Microsoft has become the leader in hybrid tablet design. That’s significant because Microsoft only got into the PC-making business in 2012.
Its Surface Pro tablet has evolved from the heavy 10.6-inch brick introduced back in October 2012 to the highly-refined 12.3-inch Surface Pro 4 we have today. I’ve used all of the of the earlier Surface Pro versions extensively and I can say that Surface Pro 4 handily beats the already-impressive Surface Pro 3.
Here’s the short version of my hands-on review: the Surface Pro 4 is thinner than the Pro 3 but faster – and with a bigger display.
It’s not easy to make a device thinner but faster. Witness the iPhone 6s, which is actually slightly thicker and heavier (but faster) than the iPhone 6. Microsoft managed to shave off fractions of an inch while at the same time making the Surface Pro 4’s display slightly larger (now 12.3 inches versus the previous 12 inches) without making the overall tablet larger. It did that by shrinking the display’s bezel (border). In the weight department, the Pro 4, at about 1.7-pounds, remains roughly the same as the Pro 3. Add the new Pro 4 Type Cover keyboard and the package gains another 0.64 pounds. So the overall package is about 2.3 pounds.
The 12.3-inch display has about 20 percent more pixel density (aka resolution) than the Pro 3. Looking at other market-leading Windows designs, the Pro 4’s pixel density is only slightly less than Dell’s XPS 13 touchscreen laptop, one of the highest resolution laptops on the market. And in my hands-on time with the Pro 4, I didn’t notice any glaring difference in resolution. (I also have an XPS 13 that I use at home.) For those counting pixels, it has an odd (as in, unusual horizontal-vertical pixel count) 2,736 x 1,824 resolution.
One of my cardinal rules is to never underestimate the value of performance. And Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was beginning to lag behind the competition. The Pro 3 used an Intel “Haswell” (gen 4) chip, two generations behind Intel’s current chip. With Surface Pro 4, Microsoft is one of the first major device makers to come out with a revamped product based on Intel’s newest Skylake (gen 6) chip. While I wasn’t able to perform any benchmarking, it felt as fast or faster than Dell’s XPS 13, which uses Intel’s Broadwell (gen 5) chip. And Microsoft offers versions of the Surface Pro 4 with the Core i7, one of Intel’s fastest mainstream processors.
Also note that the Surface Pro 4 uses a faster storage drive technology: the solid-state drive now uses PCIe 3.0, which typically results in speedier data transfers.
The snap-on Surface Pro 4 Type Cover keyboard is an integral part of the design. It’s why Microsoft uses the tagline, “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover is thinner and lighter than before. The typing experience has also improved with better (more spread out) key spacing. Maybe most importantly, the trackpad is about 40 percent larger – addressing a serious shortcoming of past Surface tablets – and it’s made of glass. But it's still not lap-friendly. It really needs to be used on a flat surface. In order to address that shortcoming, Microsoft now offers the Surface Book.
I wasn’t able to test battery life but Microsoft claims up to 9 hours. I won’t say anything more specific about battery life except that Intel’s gen 6 chip was designed to be more power efficient
With an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive, the Surface Pro 4 is priced at $999. The Type Cover keyboard is separate and goes for $129.99.
As mentioned above, Microsoft is also offering the Surface Book now. That, unlike the Surface Pro, tries to be a lap-friendly laptop first, tablet second. But note that the Surface Book is also significantly heavier: with the keyboard it’s well over three pounds, so if you opt for the Surface Book you’ll add more than a pound of weight (over the Surface Pro 4). Not to mention lots of cash: the Surface Book starts at $1,499.