i5's charger with the Core M model, and Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book all use the same magnetic charging connector. The Core m3's charger won't supply enough power to charge a Core i5 or Core i7 Surface Pro.

MS Surface Pro 4

Conclusion

I've been something of a Surface Pro person since the original model, and I really came to appreciate the line with the launch of the bigger screen Surface Pro 3. It was by no means perfect--it could get hot and noisy when pushed (and sometimes noisy even when not pushed) and the pen + digitizer weren't quite up to Wacom smoothness. With Surface Pro 4 and its redesigned cooling system, we finally have a tablet with laptop brains that can keep its cool and not sound like a hand vac. My time with the two Surface Pro 4 models has largely been very positive aside from the graphics driver bugs (please MS and Intel, get the fix out!). It's as fast as any Ultrabook and at 12.3", it's getting close enough to the standard 13.3" Ultrabook size that I don't feel as claustrophobic. It's a tradeoff--I'd like the added real estate of Surface Book, but then the Pro wouldn't be so amazingly portable and comfortable to hold in a variety of couch-friendly positions. The pen has little parallax, inks smoothly and latency hasn't been an issue. It's a great note-taker and portable art canvas, and it can handle anything the average dual core laptop can. The new keyboard is a great improvement, and if you have a Surface Pro 3, I suggest you go get the new keyboard. The same goes for the pen simply for the eraser and the quieter, more grippy tip. If you're OK with Surface Pro 4's screen size and the slight awkwardness in laptop mode in the lap, go get one. It's neither the perfect tablet nor the perfect laptop, but it's one of the best combinations of the two on the market.

Website: www.surface.com

Price: $899 and up. Keyboard $129/$159

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Specs:

Display: 12.3", 2736 x 1824 IPS PixelSense display with Gorilla Glass 4 (267 PPI). Intel HD 515/520/540 integrated graphics. Mini DisplayPort. Has an ambient light sensor, gyroscope and accelerometer.

Battery: 38 Wh Lithium Ion rechargeable, sealed inside.

Performance: Intel 6th generation Skylake Core m3, Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs available. 4, 8 or 16 gigs RAM. 128, 256 and 512 gig and 1 TB PCIe SSD options.

Size: 11.50 x 7.93 x 0.33 inches. Weight: 1.73 pounds (1.69 lbs. for Core M model).

Camera: 5MP front camera supporting Windows Hello facial recognition and 8MP rear camera with 1080p video recording.

Audio: Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone/mic jack.

Networking: Integrated dual band Marvel Avastar WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0.

Software: Windows 10 Professional.

Expansion and Ports: 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm audio and microSD card slot.

 

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