Microsoft has said its Surface tablets ‘can replace your laptop’ so often, the phrase has almost lost all meaning. It turns out the Surface Pro 4 goes much further, though, not only can it replace your laptop, but it’ll replace your desktop and your notepad to boot. It’ll also start to tempt you away from your TV and quickly become the only device you need.
Before I get down to the review, we have to talk about options. The Surface Pro 4 is expensive, no doubt, but how austere your Surface Pro 4 life will be depends on the specification you choose. I had a mid-range Surface Pro 4, with a 256GB SSD, an Intel Core i5-6300U processor and 8GB of RAM. The price for the tablet alone (including the Surface Pen stylus) is £1,079, but this is not a credible work device unless you buy the £110 Type Cover.
If you want to cheap out on a but keep the i5, half the RAM and half the storage, your tablet subtotal will be £849. Can’t stomach that? Switch out the Core i5 for a fanless (and 20g lighter) Core m3 for a base price of £749. Step up to a Core i7 and you’ll pay either £1,499 or £1,799 if you want 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.
I have the middle-of-the-road choice, so can’t comment on the performance of the low-power Core m3; if Microsoft makes these available for review I’ll see how big the performance drop is.
By itself, the Surface Pro 4 is a light, if slightly thick tablet with a 12.3in screen. Despite having the same footprint as last year’s Surface Pro 3, thinner bezels mean the screen is 0.3in larger diagonally. Screen resolution has also increased, up to 2,736 x 1,824 from 2,160×1,440 on the Surface Pro 3. This takes pixel density from 216ppi up to a huge 267ppi – narrowly beating the 12.9in iPad Pro’s 264ppi, if you’re counting.
It’s sharp. Really sharp. Lines drawn with the Surface Pen are so smooth you can hardly tell they’re on a screen at all. Text looks great, too, with no jagged edges in sight. To get anything done with great effect you will need to ensure Windows 10’s display scaling options are set to 200%; 100% is laughably difficult to read. If you hook the Surface Pro 4 up to an external monitor, you’ll be happy to know that Windows 10 now supports per-display scaling, meaning you won’t end up with giant windows and text a 24in Full HD monitor – one of the biggest gripes we had with every version of Windows before 10.
The numbers add up, too. Our colour calibrator measured the Surface Pro 4’s screen capable of displaying 97.5% of the sRGB colour gamut, meaning it’s just a fraction off total coverage. At maximum brightness, the Surface Pro 4 pumps out 400cd/m2, which is far too bright for indoor use. Thankfully, automatic brightness is effective but subtle; it doesn’t wantonly flick between modes and always seemed perfectly adjusted for my liking. Blacks are well-served, with the screen letting just 0.3cd/m2 of light through on pure blacks, even on maximum brightness. This gives the Surface Pro 4 an overall contrast figure of 1,316:1, which is very credible.
Colour accuracy is similarly impressive, with an average delta-E figure of just 1.61. What this means in real terms is the screen produces colours that are, for the most part, indistinguishable from the ‘perfect’ version of that colour. This is great for graphic designers, artists and photographers who demand colour accuracy, as they won’t have to invest in an expensive monitor. Particularly important are greys, which were all accurate. The weakest area, as is the case with many screens, was bright red and bright orange, with the latter producing a rather high delta-E score of 4.05 and looking a shade paler than it should.
Displays on thinner tablets are often compromised by heavy backlight bleeding around the edges. This isn’t the case with the Surface Pro 4; if you look very closely you’ll find it, but only on a completely static, black screen. I even used the colour calibrator to check for patchy brightness right at the extreme edges of the screen and it noted a mere 0.04cd/m2 brightness disparity on a completely black image.
Design and build quality
The Surface Pro 4 weighs 786g, which is heavy for a tablet but perhaps forgivable when you consider both its size and specification. I was perfectly happy carrying the tablet around the office, leaning it on my knee and balancing it on my arm when taking notes or doodling in meetings. I used it instead of a notepad thanks to the excellent Surface Pen and had no issues sitting it in my lap on the sofa.
The kickstand is superb. It’s strong enough to hold the Surface up but easy enough to adjust with one hand. There are no notches, either: you simply tilt it to whatever angle you want and leave it there.
It does look chunky, even though it’s only 9mm thick, but this is to accommodate the fans and the full-size USB3 port on the right edge. I’m happy Microsoft decided to keep the USB3 port and not replace it with a smaller USB-C connector; there aren’t enough USB-C peripherals yet and having to carry around an adapter would have been a huge faff. Next to the USB3 port is a Mini DisplayPort connector, which comes in very handy when you’re in laptop mode. Finally, there’s a 3.5mm headset jack on the left side.
But first: notepad mode. The Surface Pro 4 is perhaps the best advertisement for Microsoft OneNote you could wish for. More accurately, if you buy a Surface Pro 4 you’ll have almost no choice but to use OneNote. The Surface Pen, which is included in the price of the tablet, includes a button on the top dedicated to opening OneNote. Double tap it and you’ll open OneNote with a version of whatever you were just looking at that you can scribble on. It all happens in an instant, which is crucial for making this tablet’s transformation into a notepad as seamless as possible. I do find it a little bit annoying that Microsoft doesn’t let you customise what the eraser button does, triggering those feelings of the inflexibility you get from Apple products. What if I find a note-taking app better than OneNote? Heaven forbid.
The Surface Pen is powered by a AAA battery, which Microsoft claims has an ‘all-year’ battery life. There’s no way to check the status of your pen’s battery, though, so you should keep a AAA handy to avoid disappointment. The Pen has 1,024 degrees of pressure sensitivity, which could make it a genuinely attractive propositions for digital artists who may be using a dedicated pad for drawing.
I’m no artist; most of my pen usage was in the form of notes, but it did feel incredibly responsive and, more importantly, accurate. If I pick a thin pen nib in OneNote but press as hard as I can, the line I draw is satisfyingly thick. If I draw a tick or circle an object on screen, the pen trail thins as I lift it off the screen. It’s immensely satisfying more than anything else, and makes writing on the Surface a genuine joy. The palm rejection is as good as it gets and at no point was I able to trick the Surface into thinking my finger was the pen or vica versa.
The primary button the Surface Pen is essentially a way to turn taps into right-clicks. In OneNote, holding down this button performs a lasso select function, letting you draw around an object. The button at the top doubles as an eraser. Press it against the screen in OneNote and it’ll erase, either the entire line or part of it depending on your settings.
Storing the Pen when not in use is better than any previous Surface Pro. Microsoft has bowed to pressure and has placed strong magnets on the left edge of the tablet that, while perhaps not strong enough to withstand abuse in a cluttered backpack, means I don’t feel like it’s at risk of getting lost.
In short, as a tablet the Surface Pro 4 is superb. But it’s far too expensive by itself and that means, perversely, you have to spend more money to get more bang for your buck. Enter the Type Cover.